alien & sedition.
Tuesday, June 05, 2007
  Looking for the New New Right (Part 1)

I want to call your attention to a very interesting discussion that's been going on for the past week or two over in the conservative wonkosphere (which is a much different place than the mouth-breathing thugosphere of the Malkins and Little Green Thingies). It starts as an exchange about the difference between campaigns and movement building, and evolves into a lively debate over the future of policy and ideology in the conservative movement itself -- indeed, over whether there is such a thing as the "conservative movement" anymore. I'll break up my own play-by-play into more than one post, since there are several different things worth observing here.

GOP internet strategist Patrick Ruffini kicks it off with a response to this post by Adrienne Royer, who compares the grassroots mobilization strategies of the Dean and Bush/Cheney campaigns:
The Dean Model established relationships with smaller target groups. Correspondence was written by real individuals and supporters were engaged through open communications, such as a blog. Members were motivated to not only campaign for their candidate, but to also volunteer and participate in community programs. The Bush/Cheney Plan, however, used grassroots tactics but through top-down communication. Individuals were organized, but no sense of community was achieved and the movement fell apart soon after the election, whereas the Dean campaign reorganized into Democracy for America.
Ruffini, who helped organize the GOP's 2004 grassroots efforts, responds:
I can sing chapter and verse on why our model was better. Lateral communications (or community building amongst supporters) is a worthwhile goal in itself, but often gets confused with what it takes to do GOTV in the final days of an election. That’s when you want a unified message, and you don’t want canvassers coming up with their own talking points. The end result of that strategy is Dean in Iowa.

But in the run-up to the election, in the times between the Super Saturdays, the W ROCKS events, the Test Drives for W, and the 72 Hour Plan, community building was a tremendously important part of cementing and solidifying that grassroots army. At those moments, the Bush Grassroots Machine was something to behold. [...]

Did we sustain it? Well, that’s a fair question. The Bush list did continue on at the RNC. We did parties. We activated the base on key issues. That’s a greater continuity of effort than we saw on the other side. Terry McAuliffe famously boasted of wanting to bring all the Democrat candidate email lists in-house to the DNC. In the end, not one obliged, not even John Kerry. He kept his own list, blasted to it regularly during the 2006 elections, and as Chris Cillizza has been fond of harping on, that 3 million list alone was probably the only reason he could be considered viable for 2008.
Ruffini does wish that the "volunteer community-building [had] been kept alive under the Bush brand name," since people tend to be more willing to enlist to support a particular candidate than to support a party.

The lesson, for Ruffini, is that elected officials should make stronger efforts to stay in touch with the people on their email lists after the election. But Soren Dayton, a Republican blogger and consultant, argues that Ruffini missed the point by missing a key distinction: "campaigns versus movements":
In 2005, the Dean list and community was converted into an unprecedented grassroots candidacy for DNC chair. And the Deaniacs took over state parties and county parties around the country. The Deaniacs lost the 2004 primary campaign but may yet transform their party over the long-term. That’s a movement, not one campaign. And, over the long-term, movements have a lot more power. In short, the online left is solving a different problem than the Bush campaign was. The online left is trying to change their party, not elect candidates. [...]

MoveOn and Dean for America, rebranded as Democracy for America, did continue to activate with their 3m list. And they don’t have to take orders from the party. To them, candidates are a way of effecting policy changes, not the objective in-and-of-themselves, like they are for a party committee. Whatever candidate we nominate in 2008 is going to have a different coalition. Will the Generation Joshua guys show up for a Rudy Giuliani, a John McCain, or a Mitt Romney? I kinda doubt it.

I continue to believe that the right way to understand the online left is not as a party, but as a movement. Their historical antecedent is the New Right, using direct mail, the new technology of the day, to raise money and deliver message. In essence, the new technology is being used to expand the power and size of a part of the coalition that hasn’t had a seat at the table of the Democratic Party.
Dayton's post is a remarkable indication of how the more clued-in young conservative intellectuals are beginning to feel as though the right has been leapfrogged in terms of movement-building, thanks to the efforts of the progressive netroots and grassroots since 2004. That's heartening in and of itself, but it's also a point of departure for an exploration of whether a "new new right" might be in the cards. As Dayton puts it:
The online left is a movement to reinvent and renew the Democratic party. The question for the GOP is whether we need something similar. A newly organized coalition, etc. I think that the answer is "yes."
What are the elements of a successful political movement (as opposed to just a series of campaigns)? An alienated mass constituency (or potential constituency), for one. For Goldwater's new right, that was what you might call the Midwestern petite-bourgeoisie -- isolationist, anti-communist, and frustrated with the post-war social compact between labor and big capitalism (later on, of course, it would expand to include anti-civil rights Southern whites and anti-tax Westerners). For the current progressive movement, it has been the young white middle class: socially progressive, increasingly anti-war, and forward-looking.

Beyond that, you need ideas to appeal to that constituency, organizing technologies to spur and channel their activism (direct mail, the internet, extra-party political associations, etc.), and the ability to sustain the effort over time.

For all the talk of the progressive advantage on the internet, I think that conservatives actually have a perfectly good grasp -- in some ways, better than ours -- of how to use political technologies (though we can debate whether their base is inherently less-suited to "bottom-up" organizing styles -- personally, I think that that theory is a bit overblown). And while the right's leadership is populated with dinosaurs, they do nonetheless appear to have young intellectuals capable of developing good ideas.

What's not clear is whether, at this point, they have a mass constituency to which they can appeal. The apparent paucity of actual ideas on the right may have a lot to do with this: if you don't know who you're talking to or what they want, it can be difficult to have much to say. And this question will come into sharper focus as the exchange continues.

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Critical analysis of the American conservative movement from a progressive perspective. Also some stuff about the Mets.

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