An Egghead’s Advice to Conservative Political Activists

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The following is the transcript of a talk given to the Maryland Center-Right Coalition on January 8, 2015

Many of the people in this room are long-time political activists. I admire your dedication to the task. The countless hours that you spend: in planning sessions, cultivating candidates, monitoring elections, raising funds, refuting opposition arguments, promoting policies and programs, and pursuing tedious grunt work is truly admirable. The conservative cause is deeply in your debt.

However, I fear that it may be that in the unending hours, which you devote to your activities, the underlying reasons why you labor so mightily is sometimes lost sight of. Or more seriously, you are so focused on the details of your latest task that you have forgotten – even if only temporarily – the fundamental rationale for your efforts. Consequently, you do not explain it to yourself, or to the people you are working so feverishly to convert to the cause.

I, on the other hand, am an egghead. I don’t run around to meetings, rallies and press conferences. Instead, I just sit around and think. Then I write and talk about my thoughts. The point is that while the foot soldiers of the movement are absolutely essential to the success of the cause, ultimately they cannot succeed without the conceptual thinkers who provide the rationale and motivation for their actions.

History is replete with corroborating evidence for this assertion. The American Revolution does not occur without the contributions of the eggheads named: Montesquieu, Locke, Donne, Smith and Paine. I’m sure you could add a few more names to the list. The modern computer revolution does not happen if Babbage, Turing and von Neumann had not recorded their ideas. The civil rights revolution in America is stillborn if words and thoughts do not emanate from Gandhi, Lewis and of course King. By the way, Martin Luther King is a good example of an instance in which an a priori thinker also played a major role as an activist.

Alas, the concept works for evil as well as good. The leftist revolution that has swept America in the last century was modelled after the ideas of Debs, Gramsci, Dewey and La Follette. And of course the twin totalitarian evils that plagued the twentieth century, Nazism and Communism, were inspired by Marx, Engels, Nietzsche and Darwin (in certain respects) and that guy who wrote Mein Kampf. Tragically, the twenty-first century is witnessing its own totalitarian plague, that is, radical Islam or Islamism or Islamofascism. We may be having a hard time naming it, and, amazingly enough, some of us are even having difficulty acknowledging that it exists. But its malevolent activities are evident to anyone with half an eye open and half a brain unclenched – and it too has its theoretical instigators, for example al-Banna and Qutb of Egypt and Khomeini of Iran.

It is my contention that the conservative counter-revolution in America, which we are fitfully experiencing, follows the same model. The idea people who kicked it off in mid twentieth century were Russell Kirk, Leo Strauss and William Buckley. These politically seminal thinkers actually had economic/social counterparts: Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman.

Now here is a self-evident fact. Clearly, in every case that I have cited, the work of the seminal thinkers preceded the concrete implementation of the ideas they addressed. But it is also absolutely clear that in every case, it was decades before success was achieved. It takes time for the brilliant and influential ideas of the originators to disseminate, and of course time for the development of an army of activists to bring about the implementation of the ideas.

Now here is a perhaps less self-evident fact. Even decades after the original ideas are born and while people are implementing them, there is always a second generation group of thinkers, putting out amplifications and refinements of the thoughts of the seminal folks. For example, as the American Revolution proceeded, it continued to receive inspiration from the words of Jefferson, Madison and Hamilton. In the last decade, the computer/techno revolution continues to benefit and be influenced by the ideas of Jobs, Zuckerberg and Dorsey.  And I would contend that the Civil Rights movement in America continues to be shaped by the ideas of people like Charles Murray, Richard Herrnstein and James Q. Wilson  – although I suspect that our friends on the left would dispute my choice of second generation influential thinkers.

I do not believe that there are any meaningful continuing modern influences for either of the Nazi or Communist movements, reflecting the fact that those movements are dead. Glory be! But Islamofascism is certainly not dead and I warrant that there are folks out there continuing to put out ideas, which inspire the lunatics who are chopping off heads in the Levant, kidnapping and raping young girls in Africa and even murdering innocent people in the name of Jihad in France, Bulgaria, Australia and also in the US. I am not sure who they are and what they are writing, but I have no doubt that they exist.

If I am correct about a movement’s ongoing need for intellectual succor and stimulation, then the conservative, counter-cultural revolution, which was launched a half century ago, but which by any objective measure has achieved only limited success; that movement, our movement is in need of continuing intellectual and conceptual input. Fortunately, it has been forthcoming. In that regard, I would cite: Charles Krauthammer, Daniel Greenfield, Rush Limbaugh – and once again, I will stop, perhaps prematurely, and let you fil in more names.

Now I do not presume to place myself in the same company as the distinguished gentlemen whose names I just dropped. But, borrowing from them and from other enlightened conservatives, I would like to put before you four ideas or recommendations that I think any current conservative thinker would urge upon a modern conservative political activist. Hopefully, as you work to restore America to its moorings as a constitutional republic, these ideas can provide some energy and guidance for your activities.

Culture trumps politics. This idea was grasped by turn of the century progressives – especially Antonio Gramsci. They understood that in order to radically alter the politics of the United States, they had to first undermine bourgeois culture and replace it with a more libertine version. They understood that the flow of influence runs downhill from culture to politics. And so they set about changing America’s culture. They succeeded beyond their wildest dreams. Today, the left controls virtually all of the opinion-molding organs of American society: the media and the arts, public schools, foundations, seminaries, museums, libraries, higher education, the federal bureaucracy, the legal profession and so on. Classic American culture celebrated individual liberty, limited government, free market capitalism, strong morals grounded in religion, intact traditional families and vibrant cohesive communities, individual responsibility and the meritocracy, and American Exceptionalism – in particular, the idea that America is a model and force for good in the world. That culture has been supplanted by one that values: group rights, big government and crony capitalism, loose morals and banishment of religion from the public square, global American weakness and disengagement, and an obscene focus on the warts in American history. It is little wonder that in such a culture, the least experienced, most anti-American, anti-Constitutional, radically left, lawless president in American history could be elected and re-elected.

We must recapture the culture. It took the left a century to overthrow America’s classic culture. It may take us a century to win it back. We’d better get started. Here are a few suggestions. Instead of Sheldon Adelson dumping tens of millions of dollars into a futile attempt to nominate Newt Gingrich, we would have been better served if he bought CBS. Thank God for Fox News, the Wall Street Journal and Talk Radio. But conservatives will have to take control of a lot more organs of the American media for us to make significant progress in the long quest to reassert traditional American culture. Thus I am suggesting that instead of trying to elicit money from donors for, for example, futile runs against Chris Van Hollen, you should try to get those donors to buy the Washington Post or start a conservative organization of school teachers to rival the NEA or create more Hillsdale and Grove City Colleges or start a foundation like Heritage or CATO or the Manhattan Institute, or fund tens of conservative law professors at Ivy League institutions.

In short, we need to replace – or at least supplement – our laser focus on politics by a new and sustained effort to reorient America’s culture back to its historical roots.

Elevate the right GOP candidates. (Pun intended.) Activists need to discover, recruit and if necessary train GOP candidates who understand the previous point about the culture. Equally important, nurture candidates who not only have a clear understanding of what the progressives have wrought in the last century, but who can in addition explain exactly how the results of the leftist putsch have damaged the Republic. Finally, stand up candidates who can describe how a return to conservative principles will undo the damage and enable our citizens to lead lives of greater prosperity and freedom.

In spite of the assault on its merits by their school teachers, most Americans still revere the Constitution and believe it constitutes the founding document to which American government should adhere and be faithful. Conservative candidates – which, if recent history is any guide, will be almost exclusively GOP candidates – must be able to explain to voters why almost all of the program of the modern Democrat Party is in direct violation of the Constitution. Furthermore, they must be able to explain how a return to Constitutional principles and the traditional American ethos will reverse the economic stagnation, constriction of freedom, loss of control of world affairs and diminution of the American spirit that are the hallmarks of twenty first century America, which has been under the hypnotic sway of progressivism for far too long.

Too many Republican candidates and elected officials fall into one of the following two categories:

  1. RINOs, meaning that they do not really believe that progressivism and big government are bad for America – it’s just that the Democrats are screwing it up and Republicans should be entrusted with the task of implementing the progressive agenda because they will do it more efficiently and cost effectively than liberal Democrats have or could; or
  2. In tune, but inadequate. That is, candidates whose hearts and minds may be in the right place, but they are unable to: (i) articulate their beliefs, (ii) explain the connection between progressivism and the ills that beset the nation; and (iii) deflect the vicious slanders that the Democrats hurl at them. Regarding the latter, Reagan parried the attacks with humor. David Horowitz believes we should fight as dirty as the Dems do. However GOP candidates combat Democrat demonization of their GOP opponents, those candidates must understand that the Dems no longer feel constrained by “Marquis of Queensbury” rules in political contests. We need to recruit candidates who understand that and are prepared to deal with it forthrightly and effectively, but also with optimism and good-nature.

Arguably the greatest good that conservative activists can do is the identification, nurturing, support and promotion of GOP candidates who meet the criteria just stated.

Shorten the Time Frame with a Major Constitutional Initiative. As I said, it took progressives a century to capture the culture and, as a natural consequence, to reorient the politics. As I also said, it might take conservatives another century to recapture the terrain. But perhaps the process can be speeded up.

I believe that there were several fundamental changes effected by the progressives a century ago, which, if they didn’t speed up the putsch schedule, at least they had the effect of signaling that America had changed significantly and was on a new path. I am speaking of the nearly simultaneous passage of the 16th, 17th and 19th amendments to the Constitution [the income tax, direct election of senators and women’s right to vote] and the establishment of the Federal Reserve. (Actually, three of these four occurred in 1913, women’s suffrage in 1920.) Extending suffrage to women was absolutely the right thing to do, although it had the predictable effect of skewing the overall electorate somewhat to the left. But I have no doubt that the other three steps had an overall negative effect on liberty, economic prosperity and constitutional government. Their arrival at nearly the same time signaled a major shift in American society.

Well, let’s kick start the engine in the reverse direction. Once again, the place to start is the Constitution. Conservatives should make a major effort to pass and send to the States one or more amendments that would herald a return of the Republic to its founding constitutional ethos. In his recent book, “The Liberty Amendments: Restoring the American Republic” Mark Levin has offered up a number of conservative amendments that would fill the bill. They range from repeal of amendments 16 and 17 to term limits (for both the legislative and judicial branches) to limits on federal spending, taxation  and regulation to one designed to grant the States the right to amend the Constitution. I urge you to read them if you haven’t and join the effort to actually bring some of them before Congress.

Most inspiring of all would be a call for a new Constitutional Convention to consider these amendments. Of course this could only happen if sufficient numbers of Americans joined the conservative cause and became convinced that the century-long and ongoing progressive revolution has done severe damage to the US – damage that needs to be repaired as part of a major effort to reconstitute the nation and the Constitutional Republic that it was for more than a century.

It’s still about winning elections. My first three recommendations – culture, candidates and constitution – are, if you will, big picture items. For activists the objective is, of course, still primarily about winning elections. So let me offer a few suggestions for doing so. Here, I may very well not be telling you anything that you don’t already know, but I think it worthwhile to highlight a few important points. Of course, if we succeed in my three big picture items, then electoral success will follow naturally. Nevertheless, here are a few suggestions for winning elections:

  1. Our candidates must be attractive – no more witches, “legitimate rape” apologists or crooks or kooks. It is self-evident, but we should be putting forward people who are knowledgeable, articulate, poised, experienced and optimistic.
  2. I believe the defect that I am about to mention has been corrected, but our efforts must involve the most advanced technology. Technology is a constantly moving target and we need to stay on top of it.
  3. The electoral process has become enormously expensive and it looks like a trend that will only accelerate. We need to devote special attention to conservatives in those sectors of society that can afford to give big time – big corporations of course, but also the entertainment industry, successful entrepreneurs, and even those whose wealth is inherited. At the same time – not that we haven’t been doing it – we should try to broaden the base of donors.
  4. Recognize that the Dems play dirty. Be ready for it and if necessary, fight fire with fire.
  5. The demographic issue. Actually, I believe the situation is not as dire as the pundits are saying. There are encouraging signs of an increased number of conservative women, blacks, Hispanics and Asians. We should be open to these communities, proselytize to them, recruit among them for candidates and we should be tireless in pointing out to them how progressive policies – supposedly designed to help these communities – in fact harm them. Romney’s 47% remark was catastrophic. We need to contest the whole field. If we could in fact convert substantial numbers from these communities, then the electoral map would bleed bright red.

Finally, let me clarify my intent. I do not mean to cast any doubt about the self-awareness of the activists in the room. Certainly many, likely most of you are keenly aware of the underlying rationale for the conservative cause and have clearly in mind what motivates you to wage your worthy fight. Except that I do believe that it is natural – for any of us – to sometimes lose sight of the forest for the trees.

My words were meant to reinforce your strength and desire to continue the struggle by highlighting what I see as some of the fundamental reasons why you and I are in this battle, as well as to offer some hopefully novel, but concrete suggestions as to how to wage it. I wish you Godspeed and I hope that we will live long enough to see America’s progressive slide firmly and irrevocably reversed.
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