Training the Left to Win

In their fight to catch up with the right, progressives are sending their young to boot camp

| July-August 2006

On May 22, young people gathered at house parties across the country to celebrate the launch of MyGOP, a website created by the Republican Party. Similar to online community-building sites like MySpace and Friendster, MyGOP conservative enthusiasts and budding party operatives track and share their successes—in dollars raised, volunteers recruited, and voters registered. They can also upload photos, write a blog, and link to the MyGOP profiles of like-minded friends. The most prolific recruiters and fund-raisers are celebrated on a leader board at the site’s home page, allowing party leaders to identify their best young talent.

Built to attract a generation weaned on blogs, podcasts, and instant messaging, MyGOP exemplifies why and how strategists on both sides of the political divide hope to win the attention and loyalty of America’s youth. For three decades, the right has focused intently on developing this base, and has gone a long way toward making it cool to be a young conservative. The flat-footed left, historically the natural place for young people to express their ideals, has only recently begun to counter the strategy—and there’s a lot of catching up to do.

After Barry Goldwater’s defeat in the 1964 presidential election left the Republican Party in a shambles, “conservative” was practically an epithet. Young Americans rejected the label as vigorously as today’s youth avoid the term “liberal.” So movement conservatives picked themselves up and began patiently constructing a network of think tanks, foundations, advocacy groups, and training seminars for new leaders. Groups such as the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, Young America’s Foundation, College Republicans, Young Americans for Freedom, and the Leadership Institute started recruiting and training tens of thousands of conservative youth.

The movement helped fuel a momentous victory in 1994, when soon-to-be House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s Republican revolution shattered the Democrats’ ossified majority on Capitol Hill. Today the right reigns in Washington and graduates of these well-established programs work in the White House, occupy congressional seats, report for (and manage) major media outlets, and run conservative think tanks and lobbying firms.

“There are a lot of people in their 30s and 40s who are products of the conservative leadership [training programs],” says David Halperin, a speechwriter for President Bill Clinton. “They’re stepping up to run the country and they dominate the airwaves . . . [while] on our side a lot of the leaders are the same people who were the leaders 25 years ago—literally the same leaders.”

By the time Gingrich and his followers rode to power on a set of simple, inspiring messages and a consistent political strategy, many progressives had given up on the Democratic Party as a vehicle for social change and were channeling their energy toward single-issue advocacy groups and absolutist causes. The feeling was that Democrats had become so beholden to corporate money that to participate in party politics was the equivalent of selling out.

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