The release date for Taking on the System: Rules for Radical Change in a Digital Era, by Markos Moulitsas Zúniga (2008, Celebra) was moved up from early September to tomorrow, August 20 – in the nick of time for the Democratic National Convention to be held next week in Denver. Howard Dean would do well to put a copy of that book on every delegate and candidate’s convention seat, as it is a roadmap for how to organize – on and off the Internet – to win political battles.
The advice offered in this 256-page hardcover applies beyond electoral politics to non-electoral and even anti-electoral movements, and to the desires of creative individuals – artists, musicians, writers, journalists – and communities everywhere to, in Kos-speak, “bypass” or “crush the gatekeepers” that place themselves between us and the wider public.
Six years ago, as most Democratic Party leaders and legislators were joining George W. Bush in the fear-driven post-September 11 rush to war in Iraq, a then-31-year-old Moulitsas started a blog with the simple sentence: “I am progressive. I am liberal. I make no apologies.” Today you know that blog as The Daily Kos, with 173,616 registered participants, called the “Orange Satan” by some of its critics (mainly people like Fox News clown Bill O’Reilly who have felt the sting of its thousands of keypads swarming upon them). On the political Internet, it’s simply the biggest tent in town, and a daily read for national political reporters who regularly pick up stories there and drive them into the national debate.
Simultaneously dedicated to building the Democratic Party in the United States, but also to brooming out its corporate masters, “Kos” (a nickname he picked up while serving in the military during the first Gulf War), is as responsible as anyone for that party’s retaking of Congress in the 2006 elections. Mobilizing his readers and co-diarists, Kos raised millions of dollars of “early money” in small contributions for start-up Congressional and Senate candidates, many in districts where Washington insiders opined they didn’t have a prayer, and many of them are – surprise, surprise – members of Congress today.
Five years ago when I first stumbled upon the Daily Kos, I found it both attractive and repulsive: like the first experiment with a mind-altering drug. (As author Richard Klein has writ: the sublime is, by definition, “a negative pleasure.”) Kos and most of his co-diarists were enthusiasts of Howard Dean’s presidential campaign (and had a lot to do with his pioneering success at low-ticket online fundraising). And those that were not with Dean were mostly behind Wesley Clark’s presidential bid that year. They skewed white and male, almost all of them posted anonymously, with the trademark lack of accountability that one might expect from such a gathering-of-invisibles. And yet I couldn’t resist jumping in: In late 2003 I began making the case there as to why I thought John Kerry would win the Iowa caucuses and go on to win the nomination. To say that I encountered resistance would be an understatement. Still, the often rough-and-tumble exchange was irresistible: in the opposing winds from the Dean and Clark true believers, I was forced to refine my own thinking, sharpen my arguments, and adhere them even closer to demonstrable facts. Participating in The Daily Kos turned me into a better communicator with a much greater grasp of how to utilize the Internet to turn new ideas into widely accepted truths (Narco News’ own participatory Narcosphere was, in fact, inspired by it): It’s poetic that this online boot camp was started by a liberal military veteran.
Beginning in 2006, many of Kos’ own co-diarists decided they wanted to meet face to face and the first “Yearly Kos” convention was held. After two such gatherings, Kos – not entirely comfortable with the event bearing his name – convinced them to change the title. It’s now Netroots Nation. That “real life” version of the online community has led to some important self-correction by the movement that calls itself “Netroots.” This year, they had a successful scholarship fund that helped bring more African-American and Hispanic-American bloggers into the mix, the gender disparity has lessened, and the “nation” that Kos founded looks more and more like America every day.
Now, on to the book:
Kos dedicates Taking on the System to his wife and kids and also “for Saul Alinsky… The tactics may change, but the soul of the radical endures.”
The work also begins with an Alinsky quotation: “Conflict is the essential core of a free and open society.”
The book, purposefully and transparently, is a 21st century update of Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals: A Pragmatic Primer for Realistic Radicals (1971, Random House). Where Alinsky summarized community organizing techniques in phrases quick enough to fit on a bumpersticker (“Make the enemy live up to its own book of rules,” and, “Ridicule is man’s most potent weapon”), so does Moulitsas (“Bypass the gatekeepers,” “Raise an army,” “Target your villain,” “Craft your hero,” etcetera).
Moulitsas’ distaste for those he calls “gatekeepers” is what got him into the battle:
“I started the site for a simple reason – I felt ill-served by the undemocratic gatekeeping mentality so prevalent in our society. And, at that time, we seemed to be on an inexorable march toward war with no avenue for dissent. There was an assumption by the powers that be that the rest of the citizen body couldn’t think for ourselves. That we needed self-appointed and so-called experts to tell us what to think, what to do, and what we should – or should not – know. For far too long, these gatekeepers controlled the national conversation.”
Kos expands his anti-gatekeeper view of politics to other key sectors of society: the media, the music industry, and Hollywood among them. Don’t presume that this is a book about Democratic Party politics: It is only marginally so. It’s about organizing in any and every field where creative individuals and communities must learn to bypass or to crush the self-appointed wardens (what, a dozen years ago, when confronting the problem in my own profession of journalism, I called “the middlemen”).
Like Alinsky before him, Moulitsas is sometimes blamed for the actions of those he has influenced or inspired. There was an occasion a few months ago when a Democratic Party insider, upset with Markos over one of his public stances, lectured him:
“Funny, I was in Iowa for John Kerry and I saw all these orange hatted kids throwing frisbees around and tapping away at their keyboards in Starbucks (sounds like a cliche but it was true) and being an old style organizer myself I wondered how the heck they thought Howard Dean… had a shot while the rest of the Kerry family was logging in their hours with people, voters—on the phone and in the neighborhoods.”
The implication – steeped in ignorance but revealing of how threatened some members of the party establishment feel by the new participation that Kos and others (most recently, a guy named Obama) have flooded into the party – is that somehow Kos and his orange-colored website were responsible for Joe Trippi’s tactic of sending untrained youths into Iowa to campaign for Dean with attention-garnering orange hats. It was a tactic that backfired, as one of the first rules of organizing is to blend in and try to be invisible. (And yet that error by the Dean ’04 campaign also paved the way for Camp Obama’s intensive training, in 2007, of thousands of community organizers better prepared to step into Iowa quietly and derail the Clinton machine.) It may well be that Trippi decked those Dean volunteers in orange as an intent to ride on the coattails of the mighty Kos, but some party insiders, not to mention right-wing blogosphere, radio and cable television hosts, and also, frankly, sympathetic allies, too often confuse the statements and actions of some of the Daily Kos 173,616 with those of the site’s leader.
Comedy Central’s Stephen Colbert made great fun with that confusion when he hosted Moulitsas last year on his program and went, tongue-in-cheekily, “underground” as a Daily Kos diarist posting the snarky comment: “Hungarians are dirty coolies who are awash in peanut oil,” and then made a show of O’Reilly-style feigned outrage against a site that would post such “hate speech”:
Taking on the System, although penned in the first person, is not an autobiography, nor is it the story of how the Daily Kos website grew to be the most influential political blog in the English language. It is, rather, a behind-the-scenes look at the organizing methods and public relations techniques that got it there. Chapter three, for example, is titled “Set the Narrative.” It begins:
“Effective leaders draw people into their cause by creating powerful stories, with clear distinctions between good and evil, hero and villain. Instead of bemoaning the fact that Americans love their entertainment culture, political activists need to borrow Hollywood’s proven methods to structure gripping narratives and compelling communications strategies. Making politics and causes participatory, exciting, and fun is key to sustaining citizen involvement.”
The book then walks the reader through the steps – “Target Your Villain/Craft Your Hero/Exploit Their Weaknesses/Reinforce the Narrative/Aim for the Gut, Not the Brain/Own the Story” – providing examples from recent historic events on how political change-makers won battles by doing those very things.
In that sense, Taking on the System should not only be required reading for candidates for office and those that run their campaigns, but also for non-electoral and anti-electoral activists, too.
Chapter Five is titled “Feed the Backlash,” and is summarized:
“When your enemies begin to notice you – and attack you – you have arrived. Instead of avoiding confrontation with gatekeepers and opponents, embrace it and feed it. Stoking the flames of controversy brings visibility to your issues, raises your profile and effectiveness, and begins a cycle of ever-increasing attention that you can use to your advantage.”
It covers not only how to “embrace the attacks” but also “when to ignore the attacks.” These are the simple techniques that the late Abbie Hoffman worked so hard to teach the few of us then-youngsters that would listen, back in the 1980s, when his own generation had pretty much used him up and spit him out. Today, in 2008, we have a current teacher from a new generation who discovered many of these techniques through his own experience, amended and mutated them to better fit the new century and its domination by media, and who now – as his multiple hat tips to Saul Alinsky suggest – has come to see his work in the tradition of the great community organizers that had been mostly forgotten for so many years.
Taking on the System goes on sale tomorrow. If you’re an activist, a journalist, or an aspiring change agent of any tendency, the $23.95 price of admission ($16.29 online) will be the best and most economical college tuition you ever paid. And if you know somebody that is, or tries, or wants to be one of those things, and you sometimes wish they would just be better at it, then don’t dawdle: purchase a second copy for him or her. This is the most coherent guide to political organizing – on or off the Internet – penned in a generation.
Markos Moulitsas Zúniga is our era’s very own Saul Alinsky, and Taking on the System is the new and improved Rules for Radicals. For any aspiring organizer, activist, politician, blogger, journalist or communicator to ignore or fail to study its findings would not only be self-defeating: it would constitute a serious form of malpractice. Narco News