Why the Future of Conservative Politics Must Go Through Community Involvement
I was in my first year of college at Cal State Dominguez Hills in Carson, California. I was majoring in Billiards in the student commons and doing spectacularly well… I was terrible when the school year started, and by the end of the second quarter — the point at which my parents decided they weren’t paying for Cs and Ds in everything else — I had hustled everyone in there for something.
I got really good really quick at Billiards because there wasn’t any social media back in 1985 to compete with the pool table. We didn’t have email, texts, YouTube, or even hundreds of channels on cable TV. On the young side for my grade level — I graduated at 17 from Saint Augustine High School in San Diego in 1985 — I turned 18 at that pool table.
And then I went to register to vote. I had grown up in a home with two Wisconsin-born Democrats as parents. But they were conservative Democrats, what we used to call “Blue Dog Democrats” until just recently. They watched, as they would describe it, as the Democrats left them in the 60’s and 70's. (There is a lot there to explore, but that will have to wait for another essay.) In 1980 they changed parties and voted for Ronald Reagan.
My politics was a lot like that of my peers, and of the generations which had come before us. We got our political information from dinner table for the same reason I got so good, so quickly at pool; we did not have a cacophony of media voices screaming at us from all directions. And we trusted that information; it was the dinner table, after all.
Having become politically active with our local (San Diego County) Republican Party, it is increasingly clear to me that the time in which I came of age immediately preceded a seismic shift in how political beliefs are formed. The Internet started taking hold in the 1990s, so we were the last generation to come of age before the cacophony of new media changed this entire landscape.
Because we trusted the information we got from the dinner table, when we registered to vote we already had a reasonably stable idea about what we believed when it came to politics. And we chose with which party we would belong on the basis of those beliefs. I look back and call this the day of “believing before belonging.”
On this side of the shift, though, many more young people come into the electorate without the “dinner table” in the sense we experienced it. And even for those who were raised in what we might call a more traditional family environment, the dinner table simply cannot be the same experience. Try having a dinner table conversation with today’s cable news programs on in the background. The effort required for that conversation to overcome the screaming match on TV will tell you everything you need to know about what newly minted voters have to contend with.
We are seeing the results in the choices young people make if they register to vote. The numbers of both major parties are dropping dramatically in favor of “No Party Preference” or “Decline to State.” The lesson to learn here is that believing no longer comes before belonging. The trust that is essential to the formation of our beliefs has been lost in the noise. As such, to regain that trust, we must now put belonging before believing.
Re-imagining the Republican Party Platform
As conservatives, we generally gravitate to the Republican Party and its platform as our articulation of conservative beliefs. It is interesting, however, to read the platform in the context of 288 character tweets, text messages, and the roughly six seconds most videos on social media platforms command the user’s attention. It is even more fascinating when you look back to the tradition of pamphleteering from our history (The Federalist Papers, Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, etc.). The Republican Party platform leans so far back to that tradition that it is all but incoherent in today’s six second attention span or 288 character context of online content. This is not so much a challenge to the platform itself as it is to point out how differently political beliefs are formed today.
We need to realize our arguments for conservative beliefs are not — and will not — be persuasive merely because they are well-argued. Rebuilding trust begins with changing one word for another in the platform. Where we say: “We believe…,” we say instead: “We propose…”
Because belonging now must precede believing, when one encounters the Republican Party platform without that stable sense of what one believes, each instance of “we believe” becomes a reason not to register as a Republican. Without changing the substance of each “plank” in the platform, if they are propositions for conversation rather than prerequisites for belonging, the platform becomes an invitation to belong to a conversation. This, then, will allow us to discover what we have in common and begin rebuilding trust by practicing the politics of the half-full, not of the half-empty.
Why Community Involvement is a Must
As conservatives we tend strongly to view government’s role as doing for us only those things we cannot do for ourselves — and to otherwise leave us alone. We prefer to interact with government as little as possible. This, more than anything, is what needs to change.
Community involvement offers an opportunity to make common cause with younger voters as they look for the trust we found at the dinner table. Instead of trying to explain why government must remain small and limited, if we join them in seeking to solve problems in the community — and show them how to overcome bureaucratic inertia with political activism — they will experience our reasons for insisting on small and limited government.
Similarly, when we put community involvement ahead of partisan ideologies, we will discover very little disagreement across party allegiances when it comes to our good intentions for our community. The difference will be on how to go about fulfilling these good intentions. When young voters see public funds frittered away on administrative bloat and bureaucratic inefficiencies, they will experience why we advocate for fiscal restraint.
Because belonging must precede believing today, the merits of conservative ideas which seem obvious to us are no longer obvious to younger voters, regardless of how well we might argue them. Today the merits of our ideas must be experienced, and advocating together with younger voters for our communities is the way forward if we as conservatives wish to remain relevant and persuasive.
(NB: I am a the former Secretary and Chairman of the Mira Mesa Community Planning Group in San Diego, and am a Republican candidate for California’s 52nd Congressional District.)