Conservative Republicans seem to have come to the strategy, at least in speech, that progressives figured out a century ago: the key to advancing one’s agenda is long-term political investments and infrastructure that change the culture and inform public opinion, not short-sighted support for this campaign here, that ballot initiative there. But have Republicans actually adopted the strategy they now praise?
We can list Republican electoral victories here and there, some significant, to be sure. But in the fight between individual freedom versus dependence, constitutional government versus bureaucratic regulation over the past political century, the victor is clear: Progressivism.
How else can the past century be labeled other than the “progressive century?” From the Progressive Movement to FDR’s New Deal to LBJ’s Great Society to Obama’s Hope and Change, the cause of government control over the economy and businesses, government violation of property rights in the name of redistributing wealth, and government power displacing individual freedom, has moved forward with nary a pause.
UNIVERSITIES: DESIGNED TO BE CITADELS OF PROGRESSIVISM
Why have progressives been so successful? The key was long-term investment in lasting infrastructure and influence. To name but one: Progressives, dissatisfied with the very un-progressive education offered at the time in America’s traditional liberal arts colleges, designed a wholly new model of higher ed more than a century ago: the modern research university. And they created a degree to emblemize their new institution of higher learning: the Ph.D.
Progressives were quite entrepreneurial and competitive in the marketplace of education, even as they denounced entrepreneurialism and market competition. In these citadels of progressivism, they educated future teachers and the most influential leaders for generations to come, who in turn shaped the cultural landscape and popular opinions around them.
And they did it by branding their universities not as “progressive,” but as scientific, philosophic, and academic. Even the social sciences and humanities, they claimed, were “objective” because in their minds Hegelianism, Marxism, socialism, progressivism itself, and many other German-based “isms” were objective.
They designed the research university to be impressively insulated from outside, non-progressive influences. They trained progressive Ph.D.’s to become university faculty, who in turn train future generations of progressive Ph.D.’s to become future university faculty, all of which is supervised by whom? You guessed it: tenured progressive faculty. Try cracking that nut!
IT’S HARD TO CHANGE WHAT WAS MADE TO RESIST CHANGE
Today, America’s universities are virtually impenetrable in terms of changing the intellectual and political climate within. In Colorado, for example, the regents and former president of the University of Colorado spent years and massive amounts of money just to get rid of one faculty member, Ward Churchill, who was an academic fraud with a penchant for plagiarism and fabricating data in addition to denouncing America.
These same folks and their friends also spent years and massive amounts of money to create one freedom-oriented position, a “Visiting Scholar in Conservative Thought.” The first hire for that new position, political scientist Dr. Steven Hayward, is a gem: he’s smart as a whip, he’s excellent at classroom teaching, he has an impressive publishing record, and he wavers not one inch on the timeless principles of the American Founding. CU is lucky to have him.
But what does it mean when a major public university, with tens of thousands of students and thousands of faculty to teach them, spends so much in time and resources just to get rid of one bad progressive apple and add a shiny freedom apple? It means the progressives were smart and patient in their long-term strategy, and trying to shake up their crown jewel today is like throwing teacups of water at a raging forest fire.
THE CONSERVATIVE RESPONSE
What have conservatives done meanwhile? They’ve built an impressive network of well-funded think tanks, Internet and media outlets, and other activist organizations, to be sure. The rub is that they spend most of their time talking to themselves. They’re great at informing and exciting the conservative choir, but they persuade few not already singing their tune.
At the same time, Republicans and their financial backers take a short-term view of elections, typically scrambling last minute to find a candidate for this or that race, then wringing their hands when their man or woman loses. Republican funders tend to place all blame on losing candidates, writing them off after the fact as unprincipled, unskilled, or too stubborn to follow the marketing advice offered by the funders, most of whom have never managed—much less won—a major campaign themselves.
But this is all wrong. The dearth of principled, electable, freedom-minded candidates is not the problem. It’s a symptom. Conservative freedom advocates have not done the long-term, strategic work of cultivating a wide and diverse culture of freedom lovers. For those of us who cherish freedom and think it is in grave danger today, the lack of quality in the candidates we love to criticize is our problem, our challenge.
The question is not why aren’t there more and better freedom-principled candidates running for elected offices. The question is whether the American people today would elect them. The candidates we see running for office are reflections, even if imperfect ones, of the people who support them.
FREEDOM CULTURE PRODUCES FREEDOM CANDIDATES
Where there is a culture of freedom, bad candidates who care little about freedom aren’t much welcome to run. They don’t get far. Good candidates who understand and defend the freedom principles of our Founding will emerge almost spontaneously, the competition becoming who is the best defender of freedom.
Every freedom-loving American has some sphere of influence, each in his or her own way. Some people can influence a few. Others can influence many. Find the leaders with significant spheres of influence, in all walks of life, teach them the principles of freedom and equip them with the messaging and marketing skills to sell freedom persuasively to those in their spheres of influence and beyond.
Teach them, also, how to teach others to be freedom teachers, whether in their families, businesses, classrooms, churches, civic groups, etc. Freedom then goes viral, transforming the American political culture. Then, and only then, will we see the kinds of political candidates we want, in spades, because freedom will be the only winning game in town.
For those who talk about long-term investment for the future of freedom in America, stop chasing after the next shiny object in the next election cycle. This is not a problem that can be solved by one candidate, one election, or one bumper sticker slogan engineered by some marketing firm. It’s deeper, and more difficult.
At a minimum, here’s what a true long-term strategy for freedom must include:
- First, we must identify and articulate clearly the ends: the principles of freedom, and what a genuinely free society and constitutionally limited government look like. We cannot be all things to all people. And we cannot satisfy the demands of everyone. Let us identify the core, minimal, irreducible ideas of freedom around which a majority coalition can revolve, and let us call that good.
- Second, let us invest in training those who have large spheres of influence, and let us help them expand those spheres. Further, let us encourage those leaders to exercise their influence within the sphere most natural to them, which may or likely may not include the realm of electoral politics.Too often, a private citizen spends decades building up a business or some other successful enterprise, finding himself surrounded by friends, colleagues, and trusted supporters. He thinks he can jump into the political arena – usually avowing to run government efficiently like he ran his business – and transfer that support with him. But if he had not spent the same decades building credibility and trust in the political world, that support won’t be there, a lesson usually learned only after an electoral defeat and much wasted money.
- Third, let us experiment with messaging and marketing brands for freedom, testing to see which messages resonate with which audiences. There is no messaging silver bullet: any particular message can work at best for a particular audience, not for all audiences.
- Finally, let us develop freedom education products that can both teach the teachers of freedom and at the same time be used to teach larger audiences. These products should be scalable, replicable, educational and entertaining. Most importantly, while always radiating from the core principles of freedom, they must help freedom teachers reach and connect with those who currently hold different political views. Cheerleading chants for the choir will not persuade those outside it.
VICTORY CAN ONLY BE DESERVED, NOT GUARANTEED
In terms of our existence as human beings, we have two basic choices: life or death. If we choose life, we must use our brains and our hands, we must work, or we die. Similarly, in politics we have two basic choices: live freely or live as slaves. If we choose freedom, we must work without end to achieve, protect, and preserve the conditions of freedom. If we stop working for freedom, freedom dissipates and we revert back to a state of slavery in some form, the condition of most of mankind throughout most of history.
Let us be clear: Even if we do all of these things and stay at it for the long-term, there is no guarantee freedom will win. In the end, the best we can do is deserve to win. Our challenge today is that we may well not deserve to win, because we have not done the hard work of shaping a culture of freedom. Let us change that. Let us embark on re-founding a freedom culture in America. Let us deserve to win.