The Right needs better grassroots infrastructure

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With the 2010 electoral successes of the GOP cemented in a sworn-in House majority, the outlook for conservative and pro-market causes seems bright. However one doesn’t have to look too far back in political history to temper that enthusiasm. Two short years ago, the media was writing conservatism’s obituary and celebrating the forty-year liberal reign that was supposedly on the horizon. In the first half of the last decade, while Republicans were enjoying electoral success, the Left was busy creating a sustainable shadow infrastructure to lead and, above all, stay out of the wilderness.

Beginning with the founding of MoveOn.org at the height of the Clinton impeachment, the Left began using the Internet to not only raise money but to organize; both areas where the Right had long held considerable advantages. MoveOn now has five million members and has raised $200 million over the last three election cycles, money it has used to influence policy, the media and important elections. MoveOn and other liberal groups like the Center for American Progress and the public, trade and teachers’ unions have provided grassroots support for get-out-the-vote efforts and have helped push the Left’s statist agendas at all levels of government. In effect, the Left has monetized its activists and educated them to take sophisticated action on a given issue at the drop of a hat. The Right buys ineffective TV ads, builds “coalitions” and has no sustainable structure to show for the many millions it has invested. This misdirection of critical resources in the face of markedly changing dynamics cannot be highlighted enough.

Historically, the right-of-center response to changing dynamics has been disjointed at best, with most groups focusing on state and local issues and little formal coordination toward an overall long-term goal. Any forward-thinking organization attempting to move into Washington is quickly overrun by a territorial political class looking to pillage another victim for their next retainer instead of thinking about what it takes to build an enduring movement that even they could eventually profit from by accident. Despite the outcome of the recent midterm elections, the party and establishment suffered from a lack of visionary leadership and a growing distrust from donors and activists made markedly apparent by the success of effective third-party groups like American Crossroads. All this points to a clear need for an overhaul in the way the Right approaches politics.

There are reasons to be optimistic. The state think tanks do excellent work geared toward policy education specifically aimed at local officials and legislators. Groups such as the TheVanguard.org, headed by the visionary Dr. Rod Martin, have emerged to challenge MoveOn as a genuinely potent platform for center-right e-activism and fundraising. The Right has even found Facebook and Twitter to be effective tools for communication and organization. Ultimately, however, these favorable indicators must be rolled into a new way of doing business that takes a longer view toward building a permanent political structure that can match and spar with the Left; not consultant-loaded campaigns that disband the first Wednesday in November. This requires coordination, vision and integration, and there is no time to waste.

Heyward Smith and Monty Warner are Directors of the Everglades Legal Foundation (www.evergladeslegal.org)