PJM columnist John Hawkins’ advice to conservatives to be as nasty as liberals is like Sean Connery’s “Chicago way” speech in The Untouchables applied to American politics: “They pull a knife, you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue. That’s the Chicago way.”
But is the “Chicago way” the right way for conservatives? Certainly, conservatives need to re-evaluate their tactics in light of Democratic behavior. That Democrats will engage in obstruction of Republican judicial nominees, while Republicans will let Democratic nominees sail through is absurd. In my home state of Idaho, a local was critical of Republicans talking about challenging first-term Congressman Walt Minnick (D-ID) and urged them to wait until 2010, even though Minnick was on record as a candidate who criticized former Congressman Bill Sali back in January of 2007, the year Minnick raised more than $400,000.
When conservatives do things like this, they’re acting like British troops trying to form into straight lines while their enemies take positions behind rocks and trees to pick them off like flies. They’re denying reality and have failed to acknowledge that the battle lines have shifted. However, I think Hawkins’ thesis for conservative nastiness is wrong for several reasons:
1) Conservatives are not liberals
I’ll counter Hawkins’ martial arts analogy with a sports analogy of my own. A baseball team with several players that regularly hit home runs can get players on base, not worry about base running, and win with a strategy of “pitching, defense, and the three-run homer.” This same strategy won’t work if a team has decent speed and only one or two players that are reliable long-ball hitters. Baseball strategy is always going to be dependent on the team you have to play with. You can’t expect singles hitters to consistently deliver three-run homers, so you have to work it another way.
Culturally, conservatives are unable to play the same game as liberals, because we do not possess the same mentality. I would argue that conservatives have a greater sense of respect for authority, rules of civility, and fundamental order within society. This is so ingrained that in Boise, when social conservatives felt the need to practice civil disobedience over the removal of a Ten Commandments monument, it was arranged in advance with the police that only a small number of people would be arrested and they would go quietly. There was a strong feeling among Ten Commandments supporters that they didn’t want to give the police officers a hard time, because the police were only doing their job and enforcing the actions of a boneheaded city council.
Has that ever been a consideration in liberals’ actions anywhere? No. That’s why liberals can jump on stages and disrupt events without being condemned. They don’t have that same fundamental respect for authority and are willing to use whatever means necessary to achieve their ends. Every single action by them is morally justified without exception, whether it’s being rude to a conservative speaker or using the personal failures of a politician’s adult son to attack the politician. If one’s going to consider following liberals’ example, then I think it’s relevant to look at what Saul Alinsky wrote about radical activism. In Rules for Radicals, Alinsky declared, “A good tactic is one your people enjoy.” Based on this, becoming like liberals is a poor tactic for conservatives.
2) Conservatives don’t like it when conservative activists behave like liberals
Conservatives have a greater sense of the unwritten rules of propriety. Many conservatives, or even conservative-leaning libertarians, were turned off by Ron Paul supporters’ tactics, which were far more in line with the usual behavior of liberals than conservatives. Many were outraged at how raucous Paul supporters were marching around the Iowa straw poll site. Do we expect these same people to go for behaving like liberals? In a similar manner, Ann Coulter’s style has cheesed off quite a few conservatives who agree with her on substance. Some of her attacks, such as her use of terms like “raghead,” even earned her criticism from Michelle Malkin back in 2005.
It’s one thing for conservatives to have Coulter come as rousing entertainment at CPAC. Coulter’s acerbic honesty provides many conservatives with a vicarious thrill. But how well would a movement full of Ann Coulter wannabes do? It would be a disaster. Conservatives who are not political activists — particularly devoutly religious people — are going to be turned off from engaging in the process. If they begin to perceive a movement that is hateful and spiteful, they’ll back away from it, because it doesn’t represent how they see themselves. The media has done its level best to create the perception that conservatives are hateful. The last thing conservative activists need to do is provide assistance.
3. Conservatives look lame behaving like liberals
Nobody likes a poser. Imagine, as Hawkins suggests, the business majors and church-going kids that make up most college Republican clubs storming a stage like refugees from the 1960s when a liberal is speaking. It is a poser moment akin to Mitt Romney’s painful “Who Let the Dogs Out?” campaign appearance.
Liberals receive training in obnoxious activism techniques and even receive scholarships and fellowships to hone their “craft.” When it comes to distasteful and disrespectful protest techniques, liberals are rock stars, while conservatives are amateurs performing on Karaoke machines. In Rules for Radicals, Alinsky said, “Never go outside the expertise of your people,” because it results in confusion and lack of confidence. And this is exactly why conservatives shouldn’t try to copy liberal incivility.
4. Conservatives face media bias
Another tactic Hawkins suggests is unleashing the opposition research machines on journalists. So let’s say we dig up some dirt on Maureen Dowd. Who exactly is going to report it? Certainly not the mainstream media — and probably not even Fox News. Best case scenario? The story ends up getting play on WorldNetDaily and conservative radio.
In fact, conservatives have exposed the hypocrisy of many liberal politicians, and it has been ignored. The inconvenient truth about Al Gore is that he has a carbon footprint the size of a small city. John “Two Americas” Edwards lives in an extravagant $6 million, 28,000-square-foot mansion. As for Joe “paying taxes is patriotic” Biden, based on his stingy charitable contributions, many expect him to be visited by three spirits this Christmas.
None of this has mattered to anyone other than conservative activists, and it has not been covered in the press. If the media doesn’t care about politicians’ hypocrisy, why should the media do hard-hitting reports on fellow journalists? This Hawkins tactic is likely to backfire. While disrupting speakers and digging up dirt on political non-combatants may work for left-wing groups, the media will call conservatives out on these tactics. They’ll point to interrupting speakers as an act of incivility, and they’ll say the assault on journalists threatens to undermine the freedom of the press.
In addition, on campuses, liberals usually have the administration behind them and the administration will, more often than not, ignore acts that are illegal, disruptive, or uncivil. Thus college campuses encourage liberal political thuggery. Seizing a stage while a conservative is speaking is ultimately an act of political intimidation against every conservative on campus. The same will not be allowed to happen with conservative thuggery. It will be dealt with harshly as criminal trespass and as an attempt to stifle free speech.
This is not to say that conservatives should live in fear of the mainstream press or campus authorities. But the right cannot expect to be able to copy legally or morally indefensible tactics from the left and enjoy the same treatment the left does. Thankfully, we have organizations like the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) and the American Center for Law and Justice to defend our free speech rights. But who will take our case if we behave like thugs?
Conservatives do need to develop better strategies and find ways to communicate our message, but becoming as nasty as the fringe left simply won’t work.