Some of the brightest minds in the online conservative movement — John Hawkins, Patrick Ruffini and Mark Tapscott — are discussing what it would take to build a "rightroots" movement, aimed at replicating the political activism of the left "netroots." As Patrick makes clear in a further post, this is not about building a partisan shilling machine (if it was, the effort would deserve to fail), but about a grassroots-driven insurgency and about harnessing ideological lightning (of which lots more later) to power the political world.
This is a worthy effort. They are right to say that the right is having its clock cleaned electorally as a result of the online community's deficiencies in the areas of fundraising and online activism, yet I think there are two more important problems identified. First, as Mark points out, the net holds massive promise for investigative journalism, a point that Paul Chesser of the Carolina Journal has made repeatedly; look at his revelations about the Center for Climate Strategies and the way leftist donors have used it to impose alarmist global warming policies on governors around the country. Meanwhile, here at CEI, we established the Warren Brookes Fellowship to keep alive the tradition of a great columnist who never let opinion or prejudice get in the way of fact. And in the UK, it is conservative and libertarian bloggers who have often pushed against the Labour government when the official opposition was too timid to do so. Guido Fawkes is a great example.
The second problem is identified well by John:
Just to give you an example of what I'm talking about, here's a generic conversation, some variation of which I've had with different congressional aides at least half-a-dozen times over the last four years.
Anonymous Aide: Hawkins, I want to ask your advice.
John Hawkins: Shoot.
Anonymous Aide: We're thinking about doing idea x.
John Hawkins: Are you out of your mind? That's going to be a disaster!
Anonymous Aide: Well, they've already decided to do it. How do we sell it to the bloggers?
John Hawkins: You're asking me whether you should put mayonnaise or mustard on a sh*t sandwich. I can give you some advice, but it's not going to go over well no matter how you spin it.
John is right. The net provides the single best method yet devised of allowing the individual supporter into the messy business of policy formulation. Again, a look across the pond is valuable. The Conservatives in Britain have realized exactly that — ConservativeHome has become a sort of guardian of the Tory conscience, where individual party members have their say on emerging policy issues. The Party's guarded retreat from the excesses of greenery and the re-emergence of tax as a defining issue have in some degree or another been driven by net-based activism. One might even suggest that the era of the political consultant or guru is over. Creative destruction in action!
Yet I think there is a third opportunity the broader "right" movement is not availing itself of. When it comes down to it, all political debates are about policy. Occasionally an individual candidate might win initially on the force of charisma, but even he has to have some policies if he wants to win re-election. The war of ideas has to be won, whether it be in colleges, on the doorstep or when conversing with the plumber. People need intellectual ammunition, and that is something that goes way beyond the punditry that most people think of when they consider the conservative movement.
Now, when it comes to the free-market intellectual element of the right, I'd suggest that quite a few of us are estranged from the broader conservative movement at the moment. There's only so much betrayal people can take, after all. That's why I suggest that all of us in that group start looking at setting up a FreeRoots movement. Its aim would be to win the battle of ideas for liberty online, using values-based communication and providing all sorts of intellectual ammunition from small rounds to heavy ordnance. Conservatives can avail themselves of it or not, but we'll supply it to anyone willing to fight for liberty. Take a look at BeyondBailouts.org for an example of how this can come together. Obviously, the creation and crafting of ideas takes money, so there would have to be fundraising involved, but it would also be interactive, because you don't win the war of ideas if nobody fires your intellectual ammo (okay, I'll drop that analogy now).
The fact is that this should be an easy battle to win (sorry!). The statists are the ones who are what JK Galbraith, that great statist, would call "bookless" right now. Who is the great theoretician everyone on the left is invoking? John Maynard Keynes, d.1946. Sure, there are people like Thomas Friedman, with his Code Green theory-of-everything, but anyone who advanced that theory as a serious political platform would get laughed out of the agora. Capitalism and the free-market have been twirled dizzy by spin and got hit by a swinging political pendulum. Yet all the serious economic arguments about what really caused the current mess recognize the preponderant effects of government intervention. What's needed is a movement and a vehicle to push these arguments out to the demos, the way Buckley and Reagan did with their similar arguments in the 70s and 80s. Bureaucrash is, of course, already doing that in colleges and with young people. A FreeRoots movement could do it in a much broader sense.
As Fred Smith says, the challenge is to make good policy good politics. Just because we're right, doesn't mean we have to lose.
UPDATE: Chris asks below what form this would take. Good question. Are we just going to copy the left? I hope not. Innovation is needed, so any and all ideas gratefully accepted. Feel free to chime in below.