On October 7, I traveled to New York City to interview the “occupiers” protesting in Zuccotti Park. The next day, I attended the Values Voter Summit, the annual gathering of social conservatives hosted by the Family Research Council. I wish I could say I had the foresight to plan this. I had been invited to attend the Summit as a “featured Tweeter” weeks earlier, while the New York trip occurred just days after a colleague joked about giving away books to the protestors. So, whether by providence or dumb luck, it happened that in fewer than 36 hours I experienced a sort of ethnography of the ends of American political culture.
What I learned in New York left me enlivened and optimistic for the future. I walked away from the Values Voter Summit burdened by the dysfunction of a brand of conservatism that is so much smaller than it could be.Walking around the park, I made a point of interviewing those who had been involved from the beginning, were viewed as leaders, and weren’t bombastic (i.e. they would not support defecating on police cars). I’ve experienced the frustration of media reports that stereotype “Tea Partiers” by the actions of the most radical, fringe members. Honesty and loving-kindness required me to be more responsible. It quickly became clear that the protesters, or “occupiers,” are wrong on policy. While the decentralized, diverse nature of their protest makes it impossible to criticize “their” demands, it is fair to characterize the general impetus of their preferred policies as far-left progressivism. I saw protesters advocating higher, more redistributionist taxes, deep cuts in military spending, increased spending on big government programs for health care, education, and green energy, an increase in the minimum wage, free college education and so on. Most occupiers are long on conviction but short on sophisticated thinking. Contradictions abound: Some oppose crony capitalism but support preferential treatment of green energy firms like Solyndra. Others are concerned about the deficit and national debt, but want free college education for everyone. Some detest capitalism, but willingly accept and distribute donations purchased online from Amazon.com and delivered by FedEx. They eat pizza from the shop down the street and document their experiences with iPhones. None of this surprised me. The occupiers are blind with frustration. They lack job prospects, having been let down by the first president they ever voted for—a man who was supposed to change things. Many are the products of American higher education, the last stronghold of their hippie predecessors-turned-professors who continue to espouse ideas otherwise discarded on Reagan’s heap of ashes. All are wanderers, lost in the ever-lengthening void between childhood and maturity, unmoored and anxious. Twenty years ago, Christopher McCandless tramped his way to Alaska in a Kerouacian search for significance (chronicled in Jon Krakauer’s classic book Into the Wild). Twenty years later, these are his kids. Despite the ignorance and self-evident hypocrisy, I found myself drawn to the protesters. Despite their wrongheaded policy views, they are driven by a desire for justice, peace, freedom, fairness, and—yes—for prosperity. They are animated by the belief that we can be better than we currently are. In fact, their movement is a microcosm of American exceptionalism. Here we see a few dozen strangers who have descended on an empty plot of land and formed a community. Within a few days, as individuals began to see the unique contributions they were able to make, they had established a library, a post office and a kitchen. Someone recognized the need to wash the dishes piling up in the kitchen, so they built an elaborate system of water filtration out of dirt, rocks, plastic barrels and PVC pipe. Someone makes buttons. Another trades drawings for books, food or anything else that might be useful. It’s a marketplace, driven by the entrepreneurial spirit to contribute to the common good. Quickly, the protestors realized that if their community was going to work, they needed rules—and a system to encourage compliance. I met Sophie who described her role as a “community mediator.” “There were some disagreements about substance use in the park. So we have to work that stuff out,” she explained. Every so often, a protester would yell out, “Mic check!” Those nearby would echo, “Mic check!” The process was repeated until everyone was listening. Because bullhorns aren’t allowed in the park, the protesters used this system to echo an individual’s message to the entire group. “Five volunteers are needed to sort the mail.” As I explored Zuccotti Park and interviewed its citizens I thought of Tocqueville. The occupiers are quintessentially American—and many are conservatives. They just don’t realize it. This intuition was confirmed during my favorite conversation of the day. When I first saw Eddie, he was sitting Indian-style on the ground next to another young man. He wore a camouflage jacket, beaded necklaces, and rainbow-colored spandex pants. They were singing what I later learned was an anthem of the Lakota nation. Eddie’s outfit caught my eye, but the chorus he sang captured my curiosity:
__________________________________________________As I descended the steps into Zuccotti Park, I reaffirmed my commitment to fairness. It would be easy to identify the most-pierced or most homely looking for juicy quotes. My goal was different. I wanted to learn and, perhaps, to share my own perspective. So, I put on a disposition of warmth and generosity.
I love you so, so, so, so much. I love you so, so, so, so much.Eddie later explained to me that he had been arrested during the protests and that he was harboring animosity towards the police. The song was an attempt at forgiveness. A little weird, sure, but the underlying sentiment is admirable. After a few minutes, Eddie got to talking about healthcare. He surprised me by admitting that he didn’t think the federal government could do a very good job at managing it. He described a vision wherein each state was charged with providing care as it saw fit. Such a system would enable 50 laboratories of innovation that could experiment and share best practices. Dumbfounded, I said that his idea sounded a lot like the plans of some Republicans like Rep. Paul Ryan to give states block grants of federal money and allow each to determine how to best spend the money. “What do you think?” I asked. “Awesome! I think that’s a great idea.” He exclaimed. It’s unlikely that Eddie woke up the next morning, shaved his goatee, and applied for a job at The Heritage Foundation. But our short conversation planted a seed and showed Eddie that maybe conservative ideas aren’t all bad.
__________________________________________________Whatever hope I had for the natural conservative impulse I discovered at Occupy Wall Street was dashed the next day. The Values Voter Summit was tainted by ideologues and infighting. The hate speech was sickening. It was conservatism defined by antipathy. It was anti-gay, anti-Muslim and anti-Mormon. The disdain for our fellow citizens was surpassed only by the fearful prospect of four more years of Obama. As the crowd of over 3,000 applauded, I sat. “Is this really what we are about?” The final event of my day was a break-out session for young conservative leaders, moderated by my friend Darin Miller and featuring prominent young activists Lila Rose and Jason Mattera, author of the New York Times bestseller Obama Zombies. After listening to Mattera mock liberals and congratulate himself for a series of guerrilla-style interviews of prominent politicians and activists, I left. Later, via Twitter I asked him, “Do you worry about your style alienating potential conservatives?” A few minutes later he responded: “Nah, I’m just being me.” “Due respect,” I wrote back, “but that’s a cop out. Your whole thing is education, why not expect more of yourself? We need to be effective. Presumably (and correctly) you wouldn’t accept an ‘occupier’ saying, ‘I’m just being me’.” Mattera replied, “If tightwads are offended by my ‘style’ (read: my personality), oh well. They need a life. ‘Occupiers’ have no reason for existence. They don’t even have the insight to know what ‘I’m just being me’ means.” (Note—this is slightly edited for clarity and grammar) Back to me: “To sum up, your reply to the fact that your rhetoric may make it harder for your fellow conservatives is ‘get a life?’” Mattera: “Yes. And, if can add, grow some balls.” Jason is a product of a contemporary conservative movement that has lost any sense of the artfulness and humanity required if we are going to appeal to the majority of Americans who don’t align inalterably with the Right in American politics. His tutors were on stage. In eight hours at the Summit, not a single speaker articulated an argument about the justice inherent to free enterprise. No one explained why conservative policies are the most fair. No one said a word about helping the poor. Conservatives complain that we are depicted as heartless, concerned more with tax rates and fidelity to the Constitution than the homeless and single working mothers. It isn’t true. I’m a conservative because my faith compels me to love my neighbor. I’m an advocate of the free market because I know that capitalism is the system that makes everyone wealthier, healthier, safer, and more educated. I felt alone at the Values Voter Summit. The rhetoric flowing there had the affect of inoculating me—a committed conservative—from wanting to hear any more. Imagine how off-putting it is to those on the fence.
It’s time for a new kind of conversation. Articulating the conservative vision should be a romance. Conservatives can woo the undecided to our side and recapture the hearts of those whose fidelity to progressivism is shallow.Like dating, this will take work. We have to keep the end-goal in mind. It’s a process, requiring patience and the portrayal of our best selves. This means demonstrating an ability to engage in roundabout, inefficient dialogue. It means affirming the other, gently and gracefully offering alternatives (or not). It means putting out an attractive quality that compels the other to want to know more.