Over the past few months, I’ve occasionally read The Next Right, the group blog of several young Republican strategists intent on revitalizing the conservative movement’s tired infrastructure. Because I’m not a mainstream conservative, I can’t say I’m terribly sympathetic to their goals, but I do enjoy the occasional wonky post on Republican electoral strategy.
On the other hand, the site rarely (if ever) discusses the core tenets of the movement’s governing philosophy (an oversight that prompted John Schwenkler to dub the project “The Last Gasp”). This has always struck me as rather short-sighted, and not just because I’m frustrated by the conservative movement’s ideological uniformity. Here, for example, is John Henke on why Republican activists should emulate the Left’s new infrastructure:
These outside groups have long existed, but the rise of the new media has accelerated the Left’s political machine. The organic elements, such as Moveon.org, Daily Kos, MyDD, Atrios, Talking Points Memo, etc, arose between 1998-2003, and they have been reinforced since then by very savvy, cultivated elements, such as the Center for American Progress, Media Matters, the Center for Independent Media and many more.
The Left has taken their existing coalition and grassroots-based infrastructure, and combined it with this new internet-based Progressive Infrastructure to move messaging, mobilization and money into more effective channels.
Now, I don’t mean to romanticize (or exaggerate) the Left’s ideological vigor. The websites and organizations Henke mentions are all undoubtedly partisan, and their output reflects a distinctly liberal political bent. But the failure of the Bush years, the Iraq War, and any number of other policy disputes have provoked an ongoing dialog on the Left that encouraged the development of ideological institutions like DailyKos, the Center for American Progress, and the Center for Independent Media. Had you mentioned the term “progressive infrastructure” to a knowledgeable political observer circa 1999 or even 2001, you probably would have been met with a blank stare. Now, however, even conservatives grudgingly concede that liberals are ahead of the curve when it comes to cutting edge political organization.
The competing diarists at Kos, the open threads hosted by Atrios, and organs like the Center for Independent Media’s Washington Independent are all part of a broader political environment that helps foment not just electoral strategy, but actual policy. I doubt the Democratic Party’s current progressive incarnation would have developed had liberal activists not received both ideological and tactical ammunition from a nascent progressive infrastructure.
For the purposes of this post, the empirical validity of progressive policies is irrelevant. My point is simply that the Democratic Party’s ideological shift has allowed it to develop more effective political messaging to react to changing circumstances (a prolonged economic downturn, the Iraq quagmire etc.). The Right’s own political infrastructure, on the other hand, can barely survive without a compelling central message. The Republican Party has been riven by serious ideological divisions, from the libertarian revivalism of Ron Paul to the economic populism of Mike Huckabee. McCain’s nomination (and Palin’s subsequent emergence) may have papered over these differences, but their campaign has quickly degenerated a referendum on Barack Obama’s cultural “otherness,” not a serious debate on the merits of limited government. What’s worse, this was obviously the only plausible strategy for a Republican victory. If the Democrats had nominated a less objectionable candidate, would any of these tired cultural appeals have resonated with the general public?
So by all means, argue over campaign organization, “micro-targeting,” and “selection bias.” But remember that your competitor’s gleaming infrastructure emerged in the wake of real ideological turmoil, a process that resulted in both strategic and policy shifts within the Democratic Party. Until Republicans re-examine their approach to governance in the wake of Bush, I fear that The Next Right is little more than a rearguard action.