If the Tea Party brings lasting change to America, it must introduce grow-the-pie thinking on the right.
For years, the tug of war ground on. Democrats and Republicans, Liberals and Conservatives, Collectivists and Individualists all fighting for the same piece of land. The strategy was simple: if you’re behind, discredit the other side until you get the lead. If you’re in the lead, reward your friends to keep them loyal.
There were two problems with this game.
First, the conservatives never quite pulled the rope as far to the right as liberals pulled it to the left. So each round left the Left a little stronger and the Right a little weaker.
Second, conservatives fought a fixed-pie battle. While preaching dynamic pie economics, we practiced fixed-pie politics. We didn’t believe we could grow our base.
The problems are related. The reason that the left gains more in its peaks than it surrenders in its valleys is because it seeks constantly to grow its active base. The right relies on the strength of its arguments to attract allies. While this works to a degree, allies are not activist by nature.
What the Tea Party has done is two-fold:
First, we’ve turned some adherents into activists. We see this in the email and letters from people who say, “I always voted Republican, but I never really thought about why. Until now.”
Second, we’ve begun, in tiny measures, growing the base, attracting new activists. We’re winning converts from the other side, and we’re inspiring fence-sitters to our team.
But we face a challenge.
The Republican vanguard seems to feel a bit threatened by the grow-the-pie mentality. It’s easy to manage a fixed pie–you have to train them only once. When new blood constantly flows into the team, the job of organizing never ends. To fight this, the vanguard puts up litmus tests to keep out converts. Former Democrats are not welcome. Labor union members and leaders can’t be trusted. First-time candidates carry too much baggage.
Conscious or unconscious, the Republican vanguard squeezes the pie to keep it small, like a child squeezing its growing dog to keep it a cute little puppy. The vanguard is living up to the most damning accusation hurled at the Tea Party from the left: closed, narrow, biased, anti-intellectual.
This squeezing has an effect. Newcomers to the liberty movement feel unwelcome. Potential donors to causes, groups, and candidates lock their vaults or continue to fund safe, traditional races and issues. Rewarded with power from the work of the newcomers, the Republicans do precisely what they’ve always done: reward their friends with tax dollars.
Recently, a friend of mine–a Republican–told me about a supposedly conservative Republican state rep. The rep bragged to my friend of passing a law to save some people millions in property taxes by rezoning their land. The “some people” tend to be Republican donors.
Those who are little involved in politics but who pay attention say, “The only difference between Republicans and Democrats is who they redistribute money to.”
In St. Louis, now, we’re seeing this dynamic play out. Gary, a former police union president joined up with the Tea Party in August of 2010. He began just wanting to learn more about us. What he heard struck a chord. Soon he was banging doors and making phone calls for our candidates and causes. After the election, he stuck around. The network he built as a police union leader became an important tool in advancing the cause of liberty. In fact, he was doing so much for us that we recommended he register as a lobbyist to avoid potential ethics complaints.
**And the vanguard reacted. **
First, they challenged the wisdom of “selecting” an “official” Tea Party lobbyist. When we explained that that’s not really what happened, they shifted. Next, they attacked our recruit as a union hack who doesn’t represent Tea Party values. I posted Gary’s thoughts on the matter–including a long list of Republican endorsement that Gary personally won from the union through his remarkable skills of persuasion. They shifted again.
Now, they’ve attacking Gary for publicly supporting … brace yourself … a Democrat for Governor and Attorney General when he was president of the police union. Some want Gary to publicly renounce his union’s previous endorsements of the Democrats.
While I can sympathize with those who believe in political purity, I can also put myself into Gary’s shoes.
Gary hasn’t studied the nuances of political philosophy for decades as many of us have. He’s been involved the retail politics of union negotiations, but not the philosophical thinking so common among conservatives.
To illustrate my point, at a recent meet-and-greet with a candidate for Senate, the early conversation centered on whether repealing the 17th Amendment would make problems worse or better in the states. These are conversations you don’t hear very often outside of Tea Party gatherings. At Republican events, such “theory” drives away all but a few college students, and Tea Party types.
When he approached our Tea Party offices in August, Gary came, hat in hand, to learn. I’m sure that our kindness and welcome helped him feel at home. I know enough about human behavioral sciences to know that kind acceptance earns reciprocation. As researcher and author Robert C. Cialdini points our, reciprocity is the strongest of the six tools for influence.
We had real work for Gary. We didn’t doubt his sincerity, mostly because of his honesty. “I agree completely with what you guys stand for, but I sure don’t get the way you think sometimes.”
Gary’s introduction to practical politics meant you do things to get things. Reciprocity. But the Tea Party does a lot of things that have no obvious return. We handed out US Constitutions, door to door, paying no attention to the party affiliation or voting frequency of the occupant. We held rallies and protests in support of principles that were often in conflict with our short-term self-interest. This thinking makes no sense to a practical politician.
By putting Gary to work in the most important jobs, like calls and canvassing, we earned his trust by offering the same to him.
Over time, Gary has become more conversant in–and comfortable with–the principled approach to politics. But full understanding won’t happen overnight. And it will never happen if the recruit, the student, feels he’s being singled out for ridicule.
**And that’s exactly what’s going on now. **
Opponents of Gary’s high-profile work for the St. Louis Tea Party Coalition want Gary to recite a mea culpa for having supported Democrats in the past.
I can’t think of a better formula to drive Gary–and many other less conspicuous converts–right back into the welcoming arms of the hard left.
For me, it’s a matter of growing the base and expanding the pie. I believe the best way to do that is to give meaningful work to converts based on the the skills and passions they bring, under the careful tutelage of a confirmed true believer.
I believe in growing the liberty base, not in redistributing the wealth to my friends, so I will stand by Gary as long as he welcomes my support–and as long as he remains true to our core principles.