By ANDIE COLLER & DANIEL LIBIT | 9/18/09
Conservatives are coming for the Democrats on their blind side — the left.
The evidence is everywhere.
At tea parties and town halls, conservative demonstrators oppose health care reform with signs bearing the abortion-rights slogan “Keep your laws off my body” or the line “Obama lies, Grandma dies” — an echo of the “Bush lied, they died” T-shirts worn to protest the Iraq war.
Conservative activists are yelling “Nazi!” and “Big Brother!” where they used to shout “Nanny state!” and “Big Government!”
And the 1971 agitator’s handbook “Rules for Radicals” — written by Saul Alinsky, the Chicago community organizer who was the subject of Hillary Clinton’s senior thesis, and whose teachings helped shape Barack Obama’s work on Chicago’s South Side — has been among Amazon’s top 100 sellers for the past month, put there in part by people who “also bought” books by Michelle Malkin, Glenn Beck,and South Carolina Republican Sen. Jim DeMint.
Yes, the same folks who brought you Obama the socialist have been appropriating the words and ways of leftists past — and generally letting their freak flags fly.
The left-wing rhetoric and symbolism are so thick on the right, in fact, that some conservatives have been taken aback by it: The logo for the Sept. 12 protest in Washington, which organizers called the “March on Washington,” featured an image that looked so much like those associated with the labor, communist and black power movements that some participants objected to it — until they found out that’s what the designers were shooting for.
“As an organization, we have been very closely studying what the left has been doing,” explains FreedomWorks press secretary Adam Brandon, who says he was given a copy of “Rules for Radicals” when he took his current job . Brandon describes the Sept. 12 rally in D.C. as the “culmination of four years worth of work” and says that organizers were “incredibly conscious” of the symbols they chose.
With the logo, he explains, they were “trying to evoke the imagery of the counterrevolutionary protests of the 1960s that captured the imagination of the world.” And as for the phrase “March on Washington,” Brandon says, “this is something people said in the office. If we had been alive back in the 1960s, we would have been on the freedom bus rides. It was an issue of individual liberty. We’re trying to borrow some from the civil rights movement.”
From the outside, at least, it doesn’t look like an obvious fit.
Dick Armey did not, in fact, participate in the freedom rides of the 1960s. Brandon said the former House majority leader was an undergrad in Jamestown, N.D., at the time, working his way through school putting up electric poles, and “wasn’t politically active at the time.”
And while they’re handing out Alinsky’s “Rules for Radicals” at FreedomWorks, Armey himself told the Financial Times last month: “What I think of Alinsky is that he was very good at what he did but what he did was not good.”
But if the tactics of the left helped end segregation and the Vietnam War in the last century, conservatives say there’s no reason those same tactics can’t be used to keep liberals in check now.
James O’Keefe, the activist and filmmaker who posed as a pimp for an expose of several ACORN offices in the Northeast, told the New York Post earlier this week] that he, too, had been inspired by “Rules for Radicals,” which includes such tactical lessons as “Ridicule is man’s most potent weapon” and “Make the enemy live up to their own book of rules.”
“If you can make impossible demands on your enemy, you can destroy them,” he said.
This isn’t the first time the right tried on the ways of the left, says Julian Zelizer, professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. “We actually did see some of that before, in the 1970s. When conservativism emerged as a new movement, they adopted some of the tactics of the New Left of the 1960s, really focusing on grassroots organizing, and kind of adopting a lot of populist language, and using some of the 1960s energy for their own purposes, and I think we’re seeing it again, very clearly.”
“There has been a conscious movement to do that for some time,” agrees George Lakoff, a University of California professor of cognitive science and linguistics. “There is a long history of it.”
Perhaps, but rarely has it been so blatant — or so provocative.
“They’re definitely throwing down the gauntlet and saying, if that’s what you believe, then come along,” says Teri Christoph, co-founder of the conservative women’s group Smart Girl Politics, who suggested that there also might be a touch of irony in some of the slogan-swiping as well.
The irony thus far seems to have been lost on the left, however, which has mostly voiced either disbelief or derision that the conservatives would be so shameless — or so clueless. In Democratic Underground’s discussion forum, a photo of a marcher holding a “Keep Your Laws of My Body” sign was captioned “OK, the cognitive dissonance hasn’t hit them yet.” And of the 9/12-ers’ logo, one poster on Stephen Colbert’s site asks, “Did these guys grow a sense of humor overnight, or did they just skip history class?”
They’re not wrong to ask the question. It is unclear, for example, whether Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), whose office did not respond to POLITICO for this story, was intentionally invoking the rhetoric of the pro-choice movement (which she most emphatically does not support) when she urged people last month to let their representatives know that “under no circumstances will I give the government control over my body and my health care decisions.”
Nor is it clear that all those who sang “This Land Is Your Land” at the tea parties were aware of its pro-labor, fellow-traveler roots.
Still, enough of the co-opting is intentional that the Democrats might be wise to stop snarking, sit up, and take notice. And some of it is already working, notes Lakoff: In the health care debate, he says, the right has taken “all the progressive arguments and made them conservative arguments.”
Says Zelizer: “The tactics can be powerful. Direct confrontation, community organizing, in-your-face politics, as we’ve seen in August, can get a lot of media attention and can scare politicians away from taking certain positions.”
They can also be their own reward. At FreedomWorks, says Brandon, “We’re having fun. I have been pissing people off left and right calling myself a progressive, because I’m fighting myself against the establishment.”
And, according to Alinsky, that’s one of the keys to a good uprising: As he put it in “Rules for Radicals,” “A good tactic is one that your people enjoy. If your people are not having a ball doing it, there is something very wrong with the tactic.”