Conservatives are understandably upset. In a period of sustained radical leftist action, including riots, arson, and a genuine effort to grow a revolutionary movement, the response at all levels is ineffectual. Lots of conservatives are asking the same questions: what can I do? What can we do? How did we even get to this point?
When things aren’t going the way you want, it’s easy to blame luck, or circumstances, or somebody screwing you over. It’s harder to take a good look in the mirror. But the first step is to internalize an unpleasant truth. In this case, the unpleasant truth is that the entire conservative theory of power is wrong.
Conservatives tell ourselves power comes from ideas. The body politic is a marketplace; we like marketplaces! Ideas are debated, inspire voters, draw action from politicians, and at the end of the day, win.
Okay, how’s that working out for us?
It turns out that inspiring ideas aren’t useful unless you train people in the mechanics of building power. That’s not what we do. As conservatives, we have trained ourselves to elect politicians, who are seemingly allergic to passing legislation, or to be pundits, who have no actual power. State power is the only kind of power conservatives have taught their people how to understand, and when we gain it, tut-tutting conservative elites argue it is immoral to use.
At some point in the last 40 years, the conservative movement should have taught us to exercise power in ways that don’t involve the state. This is what leftists do. They actively train people to create effective pressure movements that coerce compliance with their demands. The response of conservatives to this coercion is to double down on—the importance of ideas.
If you want to actually produce change, you can’t do it with debates. You can’t do it with pundits. And you can’t do it by sitting at home and assuming somebody else will do something. You have to learn to build a team and work as part of it. And your team has to learn to be part of a larger team.
You must, in short, build community.
If You’re An Elected Official
The words every conservative elected official needs to have emblazoned on his or her wall, in letters four feet high and on fire, are: “Actual Material Loss.”
Hard lefties understand that if you want someone to change his behavior, you have to be able to inflict actual material loss on them. Not devastating bon mots, not status hits, not embarrassment. Actual material loss. For politicians, this means votes. For other people, usually, it means money.
Republican voters don’t want YouTube videos or pugnacious tweets from their elected officials. We can produce those on our own, thanks. What we want is material effect. If you’re an officeholder, and you’re not willing to materially help your allies and materially hurt your enemies, there’s really not any point of you being there.
For an idea of how conservative politicians have shirked this part of their job, consider this: pro-life protestors are a rare exception to the right’s inability to form a crowd the way lefties do. So why don’t we take a cue from leftist tactics and peacefully occupy abortion clinics? Because when the Democrats controlled Congress and the White House, they made doing so a federal felony. That’s actual material loss.
The Republicans had the House, the Senate, and the presidency for two years, and they didn’t consider repealing that law, or amending it to give public buildings and thoroughfares the same protections as abortion clinics, effectively shutting down many leftist shenanigans. They didn’t even defund Planned Parenthood. By contrast, Democrats aren’t even back in power yet and already they’re making noises about repealing Taft-Hartley and allowing unions to use secondary boycotts. (A secondary boycott is what the activist group Sleeping Giants does when it targets companies that advertise on Breitbart.) Leftists know: if your enemy has a successful tactic, make it illegal or impractical. If your friends are hampered by legislation, change it to empower them.
If You’re A Donor
If you’re a serious donor, to one politician or many, don’t put quite so much funding into TV commercials for national politicians. Instead, put money into building infrastructure where you live, with your local party and local activists.
Your money can provide cost-effective on-ramps for solid new candidates to get their foot in the door. When it comes to activism, forget about giving tons of money to big national groups; give modest amounts to a few local groups. And tell your fellow donors to do the same. Remarkably small amounts of cash can support an activist culture that not only feeds the party but creates stronger conditions on the ground, not with attention-getting stunts but with careful, thoughtful work.
As an example: there are a million national conservative sites that tell their readers breathless tales of how awful Democrats are. There probably isn’t one in your town that will tell your neighbors what the city council and the local Democratic interest groups are up to. Well-heeled leftists right now are funding nonprofit groups to essentially replace local newspapers and report on local conservatives. What kind of stories do you think they’ll tell?
Lots of your town’s stories will be useful but boring. Others can potentially get fed into the larger conservative media ecosystem. But either way, you’ll build your community, and that’s important.
Finally, if you’re in a solidly red area, look at helping out your ideological compatriots in heavily blue areas. They could use the moral support and the help.
If You’re A Random Voter
It’s always fun to tell people with more power and money what they should be doing. But this is also on us, the people at home. You can’t build a real community from Facebook and your couch. You have to talk to people and go build your own groups, and eventually you, too, can learn to get what you want by pressuring opponents and using your ability to inflict actual material loss.
The conservative response to left-wing pressure campaigns has thus far mostly consisted of sternly telling individuals not to bow. This is useless. You cannot defeat calculated strategy with personal pugnacity. If you stand tall, a pressure campaign doesn’t leave you alone; it moves on to a secondary target with the power to put pressure on you. Pointing out hypocrisy, how the other guys would hate it if the tables were turned, does nothing. Actually turning the tables does.
If you’re just a grassroots voter, your first job is looking for a group. Don’t imagine exactly what you want in your head and go looking for that, expecting to find it to the letter. That doesn’t work in romance, and it doesn’t work in politics. Find a group, meet people, build out of it.
If you’re an activist, you have two jobs: 1) grow your group locally and 2) make connections with other local groups. Forget about big national stuff. Build power where you are, first and foremost.
People on the right like to imagine movements as one neatly organized thing, but it turns out what’s most effective is coalitions of lots of different groups. When different groups all have strong memberships, those groups can cooperate and pull off large actions. Righties tend to focus on individual heroes, but that’s a mistake. If you notice, most of the would-be leaders who show up on the right are just grifters of one kind or another. If you’re dreaming of being famous and anointed, forget it. You do not get to be Greta Thunberg. You do not get to be Linda Sarsour. Thunbergs and Sarsours do not just appear. They cannot be cloned in righty variants for instant success. The left has the infrastructure to create them. We do not.
The bad news is that organizing is slow and it takes time. You will not be able immediately to compete with the stuff the lefties do. If you want to be a bodybuilder, you cannot march out on stage as Mr. Olympia next week. You have to train. Training to be strong is a lot less fun than just being strong. As eight-time Mr. Olympia Ronnie Coleman so wisely put it: “Everybody wanna be a bodybuilder, but don’t nobody wanna lift no heavy-ass weights.”
So think about what you want and work backwards. Grab a notebook and a pen. On the first page, write down your name and your address. Do it the way you did when you were a little kid: number, street, part of town if applicable, town, county, state, country, the world, the universe. Circle your town name.
Then go down a few lines and write your town name by itself in big letters. Draw a line underneath it. Write down your political districts. You probably don’t know what they all are. If you don’t, you can probably look them up online at your county registrar’s office. We’re talking stuff like precinct, city council, water board. Depending on where you are, this may take a page or two. That’s okay. It will be intensely boring. That’s okay, too. Because this boring task is to weed out the lazy.
Now turn the page and give yourself a nice double-page spread. You’re going to write about you. Left hand-page: write your name. Skip down five lines and write three columns: INTERESTS, SKILLS, ASSETS.
Under “Interests,” put stuff that matters to you. Maybe you like mixed martial arts, or science fiction, or motorcycles, or gardening. Put it down. Under “Skills,” list things you can do, professional and personal, from your accounting degree to your ham radio license. Under “Assets,” list material things you have that you can use for the benefit of yourself and others. Maybe you’ve got a space you can use for meetings. Maybe you’ve got money. Maybe you don’t just know about radios, you’ve actually got a bunch of portable radios!
Now: see those blank five lines you left between your name and the three columns? Go back up there and list the really deep personal stuff that matters to how you see yourself. Does your religious faith matter deeply to you? List it. Are you patriotic as hell? List it. Unfailingly kind to cats? Put it down.
When you’re done, stop for a moment. Look at your list. Think about what it says. You are now going to ask yourself two questions: how can I use my interests to meet people? How can I use my skills in cooperation with other people to shape the world?
If you have friends who are already like-minded, guess what? You’re ahead of the game. You are now a group! Get them to grab a notebook and pen and do this stuff, too. Then go out and meet people. Some will be interested in helping you form and connect political groups.
On the right-hand page of the double-page spread, ask yourself this question: what are some specific things an effective organized right that is responsive to its base would do? Not generalities (“own the libs!”); those aren’t actionable. Specifics. But big, powerful things, 10,000-foot goals. Write them down.
Look at each of those things in turn. Now look at the things you’ve written about yourself on the left-hand side. Ask yourself: what can I do to get one tiny step toward that 10,000-foot goal?
Suppose you’re a conservative lawyer. You wish there were a big, well-funded right-wing legal apparatus that could sue the living bejesus out of hard-left operators and infrastructure. The reality is that you do not have the time, money, or power for this. What do you have? You have yourself. You have your legal knowledge in whatever area you train in. You probably have some connections in your local area. You cannot make a well-heeled nationwide organization. But you can make a local one.
You don’t have the resources or the backup to sue better-connected liberal folks into next week. But you can raise money. You can gather information. You can teach people about their rights. I have an online friend of a couple decades’ standing who is a lefty organizer, and I broke his brain by explaining to him that there was no such thing as a right-of-center legal observer organization. (Legal observers attend demonstrations to make sure protesters’ rights are observed.) Guess what: legal observer training for local activist groups is something a couple of lawyers can do.
But odds are you’re not a lawyer. That’s okay. The world needs honest people, too. Look at what you do, and what skills you have. Maybe you’ve got a lot of free time and like research. One essential step in a lot of organizing is what’s called “power mapping”—figuring out who all the players in a situation are and their relationships with each other. The mapping part can be literal. Union organizers physically map the workplace and who works where.
What far-left groups are there in your town? How big are they? What kind of stuff do they do? It’s not like the press is going to tell you, but this is important information, and you can learn it quietly. Look at the big groups active on social media. See what else the people liking their posts are into. Help fellow conservatives understand the big picture. A community is less intimidating when you actually understand it.
If you like politics, here is a quick, simple way to build community. In case you haven’t noticed, we are in the middle of an election season. Political parties are kind of hyped up during election season, and they are looking for people. So here’s what you do: remember when you wrote your address out? And then did all that boring stuff with your political districts? Turn back to that page in your notebook, then look up the contact page for your political party and drop them an email: “Hi, I’m [Name]. I live in precinct X. Specifically, my address is Y. I’d like to help turn out the vote this season and be part of any precinct work that is happening. Could I get a copy of my walk sheet? I’m happy to walk other neighborhoods, too.”
A volunteer who knows his or her precinct is a rara avis and will catch their attention. A walk sheet is a list of people in your neighborhood; generally you will get one for your own party or for the independents. If you’re a Republican in a heavy Democrat area, you will be surprised how many of you there are. Most people aren’t hugely engaged. Many don’t even remember their political party registration. (Seriously.) You might make a couple of friends who want to start a notebook, too.
It’s good to have a 10,000-foot goal. But it’s impossible to conquer your 10,000-foot goal in a day. So have a bunch of little goals. If you pile them up, they stack.
David Hines has a professional background in international human rights work with a focus on recovery from forced disappearances and mass homicide. He lives in Los Angeles.
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