Youth Movement

November 12, 2008

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Youth Movement

This essay is the second in a three-part symposium on the GOPacolypse. Daniel Larison’s contribution can be read here. 

Nov. 4 was a lucky day for Republicans. Barack Obama crushed John McCain by a landslide, but voters hedged their bets on Congress. The sheer weight of turnout for Obama shifted 24 seats in the House of Representatives and six in the Senate to the Democratic column—but the House gains were offset by four GOP pickups and a handful of races in both chambers remain too close to call. This was far from the wipeout it might have been. Voters gave congressional Republicans a reprieve, even as they resoundingly rejected McCain.

Republicans can be trusted to learn all the wrong lessons from this. Indeed, the leaders of the conservative movement, which is little more than the Republican Party in repose, have already decided not to mend their ways. At a post-election powwow held at the home of L. Brent Bozell III, the dons of the movement came together and decided that, in the words of American Spectator reporter Phil Klein, “John McCain wasn’t really a conservative.” What’s more, as one unnamed partygoer told Klein, “We’re no longer going to support Republicans who want to ‘improve’ a bad bill. We’re going to oppose all bad bills.” But what were putative conservatives doing supporting “bad bills” in the first place? And if they were willing to support bad bills under Bush, what makes anyone think they won’t support bad bills again under the next Republican president?

Of course John McCain “wasn’t really a conservative.” But neither was George W. Bush in ’00 or ’04. Neither was Bob Dole in ’96. Neither was George H.W. Bush in ’88 or ’92. The Republican Party has not nominated a conservative for president in over 20 years. Yet the movement has reliably supported the GOP’s nominees anyway. And when given the opportunity to support actual conservatives—Pat Buchanan in the Republican primaries of ’92 and ’96 (and the pre-primaries of ’99) or Ron Paul this year—where were these movement leaders? At worst they were shilling for the establishment candidate: a Bush, Dole, or McCain. Others supported the millionaire moderate du jour: Steve Forbes in ’96 or ’00, Mitt Romney this year. A bare handful, if that, sided with Buchanan or Paul. Many of these leaders got their start in the Goldwater days. But how many of them would dare support a Goldwater today?

The Bozell partygoers are right about one thing: the verdict of this election was not a mandate for the Democrats’ agenda or a repudiation of conservatism. But conservatism has been a dead letter within the movement that bears its name for so long that the American people are left with no choice at all in most elections: they may opt for either the competent statism of the Democrat Party or the spectacularly incompetent statism of the Republicans. The decision the public made on Nov. 4, faced with these alternatives, was not an irrational one.

Either way, Americans get an interventionist foreign policy, higher federal spending and an increase in the scope of government (whether in the name of sensitivity and tolerance or academic excellence and patriotism), economic policies made to order for Goldman Sachs, and the continued subordination of private and family life to the dictates of Washington (though again, under different pretexts depending on who holds the whip). But better another Somalia or Haiti than another Iraq; and at least parents know to warn their sons about Barney Frank. How many knew they had to take the same precautions for dealing with Mark Foley or Larry Craig? With the Democrats, what you see is what you get. With the Republicans, what you get is the opposite of what you want to see.

This has led some thoughtful people to conclude that the Democrats are the lesser evil and that whatever hope there may be for conservatism is to be found on the Left. There’s a strong argument to be made—the Left Conservative blog is one site that makes it; others who do include the bloggers of the Libertarian Left—that at least a sizeable minority of leftists have a broadly correct view of what Carl Oglesby called “corporate liberalism,” the ideology of the modern State. And these left-antistatists may have marginally more influence on the mainstream Left than traditionalists and right-libertarians have upon the mainstream Right, for the simple reason that the left-antistatists have not been co-opted by an organized movement.

Needless to say, there are vast differences between the Right and even the most decentralist strains of the Left. Abortion, for example, would seem to be one intractable area of disagreement. Yet the question might be asked: is it really harder to convince a left-winger to become anti-abortion than to convince a right-winger to become antiwar?

Even if that question can be answered in the negative, however, there are many other obstacles that diminish the prospect of a systemic or long-term alliance between conservatives and the Left—very few leftists, for example, will defend what Richard M. Weaver called “the last metaphysical right,” property. To be right about corporate liberalism but wrong about property is no better than the reverse. Yet serious conservatives should certainly think hard about the arguments the left-conservatives and left-libertarians put before them. At the very least, considering these possibilities will help to inoculate conservatives against the belief that they have nowhere to turn but to the Republican Party and its pet movement. Sometimes worse is better, and sometimes “worse” isn’t even worse.

Another possibility to dwell upon is that serious conservatives should not sign up for any movement Left or Right. Austin Bramwell has championed the virtues of an eclectic nonmovement conservatism. One Joseph Schumpeter—even, in Bramwell’s account, one Noam Chomsky—is better than any number of Media Research Centers and Family Research Councils. (What, by the way, could be creepier than some Beltway Republican researching your family?) The trouble with this view is that politics in a representative republic like our own is inevitably a team sport. That’s why parties exist, and that’s why political movements tend to coalesce—and why those movements usually attach themselves to parties. If you want to push through a policy, it helps to have a party, and if you want to shape a party’s thinking, it can help to have a movement, though as we’ve seen with the Beltway cons, a movement becomes counterproductive when it forgets who it is supposed to represent to whom.

This brings us full circle. If the conservative movement has failed, but a movement is politically necessary, what are conservatives to do? Practically speaking, they can drop out of activism altogether, they can look for common cause with the Left, or they can try again with the Right. None of these alternatives is ideal, and all of them should be weighed carefully.

Can a different kind of conservative movement be built? Maybe. Pat Buchanan is one leader on the Right who clearly stands for a foreign policy, economics, and cultural vision very unlike those of the movement. That’s not to say that Buchanan is right in all things—but he does represent something markedly different from the conservative establishment. Buchanan attracted a large following in the Republican contests of 1992 and 1996, even humiliating anointed frontrunner Bob Dole in the ’96 New Hampshire primary. Buchanan didn’t have enough support to win the nomination, and many of the Buchanan brigaders, evidently including Sarah Palin, later became Bush Republicans. But Buchanan proved that a nonestablishment conservatism can garner significant votes in Republican primaries. That’s a promising beginning.

Earlier this year, Ron Paul ran for the Republican nomination on a platform widely at variance with the regnant ideology of the GOP. He too found intense support: about 1.2 million Republicans supported him in the primary season, and by the fourth quarter of 2007 his grassroots fundraising put all the other Republican candidates to shame. Paul’s campaign proved that there is a donor base willing and able to finance insurgent, anti-establishment Republicans.

Money and activists are two of the basic ingredients for a movement. The third is organization. But this has proved to be a problem for insurgent Republicans: they don’t have much infrastructure, certainly nothing that matches that of, say, the religious right, a reliable auxiliary of the GOP establishment. (What happened to the religious right was same thing that happened to the conservative movement: the party tamed them.) Consider just one religious right figure—Pat Robertson, who ran an unsuccessful presidential campaign in 1988 that won far fewer votes than Buchanan or Paul. Robertson had already built a media empire before running for office. And out of his ’88 campaign came the Christian Coalition, an organization that was once considered highly influential within the national Republican Party. (State affiliates and successors to the Christian Coalition still are influential at the local level.) The Christian Coalition was hardly a model of principled political activism, but it was a model—for a brief period in the early 1990s, at least—of effective political activism, playing an important role in electing many of the Republicans who took control of Congress after the 1994 midterm elections.

The Christian Coalition and other religious right groups have a natural advantage over any Buchananite or Paulist organization: churches supply established financial and activist networks—and mass membership—for the religious right. But this doesn’t mean that Buchananites or Paulists cannot build grassroots mass-membership organizations; it’s just a bit harder.  Nor are churches the only pre-existing mass-membership organizations that a budding movement might tap into. The Paul campaign discovered another in the college campuses.

A youth movement is no substitute for a broad-based electoral movement, in part for the obvious reason that students, though numerous, by and large don’t vote (their turnout for Obama notwithstanding). But youth movements supply energy, and youth activists can mature into institutional leaders. The roster of past College Republicans National Committee chairman and executive directors who have gone on to prominence in the conservative movement is extensive—and for the most part shameful. Ralph Reed, the quondam leader of the Christian Coalition when it was at the height of its power, is a paradigmatic example. Reed’s rise to prominence in the conservative movement began in the College Republicans, where he was for a time executive director (under chairman Jack Abramoff) of the College Republicans National Committee. The conservative youth movement succeeded in identifying and placing in a position of influence an effective political activist. Of course, it’s no surprise that someone like Reed, with a background in CR politics, would turn out to be more committed to the Republican Party than to the values of Christian conservatism.

Would Reed have turned out any better if he had risen up through a more principled youth organization? I doubt it, but a philosophically grounded youth movement would identify, recruit, and train other leaders who might do for the Buchanan or Paul movements what Reed did for the Republican establishment. There lies the crucial question: can a youth movement of the insurgent Right be as effective at building institutions as the conservative movement’s youth auxiliary has been, without selling out? It remains to be seen.

The payoff of a youth movement does not lie entirely in the future, when student activists have become professional organizers. Youth were instrumental in propelling the candidacies of Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan in 1960, 1964, 1968 (Reagan’s first run), 1976, and 1980. Indeed, Young Americans for Freedom, the anti-Communist youth group that supplied a somewhat more principled alternative to the Young or College Republicans in the ‘60s and ‘70s, arose out of the 1960 Goldwater campaign. Tellingly, after YAF collapsed in the 1980s, moderate Republicans like the Bushes, Dole, and McCain met with much less resistance within the conservative movement. The students, who were idealistic and had simply had less time to be corrupted by politics, tried to pull the movement to the right. But after the collapse of YAF, they didn’t have an organization through which to focus their energies—until now.

There is a new youth movement taking shape out of the Ron Paul campaign. Over 30,000 college students were involved in Students for Ron Paul, and the Texas congressman’s college lectures—denouncing the Federal Reserve and the Iraq War and calling for a return to strict constitutionalism—electrified campuses from one end of the country to the other, in a way that no other Republican could match. The Paul campaign’s national youth coordinator, Jeff Frazee, is now building a permanent conduit for this youth activism, Young Americans for Liberty. As you can see from its website, the group is still embryonic. But it has an activist base, the beginnings of a financial network, and qualified, principled leadership. YAL should prove to be a headache for the Republican establishment.

But if the GOP is to survive at all, it will have to listen to YAL. The Republican old guard, and by extension the conservative movement, has irretrievably lost the hearts and minds of the nation’s young. As Jeffrey Hart recently observed, “[T]wo thirds of voters under 30 voted for Obama.” Many of those young people, of course, are true Obamaphiles. But many of them are young enough that they have never known any kind of conservatism except what they are told the Bushes, Dole, and McCain exemplify. Given the success of Ron Paul in attracting young people, there is every reason to think that many of them will move to the right, if they are exposed to a thoughtful and principled conservatism. If the Right is going to have any future, it must reconnect with the youth—but the youth aren’t blind, and they see the difference between a Ron Paul and a John McCain.

An effective youth movement is only a start toward recomposing political conservatism. Other organizations of many kinds are needed. The Campaign for Liberty, the official successor to the Paul presidential campaign, aims to provide a mass-membership, organized base for the congressman’s principles. Paul also has the Liberty PAC. These groups have their work cut out for them—they must do what conservatives did after Goldwater’s convention defeat in 1960. They have to build a new movement from the ground up—and do so without falling into the Nixonian traps that compromised all too many conservatives after 1964.

The American public has not embraced the Left, it has repudiated Bush conservatism. If the GOP wants to regain power, rather than merely enduring as a congressional rump of resistance to Obama, it should try offering voters a choice of prudent antistatism rather than colossally corrupt and inept government. The party will not purify itself, however, nor does the conservative establishment have either the will or the power to clean up the party. An outside force, with dedicated activists, a financial base, and principled leadership, must take charge. I see some hopes for such a thing emerging from the Paul campaign and, more generally, from the insurgent Right that supported Paul this year and Buchanan in cycles past. (There is plenty of room for organizational growth on the Buchananite side of the insurgent Right.) These hopes, however, have to be balanced against the record of the conservative movement, which also began as a principled insurgency—and wound up supporting “bad bills” and a succession of Bushes, Doles, and McCains.

Daniel McCarthy is senior editor of The American Conservative.

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