Paul Weyrich, co-founder of the Heritage Foundation, the Free Congress Foundation, and numerous other conservative organizations, has passed away. His talent was organization: perceiving that ideas alone would not carry the conservative movement and then going out to create the organizations that would spread conservative ideas, develop future leaders, and energize the grassroots.
His passing comes at a particularly critical time for conservatives and emphasizes the enormous challenges on the Right. The leaders of Weyrich’s generation are passing from the scene, the institutions which they founded have matured. But the question remains: what next?
There is not just an intellectual dilemma for conservatives — which keeps pundits bickering about the meaning and direction of “conservatism” — but a realization that the organizational and technological advantage which conservatives enjoyed for nearly a generation has been matched or exceeded by the other side. One can quibble that the liberal opposition is not an intellectually robust or coherent one, but it is a darn successful political force which has swept to coast-to-coast wins in two successive election cycles.
As for conservatives, the existing institutions don’t quite seem sufficient to the task of growing the party, developing new talent, and incubating new ideas. Perhaps what is already there can be enhanced, but it may be that entirely new groups must be created to rebuild and revitalize a movement that is not just intellectually depressed but organizationally weak. So, while pundits already obsess over the next presidential nominee, a better question is: who will be the next Paul Weyrich?
The identity of the individual or individuals is not clear, but the need is apparent.
There is a gap currently on the Right. On one hand, there are familiar groups (e.g,. NRA, Right to Life) and conservative think tanks. But these don’t provide the electoral machinery to groom candidates and to win elections. And their reach beyond hardcore conservatives is limited. The former have lost some of their relevance as their single-issue causes fade in importance, while the latter are not designed as political action groups.
On the political side is the creaky RNC, which is technologically bereft and nearly irrelevant as a political institution. Young techo-whizzes therefore have popped up, promising to revive the party with innovative marketing and technology. But they lack content. What do they want to organize for? What do conservatives want to social network about? It is not at all clear.
The time therefore is ripe for a new generation of conservative leaders who have the ability to organize, invigorate, and give purpose to conservatives outside the Beltway. It is not enough for conservatives to oppose cap-and-trade policies — they need an alternative to left-leaning environmental action groups. It is not enough for pundits to bemoan the lack of Republican appeal to nonwhite voters — they need Hispanic, African-American, and Asian-American conservatives to organize in their communities, support new candidates, and translate the conservative agenda into alternatives to the NAACP and LULAC.
The generation of Ronald Reagan, of which Weyrich was a prominent member, also carried with it a spirit and attitude which is largely absent on the Right today. They were feisty, fun, optimistic, and, yes, cool. The “establishment” was the Left while they were the counterculture, at least the political counterculture. They were not a bitter, paranoid, and angry bunch — qualities too often in evidence today. And they were not scolds.
The Right reacted to Sarah Palin for many reasons, but in large part, I suspect it is that she was bright, cheery, and looked like she was having some fun out there. The generation of conservatives who are going to do the organizing, find the leaders, and translate think tank research into a viable political platform better be happy warriors or they will find it hard to find adherents.
So if Weyrich’s passing gives conservatives time to reflect, they might recall two accomplishments of his generation. They built structures that advanced the conservative cause. And they had a good time doing it. That’s an example worth following.