Think not those faithful who praise all thy words and actions; but those who kindly reprove thy faults.
Last week I wrote an open letter to social conservatives, in the interest of broadening communication between two groups that both have a vital interest in stopping the socialist slide engineered by people who benefit from government expansion. As a homeschooled Christian conservative who chose to plant my flag firmly within the Liberty Movement, I think I can offer some perspective to those on both sides who don’t see an avenue of cooperation.
But as I pointed out in last week’s article, reproof is a two-way street. Each leg of the conservative coalition exhibits different strengths and weaknesses, and there is opportunity for greater understanding and cooperation between all if we are willing to do some self-examination and establish goals both personal and political. To that end, fairness demands that liberty people examine our own weaknesses, and work to improve our activism. There are some ways in which the young Liberty Movement needs to grow into ideological and practical maturity if we are to develop into an enduring force for American Republicanism.
A few weeks ago, as I watched the moderate regime sweep away the last of the Liberty people from the governing body of the Iowa GOP, I had a chance to reflect on the efficacy of our time in leadership. We were certainly successful in some important ways, and we did blaze trails on a number of conservative issues. But there were also things we could have done better. Lately, some of the concerns I’ve held have been echoed by others within the grassroots of the movement, and I’ve started to identify some common themes among those who believe that we need to find the most advantageous balance between ideological perfection and electoral success.
Purity and pragmatism are squaring off in the Liberty Movement as well as across the broader conservative paradigm, and many of us are caught in the tension. But this struggle holds opportunity for those willing to embrace it; it’s a chance to step back and take a long look at the things we’re doing well, and the areas we need to improve.
After being in the thick of the fight for the past two years, I have learned to separate slanderous attacks and honest, fair criticism. And if there is one thing vital to the success of any endeavor, it is the ability to accept honest, fair criticism. We have to be able to measure ourselves against the truth, and change our ends and means according to its constraints.
And it is in the spirit of pursuing truth that I offer some humble admonitions to my fellow lovers of liberty, and ask you to apply the same critical thinking to the tendencies of our movement, that you rightly apply to other political leaders, issues, and ideals. I don’t pretend to have all the answers, and I have no credentials with which to command an audience, but I do hope to use whatever understanding I have to challenge and strengthen and encourage those fighting alongside me.
As with last week’s article, please understand that generalizations are necessary when covering broad topics. If any of the things I mention don’t apply to you, then they aren’t intended for you. My intent is not to offend, but to challenge. Some of these things, frankly, are weaknesses that I find within myself as well, and it is my hope that my friends and compatriots within the Liberty Movement will join me in shoring up the levees before the next wave rolls in.
- Resist the temptation to become personality-driven. One of the most admirable traits of Ron Paul was his consistent humility. The good Doctor – at the center of one of the most radical internet-driven ideological revolutions the country had ever seen – was always quick to insist that the Liberty Movement was not about him. The rare kind of humble leadership that Dr. Paul modeled allowed people to see past the person of Ron Paul and embrace the principles of liberty and self-government. His presidential runs were not born primarily of a desire to rule, but of the desire to change the nature of the American political discussion – and by that measurement his efforts were a home run.
Here’s my question for you: Do you think that kind of success would have been possible if Ron had chosen to run on personal charisma and name recognition, rather than on the principles of liberty?
How many of us would have jumped into the trenches with him if he stuck to witty one-liners rather than taking the time to explain and defend his sometimes unpopular stances? In modern American politics, flashy politicians with snappy soundbytes and televangelist hair are a dime a dozen. But that impeccable style and glowing likability often masks a lack of conviction and an unwillingness to tell the truth under fire.
If Dr. Paul had chosen to build the movement around his persona, it would have risen and fallen with him, and the story would have ended there. It was precisely because Ron refused to limit the Movement to himself, that it endured beyond his run and subsequent retirement.
Now that we’ve laid the foundation, let’s build on it.
Suppose I approached you, a Ron Paul supporter, in 2012, and told you that in the wake of Ron’s retirement, liberty people would find themselves widely allied with Tea Party organizations and fighting side-by-side with social conservatives in a number of primary battles, would you have bristled at the thought, or rejoiced in the opportunity that such an alliance could bring?
What if I told you that socially conservative activists would start to show up at liberty events, or that a Libertarian gubernatorial candidate would be trending with Tea Party groups, against a sitting Republican governor? Would you have been encouraged by the spread of limited government ideals outside of Ron Paul’s original base, or would you have reacted with anger and advised others to avoid such entanglements?
The point is this: we can’t allow our decisions to be guided by personal like or dislike when it comes to the future of the country. There is too much at stake to pledge loyalty to leaders based on their affiliation, or to cast aside potential friends and allies because we don’t like their style or associations.
Part of the reason that we made great strides in 2012 and have continued to grow in the past two years, is that people who did not vote for Ron Paul have come alongside us and joined in the fight for limited government. A lot of eyes are being opened, and a lot of people are coming our way. But we are not going to be able to swell our ranks and tackle bigger obstacles until we leave behind the immature mentality of “I can’t be friends with you – you’re friends with them!”
On the flip side, we have to judge our would-be leaders on their actions, not on their personality or relationships. To fail in this regard is to become what we hate, and embrace the culture of pandering that has produced every moderate Mitt McDole ever to skip blithely down the yellow brick road of electoral failure.
Nowhere is this more important than with liberty icon Rand Paul. Recently I was challenged by a friend about comments I made in an article about Rand Paul last year. In it, I emphasized that “Some folks expect there to be an automatic rollover in support (from Ron to Rand)…and I don’t think that is going to be the case… We are going to watch people.” Far from a knock on Sen. Paul, my statement was intended to dignify the movement and offer Rand a chance to earn the dedicated support that his father enjoyed.
But suppose I had said the opposite. Suppose I had simply expressed that Rand was entitled to the support of the Liberty Movement, and that anyone who opposed him wasn’t really one of us.
Wouldn’t that have been insulting to every ideologically sound liberty person who had not yet had the chance to evaluate Rand Paul on his record? Wouldn’t that have been insulting to Ron Paul, who consistently emphasized principle over personality? Wouldn’t that have been dismissive of Rand himself, who already has a solid enough record to not have to stand in his father’s shadow?
As part of an ideologically-driven movement, it’s not enough to support someone because we like them or identify with them. That’s what most of America already does. We have to weigh rhetoric, judge records, and establish trust. When we hold a higher standard, everyone wins: candidates are pressured to become better leaders, and we are equipped to become better defenders.
If we want to be effective as a movement, we have to anchor ourselves in the principles of liberty, and encourage others to do the same. We can’t get caught in the trap of personality. Truth is truth, no matter whether it’s spoken by Rick Santorum, Sarah Palin, Barack Obama, or Ron Paul.
- Conflict is not the only solution. We in the Liberty Movement have a fearsome reputation as internet warriors and convention rabble rousers. We pick fights and make opportunities to shift the debate onto our terms. We’re edgy, we’re tireless, and we don’t back down.
This tenacity is probably our greatest weapon in the political sphere, and it’s made us an influential part of American politics in a very short time. It’s also granted us a virtual megaphone on most major issues.
But there are times where conflict is unwarranted. Sometimes we pull a Lord Denethor: We refuse to call for aid when we’re backed into a corner, and then are surprised when no reinforcements show up. Sometimes a little professionalism and tact can go a long way in achieving our ends, and we can’t afford to assume that everyone who isn’t a friend, is an enemy. The us/them mentality is useful to a point in confrontational politics, but can be counterproductive when it causes us to isolate ourselves and attack anything that moves. As Ron pointed out, fences don’t just keep others out, they keep us in.
To boil it down to the everyday: Be involved in your community. Write opinion pieces in your local paper. Invite your conservative friends to liberty events. When you get a call from a fellow activist who agrees with you on most things but isn’t quite sold on non-interventionism yet, pick up the phone. Maybe you’ll have a chance to encourage them to rethink their position. Maybe they’re willing to work with you on another issue. Maybe they need your help, and you can score points for the movement and win the respect of others on the outside.
There are enough necessary and unavoidable fights based on policy and priority. We don’t need to add more based on grudges and presumption. Some people hate us for our beliefs and are opposed to what we stand for. Those might be irreconcilable differences. But many others just get turned off because of our tone, our condescension, or our exclusivity. With these folks, hard work and respectful communication will take us a lot further than any amount of ideological purity and social media sharpshooting. And ultimately, it will win more hearts and minds over to the side of liberty.
There’s a difference between singing kum-ba-ya with the enemy, and winning allies to your cause by showing fairness and reason-ability. We must never set aside principles to get along, but we also have to use discernment in how we present and defend our principles.
Being liked should not be an end in itself, but making sure that our actions don’t reflect poorly on our principles should be.
- Don’t use purism as an excuse for disengagement. As soon as Mitt Romney was nominated in Tampa, a lot of our folks threw in the towel and returned home to spend the rest of the year complaining on Facebook. They abandoned activism and refused to spend time, effort, or money on any part of the political scene. To a lot of these folks, the take-my-ball-and-go-home mentality was a final act of vengeance to a candidate and a party that they felt had left them without a reason for involvement.
While I can completely sympathize with the unwillingness to support those who had a hand in backstabbing us, I also know that there were a number of excellent liberty candidates across the state and nation that were begging for help, and some of them never got it.
There’s always a temptation to walk away from the whole political battlefield, and sometimes it can be almost overwhelming. But we can’t use disappointment (“it’s all pointless anyway”) or purism (“no one running is worth my time”) to excuse disengagement, or we hang our friends and allies out to dry. There is always somewhere to contribute. There’s always work that needs done. Find it. And if you can’t find someone who will represent you adequately, consider running for office yourself.
- Have a plan beyond winning. One of the things that often hamstrings us within the Liberty Movement is speaking in broad abstractions without a plan for putting our ideals into action. This is most apparent in the debate surrounding marriage equality. Many liberty folks advocate complete removal of the state from marriage, but really haven’t thought through the legal ramifications of such a move, or proposed specific methods for implementing this change and handling the crisis that would inevitably follow (parental rights, adoption, custody, divorce, etc). The burden rests on us to provide a clear vision of what marriage looks like in the absence of state involvement. If we can’t provide that vision and a path to achieve it, how can we expect other to accept our conclusion?
Similarly, we need a practical plan for leveraging gains in both the GOP and in the broader political arena. We have to know how to best use positions of leadership to evangelize for liberty and accomplish our legislative or administrative goals. A number of people within the movement argue that we may be more effective from the minority. If that is indeed true, it cannot continue if we want to be effective long-term. It’s not enough to have a vision. We have to be able to apply it as well.
Political movements have risen and fallen throughout history, and seldom are they able to achieve anything lasting. Even rarer is political success in reducing government and expanding liberty. We in the Liberty Movement present a powerful new hope to change the course of the nation, but to do so we must walk the finest of lines and never miss an opportunity to continue learning and growing and improving.
It is my sincerest hope that in rising to these challenges, we can strengthen and mature the Liberty Movement into a political force strong enough to resist the tug of personality, gracious enough to build alliances and deal in the currency of respect, resilient enough to deny the urge to let pride or despair render us ineffective, and prepared to lead with clarity of vision and decisiveness in action.