Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals #9: The threat is usually more terrifying than the thing itself.
In a game of cards, bluffing — pretending you have good cards when you really don’t — can be a useful tactic.
If you can successfully make the other players at the table believe you have better cards than they do, they’ll fold from fear of losing. When that happens, you win.
That threat is a powerful thing. You could have nothing. But because everyone thinks you have a weapon more powerful than their own, you get your way.
The other players spend time imagining the worst-case scenario, which, in this example, is you having better cards than them and taking all their money. When they realize how scary that scenario is, they decide they don’t want to take that chance.
Thus, Saul Alinsky, the father of grassroots organizing, wrote his ninth rule. And it still holds true today.
Conservative Speakers Make Colleges Imagine the Worst
For the past couple years especially, college campuses have had to consider threats when booking conservative speakers for events. Writer and activist Ben Shapiro, as an example, tends to draw protesters when he does college appearances.
Shapiro had a speaking event booked for the end of last month at St. Olaf College in Minnesota. As the student leader responsible for the event was finalizing contract details, the college backed out.
St. Olaf said it canceled because the date was inappropriate — the event was to occur on the one-year anniversary of student protests and sit-ins in response to a series of racist notes and graffiti reported on campus.
Shapiro’s student supporters did not buy that reason. What does Shapiro have to do with racism?
Underneath it all, the college was considering its threats and made a judgment call on which threat had the potential for the greatest damage. Like a bluff, none of these threats were definite. But as Alinsky says, imagined worst-case scenarios are usually more terrifying than what the actual consequence would be.
The threat from the Left is almost inherent when Shapiro steps foot on a college campus. He’s known to draw protesters. Protests carry the potential for physical and emotional harm and tend to draw media attention, which could damage St. Olaf’s reputation. As a result, enrollment could decrease, as could donations. Worst-case scenario: The college experiences an economic crisis.
Would Shapiro’s appearance have caused St. Olaf to crumble into closure? Probably not. But like our card players, that’s not a chance anyone wanted to take.
Threats Only Work If…
There’s another reason, an essential part to this Alinsky rule, that the threat got Shapiro’s appearance canceled.
“Remember the rule—the threat is often more effective than the tactic itself, but only if you are so organized that the establishment knows not only that you have the power to execute the tactic but that you definitely will,” Alinsky wrote.
St. Olaf knew what students were capable of, having experienced protests and their aftermath just one year ago.
But what if the college didn’t think the students would actually protest? In a card game, that’s known as calling someone’s bluff. If you do not successfully convince the other players that you do have better cards than them, they won’t fold. And if you don’t have any good cards at the end, you’ll end up losing.
“You can’t do much bluffing in this game; if you’re ever caught bluffing, forget about ever using threats in the future,” Alinsky wrote. “On that point you’re dead.”
Once you lose your credibility and other organizations doubt your ability to follow-through on your threats, your bluff will be called every time and your threat will not be effective.
How This Rule Does and Does Not Apply to You
Going around threatening people is not what Alinsky is suggesting. Instead, be aware that causing someone to concoct worst-case scenarios in their minds can be extremely effective — if they assume you have follow-through.
Commit to your actions. If you say you’re going to be somewhere holding a sign, make sure you show up. If you say you’re going to bombard a politician’s office with emails or phone calls, be confident that you can make that happen.
Conversely, if you’re ever threatened in your activism, don’t let your mind go into distress. (Don’t forget that Alinsky’s rule No. 6 says fighting for freedom should be fun!) Rule No. 9 says that whatever terrifying thing you think could happen probably won’t happen. Imaginations are powerful.