The conservative voice of the 21st century has been heard in all four corners of the nation, but until there is more listening involved in the process, we won’t earn the privilege to lead.
CHICAGO (March 15, 2013) — CPAC 2013 is upon us and the time is ripe – again – for conservatives to gather, be heard, and extol the values that we believe made this nation great for decades. It serves as another opportunity for us to show the nation – and perhaps, even ourselves – that if we present our views in a united voice, our message will be heard across the nation, particularly by new section of voters that we need in order to win elections. Generally speaking, it is our hope that, in time, will win more Americans over to support our political viewpoints and organizations.
For years now, we have felt that it is a matter of making sure that we have our conservative message and values heard. “If only the American people could hear our message – if only the mainstream media would give us a chance to articulate our views fairly or if only minority communities gave us a chance to talk to them without emotional obstacles,” we often say, “then we would be able to win more elections and subsequently turn around the woes of our countrymen.” Just the same, we continue to say and hear that “…if only we had a chance to re-package our message – present it in a way that looked more familiar to 21st century voters and non-traditional supporters – our problems would be solved for both the Republican Party and the larger conservative movement…”
In essence, we believe that if only we had the chance to be heard, we would seize the opportunity the opportunity to win.
However, that is not quite the same as seizing the opportunity to lead.
Sadly, we have yet to truly learn as conservatives in 21st century America: leadership is not a function of volume – it is a privilege based on relationships, perceived value, and trust.
America hears us loud and clear. Right now, though, they don’t like us, trust us, nor have true relationships with us based on what they’re hearing from us. They do not see us as one of them and, quite honestly, we have done a great job as activists pointing out our differences so that we are not seen as “one of them”. We don’t like each other anymore as Americans. We don’t value our differences anymore as Americans, yet we are working to lead a country full of different lifestyles, perspectives, topographies, and family backgrounds.
That works for mere activism. For leadership – something we need in America – that won’t suffice. Leadership is the ability to always be “one of them”, especially during the rough times when our genuine differences are highlighted during those crossroads moments in our history.
If we cannot relate to more Americans, are unable to connect to more Americans, and fail to dialogue with more Americans in a true listening relationship, how do we expect to turn around the current construct of politics? How do we expect to be anything more than activists? After all, the current construct of politics views conservatives mostly out-of-touch, hateful isolationists incapable of inspiring much more than their already-assembled cast of characters. Our conservative values are largely seen as thinly-veiled policies that aid the rich and disparage 47% of Americans. Again, that works for activism and lobbying a viewpoint. That may even win elections from time to time. However, that is not enough for leadership.
Until those realities change, we will pursue electoral opportunities to lead but we will continue to fall short in our quest to be leaders. We cannot continue to fail at the task of building new relationships, fostering new trust, and presenting ongoing value to the current and future voters in America. Our voices must inspire American voters to hear us and subsequently listen to us, then follow us – and we must do so while maintaining our conservative values and embracing the dynamic of debate that makes democracy great.
We desperately want to be heard – and we clearly have been. However, leadership – something we desperately need in America – is a dynamic of listening, particularly at a time when mistrust runs rampant, hope has changed to apathy, and the current political tone (from us and our political adversaries on the left) has made many in America tone deaf to new ideas and a new vision for a better nation. Only through that dynamic can we forge new solutions that are pliant enough to fit across our diversity yet consistent enough to protect and uphold the American Dream.
During our fight to be heard in the political banter in ever-changing news cycles, we have forgotten as conservatives that we are fighting to lead a diverse nation full of ever-changing communities. It’s not just about winning elections. It’s truly about winning back the future, a future that includes increased prosperity, safety, and hopeful opportunities to pursue happiness for all Americans. Winning arguments and elections only change the players of the game. Winning the trust of the American people and, thus, the mantle of leadership through relationships where we are listened to and trusted – earning that actually changes the actual political game itself.
Activism is fun. Leadership is the job that we have ignored during the process of increasing our collective conservative voice.
Our response to the shifting demographics in our cities and throughout many states over the past 20 years has been to increase the volume of our rhetoric and the ferocity of our discontent. Our voice has rung through yet our message has not resonated. As a result, we are renowned within the political discourse but for mixed reasons. Instead of leading new segments of Americans, we have often only gathered up those reacting to the divisiveness that we encountered during the Obama-Pelosi-Reid reign in Washington since 2009. Instead of activating Americans without jobs and losing hope, we have often repulsed those that are looking for true alternatives from considering us as political partners. After years of disappointment following the false promise of post-partisanship and togetherness offered by candidate Obama in 2008, we have lost ground despite our increased activism.
And the reason why is simple: activism – regardless of how loud, passionate, and well-funded it may be – is not leadership. Generally speaking, where activism points out problems with vehemence, leadership offers vision with poise.
Just as many disillusioned Americans have learned since November 2008, when a movement offers one thing in words but presents more of the status quo in tone and actions, that movement becomes part of the ongoing problem. President Obama gave up the opportunity to be remembered universally for historic leadership in the White House once he caved into the loud cries from his activist base (e.g., partisanship) to take advantage of historic numbers in Congress. Like President Obama, we conservatives have forgotten that we have an obligation to our ancestors and descendents to lead a diverse America, not merely elevate our tone and rhetoric to win the decibel challenge of the day.
We have been successful at pointing out the woes faced as a result of out-of-control deficit spending. We have displayed rightful anger at the selfishness of many bureaucrats and elected officials as they continue to ask with their heads in the sand, not their eyes on the prize. There is value in that. Yet, activism ends there. By continuing to focus on volume while ignoring the need to connect more Americans to a better vision, we are still not an option to the growing segments of America that are frustrated with political status quo but see no other alternative to it. We still cannot enact new policies to bring a better vision for America. We still cannot employ ground-breaking change in dying urban communities or faltering job sectors. We can only illuminate problems; we cannot implement solutions. Despite the growing voices, we still are not leading.
Elevated volumes are indicative of activism. Vision that elevates a people is indicative of leadership. We have been heard. It is not time for listening – listening to the diversity of America where they are now so that they can listen to – and believe in – our positions to improve our collective lot as a people.
Listening – both active listening as conservatives and effective communication to get others to truly listen to us – is part of the vision-making process necessary to implement effective, historic leadership, especially during these traumatic times. If we are not proverbially and literally in areas where decades-long barriers can be broken down immediately, we are not functionally attuned to the void many face within our borders today. If we are ok with this as conservatives – if we believe that merely gathering the conservative troops is enough to win the political battles we face – then we are at a point where conservatives must ask the honest question, one that could be answered and shaped this weekend: are we content with being the activists pushing the American system of government, or are we truly striving to be the leaders to improve government for the sake of representing, empowering, and guiding this increasing-diverse nation?
Leadership involves guiding and working with a nation full of communities that constantly vary based on the aspects of diversity that have made America the melting pot of the world for centuries. If we are no longer willing to get to know the ingredients that make up today’s melting pot in a tangible way (even when we fundamentally disagree), how can we ever expect to offer the recipe for success in 21st century America, a nation wrought with complex economic, social, and political conundrums?
We must listen more, engage more, and lead more. It is time to open our hands, open our ears, and open the door to winning back America. As leaders, our conservatism and subsequent policies must work towards the advancement of the American Dream throughout the diversity of our nation’s communities, including for those that are not conservatives. Freedom, justice, and the pursuit of happiness cannot be only afforded for conservatives through conservative means; they must be available for all Americans through our conservative principles.
Therefore, giving up our principles in the process of engaging our nation’s ever-changing diversity should not occur. With a firm understanding of American conservative and the American people (not just conservative history), we should be able to maintain our conservative viewpoints during the discourse of leadership. We do not have to change our values, but we do need to change the belief that the loudest, angriest, or meanest arguments or politicos are the ones that will win the day for conservative values during contested elections and debates. Our passion has not been enough. Our anger at the dysfunction of government has not been enough. Therefore, we have to show that we love this nation – and even our diversity across the land – more than we hate the current state of affairs. At some point, we will have to show that we love America enough to embrace our political adversaries during the process of correcting the wayward course of our nation, many of their perspectives, and most of our collective interactions. This is what Reagan did. This is what Lincoln did. Both did it with resiliency and affability. This is what Obama was supposed to do. This is what must be done now by us conservatives.
We claim Republicans from President Lincoln to Dr. Martin Luther King without embracing one of the essential elements that made them great: loving our countrymen past their political, social, and civic flaws during the process of reuniting a hurting, scared, and weary nation. Starting now, the passion – and perhaps even the anger – of our activism as conservatives must grow into a loving zeal for leadership. That is the only way to build a bridge for new voters and disillusioned Americans to walk in order to follow us during policy-making processes and at election time.
America is not at a point any longer where loud activism that reflects more anger than optimism is going to be enough to change the course of mediocrity, joblessness, urban jeopardy, and national bankruptcy that we are on right now. We have an obligation to do more. We will see – and hear of – conservative activism and rhetoric over the coming days and months. However, now is not the time to merely be active or loud. It is time to lead and inspire. It is time to lead in an inviting manner that has the strength of conviction and the smile of reassuring composure in ways that comfort a nervous nation. It is time to lead the fullness of America – not just red-state America – as we reclaim American Exceptionalism. It is time to stop worrying about being heard. It’s time to finally be listened to by more Americans, which – if we are focused correctly – will give us the opportunity to lead a fractured nation sorely in need of leadership, not just activate our base.
Lenny McAllister is a nationally-renowned conservative political commentator and former congressional candidate for Illinois’ 2nd Congressional District.