This past spring, the new chairman of the American Conservative Union, Al Cardenas, told the Washington Times, “Truth be told…these tea party newcomers have been able to achieve what the rest of us couldn’t.” By “us,” it’s assumed Mr. Cardenas meant the old establishment conservative movement, much of which resides inside the Beltway of Washington, D.C. And the achievement of the Tea Party? One of the more dramatic electoral shifts in American political history last fall.
It does cause one to wonder why the Tea Party movement has been (and will continue to be) successful in American politics when in reality it shouldn’t be: it has no real money to speak of and nearly half the local leaders’ first real entry into politics was in 2009. Yet it’s done more to move the political dial in two years than the rest of the conservative movement managed to over the last few decades.
It’s not a question of the D.C. conservative movement having money: between 2007 and the end of 2011, the dozen largest or so of the D.C. conservative think tanks will have raised somewhere in the area of a billion dollars (with the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute alone having raised, if their current fundraising trajectory stays the same in 2011, a combined $550 million over that period). With these massive amounts of money being plowed into primarily intellectual capital, there’ve been enough white papers written to sink a few ocean liners and depopulate a few old-growth forests to boot—and that’s just in the last few years.
Yet as we’ve clearly seen, especially in recent times with the victory of Obama, Democratic majorities in the Congress (until last fall), the passage of Obamacare and SChip, white papers do not win political wars. White papers are road maps to governance. In wars, while some thought is given to governing post-conflict, most of the focus is actually on winning the conflict: if you don’t win, governing is a moot point. Yet the D.C.-based conservative movement has been focused on governing without having actually won the war, reducing the movement to frequently fighting nothing more than rearguard actions against statism.
Intellectual ammunition has its place within the conservative movement. At times it’s nice to debate the equivalent of how many angels can dance on a pin by wondering if a file-and-approval rating system will effect the property and casualty insurance system. But becoming lost in ideas is much the same as being lost in dreams: nothing ever happens in reality.
Ideas do have consequences, but that’s only true of ideas that are implemented. Because many in D.C. have fallen prey to the ease of the self-validating echo chambers (“Your ideas on the flat tax are phenomenal,” “Oh, I love your ideas on reforming Medicare,” “You’re awesome,” “No, you’re awesome”), the D.C.-based conservative movement has never truly facilitated an implementation method for its ideas. Instead of building a boat to sail home, the conservative movement has settled for slipping yet another white paper message into a bottle and casting it out upon the waters, hoping that somehow they and their good ideas will find a way home simply because of their inherent goodness. Nothing could be further from the truth: people with bad ideas and good organization will always beat people with good ideas and bad organization.
While investing what is likely billions of dollars into intellectual capital over the past 30 years, the conservative movement, unlike the left, has done very little to invest in human infrastructure, which is the launching pad for political change in this country. The left, perhaps because it is bereft of meaningful ideas that lead to freedom and prosperity, has not plowed much money into think tanks until very recent times. Instead it has been focused, with entities like ACORN and the unions, on building human infrastructure, creating permanent and constant capacity for putting pressure on elected officials at a moment’s notice and for winning political elections. The results? As William Voegeli points out in Never Enough: America‘s Limitless Welfare State (Encounter Books), government outlays have doubled every 18 years since 1940. With government growing, not diminishing, it is not hard to see that building human infrastructure over intellectual capital has been a better approach. The reason being that the left has been focused on winning the political conflict, while the D.C.-conservative movement has put the cart before the horse by focusing on the governing white papers.
The tea party movement gives the conservative movement, and in particular its donors, the opportunity to invest in that human infrastructure which leads to success. The Tea Party movement, unlike the D.C.-based groups, is not wrapped up in what are sometimes overly esoteric debates on what good policy is. Rather, it is focused on how to enact the right policies, on how to win the political conflict and wrest political power from the statists (a combination of Democrats, Republicans, and the left).
It’s ironic that many in the Tea Party movement did not run to read D.C.-based groups’ white papers. They instead sought out America’s founding documents and the Founders’ philosophy of governing, and they settled on a strategy of personnel change to bring about real change; not constitutional amendments or interstate compacts, but finding and helping men and women with the right governing philosophy to win elected office. Good policy is enacted by personnel, so at the end of the day, politics is policy.
With a focus on action, and on their local communities (federalism in deed, not word), the Tea Party movement can be, and hopefully will be, the catalyst for a reformation within the conservative movement. It can be the spark that ignites and leads the conservative movement onto a path of victory by moving it from a D.C.-centric movement to one more locally based, one that is focused on building and activating human infrastructure instead of building, ad nauseam, intellectual capital. The Tea Party movement provides hope for the future of the movement if the movement will leave behind its past. After all, the definition of insanity is to do the same thing over and over again and expect different results.