An American Armada
I read an article by Malcolm Gladwell, “How David Beats Goliath: When Underdogs Break the Rules,” some months ago and have been thinking about it ever since. In it, Gladwell highlights an analysis of when Davids took on Goliaths in history. The Goliaths, the ones ten-times stronger in the fight, won the encounters over 70% of the time. But in instances when the Davids broke the rules and stuck to a strategy that played to their strengths, the Davids’ win percentage rose to almost 64%. In other words, the Davids won when they chose not to play by the assumed rules of engagement. Something about this just clicked with me, and I believe it might lead to a new strategy for conservatives.
The key anecdote for me in Gladwell’s article involved Doug Lenat, the developer of an artificial-intelligence program that he called Eurisko to compete in a war game tournament. Essentially Lenat fed the rules of the tournament to Eurisko, which allowed a gamer to spend $1 trillion on a naval force. The program learned the rules and then spent hours upon hours coming up with a strategy to defeat all the other contestants. “Most teams fielded some version of a traditional naval fleet—an array of ships of various sizes, each well defended against enemy attack.” Gladwell writes. “Eurisko thought differently. ‘The program came up with a strategy of spending the trillion on an astronomical number of small ships like P.T. boats, with powerful weapons but absolutely no defense and no mobility,’ Lenat said. ‘They just sat there. Basically, if they were hit once they would sink. And what happened is that the enemy would take its shots, and every one of those shots would sink our ships. But it didn’t matter, because we had so many.'” Lenat won the tournament in a runaway as his P.T. boats swarmed the opposing battleships. He entered the tournament the next year, won again … and was essentially asked not to compete in future tournaments.
So what’s my point? We are confronted by ever-expanding government in DC, and the massive unions are not going anywhere. Yet the current strategy with many conservatives is seemingly to become a mirror image of that which they are supposed to be combating. The conservative movement has been playing by Goliath’s rules for too long. It’s time conservatives built a flexible, nimble American Armada of P.T. boats to beat the Left, but not at its own game.
I’ve always wondered why if we don’t believe Washington has the answers, why do so many conservative groups decide to come to DC? I’m proposing that the conservative movement change its strategy from DC-centric to more state-based: most conservatives would agree with federalism, yet at times our behavior says just the opposite.
I think in many ways we’ve been trying to create our own battleships in DC to combat the Left’s battleships, and if we continue to do so, we will never win. Many would say that the Heritage Foundation is the largest DC-based conservative battleship, with an annual budget of probably $60-70 million. But to put it into perspective, the National Education Association’s annual budget is $307 million. SEIU’s is $300 million. AFL-CIO’s is $120 million plus. I could continue on laying out the annual budgets of left-leaning groups, but I think you get the point.
We are faced with a massive Leviathan of government, surrounded by a fleet of allied battleships, and we’re going to try and compete with this? We’re going to try and play by their rules? If we play by Goliath’s rule, we’ll never win. All we’ll be doing is fighting rearguard action against the inevitability of statism.
It is time to challenge the way things are done: the Davids only win if they don’t play by Goliath’s rules. They only win, as Gladwell points out, if they do what might be considered socially horrifying at the onset. So what is the new David approach? It’s the 1,000 new light and agile P.T. boats. Let me highlight a few examples of what I believe to be the winning strategy for conservatives.
Most of you have never heard of Wendy Day in Michigan, but Wendy has launched a 501c3 and 501c4 on what many would consider shoe string budgets. For pennies on the dollar, with projects like Make Lansing Listen, she has begun to wreak havoc in their state. State legislators on both sides of the aisle know who she is now. Recently, she shone the light on SB 731, which would have given $4 million in taxpayer dollars to SEIU, not only spreading the word about the bill, but demanding to know what the real reason was for handing over the money to an ally of ACORN’s. Her message is one of honesty and integrity: you promised the voters you would vote one way and yet now that you are in Lansing, your votes reflect an ideology diametrically opposed to that of your constituents.
Michael Quinn Sullivan of Empower Texans, which he runs with the help of one staffer, has brought about significant changes in Texas politics. In 2007, he targeted a Republican lawmaker who was constantly thwarting tax reform and spending restraint. He did mail, phone calls and targeted appearances in the district during the summer. The lawmaker’s response was to mostly ignore the clamor from his constituency, then go to his local party chair and say in essence: “I’ve had enough of Sullivan and his guys talking about my record, so I’m getting out.” He was replaced in the next election by one of Empower Texans’ “taxpayer advocates.” Last year, Sullivan did auto-dial calls into two legislators’ districts to inform constituents of their elected officials’ real voting record. The two officials complained to a reporter that Empower Texans was “behind” mean auto-dials. The reporter called Sullivan, heard the audio and he laughed the whole thing off. But what Sullivan did was provide greater accountability for those officials by informing their constituents of what was actually taking place in Austin.
And then there is the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity, with a budget that is a fraction of most conservative organizations, and its forty-plus investigative reporters. It is these very reporters who break stories like last fall’s phantom Congressional districts. American Majority, (which, for full disclosure, is the group I founded and run) with just under 20 staff, did 151 activist and candidate trainings in 26 states last year, training just under 5,000 people, 510 of which were candidates running for state and local office. Just the other month, 71 American Majority alumni filed to run for office in Arkansas, from school board to state senate. In February, 19 of the 25 candidates identified and trained by American Majority won school board races in Oklahoma. While not massive numbers, the model works. I’m pretty sure next year or the next we’ll be saying, “Of the 200 some school board candidates in Oklahoma, 150 plus won.”
What’s my point here? Two things: these are relatively small groups, with very, very low overhead. I joked about this before, but it’s true: American Majority’s entire annual budget in 2009 was less than the Republican National Committee’s 2009 airfare budget. Second, all of the groups mentioned above are focused very much on the idea that not only is all politics local, but all accountability is local.
The problems we face in DC are not going to be fixed by camping in DC and growing our mini-versions of the government aircraft carrier or the Left’s battleships. It’s going to be about creating our American Armada of 1,000 P.T. boat organizations, highly mobile, hard-hitting, able to adapt quickly and hit fast. Only when we shift our paradigm are we going to be able to win.