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Conservatism’s Best Kept Secret

Bill Shankly

As a self-proclaimed conservative, I have no problem saying that one of my biggest heroes was a self-proclaimed socialist.

Bill Shankly, the legendary coach of Liverpool Football Club, was famous not only for his winning record, but also for his quick wit and quotable one-liners (he was English soccer’s equivalent of Vince Lombardi). “Some people think football is a matter of life and death,” Shankly once said, “I assure you, it’s much more serious than that.”

In one of his more philosophical moments, Shankly explained that the socialism he believed in involved “everybody working for the same goal and everybody having a share in the rewards. That’s how I see football, that’s how I see life.”

John Williams’ book, “Red Men,” depicts how Shankly’s influence started Liverpool on a 40-year path of English football dominance. While many have credited this success to Shankly’s tough-guy collectivism, Williams explains that Shankly was also the first manager to convince the Liverpool board of directors to become more aggressive in the transfer market and start spending the money they needed to build a winning team. Indeed, if it were not for Shankly’s enterprising spirit, he might never have been remembered as one of the greatest soccer coaches of all time, let alone as a “socialist.”

To be clear: I do not support socialism. Nor do I think that socialism would work if only it were only done the “right way”. I’m not convinced, and history has yet to prove, that a “right way” even exists when it comes to running a socialist society.  What I am arguing is that self-proclaimed socialists and liberals (not synonymous categories, mind you) have found the “right way” to communicate their philosophies, and conservatives should learn from them.

The working class community of Liverpool loves Bill Shankly because he “cared about the people.” Those quote marks aren’t sarcastic; as an elite member of Liverpool society, Shankly did not live in a bubble that separated him from the average Liverpudlian. He knew many fans by name, had dinner with them and even attended some of their funerals.

Shankly didn’t start a government program and he didn’t redistribute anyone’s money. What he did was give his own time and resources to help others, and people noticed. Studies have proven that American conservatives donate and volunteer to charitable causes—on average—significantly more often than American liberals. The problem for conservatives is that the American public isn’t noticing.

[pullquote]     Rebranding the Right should be seen as an affirmation of who conservatives really are.[/pullquote]

Because Shankly was known as a “socialist”, the Liverpool public eagerly anticipated any proof that would validate that image. In other words, they were already inclined to believe he was a man who “cared about the people” before his actions even had the chance to demonstrate it.  American conservatives do not have this luxury. Today, people assume liberals care about the poor, while conservatives are expected to prove that they do. Indeed, in the court of public opinion, being conservative is not automatically associated with helping people in need. Nor is conservative policy conflated with social justice. That has to change.

What we need is a rebranding of the conservative image. This involves focusing less on defending the complex strategies (lowering taxes, decreasing regulation, reducing the national debt) and instead emphasizing the positive effects (increased charitable contributions, increased employment, helping people escape from a life of dependency) of conservative policies. Rebranding the Right to portray conservatives as wanting to help the needy should not be seen as a superficial attempt to sway moderates, but rather as an affirmation of who conservatives really are.

The popular but false dichotomy in American politics today is that we are divided between those who “do” care about the less fortunate and those who “don’t.” Both conservatives and liberals care. The difference is that liberals are almost always credited for their intentions, while conservatives are not being fully acknowledged for their actions. Bill Shankly was a man who was celebrated for both.

It’s time for conservatives to follow Shankly’s example. It’s time for their public perception to match reality.