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"America has two great dominant strands of political thought - conservatism, which, at its very best, draws lines that should not be crossed; and progressivism, which, at its very best, breaks down barriers that should never have been erected." -- Bill Clinton, Dedication of the Clinton Presidential Library, November 2004

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Friday, March 25, 2005


How political parties assimilate

posted by Dignan at Friday, March 25, 2005 permalink View blog reactions

Many of you have read my account of the rise of the Religious Right. The Pat Robertson campaign in 1988 was truly a watershed moment that brought about a new era of Christians active in politics.

Prior to 1988, the Republican party was not particularly, what we term today, socially conservative. For a number of years, Christians had attempted to have a greater say in politics, yet had not become immersed in the political process. This all changed in 1988 due to Pat Robertson running for president. Say what you will about Robertson's beliefs, his organizational skills in putting together an effective political campaign were amazing. Even though Robertson lost at the polls, in the long term he has won. Let me detail how.

Most outsiders who have run for president have been very captivating personalities and have often run as third party candidates. Ross Perot and Ralph Nader immediately spring to mind. Conventional wisdom would have included Pat Robertson in this camp of running a personality driven campaign long on vision and short on execution. But this was not the case.

Many of the Robertson campaign staff not only truly believed in their candidate (ironically this is not always the case in campaigns) but had made sure to educate themselves on how to run an effective campaign. My experience was not atypical.

Twice I attended weekend long training seminars in running a youth campaign as part of a larger political campaign. This seminar was put on by Morton Blackwell's Leadership Institute. Most people have never heard of Blackwell, but he is one of the true movers and shakers of the conservative movement. I often chuckle when I hear him described as a "dirty tricks artist". Morton is a master strategist and tactician with few equals in the business. He is also a proponent of running a highly ethical campaign; I was always afraid that if I did anything even remotely fishy on a campaign that he would find out and punish me somehow.

Well, many in the Robertson campaign, particularly those on paid staff like myself, were trained very well in how to run an effective campaign at a grassroots level. We weren't so interested in media coverage as we were in winning precinct meetings and gaining control of the party system. And that is where the real battle occured in 1988.

One of my most vivid memories of that campaign was attending the Georgia Republican Convention to select a slate of delegates to represent the state party at the national convention. A tremendous battle ensued between old-line Republicans and Robertson people to win the slate of delegates. I think I memorized Roberts Rules of Order that day. This battle had been foreshadowed by similar skirmishes at county and precinct meetings. Long time Republican activists were completely taken by surprise by the challenge to their long-held positions. Eventually, Georgia sent two competing delegate slates to the national convention, where a compromise was reached to allow some of the Robertson delegates onto the national slate. Georgia was not the only state that saw such events, but was probably the most dramatic and was in my estimation the central fighting ground.

The long-term result of these battles was quite surprising. It would be easy to assume that such a schism would break a political party in two. Quite the contrary. As a result of the Robertson campaign, the Republican party assimilated the new "Religious Right" into the party as part of the conservative coalition. Not only was the "Religious Right" assimilated into the party, but they have greatly affected the platform of the party. I believe that this event has been one of the primary reasons that the Republicans have been able to build a large enough base to supplant Democrats as the party in power in this country.

So your question may be, "So what? Thanks for the history lesson, bub."

I think this not-so-distant episode can help guide another revolution, consumating the marraige of conservatism and libertarianism.

Much has been written about the fractured state of relations between the more socially conservative members of the Republican party and the more fiscally conservative or libertarians members since the fall election.(Pejman Yousefzadeh wrote this article on Tech Central Station, Harry Brown responded here, and Glenn Reynolds wrote here) As a conservative evangelical Christian (not part of the "Religious Right" however) and as a strong believer in the power of the free market (see some of my capitalist rants here and here), I straddle the two sides of this discussion.

I think that it is time for the libertarian wing of the party to get a seat at the table of power in the party and swing the party back towards capitalism and away from corporatism. And how can this happen? By the same means that the "Religious Right" used in 1988 - starting at the grassroots level to gain control of the party apparatus and the platform.

Unfortunately fiscal conservatives and libertarians have gotten the short end of the stick lately. Not only has the Republican party swung more towards corporatism and "big government conservatism", but the Libertarian party has become a punchline and is largely irrelevant to American politics. I realize that this may be a bit hard to take for some of my libertarian friends.

I'll continue in Part 2 soon on how fiscal conservatives and libertarians can be assimilated into the Republican party and affect the platform.


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Nation-Building was founded by Aziz Poonawalla in August 2002 under the name Dean Nation. Dean Nation was the very first weblog devoted to a presidential candidate, Howard Dean, and became the vanguard of the Dean netroot phenomenon, raising over $40,000 for the Dean campaign, pioneering the use of Meetup, and enjoying the attention of the campaign itself, with Joe Trippi a regular reader (and sometime commentor). Howard Dean himself even left a comment once. Dean Nation was a group weblog effort and counts among its alumni many of the progressive blogsphere's leading talent including Jerome Armstrong, Matthew Yglesias, and Ezra Klein. After the election in 2004, the blog refocused onto the theme of "purple politics", formally changing its name to Nation-Building in June 2006. The primary focus of the blog is on articulating purple-state policy at home and pragmatic liberal interventionism abroad.