We read in Scipture, “…for the children of this world are wiser in their generation” (Luke 16:8); but the same could equally apply to the public battle of ideas.
Conservatives, Christians, the “Right” — anybody engaged politically against so-called “Progressives” — are more often than not woefully unprepared for the task. This may sound like a sweeping generalisation, but the claim is easy to substantiate.
Whether in Australia or abroad, consider the current state of conservative, pro-life or pro-family organisations.
Such groups are invariably fewer in number than opposing outfits. They have fewer members and supporters — and certainly much less funding. Their objectives often lack definition, their tactics are outdated or unworkable, and their situational and technological awareness ranges from “moderate” to “downright awful”. They often rely on ageing supporters and diminishing goodwill, trading on their legacy.
The Left may face similar headaches, but can afford to bear them in an environment more conducive to its goals.
The asymmetrical nature of the contest is not a recent observation. Many News Weekly readers will recall B.A. “Bob” Santamaria’s missives, the writings of British historian Arnold J. Toynbee, and the concept of creative minorities which generate change in societies.
Similar concerns about how a political group can be ill-prepared to meet its challenges, were expressed by Frenchman Jean Ousset and British ex-Communist Douglas Hyde.
Jean Ousset (1914-1994) was something of a French Santamaria. While his personal background was radically different from that of his Australian contemporary, his postwar anti-Communist organising directly paralleled the origins of the Movement/National Civic Council. In his insightful book, Action: A Manual for the Reconstruction of Christendom (1967), Ousset decries a situation which sees Christians strategically and tactically outflanked by the secular Left.
In a telling illustration, he describes visiting two different types of bookstore: one Catholic, the other Marxist. In the former, Ousset finds all manner of “what”, but no explanation of “how” (at least in its application to the world around us). In the latter shop, he finds plenty of manuals and handbooks on “how”, despite the “what” being fairly light on and lacking in quality.
Douglas Hyde (1911-1996), meanwhile, was a British Communist who converted to Catholicism after the Iron Curtain descended across postwar Europe. In his autobiography, I Believed (1950), and works such as Dedication and Leadership (1966) — the latter still in print after 50 years — Hyde points to the sophistication of the Left’s methods. Perhaps most importantly, he also describes the attitude of the good Communist cadre — one of absolute resolve and certainty of “success”.
Hyde highlights this political asymmetry in order to pose the vital question: what can we learn from our opponents? His answer is, in essence: a great deal. His books, as with Ousset’s, began something of an attempt to distil what learning he felt was useful — and, most importantly, morally permissible.
These books, while written for Catholic audiences in France and Britain respectively, are essential reading for anyone serious about shifting the terms of public debate and effecting outcomes when it matters.
But beyond reading a few well-thumbed books, how can conservative and Christian activists begin to level the uneven playing-field? Based on this writer’s professional experience, the following five points are suggested for consideration. (This list is far from exhaustive. A more comprehensive list would require a much longer article).
1) Learning from other organisations. Individuals and organisations should do more to learn from each other — as well as from opponents.
2) Improved use of new technology. Social media, for example, is not a gimmick or passing fad. It is a daily part of the lives of millions of Australians and provides incredible opportunities to circumvent the mainstream secular media.
3) Adequate resourcing of grassroots supporters. It is no longer enough for organisations to mail their supporters a printed list of MPs and their addresses to hang up on the fridge. A more productive method is to equip conservative activists with sophisticated up-to-date guides and political background briefings (why not online?).
4) A better pitch by organisations to their supporters. Many groups limp along on a shoestring budget and a largely passive support base. This will not improve until the organisation’s leadership can make a more convincing case for why funds are needed and why it is vital for supporters to be more involved in campaigns so that they take ownership of the work.
5) Training in public leadership. Australia needs an equivalent to the U.S.-based Leadership Institute for training conservative activists, students and leaders. Our country already has numerous groups and special events that do an admirable job of equipping leaders; but their scope is too narrow, their courses too short or infrequent, or their age limit restricted to youth only. The Leadership Institute has, since 1979, trained and placed thousands of graduates in America. Its replication here could have a major impact on public life.
The Leadership Institute’s president and founder, Morton C. Blackwell, summed it up well when he said recently: “You owe it to your philosophy to study how to win.”
Damian Wyld is South Australian state president of the National Civic Council.