“Which comes first,” asks Michael Turk, “ideas or the message?” That’s an easy one. Of course it’s ideas. But to understand why, let’s think about politics in the context of the production cycle.
This concept is not my original thinking. It was explained to me a couple weeks ago during a presentation on the future of conservatism as a way to grasp our shortcomings and understand the gaps of our movement.
Let’s start with the basic manufacturing production cycle, which I’ve boiled down to three essential steps: 1) obtain raw materials, 2) turn them into a product, and 3) sell that product to consumers.
Now let’s apply those three steps in the context of producing change in politics:
- Coming up with ideas. Academia plays an important role, albeit less significant today due the shortage of right-leaning academics. For example, think about the work of the powerhouse team of political economists at the University of Chicago (Frank Knight, Milton Friedman, George Stigler) and how their ideas on free-market economics began to take shape after World War II.
- Turning ideas into public policies. This is role of think tanks -- and on the right there is no shortage of them. Think tanks existed prior to the 1970s, but mostly in the form of academic institutions without students (AEI, Brookings, CSIS). The Heritage Foundation (my employer) helped usher in a new approach. These new institutions (Cato, ATR, NTU) began working directly with policymakers to have an impact.
- Implementing policies. Here is where activist groups, media and politicians fit. The left has a superior network of implementers who are effective at shaping a coherent message (MoveOn.org) and using communications channels (full-time bloggers) to sell it. We're about to see how a politician, Barack Obama, achieves this through governing. On the right, groups like Club for Growth and online communities such as RedState fit into this portion of the cycle. Rebuild the Party is an example of an implementer.
The point of this exercise is to understand the imbalance we face on the right. There is a serious deficiency of academics and implementers. We have an abundance of think tanks. Because we lack balance, the production cycle is thrown out of whack and we’re unable to produce change.
You see, ideas alone don’t produce change. And activist groups and bloggers savvy at marketing can’t produce change if they don’t have principled public policies to back up their message. We need a more integrated structure and balanced production cycle.