Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Conservative 'dead wood'

Erick Erickson writes:
Inside the conservative movement, there is a lot of deadwood -- institutions and personalities who continue sucking up resources long after the usefulness of the organization is over. . . .
There are few truly indispensable people in the movement and far too many dispensable people who think they are indispensable. Likewise, there are too many conservative organizations that operate as employment vehicles for out of work politicians still needing their egos stroked.
Conservatism must be about the advancement of freedom and opportunity, not the advancement of any one person. Thus we need to rebuild the movement and burn up the dead wood.
Erick here puts his finger on the problem of the conservative movement's institutional inertia. Over the past 40 years, conservatism has established numerous institutions that have grown and flourished and done valuable service. Many of those institutions remain vital and effective.

But there are other institutions that have bogged down into the rut of habit: Doing what they've always done because . . . well, because it's what they've always done. And even those institutions that are relatively effective may be less effective than they could be because of inertia. Why should a previously successful organization change its ways? And why should an organization with a multimillion-dollar budget try to hustle and scrap and work overtime as if it were an underfunded startup?

Methods of activism that were effective in 1978 or 1989 or 1994 may not be effective in 2008. While conservative principles may be timeless, the messages by which those principles are conveyed might need to be reframed in language that better speaks to the interests and cultural background of the younger generation, and conveyed through new media channels. But this kind of updating is hard to do when entrenched institutions are staffed by time-servers whose chief interest is the maintence of their own personal turf.

One of the things that the conservative movement sorely lacks is "outsider eyes." The movement takes in young cradle Republicans, trains them in its beliefs and methods, and then buries them inside institutions where everyone else has undergone the same process. It's impossible for any of them to "think outside the box" for the very reason that none of them have ever been outside the box. The situation resembles that described by John Stuart Mill in On Liberty:
If every part of the business of society which required organized concert, or large and comprehensive views, were in the hands of the government, and if government offices were universally filled by the ablest men, all the enlarged culture and practised intelligence in the country, except the purely speculative, would be concentrated in a numerous bureaucracy, to whom alone the rest of the community would look for all things: the multitude for direction and dictation in all they had to do; the able and aspiring for personal advancement. To be admitted into the ranks of this bureaucracy, and when admitted, to rise therein, would be the sole objects of ambition. Under this regime, not only is the outside public ill-qualified, for want of practical experience, to criticize or check the mode of operation of the bureaucracy, but even if the accidents of despotic or the natural working of popular institutions occasionally raise to the summit a ruler or rulers of reforming inclinations, no reform can be effected which is contrary to the interest of the bureaucracy.
Bureaucratic ossification doesn't affect only government agencies, you see. Every long-established organization has its institutional habits, and systemic inertia always favors the maintenance of the status quo. And not even spectacular failure, like that which the conservative movement has experienced over the past few years, can overcome that inertia.

Much of the institutional bureaucracy of the conservative movement is dead wood, as Erick says, and the urgent question is, what can be done about it?

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