A memorable scene in the movie Patton is when the general does his version of a victory dance and shouts to the sky, “Rommel, you magnificent bastard, I read your book!” This by way of explaining why he was able to defeat Rommel.
Pondering the dearth of pro-life victory dances, I wondered: How many of us have studied the man who re-shaped the public-policy process two generations ago? How many of us have read Saul Alinsky?
Barack Obama was one of Alinsky’s early disciples; he was also the subject of Hillary Clinton’s senior thesis. Look where they got by studying and following him.
Alinsky wanted to overturn “the establishment” of his day; most prolifers have had no such ambitions. But you don’t have to agree with his goals to give the man his due: He was a genius at tactics.
In 1971, he published Rules for Radicals, in which he laid out “rules of engagement” he had been teaching leftist activists since the mid-1960s, including fine-honed organizing tactics for undermining the establishment—an establishment now long gone, thanks in large part to Alinsky’s influence.
I asked some pro-life friends whether they had studied Alinsky. They had not read Rules for Radicals.
Why not, I asked. “I didn’t think I needed to.” “He was a radical.” “Didn’t have time.”
I wanted to respond:
You didn’t need to? Is that because the pro-life side is winning so handily we don’t need to learn anything new?
You don’t think you’re a radical? You’re taking on the entire culture of self-indulgence, suffering-avoidance, and death. You are fighting the issues of pelvic politics on a daily basis. You are fighting to overturn the biggest establishment the world has ever seen: the ever-expanding medical/industrial/governmental complex.
And you don’t think you’re a radical? You don’t have time to study your enemy?
Alinsky understood successful communication: “Communication with others takes place when they understand what you’re trying to get across to them. . . . People can only understand things in terms of their experience, which means you must get within their experience. Further, communication is a two-way process. If you try to get your ideas across to others without paying attention to what they have to say to you, you can forget about the whole thing.”
For how many years did the pro-life movement talk only about how abortion is murder and how beautiful babies are? Were we getting “within the experience” of the desperate woman with the unwanted, unplanned pregnancy? The pro-life cause began to make gains when we learned how to relate to the abortion-minded woman and began to minister to the post-abortive woman. Were Alinsky alive, he would understand why.
And are we now paying attention to what the women who depend on abortion are saying about why they can’t live without it, especially African-American women? Or are we just telling them what we think they should hear?
According to Alinsky, an effective organizer has certain characteristics, which include curiosity, irreverence, imagination, a sense of humor, a vision of a better world.
I think of many intense, know-it-all, humorless pro-life activists I’ve known—folks who don’t seem to know how to smile and who act as if “persuasion” were a dirty word for something beneath their dignity. Is it any wonder nobody follows them except folks who already agree with them?
And I understand why the joyful, empathetic leaders are the ones we love . . . because they’re the ones who change hearts.
“In the beginning the organizer’s first job is to create the issues or problems,” Alinsky wrote. “An issue is something you can do something about.”
Have we in the pro-life movement made the people of America realize that abortion is a problem for them?
Until we make abortion their problem, it will continue to be easy for “them” to think that abortion is merely a problem for marginalized folks like “us” who cling to outworn creeds and want to live in the past. Recent campaigns to protect women’s health are effective movement in this direction.
“Power and organization are one and the same,” Alinsky wrote. He understood that “power is a process,” and that “change comes from power, and power comes from organization.”
I think of the prolifers I have known who didn’t want to antagonize an elected official and so lost what power they might have had.
I think of the many different pro-life organizations with the many different missions that I have watched over the decades appear, rise in influence, then decline, then disappear or change focus. A handful have managed to reinvent themselves, and new ones appear from time to time. Only a few have stood through the decades.
Alinsky had a corollary: “It’s not just enough to elect your candidates,” he said. “You must keep the pressure on. . . . No politician can sit on a hot issue if you make it hot enough.”
Have we made life issues hot enough so that no politician dare vote against the pro-life movement?
Until the pro-life movement has better organization, we will not have more power, and we will not make the change we want.
At least, that’s how Saul Alinsky would analyze it.
* * * * *
Connie Marshner organized her first pro-life meeting in 1971, among Capitol Hill staffers who sensed a drift toward legalizing abortion. She’s worked in the movement in one capacity or another ever since.
FROM THE ARCHIVES: R.R. Reno, the editor of First Things, addresses communication issues Ms. Marshner raises here in “The Arts of Persuasion,” his contribution to “Truth-telling in the Public Square,” a symposium that ran in the Spring 2012 issue of the Human Life Review.