I’m late to the party in discussing Michael Sokolove’s profile of Dick Armey in last week’s New York Times Magazine, but for anyone interested in the current state of American politics, it’s really worth a read. Much of the discussion on the Web has focused on Armey’s entertainingly exaggerated sense of self or his apparent ease with politically expedient misinformation. But just as interesting is Sokolove’s treatment of the crucial role that networks and institutions play in shaping politics.
Armey merits a magazine profile because he is the chairman of FreedomWorks, a nonprofit organization that has played a key role in giving shape to conservative hostility to the Obama agenda and to the federal government more broadly, chiefly on economic (rather than social) grounds. The first two sections of the article are devoted to laying out FreedomWorks’s role in the conservative solar system, and—even discounting for the overstatement and hyperbole that typically attends pieces like this one—they are pretty persuasive. Says political strategist Mark McKinnon: “Armey and FreedomWorks have been the invisible hand behind much of the recent conservative activism around the country.” Then there’s this key graf, which provides some more historical context:
Michael Franc, vice president for government relations at the Heritage Foundation, in Washington, told me that he believed recent events — the severe economic downturn and measures to address it that have alarmed many — have accelerated a shift that was already under way. “In the late 1980s and into the 1990s, all the energy on the conservative side was on social issues,” he said. “You had outside-the-Beltway groups, principally the Christian Coalition, that came to Washington to be heard. Their troops cared mainly about social issues, but many had a corollary concern about tax relief for their families. But they have basically collapsed since the departure of Ralph Reed,” the Christian Coalition leader who stepped down in 1997. “He was a genius at what he did, and his abilities were not replaced. The Bush-Cheney campaigns in 2000 and 2004 went out and identified the social-conservative voters. But they didn’t exist as the same organized, cohesive force. There was a vacuum, and Armey and some of these other economic conservative groups have filled it.”
The distinction between economic and social priorities is interesting and important—but just as important is the focus on organizations. And the two issues are not unrelated. Some social issues may have become less salient over the past decade, but that decline was likely hastened by the collapse of the institutions that helped put them on the agenda in the first place.
From there, Sokolove wisely moves on to more reader-friendly terrain, including some fun scenes featuring Armey at a restaurant and at rallies. But the article’s kicker quote, from Armey’s one-time antagonist, the liberal House Democrat George Miller, returns to the same theme:
Miller did pay Armey a kind of backhanded compliment, however. “I’m sure he’s being paid to organize,” he said. “And he’s doing a good job of it.”
The focus on Armey’s organizational skill is especially refreshing because it counteracts one of the perpetual oversights in American political journalism—one that persists even after the press spent a solid year celebrating the organizational achievements of Barack Obama’s campaign. In coverage of the current struggle over the direction of the Republican Party and the conservative movement more broadly, too much of the discussion has been shaped by personality, and by the relentless focus on the White House. Personal charisma, an ability to sell a lot of books, and speculation about whether you’ll run for president can get you named the “most influential” Republican in some circles. (Armey, interestingly, was left off that list entirely—though his strained relationship to the party may account for that.)
While Armey’s a quotable guy, he doesn’t score too high on those counts—used copies of his books are currently selling fo r a penny on Amazon, and the idea of an Armey presidential campaign is far-fetched. But he seems to understand what more journalists should: that political fights are usually won by the side with the most effective institutions.