Some of the brightest minds in the online conservative movement — John Hawkins, Patrick Ruffini and Mark Tapscott — are discussing what it would take to build a “rightroots” movement, aimed at replicating the political activism of the left “netroots.” As Patrick makes clear in a further post, this is not about building a partisan shilling machine (if it was, the effort would deserve to fail), but about a grassroots-driven insurgency and about harnessing ideological lightning (of which lots more later) to power the political world.

This is a worthy effort. They are right to say that the right is having its clock cleaned electorally as a result of the online community’s deficiencies in the areas of fundraising and online activism, yet I think there are two more important problems identified. First, as Mark points out, the net holds massive promise for investigative journalism, a point that Paul Chesser of the Carolina Journal has made repeatedly; look at his revelations about the Center for Climate Strategies and the way leftist donors have used it to impose alarmist global warming policies on governors around the country. Meanwhile, here at CEI, we established the Warren Brookes Fellowship to keep alive the tradition of a great columnist who never let opinion or prejudice get in the way of fact. And in the UK, it is conservative and libertarian bloggers who have often pushed against the Labour government when the official opposition was too timid to do so. Guido Fawkes is a great example.

The second problem is identified well by John:

Just to give you an example of what I’m talking about, here’s a generic conversation, some variation of which I’ve had with different congressional aides at least half-a-dozen times over the last four years.

Anonymous Aide: Hawkins, I want to ask your advice.
John Hawkins: Shoot.
Anonymous Aide: We’re thinking about doing idea x.
John Hawkins: Are you out of your mind? That’s going to be a disaster!
Anonymous Aide: Well, they’ve already decided to do it. How do we sell it to the bloggers?
John Hawkins: You’re asking me whether you should put mayonnaise or mustard on a sh*t sandwich. I can give you some advice, but it’s not going to go over well no matter how you spin it.

John is right. The net provides the single best method yet devised of allowing the individual supporter into the messy business of policy formulation. Again, a look across the pond is valuable. The Conservatives in Britain have realized exactly that — ConservativeHome has become a sort of guardian of the Tory conscience, where individual party members have their say on emerging policy issues. The Party’s guarded retreat from the excesses of greenery and the re-emergence of tax as a defining issue have in some degree or another been driven by net-based activism. One might even suggest that the era of the political consultant or guru is over. Creative destruction in action!

Yet I think there is a third opportunity the broader “right” movement is not availing itself of. When it comes down to it, all political debates are about policy. Occasionally an individual candidate might win initially on the force of charisma, but even he has to have some policies if he wants to win re-election. The war of ideas has to be won, whether it be in colleges, on the doorstep or when conversing with the plumber. People need intellectual ammunition, and that is something that goes way beyond the punditry that most people think of when they consider the conservative movement.

Now, when it comes to the free-market intellectual element of the right, I’d suggest that quite a few of us are estranged from the broader conservative movement at the moment. There’s only so much betrayal people can take, after all. That’s why I suggest that all of us in that group start looking at setting up a FreeRoots movement. Its aim would be to win the battle of ideas for liberty online, using values-based communication and providing all sorts of intellectual ammunition from small rounds to heavy ordnance. Conservatives can avail themselves of it or not, but we’ll supply it to anyone willing to fight for liberty. Take a look at for an example of how this can come together. Obviously, the creation and crafting of ideas takes money, so there would have to be fundraising involved, but it would also be interactive, because you don’t win the war of ideas if nobody fires your intellectual ammo (okay, I’ll drop that analogy now).

The fact is that this should be an easy battle to win (sorry!). The statists are the ones who are what JK Galbraith, that great statist, would call “bookless” right now. Who is the great theoretician everyone on the left is invoking? John Maynard Keynes, d.1946. Sure, there are people like Thomas Friedman, with his Code Green theory-of-everything, but anyone who advanced that theory as a serious political platform would get laughed out of the agora. Capitalism and the free-market have been twirled dizzy by spin and got hit by a swinging political pendulum. Yet all the serious economic arguments about what really caused the current mess recognize the preponderant effects of government intervention. What’s needed is a movement and a vehicle to push these arguments out to the demos, the way Buckley and Reagan did with their similar arguments in the 70s and 80s. Bureaucrash is, of course, already doing that in colleges and with young people. A FreeRoots movement could do it in a much broader sense.

As Fred Smith says, the challenge is to make good policy good politics. Just because we’re right, doesn’t mean we have to lose.

UPDATE: Chris asks below what form this would take. Good question. Are we just going to copy the left? I hope not. Innovation is needed, so any and all ideas gratefully accepted. Feel free to chime in below.

Andrew Ian Dodge October 31, 2008 at 3:20 am

Libertarians oddly enough beat the right to the web; but the conservative right have not really grasp it with any aplomb. Even in the UK the right are really quite there when it comes to the internet. The right in the US really need to get a grip and grasp what the internet can do for them. They have to pay experts properly if they want to get quality and not continue to rely on someone's nephew who "knows computers".

Chris October 31, 2008 at 7:55 am

I'm on board Ian. So what's the next step? Can we define what such an effort would look like structurally? How coherent will this community be? Are we simply talking about the need to get more policy-to-politics oriented websites out there on the 'net, or would this be something more formalized?

Peter October 31, 2008 at 8:30 am

We've won the ideological debate. We clearly have won the battle of rationality and logic. This, however, is not the problem. The problem is the country has been so post-modernized that logic and rationality have become “culture bound.” So, we can use stats and logic to prove that taxes hurt the economy till we're blue in the face, but the electorate has been taught that the very use of stats and logic are bound to some sort or western, white way of thinking. (A similar movement has happened in neo-evangelicalism. The latest approach to cultural engagement has gone from “propositional thinking” to “relational” or “narrative” thinking. Evangelicalism has also gotten more liberal, btw.)

So, while I agree that much in the way of providing ideological ammo must be done, to educate the populace, we must reverse the long march through the institutions that Ayers encouraged. We must begin educating the young about free market principles, about American exceptionaism, and about basic civics.

I'm glad, however, that this discussion has gotten started. Unfortunately, our culture has become gnosticized, and until we re-value the importance of basic logic and rationality, it will be an uphill battle.

Eric Reasons October 31, 2008 at 1:51 pm

It doesn't surprise me that the Libertarians beat the Right to the web. It's their natural home, with few rules, few boundaries, and the quick exchange and competition of thoughts.Primarily, there has to be a way to let ideas bubble upwards from blogs, social networks, and websites. Adopting standard toolsets, like OpenID and heavy use of trackbacks, can help make sure that the the conversations and activities can flow from blog to blog, and aren't bound to one website or organization.One of the best advantages of the Right is that it really is the "bigger tent" when it comes to ideas. We're just not as good as the Left at willfully submitting ourselves to groupthink, so the magic is in the arguments, debates, and interchange between actors. As long as these things are isolated from each other (sure we all read The Corner, but where are we talking about it?) we'll fail to achieve the kind of critical mass that moves ideas into action.

Queen1 October 31, 2008 at 4:47 pm

Brilliant! I am so used to catching you at The Corner that I forget to come over here and look you up directly. The way I see it, we are fighting an uphill battle to begin with–against the public school system which indoctrinates our children at an early age about the goods of government interference and programs and the evils of individualism, capitalism and private property rights. (Sarcasm on that last one.)

When I speak to people my own age, I see an acceptance of government intervention and tax-theft that amazes and appalls me. The place to begin to fight this is with the young–and I mean start 'em young! This means having a visually-captivating and imaginative presence on the every-changing landscape of the internet–a challenge for those of us used to more thoughtful (time-consuming) perusal and discussion of these issues.

Sign me up!

Laurie J October 31, 2008 at 7:06 pm

Isn't it time for conservatives to invest heavily in the main stream media vehicles at the big discount prices now? From influence gained by being stockholders, here's an opportunity to improve the quality of journalists and editors by getting rid of partisans and replacing them with professionals who will tell the truth and let facts stand without constant twisting and reinterpretation?

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