Movements, Campaigns & Parties

Soren Dayton calls me out in response to my post on different modes of activism (movement vs. campaign). He thinks I lean very heavily to the campaign-centric view prevalent in the GOP these days (use the campaign to win the election, not build a long-term movement).

The online left is a movement to reinvent and renew the Democratic party. The question for the GOP is whether we need something similar. A newly organized coalition, etc. I think that the answer is “yes.” Perhaps Patrick disagrees with me?

Actually, I don’t. My objective in the original post was to lay out a framework in which winning campaigns could build and sustain a movement beyond Election Day. Campaigns should be cumulative. We don’t have time to relearn all the lessons from cycle to cycle, nor to reactivate our volunteers. I think one of the things the Left has done well is give people things to do in between elections. My initial point was narrow and technical — that the top-down model still works for the final 72 hours. The real question is what do we do the other 1,458 days? I think the answer is to much more lateral, community-oriented, and bottom-up.

During the campaign, Karl Rove told the story of when he went in to brief the President on the re-elect plan. At one point, POTUS interrupted him, laying out a few non-negotiables of his own. And one of his admonitions was this: “leave something behind.” Use the campaign to build something lasting: a volunteer army who got involved for the first time in 2004, and stayed involved in the Republican Party over the long haul.

The question is whether the top-down model can coexist with the community model. That’s one that all the campaigns are trying to figure out. I think the answer is yes, in the sense that’s how all purpose-driven organizations succeed (I borrow Rick Warren’s phrase for a reason). Whether it was the WWII platoon members who were fighting mainly for the guys next to them in the foxhole, or the megachurch small group movement pioneered by Warren, the smallest parts of armies or movements have found purpose in each other, not just the greater cause. Implicit in this is that we can’t be all top-down all the time and expect people to willingly come back. There has to be some autonomy for small groups within the party/movement to innovate and define their own way.

But there is the question: What do we mean by “movement?” I know Soren means something more than that which parties do in the off-years. And does the conservative movement need a reboot?

I think it does. And I wouldn’t have said that a year ago, or even six months ago.

One of the reasons I haven’t always identified 100% with “the conservative movement” is that said movement as we primarily know it primarily exists in D.C. office buildings and no longer does a lot of grassroots shoeleather work. (Groups like FreedomWorks with actual outside-D.C. presences are largely the exception.) Walk into a student workshop at CPAC, and they’ll still be telling you to read Hayek and Mises, which 1) isn’t very practical, and 2) is pretty much what we’ve been telling our young for 40 years.

One of the reasons why the Republican Party’s 72 Hour plan was such a revolution was the conservatives hadn’t really done much precinct organizing in a sophisticated fashion since the Goldwater campaign (with the possible exception of the Christian Right in the ’70s and ’80s). Rick Perlstein’s Before the Storm is said to be canonical for the Left in building its new progressive infrastructure, but the Right could stand to re-learn the lesson of how campaign manager Cliff White planned the takeover of the Party state-by-state, county-by-county in the years leading up to 1964. Even in losing, the Goldwater campaign paid a great deal of attention to organizing at the precinct level.

The problem with this example, and the Dean example that Soren cites, is that these campaigns not only lost, but seemed fated to lose. That doesn’t give much comfort to serious party types, who may understand the need for a movement, but who ultimately will never be in a position to gamble the next election on a campaign for whom winning is secondary.

So, the movement will probably have to be outside the current campaigns.

Even then, the question is what does a new conservative movement look like? We’ve been running on low taxes, social conservatism, strong defense for thirty years. Are there new issues to rally around? Usually, movements arise because of needs unmet by the establishment. Right now, that’s immigration and spending (though on the latter, the leadership pays lip service to the cause).

I’m not sure chest-thumping on immigration and spending are Big Ideas, in the same way that defeating the Soviets or moving to a real market-based economy were Big Ideas. And you kind of need a Big Idea to launch a movement. Bush’s Social Security plan was a Big Idea, but the base showed no signs of being at all invested in it, the Congressional party ran for the hills, and some in the base saw it as shifting the focus away from their own agenda items.

We can all agree on the need for a new movement, one that’s outside Washington, that uses technology, that focuses intently on precinct politics. But I think we need some new Big Ideas to rally behind.