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Once more into the breach

By Connie Marshner
web posted June 17, 2002

"Once more into the breach, dear friends, once more, or fill the wall up with our English dead."

With these words, Henry V urged his soldiers forward during the siege of Harfleur in 1415, heartening his weary soldiers to gather their remaining energy one more time. In retrospect this battle preserved the independence of England, which, of course, made it possible for the USA to be the USA...But that's a different story.

I said those words to myself last weekend as I prepared for another grassroots training conference. I was tired; I did not relish the trip; I had been forewarned that the turnout would be light. Worse, earlier in the the week I had had a discouraging conversation with one of the genius grassroots organizers of our era. He was lamenting how he had recently become convinced that the conservative cause suffers a great void in grassroots campaign training.

Obi-Wan KenobiMy colleague, whom I hold in sincere high esteem, said he felt tempted to be like Obi-Wan Kenobi at the beginning of Star Wars (the original movie). Kenobi had given up hope of fighting the Empire, and had fled to the wilderness to hide and to live out his days in peace. The Force was with him, but it was not influencing lives or the political situation. "We are back to where we were in the early 80's," my friend lamented. "It seems as if all that we did, all that we knew about winning elections with the power of people, has been forgotten."

The universe most frequently inhabited by this colleague is that of the business and industry leg of the governance tripod (remember the three legs of the Reagan coalition: free enterprise, strong national defense, traditional values?). My most-frequently inhabited universe is that of traditional values. My experience has been different from his, though not more encouraging.

Social issue conservatives generally want to have grassroots organizations; some think they have them; but almost none have them. But they don't know what they don't know about grassroots organization: how to recruit volunteers; how to keep them constructively engaged; the distinction between strategy and tactics; how to build coalitions; how to identify and turn out voters; and all the rest of the things we teach at our seminars. What is worst of all: many don't think they need training.

No wonder the influence of our coalition is waning.

In this frame of mind, then, I went once more into the breach last weekend, to Hudson, Wisconsin. The group there were newcomers to politics (except for one veteran of the Goldwater wars), and the leaders and organizers were younger than myself.

But as I began to speak, instead of becoming more tired as the day wore on, I became more energized. This crowd was hot! Not only did nobody's eyes glaze over, the opposite happened: I could feel lights going on in eyes all around the room.

Comments like "no wonder that didn't work" and "I think we've been making a mistake doing it that way," and "we need more information before we do that", peppered the ongoing conversation of lecture and discussion.

I came away encouraged. These people did not know what we were teaching around the country in the 1980's. They were building their businesses or their farms then. Or they were kids then.

Then the light went on in my head: a demographic generation is 25 years, but grassroots activist generations do not follow demographic paths. They fall in between cohorts of age.

The folks inside the Beltway, my Washington colleagues, are more or less my age. They learned what they know in the 1980's, understand its value, and have moved beyond that level of activity. Now, many are running organizations or pushing legislation through Congress. They do not realize, as I did not until this weekend, that our grassroots training skipped a generation of potential activists.

In the 1980's we trained grassroots people our own age. Most of them are not still active. Now, we have to train those older and those younger than ourselves, who, like my new friends in Hudson, Wisconsin, are eager to learn what we have to teach them, so they can build something entirely new.

So, Obi-Wan, take heart. The rebellion is going to continue. Once more into the breach, dear friend, once more.

Connie Marshner is Director of the Center for Conservative Governance at the Free Congress Foundation.

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