When the Right Knew How to Organize
Grassroots conservatives can't even influence Republican leaders. But it hasn't always been that way, and it doesn't have to be now.
Organize Right is a regular column with not so much a beat as a meander on the subject of organizing: how the right does it, how the left does it, lessons from its history, and its implications for today.
The previous installment of this column offered an explanation for why Lefties are good at organizing. This time, we’ll take a look at the flip side of this question: why are Righties so bad at it?
One common answer is that “it just doesn’t come naturally to us.” Those Lefties are just natural organizers, goshdarnit, and we’re not; any attempt to try to learn anything new is doomed—so why bother? I just want to grill! Well, it’s true that our ideology is more oriented to the individual’s liberty than is the left’s, and being an introvert myself it’s flattering to me to think that Righties are natural introverts. But I don’t think we are. If you haven’t noticed, recent months have seen lots of protests and rallies and demonstrations against COVID-related restrictions on activity, particularly church services. That doesn’t sound like people who hate community.
Another answer you hear a lot is P.J. O’Rourke’s famous line about why Righties don’t turn out for protests: “We all have jobs.” Again, it’s funny and flattering—but if you have any Lefty friends, you know it’s just not true. Sure, they’ve got a lot of professional organizers with safe perches at nonprofits. But most of the attendees of the Women’s March or If Not Now demonstrations or what have you are normal people—like you and me but leftier—and they have families and lives and, yes, jobs.
So what’s going on? To understand why we fall short, it helps to take a look at the times and places where the Right actually has done well at organizing to some degree. Because if you do that, what you see is that many of our organizing successes—especially the ones we’ve most institutionalized—are drastically limited in focus and method.
For one thing, most right-of-center organizing training is focused like a laser on the subject of getting people into office. As a result, our most successful organizing is electoral. Conservatives did not always have this capability. It’s informative to take a look back to the rise of movement conservatism in the 1960s, itself a reaction to the disappointing Eisenhower administration. Eisenhower’s nomination for president was the result of a 1952 Republican convention screwjob by the Eastern establishment that cost Midwestern isolationist Robert Taft the nomination. Not only did it not undo Obamacare—er, sorry, I mean the New Deal—but the Eisenhower administration gave conservatives Chief Justice Earl Warren. But twelve years later, conservatives successfully wrangled the Republican nomination for Barry Goldwater, whose ignominious defeat nonetheless laid the groundwork for the Reagan Revolution to come.
What happened in those intervening twelve years? Why did Goldwater get the nod and Taft fail? The answer is that conservatives spent a good part of the intervening twelve years, not just fruitlessly spouting their ideas, but actively building conservative groups—and Clif Flynt, the architect of the Draft Goldwater movement, was one of the people who was well-connected in a lot of them. When an opportunity to draft Barry Goldwater arose, the groups were there to be called upon and turned into an army for Goldwater specifically.
Leftists call this activation: an existing group that already has some sort of alignment with you becoming an active ally in your fight. (It is distinct from entryism: in entryism, you put your own people in place to take over the organization, wear it as a skinsuit, and use its resources and reputation for your benefit; in activation, the organization takes up your cause out of their own accord and in their own self-interest, though this change often involves the leadership following the membership rather than the other way round.) If you activate a lot of entities in short order, your movement grows spectacularly and looks like a galvanic response in the public.
Righties are very hung up on galvanism for some reason. For us, though, galvanizing the public means creating sufficient energy that our atomized individuals are drawn to whatever it is we’re trying to do because it speaks to them. It’s a fantasy of getting a mass movement on the cheap: “our ideas are so great, all we have to do is SAY them and the people will turn up!” In reality, immigration hawks cannot even use this to elect Kris Kobach in Kansas.
The truth about activation is that, even when it looks galvanizing, it is the result of an awful lot of time-consuming groundwork. The civil rights movement didn’t happen because Martin Luther King, Jr. was a magical Great Man who created a movement ex nihilo; it happened because decades of work from a multitude of organizations and people created a network of relationships in which MLK’s remarkable skill could flourish. But that groundwork paved the way for tremendous activation; the eventual cascade of activity that desegregated the South involved whole churches joining in the movement at a time.
On the right, the crusade against the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s happened in a similar way: the movement grew rapidly by spreading through churches, often through highly involved parishioners who got their other members involved. You see the fruits of activation today in a lot of successful righty organizing, most notably the March for Life, which gives the lie to the idea that conservatives can’t make a crowd.
The problem with activation it that it is fundamentally parasitic. You can’t activate an organization to repurpose it for a new cause unless somebody else has obligingly laid the groundwork of building that organization for you. Righties like to say that we are builders, and the Left parasitic—“we build things and the Left takes them over!” This is flattering to us, but untrue. While Lefties are very good at taking things over (and, with a few notable exceptions like homeschooling and Neal Knox’s coup of the National Rifle Association, Righties mostly suck at it), they’re also very good at building things. This gives them new organizations that they can use to build alternative power alongside mainstream ones. Righties don’t do this much; they mostly use organizations that are already there, like churches and gun ranges, and, er … well, there aren’t many kinds of Righty organizations to be activated when you think about it. Because we mostly don’t build them.
Righties like to build things for a purpose. So Righties building an organization will build it for that purpose, and then use it for that purpose, and not use it for any other purpose. The organizations conservatives have built for political purpose are mostly designed around electoral politics. Righties like order and rules, after all, and the orderly way to get power according to the rules is to win elections. And this is necessary, but insufficient; unfortunately for us, a lot of the most effective use of organizing for political power takes place outside of the electoral arana. Righties focusing on the rules learn to elect politicians, but can’t effectively pressure them to serve the people who elected them. Leaders of our chaptered political organizations tend to do things like tweet pugnacious opinions followed by “RT if you agree!” rather than, say, email action items to the members of their chaptered organizations to get those members to make phone calls or use other methods to pressure public officials.
Having local organizing structures that connect with each other means that, unlike Righties, Lefties can lose elections and still have an impact in their communities. If I could wave a magic wand and elect Republican supermajorities here in Los Angeles, it wouldn’t make the difference you might think. Los Angeles has a ton of highly effective and well-trained leftist activist groups who constantly hector and harry the Democrats running the city in order to herd them further left, and they could hector and harry Republicans just as easily. And as we know from the national scene, it’s hard for the grassroots to keep Republicans aimed rightward.
Lacking structures promoting grassroots action, Righties tend to be reactive: something bad happens, and Righties hurriedly cobble together some kind of bespoke organizational effort in response. When the stimulus recedes, the response does too, as does any organization we’ve created. Worse, naïve Righty grassroots efforts to build organization typically take a very top-down, large scale approach. When we see a big problem, we have the desire to start one massive thing that will address the problem everywhere and all at once. This inevitably flops.
Look at what Lefties do, because it works: Lefties either take over something existing that’s already broad-based, or start small with something new; we try to start a nationwide chaptered organization ex nihilo and are surprised when we fall flat on our faces. As I mentioned in the last column, small-scale organizing is critical. Union organizing work is putting people who have disparate interests into a power base, and doing so at small scale. The thing about small actions is that, because their scale is small and the scale of the world is huge, small actions are endlessly repeatable. And repeated actions mean what? Right: practice.
So, to sum up: the answer for why Righties are so bad at organizing is pretty unflattering. We don’t know how to do huge areas of it, we leave most of our grassroots untrained, we’re too proud to admit we have something to learn and too lazy to try. When we build, we build the wrong way; we don’t build foundations or supporting infrastructure. We’re too emotional and reactive, too focused on quick gratification and outlets for our emotion. We rely on Righty communities existing, but we don’t know how to build new ones. In short, we’ve got a lot of work to do.
Here’s the good news: when you’re at the bottom, the only way to go is up.
David Hines has a professional background in international human rights work with a focus on recovery from forced disappearances and mass homicide. He lives in Los Angeles.