What’s the Real Nature of Conservative Politics? Back
Political terms mean different things in different countries, and they mean different things in the same countries at different times.
In the United States and across the world in the 19th Century, the word “liberal” described someone primarily concerned about liberty.
Over the years, the word “liberal,” deliberately adopted by the left in the United States, has come to mean here someone committed to, among other priorities, greater concentration of power in government, more government spending, and active opposition to traditional values.
In modern American politics, liberal means left. Leftists have so sullied the word “liberal” that they often prefer now to call themselves “progressive.”
Despite this changed but now familiar meaning of the word “liberal,” many American free-market economists persist in calling themselves liberals. Those economists have every right to try to label themselves any way they please, even though that makes their communications more difficult for the American general public to understand.
Public opinion polls for many years have shown that approximately twice as many Americans describe themselves as conservatives than those who are self-identified liberals, about 40% to 20%. Americans who call themselves conservatives would almost all agree that liberals, in today’s political use of the word, are those who want bigger government.
In Tehran, Iran, people who hang on their walls honored photos of the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeni may be called conservative. In Madrid, Spain, people who hang on their walls honored photos of the late Caudillo Francisco Franco may be called conservative. In Beijing, China, people who hang on their walls honored photos of the late Chairman Mao Zedong may be called conservative. The same word means different things in different contexts.
In the United States today, someone who hangs on his wall an honored photo of Ronald Reagan can be called a conservative. Most people now understand immediately. That person is probably committed to limited government, free enterprise, strong national defense, and traditional values. For political purposes, these four principles are generally accepted in America as pillars of American conservatism.
About 1960, during my college days, Professor Waldo W. Braden asked each of us in his class at Louisiana State University to describe ourselves in as few words as possible.
When my turn came, I answered, “I am a conservative activist.”
Professor Braden, who enjoyed quibbles over words, said, “Mr. Blackwell, that is an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms. A conservative cannot be an activist.”
Having already read much by William F. Buckley, Jr., I knew what “oxymoron” meant. I replied to my professor, “We’ll see.”
Four years later, I was presidential nominee Sen. Barry Goldwater’s youngest elected delegate to the 1964 Republican National Convention. By then, even liberal college professors had begun to admit that there are such things as conservative activists.
I base this lecture about the real nature of conservative politics on my more than 50 years of personal political participation and observation.
I earn my living working for conservative employers: five and a half years, on and off, as executive director of the national College Republicans; campaign director (manager) of a Republican congressional candidate’s campaign in Louisiana in 1966; a year and a half on the senior staff of the American Enterprise Institute; seven years working for Richard Viguerie, the “Funding Father” of the American conservative movement; a year and a half as a top staffer for conservative U.S. Senator Gordon Humphrey of New Hampshire; three years as a Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan on his White House Staff, where my duties included serving as President Reagan’s liaison to all American conservative organizations; nine and a half years (1990 to 2000) working part time as executive director of the Council for National Policy, the major conservative movement umbrella organization; and since early 1984, employed as president of the Leadership Institute, the conservative political training educational foundation I created in 1979.
My Republican Party activities include: in College Republicans, local club co-founder, state chairman, and national executive director; in Young Republicans, local club founder, state chairman, and elected national officer; in senior party Republicans, county committee member, state central committee member first in Louisiana and currently in Virginia; participation in every Republican National Convention starting in 1964, serving as a Delegate or Alternate Delegate at all those conventions except in 1972. I’m now in my seventh consecutive four-year term as Virginia’s Republican National Committeeman and thus as one of the 168 members of the Republican National Committee.
As a volunteer, I planned and oversaw the 1980 national Youth for Reagan effort, and I currently serve on the governing boards of many different conservative movement organizations (large and small) and Republican Party committees, local, state, and national.
That long experience qualifies me to explain what I believe is the real nature of conservative politics. As much as almost anyone, I have walked that walk.
The engine of conservative politics in America is the conservative movement, which began largely as a serious intellectual movement in the 1950s. Its principles were already limited government, free enterprise, strong national defense, and traditional values, but it focused primarily on developing its ideas and on the important job of attracting others to those ideas.
Typically, conservative intellectuals considered the nitty-gritty of political action beneath their dignity. They identified the errors and dangers of the left. They persuasively promoted an inspiring set of conservative ideas. They did grow the movement. They formed some national conservative organizations which modestly prospered, without raising much money or identifying, much less activating, really large numbers of people.
When they did try political action, those early movement conservatives chose to work almost entirely within the Republican Party. But that party was dominated by Eastern Establishment Republicans like Nelson Rockefeller who seemed to have all the money and, as far as internal Republican matters were concerned, the support of all the major print and broadcast media.
The nascent conservative intellectual movement managed to attract and recruit sufficient numbers of inexperienced but earnest grassroots conservative activists like me to nominate Barry Goldwater for President in 1964, but Lyndon Johnson’s landslide victory that year produced confident and loud predictions that conservatism in politics was dead for good.
History didn’t work out that way.
Starting in 1965, a number of former Goldwater supporters gravitated to the center of American politics, the D.C. area. Hardly any of us had known each other earlier, much less had prominent roles in the Goldwater campaign. But our past personal support of Goldwater credentialed us to each other as we eventually met, sometimes by working together in election contests, legislative battles, or Republican organizations, but often only by chance. This process took several years.
While I was executive director of the national College Republicans in the mid-1960s, I met Lee Edwards. He had served high up in the Goldwater campaign, as its director of information. Then he came to Washington, D.C., and opened a conservative public relations firm. As far as I knew, his was the area’s only conservative public relations firm. The New York Times once called him “The Voice of the Silent Majority.” Lee generously mentored me, and I supplied College Republican volunteers for conservative events he organized.
In early May 1972, while I worked at the American Enterprise Institute, Lee Edwards introduced me to his friend Richard Viguerie, who had served as executive director of Young Americans for Freedom, the youth group organized around the groundswell for Barry Goldwater.
Richard Viguerie had moved to the D.C. area in 1965 to form what turned out to be a spectacularly successful direct mail consulting firm. For most conservatives, he was famous but a man of mystery. I had never met him. He worked very long hours building his business, and he did not circulate socially in what was then the very small circle of D.C.-area conservatives. A story spread that Richard had on the wall behind his desk a huge faucet which he could turn on to pour vast sums of money into the coffers of any organization he would take on as a client.
A couple of weeks after our first meeting, Richard offered me a job with his company. “Morton,” he said, “I want you to come help me build the conservative movement.” I accepted enthusiastically because building the conservative movement was exactly what I wanted to do.
The story of Richard Viguerie’s movement-building in the 1970s has been told many times.
No longer almost a recluse, he sought out philosophically sound conservatives who had proved themselves as activists in various areas of the public policy process. Most of them already knew and trusted each other. He invited them often and hosted them at mostly small but innumerable meetings and meals to discuss, to figure out, and to implement what had to be done for conservatives to start beating the liberals in politics.
As his political assistant, I helped organize Richard’s movement-building meetings and participated actively in them. The discussions often proved highly productive.
Leaders of some previously existing, good groups did not agree with some of the conclusions reached in the Viguerie meetings, particularly the decisions to encourage the creation of a wide variety of new conservative organizations and to persuade existing conservative groups to develop the skills required to grow dramatically in membership and political effectiveness. Some felt creating new and larger organizations would only drain resources from existing organizations.
Our response was that, if conservatives couldn’t increase our resources and members, we would never win.
Jump-starting the conservative movement worked, and before long new conservative groups of all types sprang up, doing good work in many conservative-issue areas – first dozens, then hundreds, and now thousands of new groups.
As a guide for conservatives wanting to start new public policy organizations or expand existing ones, many years ago I wrote a booklet “The Conservative Organizational Entrepreneur.” Periodically updated, that booklet is now easily accessible for free online.
A number of long-established organizations also grew prodigiously in the 1970s. For example, the well-respected National Right to Work Committee increased from 25,000 members in 1972 to more than 1.7 million members in 1979.
What had been largely a conservative intellectual movement grew into a formidable, workable coalition of better-skilled, self-identified conservative activists and leaders able to defeat the left in many political contests (elections and legislative battles) and thereby to affect public policy.
During those years of Viguerie meetings, I summarized what participants had discovered. I described what made the big difference which enabled the exciting and effective growth of conservative activity, the creation of what the news media began in the middle 1970s to describe as “The New Right.”
I called my summary “The Real Nature of Politics,” and I have taught it to conservative activists and leaders ever since. Here it is:
THE REAL NATURE OF POLITICS
Being right, in the sense of being correct, is not sufficient to win.
The winner in a political contest is determined over time by
the number and effectiveness of the activists on the respective sides.
The number and effectiveness of the activists on a given side is
determined by its use of political technology, which includes
organizational technology and communications technology.
Most political technology is philosophically neutral, which makes it
inherently unattractive to people who are motivated by their philosophy.
Nevertheless, you owe it to your philosophy to study how to win. You
have a moral obligation to study how to win.
To the extent possible, movement-oriented conservatives should develop activists and leaders who are philosophically sound, technologically proficient, and movement-oriented.
It’s a lot easier to teach someone already solidly conservative the skills necessary to win than it is to make a committed conservative out of someone who is already a skilled opportunist. But committed conservatives often resist the study of philosophically neutral techniques. Many of them think disdainfully, “That’s mere technology. I’m focused on the really important things.”
Young, unskilled conservatives who are nevertheless intellectuals and read ardently are greatly affected by what they read. Often their reading gives them an incomplete understanding of political reality, but they often can learn the real nature of politics through exposure to certain writings of famed conservative intellectuals whom they already deeply admire.
As a conservative activist since 1960, I have read or heard reverently repeated innumerable times a short sentence, "Ideas Have Consequences." Conservative intellectuals and would-be intellectuals are so enamored of the words "Ideas Have Consequences" that probably each day someone at the Heritage Foundation receives correspondence in which these words are written.
The theme "Ideas Have Consequences" so often crops up in conservative books, speeches and scholarly articles that for several years I catalogued each usage I saw or heard. No meeting of the Philadelphia Society or of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute is complete unless someone solemnly intones the words, "Ideas Have Consequences." The words appear often in the pages of National Review and in virtually every other conservative journal, including many with little pretense of intellectuality.
There are now close to a hundred independent conservative campus publications in the United States. Because I conduct Student Publications Workshops, I see many of these campus efforts. Many of these publications explicitly affirm that "Ideas Have Consequences," often stressing the point in their first issue.
The proposition, "Ideas Have Consequences," has attained talismanic status with young conservatives. I would not be surprised to learn that some budding conservative, having adopted it as his mantra, now sits quietly several minutes each day, contemplating those three words.
From time to time I venture to question young conservatives who have used, in writing or in speech, the refrain “Ideas Have Consequences.” Alas, even if they know it is the title of a book by Richard M. Weaver, the great majority of those who use the refrain have never held in their hands any book by Richard Weaver.
What then accounts for the frequency of the references? It is, I believe, a manifestation of hubris. The young person of conservative inclination, possessed of a growing vocabulary and having gained some familiarity with conservative writings, readily concludes he is now capable of elevated thoughts beyond the reach of all but a tiny elite.
Perhaps he finds, as I first did in 1960, the praise of Richard Weaver in The Conservative Mind by Russell Kirk. But more likely he reads the magical title in a conservative journal. If the fascination with those three words merely increased the sense of self-worth among young conservatives, it would do little harm to the conservative cause. Unfortunately, the temptation is often overpowering to take the words literally.
If ideas, in and of themselves, really do have consequences, then being right, in the sense of being correct, is sufficient. If you know you are right, particularly if you believe you can prove you are right, then your ideas inevitably will prevail.
For a young person with intellectual aspirations, this is heady stuff. He concludes he need no longer work with mere mortals in their ordinary plane of existence. He feels elevated above them; he knows that they will eventually conform to his ideas. Thousands of young conservatives, caught up in the delight of thinking deep thoughts, find that the world does not treat them as they expect and as they believe they deserve. Public policy battles, for example, do not often turn on the question of who is provably right.
Confronted with the failure of his ideas to have their merited consequences, many a young conservative becomes embittered. Some, in the words of the late Dr. Warren Nutter of the University of Virginia, "retreat to the citadel to save the books." Others become opportunists and quiet cynics. With great inner agony, some resign themselves to impotence in a world that does not function as it "should." Too few discover how to make their ideas effective.
For a number of reasons, it would not be fair to blame Richard Weaver for the problems associated with his magically titled book. He was a professor of rhetoric, which can be defined as ideas artfully presented. A master rhetorician, Weaver knew full well that ideas do not necessarily have consequences.
Although it is dangerous to suggest how deceased persons would respond to current questions, I am confident Weaver would affirm that "Ideas Have Consequences" is a rhetorically contracted enthymeme, an enthymeme being a syllogism with one of the elements missing but understood.
Expanding Weaver's enthymeme, we can get the following syllogism:
- Ideas can motivate people to act
- Actions have consequences
- Therefore ideas can have consequences
Without understanding Weaver's true meaning, some conservatives often give his three words a dangerously misplaced, almost religious devotion. A noble confidence in the truth of their ideas can lure them into the voluntary paralysis of a life of contemplation.
For anyone who makes the effort to read the difficult but highly rewarding Richard Weaver, his meaning is brilliantly clear. In Ideas Have Consequences, he actually wrote: "The youth is an intellectual only, a believer in ideas, who thinks that ideas can overwhelm the world. The mature man passes beyond intellectuality to wisdom..." Does this sound like a man who believes that ideas are efficacious without something more?
Elsewhere in Ideas Have Consequences, he wrote: "Organization always makes imperative counterorganization. A force in being is a threat to the unorganized, who must answer by becoming organized themselves."
Weaver warned powerfully against rootless, mechanistic manipulation, against knowledge "of techniques rather than of ends." His deserving target was the destructive tendency of modern man to lose his sense of purpose as he rapidly accumulates knowledge of how to do things. But it is a gross misreading to suggest he argued against action. It would be fair to say he held that actions based on the right ideas will have desirable consequences. He quite correctly gave absolute priority to ideals, but recognized the duty of philosophically sound people to take actions.
In 1958 Weaver wrote an essay entitled "Up from Liberalism," a title he graciously later authorized William F. Buckley, Jr., to use also for his delightful book of that same name. Russell Kirk called that 1958 essay Weaver's intellectual autobiography. In it Weaver wrote, "Somehow our education will have to recover the lost vision of the person as a creature of both intellect and will. It will have to bring together into one through its training the thinker and the doer, the dialectician and the rhetorician." This statement should enlighten those who take the words “Ideas Have Consequences” only at their simplistic, literal value.
Many conservative intellectuals and aspiring intellectuals still find comfort in the proposition that Ideas Have Consequences. They can believe themselves thereby absolved of the awkward responsibility for personal actions.
The world of politics is invariably imperfect and replete with compromises. How tempting it is to shield our principles from degenerating contact with such untidiness. Never mind that we simultaneously insulate the real world from the ennobling effect of practical contact with our principles.
More than any other thinker, 18th Century British statesman Edmund Burke is credited with laying the intellectual foundations of modern conservatism. He also provided and brilliantly communicated the arguments which activated Britain and much of Europe against the horrors inherent in the French Revolution. We cannot help but admire Burke's towering intellectual achievements for liberty and order.
Burke was a practicing, professional politician virtually all of his adult life. In him we see a principled man who, during all his long career, took vigorous actions to promote his principles, a man who understood the proper relationship between ideas and actions, a man who stood by good causes even when it appeared those causes were losing.
In 1770 Burke wrote, "It is the business of the speculative philosopher to mark the proper ends of government. It is the business of the politician, who is the philosopher in action, to find out proper means to those ends, and to employ them with effect."
Burke could not take seriously people who failed to act and act skillfully on their principles. He wrote, "For my part, I find it impossible to conceive that anyone who believes in his own politics, or thinks them to be of any weight, who refuses to adopt the means of having them reduced into practice."
In other words, you owe it to your philosophy, first, to study how to win and second, to take appropriate actions to win if you can.
Burke explicitly held that education as to issues and philosophy was insufficient. He argued:
What is right should not only be made known, but made prevalent, that
which is evil should not only be detected, but defeated. When the public
man omits to put himself in a situation of doing his duty with effect, it is
an omission that frustrates the purposes of his trust almost as much as if
he had formally betrayed it. It is surely no very rational account of a
man's life, that he has always acted right; but has taken special care, to
act in such a manner that his endeavors could not possibly be productive
of any consequence.
Now, however, we should know better. Edmund Burke did not tell us: "All that is necessary to triumph over evil is for men to have enough good ideas." Quite the contrary, Burke's most famous words are: "All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing."
In one of his too few surviving letters, Whittaker Chambers, author of the seminal anti-communist book Witness, told how he had just burned several hundred pages of a book manuscript he had been working on. For those of us who consider Chambers one of the great masters of our English language, the loss is tragic and irreparable. Those ideas are lost and will not have consequences.
Austrian economist and intellectual giant Ludwig von Mises, in the chapter on "The Role of Ideas" in his book Human Action, said "Thinking is to deliberate beforehand over future action and to reflect afterwards upon past action. Thinking and acting are inseparable."
Particularly in our day, we cannot afford to concentrate on either ideas or actions to the neglect of the other. The conservative intellectual who avoids association with less elegant men of action may doom his cause. Chambers understood this and wrote:
I do not ask of the man who lets me slip into his foxhole whether he believes
in the ontological proof of God, whether he likes me personally, or even
whether, in another part of the forest, at another time, he lobbed a grenade
at me. I am interested only that, for the duration of the war, he keep his rifle
clean and his trigger finger nerveless against a common enemy. I understand
that that is all he wants of me.
The reason for the increasing success of conservative ideas in recent years is not that our ideals are much more correct now than those we held, say, in the Goldwater era. We prosper in many ways because we have begun to study the political process and to work together to implement our new knowledge.
We must teach young intellectuals that a flattering and seductive talisman which they do not fully understand will not guarantee them success. They must not rely on victory falling into their deserving hands like ripe fruit off a tree. They have to earn it.
Good ideas have desirable consequences only if we act intelligently for them.
My Leadership Institute offers 40 different types of training schools to teach conservatives how to be successful in government, politics, and the news media. In 2013, more than 19,000 people took my training courses in person. Others study courses the Institute offers online.
For many years, mine was the only conservative organization focused on political training. All the others concentrated on the important task of teaching about conservative principles and public policy issues.
However, I am pleased to report that in recent years at least a dozen other national conservative and libertarian organizations have begun to offer useful training programs for successful political participation. I commend their efforts.
I do not entirely neglect to provide philosophical education to my students. About 5,000 Leadership Institute students per year receive copies of my booklet, “Read to Lead,” which lists and briefly discusses 26 books I believe to be especially valuable as a foundation for movement conservatives. The booklet “Read to Lead” is accessible for free online.
Each year I give away to bright students hundreds of copies of excellent books by F.A. Hayek, Milton Friedman, Edmund Burke, Frederic Bastiat, Thomas Sowell, Russell Kirk, Paul Johnson, Whittaker Chambers and others of like mind. But traditionally, conservative educational efforts focused exclusively on teaching about issues and philosophy. That is not, in the main, what I do.
Conservatives used not to be able to identify and communicate widely with each other except through the filter of media determinedly hostile to conservative principles. Now conservatives have direct mail, talk radio, a cable news network, many new types of online communication, and literally thousands of conservative organizations capable of very quickly communicating facts, conservative opinion, and focused calls to action to thousands or millions of fellow conservatives.
The Obama campaigns’ celebrated, high-tech ground game in 2008 and 2012 didn’t mean the left had a monopoly on those techniques. The Tea Party movement had a massive impact on the 2010 elections. It was organized largely through the spontaneous activity of conservative grassroots activists who could become leaders because they, too, had learned how to communicate and organize online.
CONSERVATIVE POLITICS TODAY
Having defined American conservatives and described how conservatives became effective in politics, I shall devote the rest of this presentation to brief discussions of four areas of current concern to politically active conservatives. Those four areas are:
- Problems and opportunities caused by the left
- Problems and opportunities caused by political consultants
- Problems and opportunities within the Republican Party
- Problems and opportunities among conservatives themselves
THE LEFT VS. CONSERVATIVES
The left is using the power of government not only to grab more power. The left now uses their power inside government to target and persecute conservatives. Used ruthlessly, the I.R.S. and other government agencies can crush many political opponents and terrorize a great many others. This is a very serious abuse, and what’s worse, they have thus far comp