The Right

The Tea Party Challenge

Mark McKinnon (a colleague of mine at Arts+Labs) writes about the uneasy dance between the Republican Party and the Tea Party movement.

Much of the media and most Democrats are dismissive of what is truly a grassroots movement. But the Tea Party has shown remarkable energy in its short life span ... It’s a very interesting dance right now watching the courtship between the movement and GOP candidates and officeholders. ... [T]he movement is wary of being identified as “Republican” or being controlled by any individuals or organization ...

The Tea Party crowd is unlikely to actually become a third party, but their ability to leverage energy behind candidates and policies could be very similar to what MoveOn.org has accomplished on the left. Movements are also often identified by a clear leader. The question that remains: Who will that be?

I think it is an open question whether the tea party dynamic should really be called a "movement" yet.  There is a fine line between movement and mob, and that line is defined by whether they are making progress or noise. 

The Tea Party outrage could organize around viable policies and strategies to accomplish their goals. That would be a movement.  But if it does not identify viable policies and strategies to accomplish their goals - and leadership to move them forward - then the outrage without progress will eventually reduce them (us) to a mob.

However, I'm not sure a tea party movement will resemble Moveon.org.  A Democratic activist once told me he was surprised that (he'd heard) the largest Tea Party email list was only about 50,000 people.  Compared to Moveon.org's many millions of emails, that seemed inconsequential.

That's a key misunderstanding.  The Left think this is an organized, top-down effort - a few organizations spinning up the sheep to do their bidding. That's why they kept insisting this was "astroturf".  But that's exactly wrong (and a serious under-estimation of the legitimacy and broad resonance of the outrage).

The tea party movement is not a single organization with millions of email addresses.  It is tens of thousands of small groups and individuals, each of which has dozens, hundreds or thousands of email addresses.   The tea party movement really is a decentralized, spontaneous, grassroots reaction.

Of course, that has up and down sides. Instead of organizing to accomplish specific victories (as Moveon.org has done on occassion), they may more closely resemble the anti-war crowd - full of sound and fury, but without much specific direction. The anti-war "movement" eventually became alienated or folded into organizations like Moveon.org.

The immediate problem both Tea Party activists and Republicans face is that, while they know what they don't want, they don't have a lot of clear ideas about how to accomplish what they do want. "Be principled" is not a strategy. 

The Tea Party crowd may not end up being a movement, but that's ok.  The energy itself is important to maintain until the policies and organizing vehicles do emerge.

What Did NY-23 Mean?

[Disclosure: I worked with the Doug Hoffman campaign. However, the views here are my own. I have not discussed this at all with the Hoffman campaign.]

The bottom line on NY-23:

  • Doug Hoffman just won the Republican Primary. The general election is next year.
  • There are two broken, corrupt, arrogant political parties we need to defeat.  We beat the Republican establishment in 2009.  We'll beat the Democratic Party in 2010.
  • NY-23 is not really about Conservatives VS Moderates.  It is about the Establishment VS the Movement.

What happened in NY-23:

For years, the conventional wisdom has been that blue state Republicans had to nominate a "not too hot, not too cold" candidate - what my friend Max Borders called a Keynesian political strategy of tweaking the policy variables until you get a candidate whose positions seem most appealing to the most people.  Like Keynesian economic tinkering, it all works very well....until some fundamental shift reveals the underlying artificiality, and it all falls apart.

Political parties gain power by standing for something appealing.  But when a party gains power, it loses definition.  Rather than standing for something appealing and well-defined, they try to stand for anything appealing enough to win.  But you can only tinker so much before you destroy the brand that people had elected, and then you become the minority again.

The minority is where Parties and movements go to be reborn.  There, they have to figure out who they are, and what their mission is.  You can't storm the castle until you're all facing the same direction and focused on the same goals.  Sometimes - as in NY-23 - that involves telling the establishment "Thank you, but our mission is in another castle" (If I might borrow political wisdom from Super Mario Bros).

The establishment GOP - the NY GOP, the NRCC, the RNC and a few prominent Republicans - got behind another establishment GOP type in Dede Scozzafava. In any other recent year, she would have sailed through.  Not in 2009.

The public - including moderates, libertarians and alienated Republicans - has grown much more nervous about Democratic governance.  The Tea Party movement is just one manifestation of the sparks that are flying, but it goes far deeper than that, and the establishment GOP has been oblivious to, or dismissive of, these sparks. With Dede Scozzafava, the establishment Republican Party threw gasoline on top of the sparks and a brushfire erupted.  The result was the quintessential "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" campaign of Doug Hoffman.

What NY-23 Is About

The story of NY-23 is not "conservatives beat moderates" or "conservative loses to Democrat".

The story of NY-23 is "the Right starts dismantling the Republican establishment."  This is about how the Republican Party is defined and who defines it.

Right now, the movement wants the Republican Party to be defined by opposition to big government. Gradually, as new leaders arise, we will demand that the Republican Party be defined by its own solutions, as well, but rebuilding is an incremental process. We can hammer out the policy agenda and the boundaries of the coalition later.

For now, our job is to disrupt the establishment GOP.  If we beat Democrats while we're at it, great. But the first priority is to fix the Drunk Party - the Living Dead establishment Republicans. They're history. They just don't know it yet.

NY-23 was the first shot in that war.  It was a direct hit.  Next year, we start storming the castle.

More Bill Buckley, less Bill O'Reilly

Steven Hayward's "Is Conservatism Brain-Dead" has been much-discussed in the last few days, prompting some valuable introspection within the Right. I'll excerpt some of the more important points.

The conservative political movement, for all its infighting, has always drawn deeply from the conservative intellectual movement, and this mix of populism and elitism troubled neither side.  Today, however, the conservative movement has been thrown off balance, with the populists dominating and the intellectuals retreating and struggling to come up with new ideas. The leading conservative figures of our time are now drawn from mass media, from talk radio and cable news. We've traded in Buckley for Beck, Kristol for Coulter, and conservatism has been reduced to sound bites.

President Obama has done conservatives a great favor, delivering CPR to the movement with his program of government gigantism, but this resuscitation should not be confused with a return to political or intellectual health. [...] When the ideas are absent, the movement has nothing to offer -- except opposition. That doesn't work for long in American politics. [...]

[S]ome on the right think talk radio, especially, has dumbed down the movement, that there is plenty of sloganeering but not much thought, that the blend of entertainment and politics is too outre. John Derbyshire, author of a forthcoming book about conservatism's future, "We are Doomed," calls our present condition "Happy Meal Conservatism, cheap, childish and familiar."

The key to fixing this problem is leadership - among elected officials, traditional movement leaders, grassroots...and, hopefully, new movement leaders. The question is whether those people will pick up this opportunity to lead...or make excuses, point fingers and retrench.  I'll repeat what I wrote in the immediate aftermath of the 2008 election.

The rebuilding and renewal of the Right will start soon.  This will be very important.   The Right and the Republican Party are at an inflection point, and there are many directions things can go.   The destiny of the Right and the Republican Party will be determined in large part by the decisions you make in the days, weeks and months ahead.

  • Some of you will say "we have learned our lesson", and then try to pass off cosmetic changes as Reform.  You are the problem.

  • Some of you will say "Republicans need to fight/hold Democrats accountable", as if it is sufficient to be against Democrats.  The pendulum may eventually swing back to you, but you won't know what to do with it.

  • Some of you will say "Republicans need to carry our message to the American people", as if the problem is that Republicans haven't been saying "tax cuts and limited government" loudly enough.  The problem is not the inability to communicate; the problem is that you have no idea how to actually deliver on those ideas.

  • Others will say "Republicans need to be more principled", as if the problem is a mere lack of personal courage and principle by Republicans.  Even the best people can't limit government if there is not an effective strategy for implementation - for getting "from here to there".  You don't need better people.  You need a better strategy.

The problem is not Republican politicians, although many Republicans politicians are a problem.  The problem is not with the basic ideals of limited government and personal freedom, either.  The problem is a movement that plays small-ball and cedes responsibility for infrastructure to business interests, leadership that rewards those who make friends rather than waves, an entrenched Party and Movement support system that mostly supports itself, an echo chamber that has rotted our intellect, a grassroots that is ill-equipped to shape the Republican Party, and a Republican Party that has replaced strategy with tactics, substance with marketing.

 

New Battlefield, Old Guard

Leslie Graves emailed me earlier today with an interesting point: The institutional Right is finally spending money online, but there's still a mis-alignment between the organizations and the Rightroots.

[L]egacy orgs are starting to be active online...like righty e-activists have always wanted them to do ... but for the most part, they are not doing the things online that we wish they were doing. ... Thus, there is no love lost between the conservative e-activism community and the orgs.  [A]ll this money being spent ... finally ... online but generally not doing the things that e-activists probably would prefer be done.

The institutional Right has realized there's a new battlefield and they have finally moved into it.  But I'm reminded a bit of the British troops versus the Colonists in the American Revolution (the analogy is tactical, not political).  The Left built new institutions and adapted their tactics to the new battlefield - guerilla warfare, as it were - while the Right is trying to port over the institutional cultures and tactics that they have built up over generations, regardless of the new battlefield.

Andrew Breitbart's Big Government and Michelle Malkin's Hot Air are excellent examples of good, innovative projects on the Right.  We need more guerilla media, like Breitbart is doing.  And Malkin had the right idea with Hot Air - take successful, iconoclastic bloggers (Ed Morrissey and AllahPundit), give them free rein (rather than pandering and red meat) and build around them.

The continuing cultural divide between the Left and Right approach to online media is best illustrated by this: While organizations on the Right tend to hire a single blogger (generally from internal or junior political staff, rather than the blogosphere), organizations on the Left very often (a) hire successful bloggers and give them freedom, and/or (b) have very large staffs focused on muckraking, research and blogging.  Huffington Post has something close to 50.  Talking Points Memo has a staff of close to 20...and they're expanding.  Think Progress has something like 14-17 people working on their 3 blogs and daily email.  Media Matters has a staff of many dozens, most aimed directly at the web.

The Right cannot invest in simply pushing an institutional message; the Right has to invest in adding value.  That means research, muckraking, fact-checking, policy wonkery, information organization and information activism. That's what it takes.

Fight for the Right: It is not Grassroots VS Elites

The LA Times reported on the Right's struggle against the fevered swamp fringe.  My favorite part: "WorldNetDaily's Farah [had] asked" CPAC to hold a panel on "whether Obama was a native-born US citizen", but CPAC rejected their request and said:

"It would fill a room," said event director Lisa De Pasquale. "But so would a two-headed monkey."

I couldn't have put it better. However, I should clarify one aspect of the story which I think does not characterize my intent.

Henke said, "There is a substantial discomfort among the people who want to make intellectual arguments and want to have a substantive role in the debate." He compared the Obama birth theorists to those who said Obama's healthcare overhaul would create "death panels."

" 'Death panels' is not a substantive contribution to the discussion. It's a cartoon," he said.

Actually, I think there's a substantial difference between the birther and "death panel" comments. The former are irresponsible, dishonest conspiracy theories that divert us from important matters; the latter are absurd, hyperbolic characterizations without real reference to anything in the bill (optional counseling on end of life patient choices are not remotely comparable to "death panels"), but at least there's a plausible argument that more government involvement in health care will inevitably lead to the government making cost/benefit decisions about treatment.

Still, we shouldn't defend "death panels" any more than Democrats should defend Ted Kennedy's "Robert Bork's America" smears.  The comment may have been tactically effective in making Democrats cringe (for all the good that did), but it didn't get us any closer to good policies.  Tactics are not replacement for strategy, and a month spent discussing "death panels" only helps discredit Republicans among the people who might be willing to listen to more substantive policy proposals.

Finally, I reject the idea that this is a division between the elite and the grassroots for a couple reasons.

  1. It is a very cynical and patronizing view of the Right's grassroots, which does not deserve this tyranny of low expectations.
  2. It excuses the "elites" (or "insiders" in the LA Times description), who don't necessarily deserve credit for being thoughtful and serious.  As Conor Friedersdorf has pointed out, there are many "movement conservative elites in positions of power who sell out the base and never get called on it." The elites are not just part of the problem; they are, in some senses, responsible for the culture and state of the movement.

 

Organizing Against WorldNetDaily

This is just hideously embarrassing for the Right.

[T]he Web site Worldnetdaily.com says that the government is considering Nazi-like concentration camps for dissidents. Jerome Corsi, the author of "The Obama Nation," an anti-Obama book, says that a proposal in Congress "appears designed to create the type of detention center that those concerned about use of the military in domestic affairs fear could be used as concentration camps for political dissidents, such as occurred in Nazi Germany."

In the 1960's, William F. Buckley denounced the John Birch Society leadership for being "so far removed from common sense" and later said "We cannot allow the emblem of irresponsibility to attach to the conservative banner."

The Birthers are the Birchers of our time, and WorldNetDaily is their pamphlet.  The Right has mostly ignored these embarrassing people and organizations, but some people and organizations inexplicably choose to support WND through advertising and email list rental or other collaboration.  For instance, I have been told that F.I.R.E (The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education) - an otherwise respectable group that does important work - uses the WND email list.  They should stop. [SEE UPDATE II]

No respectable organization should support the kind of fringe idiocy that WND peddles.  Those who do are not respectable. 

I think it's time to find out what conservative/libertarian organizations support WND through advertising, list rental or other commercial collaboration (email me if you know of any), and boycott any of those organizations that will not renounce any further support for WorldNetDaily.

UPDATE

I have inquired with F.I.R.E., but they have not responded to my email.  I will attempt to get an answer from them again.  If you know or can contact somebody with F.I.R.E, please let me know what you hear.

I have also inquired with the RNC, which appears to have recently paid for access to the WorldNetDaily email list.  I have not gotten a substantive response from the RNC yet.

In the meantime, I would encourage you to (a) email me with any substantive information you have on what other right-of-center groups advertise on, or rent email lists from, WorldNetDaily, and (b) email or call to let these groups know that Republican, conservative or libertarian groups should not support Birther/Concentration Camp conspiracy theories.

UPDATE II

I tried to contact F.I.R.E. yesterday before publishing this and I tried again today, but never received a response.  However, David Mastio, Senior Editor for Online Opinion and Innovation at the Washington Times, emails to tell me the response he got from F.I.R.E.

I called Fire and talked to the Veep Robert Shibley.

According to him, Fire rented a list from WND through a third party broker on one occasion (SOP for list rental) and does not have any continuing relationship or plans to rent from them again. He says that they were not aware of any loopy views espoused by WND as they didn't see a need to investigate before they rented the list.

I think that is a reasonable and satisfactory explanation from F.I.R.E.

The Politics of Anger

Since Pelosi and Hoyer's House Commentary on Un-American Activities informs us that "drowning out opposing views is simply un-American", let me resurrect the views of some of our friends on the Left. A few years ago, when the "Angry Left" was upset that their anger was being ridiculed, they argued that anger was good and criticism of anger was just a lazy, dishonesst diversion.

Daily Kos (Kos) explains that it's understandable that the powerless party is angry, and the party in power shouldn't be upset about that.

We're everywhere! So angry! Snarl! Grrr!

Though what I really want to know is why conservatives are so angry. Always snarling and snapping about evil liberals. Heck, they control everything. If something's wrong, it's their fault. Not the powerless Democrats snipping at their heels.

If Democrats had the trifecta I'd be in heaven. It'd be bliss. Everyday would be a party. Confetti, good beer, and party hats, all around.

But not them. They're still angry.

Daily Kos (Georgia10) explains that it is a diversionary "copout" to focus on the angry people, rather than the more important issues at hand...

The whole "angry left" myth is a copout, an escape-hatch for those who are confronted by fact and choose to respond by attacking the messenger rather than the message. It's a cowardly tactic that originated on the radical right (see Malkin and the "moonbats"); lately, we have seen its use on the rise in the traditional media.  It is, indeed, a pathetic diversionary tactic.  Instead of addressing the substance of the critique, those who use the easy-out "angry left" defense avoid addressing the true issue at hand. 

Glenn Greenwald explains that it is "intellectually lazy" and "deceitful" to point to some angry people and "ascribe those attributes generally to some larger group"...

There is no cheaper or emptier form of argumentation than to isolate a specific individual, describe her, and then, without any basis, ascribe those attributes generally to some larger group -- in this case, a much, much larger and more diverse group -- of which she is ostensibly a part. ... [The] pre-ordained goal here is to depict the blogosphere as a content-free venting ground where death wishes are heaped upon George Bush, so he simply searches those comments out and then holds them up as illustrative of the blogosphere. [...]

The Washington Post alone has published several articles in the last couple months which suggest, imply or outright state that the blogosphere generally, and the liberal blogosphere in particular, is irresponsible and filled with raged-driven radicals who are as extreme as they are irrelevant. ... Needless to say, the most simplistic and intellectually corrupt Bush followers have seized on this most simplistic and corrupt journalistic stunt, pointing to it as some sort of vindication for every cheap stereotype in which they routinely traffic.

Glenn Greenwald says "it is noble to be angry about dangerous situations and corrupt leaders" and Democrats need to be more angry...

The "Angry Left" cartoon has forever been a favorite tactic of those models of Civility and Rhetorical Restraint on the Right -- and as demonstrated by the head-patting praise which the "good boy" Cohen received from Bush supporters, it still is. And many Democrats have internalized it, too. Anger is a bad, bad thing and must be avoided at all costs. McGovern's 1972 defeat proves that.

This argument is false -- dangerously so -- for so many reasons. Most successful political movements need passion. Anger, when constructively directed, is a potent and inspiring passion. It is noble to be angry about dangerous situations and corrupt leaders, and there are few passions which can compete with anger for inspiring oneself and others to meaningful action. [...]

Democrats need to get away -- as far away and as quickly as possible -- from that bland, mushy, sonorous, overly calculating and painfully restrained, passion-free dead zone. And in that regard, a much bigger problem for Democrats has been a lack of anger -- and most other human passions -- not an excess of it. [...]

...I'd go so far as to say that no political movement could really succeed without the passion of anger. People need a reason to devote their time, money and energy to a political cause. That incentive will usually come in the form of believing that there is something terribly unjust, corrupt and/or dangerous about the current political situation, and in people who are alive and impassioned, that will usually result in some anger. Those who have no passion or beliefs and are more interested in showing how rational and balanced they are will turn up their effete noses at displays of anger, but it is a potent and necessary force to enroll people in political change. [...] As Republicans have demonstrated for quite some time, the party which runs away from anger is the party which stands for nothing, inspires nobody, and loses.

 

Hatred bounces

Paul Krugman makes a very good point about the dominant conservative media being full of "conspiracy theories and apocalyptic rhetoric".   That's true (e.g.), and it's a genuine problem for the Right.  I'm not sure the Right has come to terms with just how destructive an echo chamber is - and has been - to perceptions of reality and propriety (and yes, the Left has dived into their own rhetorical sewer, but tu quoque is no excuse). 

However...

The ongoing efforts to conflate the Tiller and Holocaust Museum murderers with the Right, conservatives or Republicans - or to imply that criticism of government is responsible for these murders - is absurd and offensive.  Would the critics change their political views if it turned out that one of the killers was a left wing militant?   No.

What's more, it's not something any of the critics actually believe.  Recall their outrage when Andrew Sullivan suggested that a fringe on the Left would fight against the US.  Of the idea that this fringe on the Left would "ramp up its hatred in the days and months ahead", Duncan Black said, "Sullivan was one of the earliest adopters of the idea that the most appropriate response to September 11 was to figure how to to use it to pit American against American."

We've come full circle.  The Left is growing comfortable with the role of dominant bully.

And contra some on the Left, objections to the DHS Report (both the Left and Right wing reports) were legitimate.  The objection is not that they DHS studied the potential sources of violence, but that they made political generalizations ("the DHS description of these groups seems excessively broad with the potential for mischief").  It was political profiling.

Let's conclude with two central ironies:

  • The Left strenuously objects to connecting President Obama to socialists and William Ayers; meanwhile, they want to lump all conservatives in with militant radicals.
  •  

  • Meanwhile, as Doug Mataconis points out, "Conservatives who object to being tied to Von Brunn were eagerly associating Obama with Ayers and Wright."

 UPDATE: Jesse Walker makes excellent points, as well. (via Instapundit)

Grow up, Republicans

Many of the most prominent voices in the Republican Party appear determined to behave like children.

At some point, Republicans have got to start demanding their leaders behave like adults instead of demagogues and buffoons.  We need at least one grownup party. 

The State of Media on the Right

The Columbia Journalism Review has a good piece on the state of media on the Right - particularly what's happening online.  This strikes me as a very clear-headed view of where we are and what our problems are.

For roughly the last twenty-five years, conservative opinion journalism has generally followed Ronald Reagan’s eleventh commandment: thou shalt not speak ill of a fellow Republican. [...] And when they have criticized Republicans, it has usually been from the right. [...] 

An even more interesting—and potentially important—aspect of this emerging ethos in conservative journalism is an acknowledgement of the need to close the reporting gap that has long existed between liberal and conservative publications. Many liberal journals, most notably Mother Jones, prize muckraking investigative reporting. The Nation funds in-depth reporting at numerous publications through its Nation Institute Investigative Fund. The Washington Monthly has a long history of burrowing deep into the public-policy-making process and lobbying. Talking Points Memo, one of the more evolved liberal news sites, won a Polk award in 2007 for its work unraveling the U.S. Attorneys firing scandal. 
 Conservative publications, in contrast, have generally opined, with the occasional whimsical reported dispatch. Breaking hard news was simply not in their DNA. Politico’s Jonathan Martin, who briefly worked at National Review, wrote an article suggesting that this gap hurt Republicans in the election because they were not as able to drive news stories, and that it has also led to more liberal journalists than conservatives joining mainstream publications. Martin attributed the difference to one of tradition: liberal journalists grew up aspiring to be hard-nosed investigative reporters like Woodward and Bernstein, while conservatives grew up suspicious of mainstream papers and aspiring to be the next William F. Buckley Jr.

The whole thing is worth reading, but it boils down to this: The Right has been busy criticizing the media; the Left has gotten busy building it.  The Left's new movement is making the news that the Right's old movement spends its time reacting to.

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