My series on the state of American activism continues at Global Comment. Today, I explore the conservative movement and talk about why conservative activism is so successful. Of course, there are many reasons for this. But this is what I think is the most important:
Conservatives know how to use power. People keep asking where the Tea Parties came from. People point to their funding, their astroturf roots, their old and white demographics. All true. But people don’t seem to recognize that this movement is six decades in the making. After World War II, conservatives, disgusted by the New Deal, liberalism, and government expansion, began organizing. At first, they operated in fringe groups like the John Birch Society, railing about fluoridized water and communist spies. Most people saw them as lunatics.
Soon however, conservatives began gaining respectability. Shunning the more radical elements, they worked to take power rather than just complain. Moreover, they recognized quite clearly how to reclaim the Republican Party from the soft conservatism of Dwight Eisenhower and Nelson Rockefeller. In the 1950s, conservatives in Orange County, California; Texas, Atlanta, and other parts of the nation began joining local school boards to influence their children’s education. They also started volunteering for their local Republican Party committees and taking on the least desirable tasks within the party and local government. Each one of these people helped build a base within local Republican parties for a resurgent muscular conservatism that openly rejected the New Deal and social liberalism, refusing to compromise for electoral relevance.
Finding themselves newly empowered by their political activism, conservatives quickly rose up the ranks of many state parties and increasingly in the national party. In 1964, they managed to secure the Republican presidential nomination for their hero, Barry Goldwater. Lyndon Johnson crushed Goldwater and pundits declared the nascent conservative movement dead on arrival. But a mere two years later, conservatives got Ronald Reagan elected governor of California and then pushed Richard Nixon into the presidency in 1968. Building on those victories and Reagan’s enduring popularity, conservatives increased their power within the Republican Party for the next four decades. Today, the entire Republican Party is beholden to the conservative movement.
Conservatives knew how to take power and they started a successful multi-decade effort to do it. Ever since the Carter Administration of the late 1970s, progressives have found themselves as alienated from their party leaders as conservatives of the 1950s. But instead of organizing within the party, by 2000, many progressives decided to support Ralph Nader’s quixotic run for the presidency.
The Nader campaign showed progressives completely misunderstanding to how create change. Change doesn’t begin at the top; it comes from the bottom. A Nader presidency without a massive grassroots campaign to build a Green Party would have been disastrous and short-lived. Similarly, progressive hopes that Barack Obama would herald a new future completely miss that Obama lacks to power to convince Congress to pass a progressive program, even if he wanted to do so. Only the fear of an angry base can move Ben Nelson and Blanche Lincoln. Centrist Democrats have no reason to fear that base because we aren’t organized within the party structure.
The next time you wonder why Olympia Snowe caves to the right on major votes while Ben Nelson shows no respect to progressives, understand that the answer is sixty years in the making. We have to understand how change happens within the American political system and act upon that knowledge to transform the Democratic Party to our liking. Only then will we hold the power that conservatives do today.