It’s fall, which means the college speakers are flocking toward the campuses. That brings a question to mind: why are conservatives so obsessed with the idea of high-profile conservatives speaking to college students, anyway?
If you’re the speaker, going from college town to college town giving a stump speech to crowds of impressed young people is a pretty decent way to live. It’s good for the ego, good for the wallet, and it probably gets you invited to great parties every so often.
But what if you’re a college student? For them, and for the rest of us, there’s much less tangible benefit. Treating righty students as if their purpose is to provide a cushy lifestyle for righty pundits funded out of donors’ pockets or college activity fees doesn’t help them make a difference on the campuses they live on.
Instead, righty students are taught to admire evangelists and pundits, and to themselves aspire to evangelism and punditry. This has produced a conservative grassroots obsessed with the importance of sharing ideas, but with no understanding of how to carve out a space for those ideas to take root, or to enact them in any way but with the brute force of state power.
People on the right — and this includes the mainstream, fringe, and radicals — are trained to believe that the seeds of ideas are scattered in the wind, and somehow magically find purchase and grow. Clear the land? Till the soil? What’s that?
Why Do We Even Do This, Anyway?
It sounds a little crazy when you think about it. So how did we get to this point? For that matter, why is conservatism — a family-oriented philosophy that attracts adherents as they grow older and have children — so obsessed with addressing young people who mostly don’t have children yet?
The answer is: because William F. Buckley, Jr. did it. Buckley was born rich and connected, but he came to prominence with “God and Man at Yale,” the seminal conservative college student’s gripe about leftist professors. He became president of Frank Chodorov’s Intercollegiate Society of Individualists (now the Intercollegiate Studies Institute), did campus tours Ben Shapiro-fashion, founded National Review, started Young Americans for Freedom, hosted “Firing Line” on television, and oh yeah, laid the foundation of the modern conservative movement in America.
Unlike a lot of righties since, Buckley didn’t just look at principles; he looked at what had historically worked, which is why he emulated successful actions performed by earlier generations of the left. As Rick Perlstein notes in “Before the Storm,” the ISI (which Buckley did his campus tours to promote) was modeled on Jack London’s Intercollegiate Socialist Society, which was established in 1905; National Review was modeled on The New Republic and The Nation, influential publications among college students of the 1920s and 1930s.
As righties in Buckley’s heyday saw it, Intercollegiate Socialist Society alumni and TNR and Nation readers graduated college, grew up, and went on to sell the nation on Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal. A generation later, a counter-operation was needed. “What were the lefties doing 20-50 years ago?” the right asked itself. “Let’s do that.”
Overemphasis on Punditry and Not Enough on Organizing
But in 2019, we’re not even looking at what the lefties did 50 years ago. We’re looking at what we did 50 years ago. Buckley did campus tours? We’ll do campus tours! Buckley made a news commentary outlet? We’ll make news commentary outlets! Buckley was a television conservative commentator? We’ll be television conservative commentators!
Looking to What Buckley Did for a couple of ideological generations has made punditry the only upwardly mobile path outside of elected office that young conservatives see to emulate. William F. Buckleys are important; every movement needs William F. Buckleys. But a movement that’s all William F. Buckleys is just ten thousand people with podcasts all interviewing each other.
For an illustration of how the Buckley Model is damaging our bench, look at the contrast between the lefty and righty Parkland students who’ve gone on to public life. Yes, professionals did the heavy lifting for the lefty Parkland kids, and yes, the lefty Parkland kids took their turn at punditry; they got publicity, wrote op-eds, and gave interviews. But they did so much more, because their entire movement was structured as a learning experience.
To start with, the Parkland kids’ organization Never Again MSD is a political action committee. That means a bunch of teenagers were taught what a political action committee is, how to form one, and the advantages of forming a PAC rather than another type of organization for what they were looking to do.
Officeholders and teachers’ unions helped coordinate and mobilize a bus trip, which taught the kids how to mobilize a turnout. The kids were involved in the pressure campaign that saw the National Rifle Association lose a bunch of special corporate deals for NRA members. Then they were part of March for Our Lives, which involved coordinating events featuring hundreds of thousands of people in the main march in DC and more in hundreds of satellite events.
No, they weren’t leading any of this stuff. But they were absolutely being trained in how it works and how to do it. That meant they were in a good place to do more modest stuff later, like the town halls and voter registration drives they put on in 2018. And they’re in a good place to do bigger stuff in time.
Contrast That with Right Parkland Kids
Before he was cancelled, righty Parkland student Kyle Kashuv was trained to do exactly none of those things, and there was only one of him. Kashuv landed under the wing of prominent righties, and their contribution to his professional development was to teach him to yammer in a media studio, on Twitter, and behind podiums, and to do it by himself.
This isn’t just one atypical failure. It’s emblematic. There’s no better place to see this than on college campuses: Lefty college students learn to analyze a situation, to construct solutions, to organize for power, to pressure their schools to grant demands. Righty college students learn to buy an affirmative action bake sale in a box.
If you ask conservative college students about the training they get from their organizations — I have — you tend to get baffled looks. Click around on conservative college organization websites: the focus is on forming chapters, bringing speakers, and attending conferences (i.e., going to the speakers). These offerings are insufficient. And though this is because we’re slavishly copying him, it isn’t Buckley’s fault; it’s ours.
If conservatives want a healthier, stronger, more effective movement, we need to encourage other kinds of conservative activism. Maybe putting less of an emphasis on, you know, becoming famous.
Here’s What That Would Look Like
What would quiet conservative activism look like? Well, if you want to see how it looks to the other team, fire up Netflix and check out “The Family,” a highly critical account of the folks behind the National Prayer Breakfast, most notably the late Doug Coe. The docudrama miniseries based on Jeff Sharlet’s books paints its subjects as terrifying and insidious corrupters of the nation, and in the process — like Don Blankenship dubbing Mitch McConnell “Cocaine Mitch” — actually makes them sound pretty freakin’ awesome.
For those who aren’t familiar with the National Prayer Breakfast, it’s an annual event held in Washington, D.C. that’s been attended by every president of the United States since Dwight Eisenhower. The main breakfast is held on a Thursday morning, but there are events before and after. Organized events are officially two and a half days but sessions have sprung up around it, before and after, even into the weekend, allowing international visitors to network and get to know each other.
You don’t buy a ticket to the prayer breakfast. You have to be invited. It’s not unheard of for people with tickets to sell access, though, because if you’re at the Prayer Breakfast, you’ll meet prominent people from all over the world, many of them with serious political power.
The origin of the Prayer Breakfast lies in a body of 19 businessmen assembled in Seattle in April 1935 by Abraham Vereide (pronounced ver-EE-dee). A Norwegian immigrant, Vereide had done extensive work with the poor, but the 1934 longshoreman’s strike up and down the west coast made him decide something had to be done to counter rising subversive forces.
As he put it, that something was “a fellowship of responsible men, banded together to promote a leadership led by God.” Vereide later moved to Washington, D.C. and set about replicating his Seattle success, bringing together Christian prayer groups comprised of people from both parties.
In 1953, Vereide’s prayer groups invited President Eisenhower to come to a National Prayer Breakfast. Ike saw this as a fine opportunity to contrast the United States with godless Communism, so he came — and in 1954, the Prayer Breakfast became an annual tradition with the overall goal to (per internal documentation shown on-screen) “generate a genuine spiritual awakening around the world.” When Veriede died in 1969, the reins passed to Coe, who took an approach celebrity-seeking conservatives would find downright alien.
Not Attention, But Effectiveness
Coe didn’t want publicity. He didn’t even want to be known: the work was bigger than him, he said. As former Rep. Zach Wamp (Tennessee, 1995-2011) recalls to the documentarians: “He believed what the Word says, that if it’s about our flesh and it’s about our fame and it’s about our popularity, then we’re getting in the way of what Jesus is trying to do with people, and he removed himself from it.”
Coe wanted the organization he led to be invisible, too. Internal paperwork calls it a non-organization. “Everything visible,” he tells one audience in archival footage shown in the first episode, “is transitory. Everything invisible is permanent and lasts forever. The more you can make your organization invisible, the more influence it will have.” It doesn’t even take public credit for its biggest event. The organization doesn’t invite people to the prayer breakfast; congressmen do it under their own names.
For Sharlet, all of this is subterfuge, and repulsive. The Prayer Breakfast is part of a “profoundly undemocratic movement” whose central idea is, as Sharlet puts it, “Let us find the key men put in positions of power by God. And let us give them the support they need. Let us love them.”
To Sharlet and the documentarians adapting his books, this is obviously nefarious: “either the most naive theology ever created, or the most cynical one.” Regarding the Prayer Breakfast, Sharlet poses the question: “Are they witting or unwitting accomplices to those who are uninterested in Jesus, but simply wanting to use this access?” (He decides the answer is “witting.”)
Don’t Let Prejudice Stop You From Reconsidering
Having worked abroad in cultures very different from my own, I saw something familiar in Sharlet’s and the filmmakers’ reactions to their subject: not just ideological difference, but a gulf resulting from deep cultural difference. When you’re working in somebody else’s culture, the differences you encounter fall into one of two categories.
There’s the simple etiquette stuff you can explain in a sentence, and there’s the really deep-seated divergence that makes you think the other person is an utter weirdo or a complete jerk (of course, they’re thinking the same thing about you). Some of the filmmakers’ opposition to the prayer breakfast folks is that they want different things. But a large part of it is visceral objection to a very different, deep-seated worldview, rather like conservatives reacting to the notion that conservatives need to learn from lefty organizing.
When Coe says, “I wanted to start prayer breakfasts in all the nations. I wanted to start groups that reach the leaders, and if you reach the leaders the whole nation will be influenced for Christ, and all the people will come to Christ, if we reach these leaders,” the filmmakers can’t entertain the notion that he might actually believe this Jesus stuff as personally transformative. So the series portrays everything he did as horrifying and untrustworthy.
Coe eschewed publicity, insisted things weren’t about him, and quietly and patiently built up an organization focused on work over glory. Netflix uses every filmmaking tool in the book to ask, in effect, “Now, isn’t that nefarious and scary?”
We Need More Doug Coes, Stat
This is not the sort of rhetorical question you pose to a conservative desperate to achieve effect whose party is awash in wannabe pundits and brand-building grifters. I am not even a Christian, but — all apologies to the Coe family — watching this show made me want to dig up Doug Coe’s grave and clone him immediately. It’s a little hard to be terrified of a group when you’re wondering, “Why the heck are these guys not giving organizing seminars?!”
Coe took the opposite route of William F. Buckley. He didn’t want to be famous; he didn’t want to be known. He shut up, kept his head down, did the work, and focused on friendships. And he didn’t get famous, but he build something impressive that does a lot of work around the world.
Imagine if we had more Doug Coes.
Imagine if we had a lot more Doug Coes.
Imagine if we taught people to be like Doug Coe in service of whatever causes they personally care about. How different would our college campuses be?
Or we could keep writing newspaper columns that college administrations ignore, and letters that they throw away, and inviting speakers who come for an evening, fatten their wallets, and then leave.
We’re Not In the 1950s or 1980s Anymore
I’m a great admirer of William F. Buckley, Jr.’s work. But times have changed, and Buckley’s methods aren’t sufficient anymore. Look at the changes we’ve seen in, for example, sports since Buckley’s heyday — not just in chemical enhancement, but in training methods, and in our understanding of the human body. Imagine entering a sports event training the way people trained fifty years ago: everyone else in the competition would eat your lunch. Well, that’s what we do, and that’s why the lefties are feasting.
Emulating what Buckley did won’t allow us to build on his accomplishments. The effect has been the opposite. Our obsession with How Buckley Did It has decimated our ability to accomplish anything we want. On college campuses, conservative students have been reduced to passive consumers. In the world at large, generations of ambitious conservatives dream of achieving influence but don’t understand how to grow power. And this isn’t Buckley’s fault, it’s ours.
So to hell with the Buckley model. It’s time for college students to stop focusing on expensive famous speakers. Instead, try inviting people who’ve done practical things, and have them tell students how they did them, so that the students might learn to make practical accomplishments of their own. Turn the focus to accomplishments. And don’t just be content with the same small number of people at every meeting, because if you do want to share ideas, making new friends to share those ideas with is a key step.
Conservatives need to try something different. Coe’s example might not be a bad place to start.