by Rod D. Martin
March 27, 2001

Conservatives forever complain about their political leaders. But they don’t do a lot about it.

Liberals (or more precisely, Leftists) are quite different. Coming as they do mostly from distinct interest groups possessing activist political cultures and a sense of victimization (be they unionized workers, civil rights activists, feminists or whomever), leftists grow up on a steady diet not only of ideas, but of the strategies and tactics necessary to win. From cradle to grave, they look to the state as a sort of political savior, and they learn early how to get from it what they want.

By contrast, conservatives do not and never have thought in these terms. Generally, conservatives just want to be left alone, and see government as a necessary evil, nothing more. Their lives focus elsewhere: business, church, family, civic groups, almost anywhere but politics. They see political activity not as a perpetual opportunity to gain advantages, but as an arena where (every so often) they must defend themselves from the latest government encroachment.

This difference in culture is staggering, and accounts for much of the Left’s success in the 20th Century. Conservatives do not think politically; Liberals do. And while the Left hones its strategies and tactics year after year – spread across millions of individual people and thousands of institutions – conservatives wake up periodically, notice there’s an election, expend a little half-hearted effort, and go back to sleep.

Because of this relative detachment, conservatives demonstrate a remarkably persistent naiveté. Not only do they rarely understand the system (or what the Left has done and continues to do to them); they also subscribe year after year to the Sir Galahad theory of politics: “our ideas will win because our hearts are pure.” This foolishness costs their movement not only elections but innumerable volunteers (and donors) every year, good men and women who cannot understand why their sheer rightness has not persuaded and conquered all. Meanwhile, the Left marches on.

The hard truth is, however wonderful our ideas may be, it is not those ideas but the actions they inspire which have consequences in the real world.1 And all those whiney conservatives, waiting for Trent Lott (or whomever) to effortlessly give them their hearts’ desires, are getting exactly what they deserve. The concept is as old as the Bible: those who do not work, shall not eat.

At times almost despite themselves, conservatives over the past generation have come to hold tremendous influence. They have also held some power. The confusion of these concepts has lead to much needless consternation.

In Morton Blackwell’s words, “Power means you can make things happen. Influence means that those with power will return your telephone calls and seriously consider what you suggest. Only those with power govern.”

The aim of any political movement is power, power for the purpose of implementing the movement’s beliefs. All the influence in the world will not replace this power. In the 1990s, many conservatives became highly disillusioned with their leaders, who seemed to constantly compromise. They failed to understand that though Republicans held the Congress, conservatives were still a minority. They had gained tremendous influence, but only a share of the power. Having a seat at the table, they could dicker, but they could not dictate. They needed numbers.

There’s only one way they will ever get those numbers: they must elect more conservatives. Not Republicans; conservatives. This is no slap at the Republican Party: it is simply a recognition that the two ideas are not synonymous, however much overlap there may be, and that if conservatives want that to change, they’ll have to work for that too. Furthermore, it’s a statement that the party primary often matters a great deal; and that – as the Left has always known – the political cycle is year-round, every year. In that never-ending fight, it is the candidates who go out to do battle, who bleed and sweat and die for your beliefs. And at the end of the day, they – and only they – will have a chance to make and execute the laws.

Most people will never be candidates. At most they will only have influence (which is certainly not to be despised), and many won’t even have that. But they can give their ideas power – and exercise a measure of power themselves – by working hard for a candidate who shares their views. In fact, there is absolutely no more effective way than this by which the average person may bring about meaningful political change.

The question for many, therefore, becomes: “So what can I do? And what could I possibly offer.” The answer is, “Quite a lot!” For all the talk of big money in politics, the truth is that most campaigns are run on shoestrings, with the lion’s share of what cash there might be going to television ads at the very end, leaving all the real work to be done on almost nothing. Nowhere is this more true than in a challenger race, where a (usually semi-unknown) candidate tries to make headway against everything the other party can throw at him, and often everything his own party can throw at him too (this is not a criticism: parties shouldn’t just give away their nomination, after all). This is usually your candidate (we’re trying to gain seats, after all): tired, broke and pummeled from all sides.

Yes, there’s quite a lot you can do for this candidate. Even a handful of truly faithful people could change his world, and the outcome of the election.

Speaking as a lifelong activist (on more than one continent), I submit the following items you can and should do for the standard-bearer of your choice. The list is not exhaustive, but it will keep you both busy and effective.

1. PICK A CANDIDATE. With all due respect to those wonderful men and women who yearly work in support of every candidate in sight, there remains great wisdom in Christ’s words that no one can serve two masters. The average volunteer has neither time nor mental energy for more than one race, at least not beyond a superficial level. Hence, if you don’t pick one candidate on whom to focus, you will do a bad job for everyone, and advance the cause very little.

Picking a candidate is a matter of taste: who excites you, who believes most like you, who is running for an office you care about, who is running against someone you really want defeated. The issue is not whether you throw yourself wholeheartedly into a campaign for Congress or for Justice of the Peace; rather, the issue is whether you pick one and follow through.

Finally, make your choice early and stick like glue. The early phases of a campaign are generally its most tenuous, with limited support, little or no money, and the most overwhelming task of all: getting noticed and breaking out of the pack. Likewise, later on, the campaign will certainly face any number of challenges, from run-away success (which often leads to complacency and defeat) to persistently low polling numbers (which are often misleading, but run away crucial support) to crippling allegations (which may or may not be true) to internal incompetence or strife among the volunteers or staff. Murphy’s Law was specifically written for political campaigns, and you need to be there through thick and thin, working like everything depended on you. When the smoke clears, and hordes of others have fallen away, it may just turn out that everything did.

2. PICK THE RIGHT CANDIDATE. Since you’re going to be working so hard and so long for this person, you really need to pick well from the start. Again, this is a matter of taste; and yet most conservatives have very specific ideological views they want their candidates to share, and insofar as possible this should be determined up front.

This is not to say that the candidate owes you limitless time; neither is it to say that you have a right to treat him rudely or “examine” him like a professor. But if he’s written extensively (and some candidates have), read what he’s written. Call him on the phone or email him: some candidates respond very well to this. If he’s reasonably accessible, feel free to ask him to dinner (and buy his dinner: he’s broke. He’s giving up all his time, income and personal savings to work around the clock for you). Don’t get offended if he’s not available, either (and expect to be passed to a scheduler): he has a family, possibly a job, and literally thousands if not millions of other people also seeking his time. If worse comes to worst, you can usually speak with him at or after political meetings or speeches.

But somehow, get to know him, not necessarily like you know your best friend, but well enough to determine whether you think he’s a good guy, whether you trust him, and whether you want to see him win. When the chips are down, these feelings and impressions may make the difference between victory and defeat.

3. CUT HIM SOME SLACK. Once you’ve picked him, remember that the candidate is human, just like you. You make mistakes, you sometimes fail to think before you speak, you don’t always know everything about everything, and every now and then you do something really wrong. So does your candidate. Take it for granted.

Now admittedly, if the candidate turns out to be an ax-murderer, you might want to re-think your support. But short of that, it’s important to be very realistic: just as when you married, you picked this guy for better or worse, and you know on the front end he’s going to have unseen warts. Bailing at the first sign of trouble – or at the first policy disagreement – is not only bad form, it’s cowardly. And if you’re looking for a candidate who perfectly reflects your own views, go run yourself.

Now of course, you may certainly seek to educate your candidate: maybe he just doesn’t understand, or hasn’t ever thought about what you believe, or is getting bad advice. Look for an opportunity to politely, concisely and effectively present your side. But don’t take it personally if you fail to convince him: you may well do so later, and even if you don’t, if you picked him in the first place, chances are that disagreements on one or two issues are nothing compared to all the things about which you agree.

4. GIVE MONEY, EVEN IF IT’S ONLY A LITTLE. No matter what you can or cannot give, this matters, more than you know. And the earlier you give, the more it matters.

Everyone knows that campaigns run on money; what they don’t always grasp is that a successful candidate must spend at least half his time just raising that cash. Challengers have a special problem, in that the people who can most help them judge their viability by how much they raise early, and from how many different donors they raise it. Your $25 check is a vital part of building the support your candidate needs from so-called “major donors”, from the party committees in Washington, from potential endorsers, and from the media. It will also buy about 167 desperately-needed bulk-rate stamps.

Obviously, it is essential that you give as much as you can. Far fewer people are giving than you think, and your candidate is spending enormous time (and money) reaching them. Your early help will make his work easier, more effective, and more concentrated on actual campaigning. Oh, and one other thing: if a candidate tells you he’s in a financial crisis, don’t just assume it’s a sales pitch. It’s almost always true.

5. LET THE CAMPAIGN KNOW YOU’RE AVAILABLE, AND FIND OUT WHAT IT NEEDS. As important as money is, nothing you can give is so valuable as your time; and the campaign could never pay enough people to replace its better volunteers. Be one.

How do you do this? Call the campaign and let them know you want to help. Below I will give some specific ideas which you should offer (the campaign does not always know what it needs, since it’s almost always understaffed and under-funded); however, you should also make yourself generally available, and be open to the specific requests the campaign may make.

Who do I mean when I say “the campaign”? There’s no one answer. It could be a campaign manager, a volunteer coordinator, a scheduler, the candidate himself, or any number of other people. And it may well shift from week to week.

Don’t let this daunt you. Just go with the flow, and be patient. If you’ve offered yourself and the campaign hasn’t gotten back with you, politely offer again, and again: chances are, you’ve gotten lost in an almost impossible shuffle (and if you have time and organization ability, this may be your cue to volunteer as an office manager). Don’t be foolishly offended by the chaos that characterizes every campaign. Instead, view it as an opportunity to make a desperately needed difference.

6. HOST AN EVENT. More than anything else, candidates need exposure and money. Kill two birds with one stone and host a coffee (or something bigger).

Nothing is as important as these events, whereby you bring your candidate and your friends together. The friends will come for your sake; the candidate will gain credibility with them because of you; and if you pass the plate, you’ll raise some money, all for the cost of some Folger’s.

Many successful candidates learn to book three to five of these a day, which should tell you how vital they are, and which should also tell you how many people are going to have to agree to host them. Don’t wait to be asked: volunteer early, and often.

7. MAKE PHONE CALLS. Phone banks cost a lot of money, but are a phenomenally effective tool, for polling, fundraising, getting out the vote and a thousand other things. You can save the campaign tons of cash by being a phone volunteer. It’s not the most pleasant work you’ll ever do, but it can be very rewarding, and is vital to the effort. Make sure the campaign provides you a script, and practice it a few times before you start your calls.

Separately, you can and should use your phone to help the campaign in a very obvious and simple way: talk to your friends about how wonderful your candidate is, and how proud of him you are. This sort of casual, day-in-day-out effort – no different from talking about how excited you are about your favorite team – is the stuff of great victories. When people start talking like this, a certain “win psychology” develops, and real momentum builds: momentum money could never buy.

8. USE EMAIL EFFECTIVELY. At least as powerful as personal phone calls, personal emails to friends are taking a greater and greater role in campaigns. Spread the word to your friends, by forwarding campaign emails, news stories, and your own personal thoughts to your personal address book. You send all those people lame jokes: why not the good news about your candidate (and your worldview)?

Moreover, it may be that you are specially talented with email or the web and wish to help in a more formal way. Most campaigns need quality people who can create and maintain an online presence, be it a website, an email list, a chat room, or a prayer team (and just for the record, no one has used the internet more effectively than Pat Buchanan’s Linda Muller, with Jesse Ventura’s team running a close second). If you’d like to help this way, you’re needed.

9. WRITE LETTERS TO THE EDITOR. Everyone talks about this, but no one does it. No one except winning campaigns, that is.

The truth is, everyone reads the letters to the editor, and much of the word-of-mouth side of the campaign develops there. What’s more, this is absolutely free media, and being from “regular” people, it is far more persuasive than a campaign news release (which few ever see anyway).

A smart campaign will organize a large number of people to regularly write letters to the editor, and mail them to all the local papers. Don’t wait to be contacted: call the campaign yourself, preferably the press secretary. If possible, write about the message the campaign is focused on that week. And if you’re a good writer, find some of your friends who would be willing to sign a letter but are afraid to actually write one, and draft letters for them as well (be sure to collect them and mail them too: people promise, but often forget).

10. STUFF ENVELOPES! No part of the campaign is so important, especially in an under-funded race where most or all of the direct mail has to be done in-house. At the same time, stuffing and addressing envelopes is some of the most tedious work you can do, and people hate it. It’s not sexy, and it’s not fun. Volunteers tend to flee. You can not only make an enormous difference but prove your value and loyalty as well by always being available for this duty. You can often save the campaign hundreds or thousands of dollars through your work, and candidates remember their envelope stuffers more fondly than anyone else (very important later when you want to “educate” them on the issues).

11. HELP WITH THE SIGN EFFORT. Obviously a crucial part of the campaign’s advertising, the need is not so much for you to put up a sign in your own yard (which of course you should do), but to help put signs up all over your candidate’s district. Ideally, your candidate will want to put a sign in every available yard, all on the same night. Anything you can do to find willing property owners or physically put up signs will make a huge difference.

12. GET OUT THE VOTE. Conservative candidates have an alarming tendency to run winning campaigns, only to lose on election day. This is because the Left is extremely effective at getting out their voters, while we generally are not. One reason for that effectiveness is that Left-leaning labor unions teach and encourage get-out-the-vote (GOTV) efforts. Conservatives have no similar resource.

Talk to the campaign about what you can do. Hopefully, they will have a carefully laid out plan, which will probably include early canvassing, an absentee ballot effort, poll watching, phone banks, and any number of other things. Be flexible and pitch in. If you don’t, you may throw away a couple years’ work.

13. PRAY FOR AND ENCOURAGE THE CANDIDATE. As noted at the outset of the article, conservatives complain a lot, and never more than in a campaign. But campaigns run on morale, and complaints are among the most self-destructive things under Heaven. And it’s not just the other campaign workers and volunteers who need a lift: it’s the candidate himself.

The candidate – if he’s worth supporting – is killing himself. You may at times think he’s arrogant, and sometimes he may be; but he runs on adrenaline and supports himself with brave words that rarely resemble his fears, and from early in the morning till late at night, he has to sell a million skeptics – from CEOs to coffee shop clerks – on himself as a person and his ideas as a program. He is the ultimate “man in the arena”, facing every manner of outrageous attack and betrayal every day, working himself to the bone, trying to juggle finances and family and every aspect of this small industry the product of which is himself, all in pursuit of a goal far greater than he. The smallest word of encouragement at the right moment can be that one thing which allows him to go on. In point of fact, it often is.

Likewise, no one needs your prayers more than your candidate and his family. The Bible clearly commands prayer for our leaders, but most people forget to do it. You mustn’t. He needs you. And more than anything, he needs the grace of God.

14. UNDERSTAND THAT WINNING ISN’T EVERYTHING. Finally, it’s well worth remembering that most candidates lose, and often lose several times, before they win. This dispirits lots of volunteers (and even more candidates), but it shouldn’t: it’s just the way of the world. The early races are often learning experiences and opportunities to build an organization and the candidate’s name ID. This is a good thing, no matter how much more fun it might be to win every time.

The wise volunteer will work as though victory is just a matter of doing that one additional thing within his power; but he’ll also know when to take his co-workers and his candidate aside, place his hand on their shoulder, and tell them it’s all going to be okay, we’ll get ‘em next time. That wise volunteer will also follow through on his words, and stay the course for round two. Few decent candidates come out of a well-fought but losing race weaker; most are in a better position than they’ve ever been in their life, if they’ll learn from their mistakes and move on. You can be the person who gives them the strength to do it. And in so doing, you will advance your cause concretely, genuinely doing the hard work of freedom.



  1. Needless to say for those who have actually read him, Richard Weaver — whose Ideas Have Consequences has in its title led many astray at this point — understood this perfectly; and his short but powerful book remains one of the truly essential works of conservatism.