Blueprint for Revolution
Real politics is about precinct organizing, not sign waves or YouTube clips
By: Steve Bierfeldt
At a campaign rally on a cold winter evening, thousands of individuals crowd around a stage to hear a presidential candidate speak on life, liberty, and the Constitution. Homemade signs litter the crowd as the fiery congressman from Texas speaks to a sea of activists, many whom had never before taken an interest in politics. As he concludes, cheers erupt from the mass of people as they celebrate the one man speaking what no other candidate dares to say. Ron Paul has ignited a crowd desperate for a leader and in doing so has energized the thousands in attendance, as he asks for their support in the upcoming presidential primary.
The next day, about 75 percent of them do not show up to vote.
The above illustrates the difficulty facing the liberty movement today—the willingness of its participants to engage in philosophical discussion, policy talk, or social activism, but their reluctance to engage in political action, the only thing that counts on Election Day. With the Ron Paul campaign over and his supporters looking to continue his vision, we see many cling to the same techniques that were unsuccessful during his run for the presidency.
I count myself tremendously blessed to have experienced a number of facets of the liberty movement. From training college students at a political think-tank to volunteering for Paul in his candidacy for president, I was able to see first hand all that goes into one of the few honest and trustworthy movements in politics. Later, when I served as campaign manager for a Ron Paul-endorsed candidate for Congress, I was able to put those skills into practice. This essay relates what I have learned.
Liberty candidates and their supporters all too often believe a fancy website with an automated real-time ticker will revolutionize the campaign and bring immediate media attention to their cause. They believe simply announcing a “money bomb” will be all that is needed to reform the system and transform their candidacy from an upstart libertarian radar blip to a powerhouse ready to take on the political world. But, as wonderful as money bombs and interactive website assuredly are, there is more to real politics.
Despite the signs, the blimps, and the unmatched enthusiasm of Ron Paul’s supporters, on election night when the returns came back the votes were not there. Not in Iowa, or New Hampshire, or Wyoming, or Michigan. Paul’s supporters were often quick to react to the tactics of the political establishment and media, tactics we believed to be underhanded (and which oftentimes were). But the liberty movement limited its effectiveness when it only played defense.
We watched political talking heads dismiss Ron Paul as a fringe candidate, who purportedly had a handful of supporters spamming polls with text-message votes, and our only response was to complain about the bias that we were up against and pour efforts into more online polls. Just as conservatives and libertarians should not expect favorable editorials from the New York Times or the Huffington Post, we should never be content to sit and complain. We can whine about how unfair the media is and how we will never be given a fair shake, or we can do something about it. We can hit the establishment where it really hurts, not in the online polls, but where the political class is most vulnerable—in local elections and the grassroots organizations that are the base of the political pyramid.
One look to our town councils, state houses, or local political parties will show us the people we are up against. Many of these folks have dedicated their lives to destroying the principles we believe in. They have done so for only a paycheck, their proverbial 30 pieces of silver, and sometimes only out of a desire to have a title or control an office. In response we have committed ourselves not to taking their titles and offices away from them but instead to complaining about the system and offering symbolic protests.
If elections were won by text messages, blog posts, or facebook links, the liberty movement would have achieved victory 20 times over. Instead we will continue to lose, and lose badly, until we realize it is up to us, as the next generation of freedom advocates, to learn how to win.
The starry-eyed advocate of liberty believes a sound philosophy is what should take precedence above everything else in political life. He believes an uncomprising adherence to principle should trump hard-won victories, party politics, and a desire for power, fame, and fortune. The starry-eyed advocate of liberty is 100 percent correct. It is in this that the true believers in freedom hold the advantage.
When working for a political nonprofit that would by all definitions be described as one run by “neocons,” I was often railed and berated for my defense of life, liberty, the Constitution, and especially Ron Paul. After one such defense of the ideals of our founding fathers I was called “young,” “naive,” and with a sigh and a chuckle was lectured by colleagues about how they, “Remembered when they were that immature and idealistic.” My response was simple: “good.” While I will not always be young, I hoped I would always be naive and idealistic—always willing to put principle ahead of politics, even if that meant costing myself an election, being called names, or remaining unpopular with those in the power.
The advocates of liberty have a tremendous advantage over their entrenched political counterparts. While we face a foe that has the techniques and technical knowledge to win elections, we take solace in the fact that our foe is morally empty. Training oneself how to write a direct-mail letter, assemble a press release, or become a better public speaker is merely a skill that can be learned and refined. But having that skill and choosing to throw away political prestige in order adhere to a sound antistatist philosophy is a road few people are willing to walk.
That, however, does not mean that advocates of liberty should fail to cultivate the technical skills their opponents posses. Our side must learn how to succeed not just on the Internet or in the journals of intellectual thought, but in the political races and campaigns that shape our government. The supporters of liberty are among the most dedicated individuals one will find in any cause, political or not. Very few are willing to budge on any aspect of freedom no matter how small. Yet this philosophical correctness is not enough to initiate the transformation that is needed in government. Believing you are correct is not enough. Even actually being correct is not enough.
Politics is not an art, expressive and creative, no matter how much so many of us want it to be. Campaigns and elections are very much a science, with tried and true methods that move votes from the living-room couch to the election booth. The science of elections is based on numbers, statistics, and techniques that have concrete goals.
Yard signs are popular campaign memorabilia—but yard signs do not vote. Volunteer for any candidate in virtually any race, and you will be hounded about yard signs. The candidate always wants to know what color they will be, where they will go, and how many can be placed along the highway. Yet yard signs are something that campaigns seem to do just for the sake of doing them; statistically they have an extremely low impact on changing minds, switching votes, or mobilizing the base.
By contrast, as much as many of us complain about automated pre-recorded messages from candidates—robo-calls—there is a reason campaigns, even in the age of advanced social networking, continue to do them: they work. Despite the anecdotal stories you hear about someone becoming angry at the flood of automated calls he has been receiving and pledging not to vote for that candidate out of spite … it does not happen. Ask yourself, if you truly believed in the message Ron Paul was proclaiming and thought he was the only hope for our country, would you really refuse to vote for him simply because of a few automated telephone calls? If so, then statistically you weren’t going to vote for him anyway. Such voters are negligible.
Some in the liberty movement dismiss old-fashioned direct-mail letters that include surveys and requests for contributions as either out of touch with the new way of doing things or simply as junk mail from groups that are out to make a quick buck. In reality, direct mail serves as a proven method to gauge what issues are important to an organization’s membership base. As far as fundraising goes, there is a reason groups send out physical mail asking for help to fund project proposals: it works. Every part of a direct mail letter is a scientific instrument used to provide the best product and service to the member of that organization.
Direct mail should not turn off the advocates of liberty but instead bring them into a world where they too can learn what works and what doesn’t when it comes to recruiting for a cause or spreading a message. There is a reason most direct-mail letters are printed in courier font. It is because most donors to political organizations are over 70 years old, and the font reminds many of them of a typewriter. It gives them a tactile connection to an organization with which they feel philosophical sympathy.
What is effective and what is easy are often two completely different things. The most effective way of changing minds and recruiting new voters or members is the tactic so many of us shy away from—door-to-door recruitment. Political operatives, campaign workers, and volunteers all agree when asked what the best technique is to influence voters: knocking on their doors, handing them a piece of literature, and talking with them. Despite right-wing jeers about Barack Obama’s label as a “community organizer, the ability to sort and mobilize a community is the most basic and most effective way to win in politics.
A successful movement breaks down its locality as specifically as possible in order to appoint outgoing organizers who are a good match for their areas. In the realm of political campaigns, the selection of “precinct captains” is made to ensure that those in charge have a friendly face and a strong tie to the community. In today’s world, we could live almost our entire lives without ever leaving our house. Delivery services, tele-commuting, and Netflix have made it theoretically possible never to need to engage another person in meaningful conversation. Yet despite all of our modern conveniences, deep down people long for individual connections.
Going out of your way and initiating conversation with a complete stranger can be nerve-racking. You will undoubtedly run into individuals who make it quite clear that you are not allowed on their property again. But the most important question to ask of yourself about that is, “So what?” We pay respect to a congressman from Texas who at age 72 sought the nomination for president despite being harassed, bullied, and excluded from debates by members of his own party, and yet we are unwilling to endure the discomfort that might occur from an interaction on a neighbor’s porch? A little awkward conversation is a small price to pay in the fight for liberty.
You don’t have to wait for the next campaign season to become active—organizing can, and should, be done everywhere and all the time. If you are in school, begin by drawing up “precincts” on campus and appointing leaders to recruit new members from dorm buildings, Greek houses, or off-campus apartments. Recruiting for your Young Americans for Liberty chapter or volunteering for a local liberty candidate will give you experience with real political work and familiarize you with tactics that have proven successful. You’ll be learning by practice.
Virtually every college in the nation wastes millions of the dollars it has taken from students in the form of activity fees to promote a slew of programs that are unjust or immoral. Refuse merely to complain about the waste that is going on and run for a position in your student government. Gather other liberty-minded friends together and run for all of the government positions. Upon your successful election, stand up and do exactly what you have criticized politicians for not doing—fulfilling campaign promises to lower costs and cut spending. Vote against all the programs you spoke out against. Do not just talk about the philosophy behind limited government, take action and achieve it.
Instead of talking about the poor leadership that exists within your local political party, force a change. Find out the date of the next election for party chairman and spend the next several months recruiting liberty-minded individuals who live in your county. Use established political techniques to build a network of activists and then file the paperwork to become a candidate. Instead of talking about philosophy and the need to bring in new leadership to the county party, become the vehicle that accomplishes it.
Become more involved with your YAL chapter or help friends at another school start one of their own. Familiarize yourself with the Campaign for Liberty and make it a point to visit their web site each day. The organization formed by Ron Paul has established a national local coordinator program, offers a new featured article every morning, and hosts both statewide and regional conferences containing some of the best political training you will ever receive. Those who adhere to the ideals of freedom no longer have any excuse for not getting deeply involved. Through YAL and C4L, you can learn all the political techniques you need to wrest control of government from those who have contributed to its overgrowth.
Your fellow believers in freedom do not need your homemade signs or your blog posts. They need votes to win their elections and restore strictly constitutional government. There must come a time when each defender of liberty says “enough” and commits himself to a struggle that enacts change rather than merely discussing it. That time is now. This is your country, and it’s being taken from you one election at a time. Take it back.
Steve Bierfeldt is director of development for Campaign for Liberty.