Next Conservatism 9: Virtual Militias

Americans of all ages, all conditions, all minds constantly unite. Not only do they have commercial and industrial associations in which all take part, but they also have a thousand other kinds: religious, moral, grave, futile, very general and very particular, immense and very small; Americans use associations to give fêtes, to found seminaries, to build inns, to raise churches, to distribute books, to send missionaries to the antipodes; in this manner they create hospitals, prisons, schools. Finally, if it is a question of bringing to light a truth or developing a sentiment with the support of a great example, they associate. Everywhere that, at the head of a new undertaking, you see the government in France and a great lord in England, count on it that you will perceive an association in the United States.

“On the Use That the Americans Make of Association in Civil Life”. Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America (Edited, translated and with an introduction by Harvey C. Mansfield and Delba Winthrop”

It’s been about 175 years since Tocqueville made that observation. All that has changed are the media and speed of our associations, and the varieties of them. That quintessentially American instinct for organization is about to take a great leap forward.

In the Big Data Era, when vast volumes of data that used to be inaccessible can be captured, searched, and analyzed, providers can in real time understand markets as dynamic mindsets; and an individual consumer can understand her place in a market or a trend as never before. Surprises emerge, among them a new phenomenon: seemingly disconnected customer decisions aggregated into data sets that reveal behavioral congruencies, flash trends, instant organizations, and loose networks built around simple individual decisions and preferences. A monolithic collective “we” isn’t needed because Next Conservatism thrives with these countless specific teams contending.

Accidental Organizations

Individuals and companies have always tried to work in their own best interests, of course, but the Internet and Big Data make quantified information and organized mutual evaluation possible on a scale never imagined before this, even when they measure actions taken individually. When it’s easy to make a common sense decision, conservation emerges automatically: we can spot a traffic jam on our car display and take another route; we can let the web find a price we like; we can compare suppliers. Even more important is that such decisions made separately can be measured in the aggregate now, and the results quantified. Accidental congruencies happen all the time: a regional promotion of energy-efficient light bulbs causes a wave of customers, each acting for himself, to take the same actions. One customer replacing five bulbs at home hardly matters, but multiply one by a hundred thousand and simple addition tells you that hundreds of thousands of tons of CO2 emissions were avoided, and the buyers saved tens millions of dollars during the life of the new bulbs. The individual buyers many never know or care what everyone else in this accidental congruency did. What matters to each of them is what makes this inadvertent organization so powerful: it’s automatic. It’s simple, using all the same measurements of dollars and watts. At every scale it proves itself in practice.

What’s new about this? Nothing, except that now it’s visible to everyone in the supply chain, which means, everything.

Loose Networks, Congruent Purposes

Something as easy as a Facebook group can turn such an accidental congruency of countless decisions into a loose organization that shares ideas and promotes best practices. Like-mindedness lets people form networks and work together on a simple matter even if their geography or politics separate them. Conservatives for Solar Energy, for example, is the unlikely alliance of Tea Party Republicans and liberal environmentalists. They work together to promote distributed energy for homeowners in the Sunbelt. In the rest of their leanings, presumably, they’re unlikely to find much common ground, but they need nothing beyond this simple goal and the facts to be effective.

Something else new emerges here as well: instead of the internal bickering that is wrecking Movement Conservatism, these loose networks can engage in fair competitions with uniform scoring. This flips the model propagated in 1996 under Newt Gingrich’s dubious leadership. Gingrich’s GOPAC coached Republicans to make language “a key mechanism of control used by a majority party”, with “Optimistic Positive Governing Words” to “help give extra power to your message” and create a contrast “with your opponent” — “challenge, change, conflict, control, courage, crusade, fair, family, freedom. precious, premise, preserve, principle(d)” and so on for his students; and “collapse(ing), consequences, corrupt, corruption, criminal rights, crisis, cynicism, decay, deeper, destroy, destructive, devour, disgrace, endanger, excuses, failure (fail), greed, hypocrisy, incompetent, insecure, insensitive, intolerant, liberal, lie, limit(s), machine, mandate(s), obsolete, pathetic, patronage, permissive attitude” etc., to tar the other side. It failed because the weapons could be turned against one’s own side. The words are just inductions, sales talk, feeble inferences useful on talk radio and for friendly audiences. But they’re weak when proof is required, and when proof is easy and it contradicts the fragile memes, they lose all their power. Gingrich infected the Republicans with this thinking so effectively they still use it, but now it’s like small arms in a failed state, harming his own side. By contrast the Great Denominators aren’t subject to interpretations and spin. They drill down to bedrock: self-evidence, permitting a unifying level field for self-evaluation and for fair competition scalable from a small local group to a national contest.

Something new is emerging: virtual militias that can set goals, reinforce each other’s performance, measure results, and share best practices. Virtual militias regulated by facts are more powerful than metaphorical mobs based on ferocious subjective interpretations of ideology. In performance, their versatility and practical value defeat the divisiveness and shallow platitudes that consume the Republicans twenty years after Newt Gingrich showed them how to give “extra power to your message”.

Virtual militias and how they work

Virtual militias are something like what Edmund Burke was describing in Reflections on the French Revolution: “To be attached to the subdivision, to love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle (the germ as it were) of public affections. It is the first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love to our country, and to mankind.” In practice, though, virtual militias are more specific in their goals than happenstance communities of birth or geography, and less specific in their motives than a neighborhood or a church. You don’t need to think alike to be in a successful virtual militia. You only need to act alike within specific parameters. Why someone participates might be useful but it is irrelevant to the quantitative measurement of one’s success. Attachments are voluntary, not just inheritances of birth or locality. Sentiments like “tradition” are immaterial. Where someone is might be irrelevant; the members might never know each other outside the confines of their pseudonymous web-based disclosures. Abstract motives are up the individual. All that said, the militia that achieves measurable proof of results in its own interest can indeed offer them as evidence of “a love to our country, and to mankind” that goes beyond jingoism and sentiment.

The technology for forming and operating virtual militias is here. Participation requires commitment to the aligned goals of the militia and the individual; willingness to share the required information, and absolute integrity in the data. Mutual coaching, support, and policing are how the militia drills. Secure virtual scoreboards, perhaps run by the entity with which the militia allies itself, are how their progress is tracked and communications shared. It’s imperative that these contests have fixed time limits and definitive outcomes. Instead of the perpetual soap-opera irresolution of Conservative campaigns that fight abstractions for fighting’s sake, the battles among virtual militias must have conclusions when scores are tabulated and definitive winners declared. The outcomes are any measurable goals that data-driven people can seek together.

Five generic steps for any virtual militia are the same as happen every day for millions of Americans playing online games.

1. Collect data

2. Analyze data for accuracy, patterns, opportunities and shortcomings

3. Report to each other

4. Alert to inside weaknesses and outside threats; alert to best practices and useful innovations

5. Control the integrity, progress, and outcomes of the process

These aren’t unlike general rules for mutual obligations and drilling duties of American militias in the 18th century, and they are surely far closer to that model of the 2nd Amendment than an ideologue with an arsenal can claim to be. The difference between this model for Conservatism and those of Buckley, Kirk et al., jumps out: this one isn’t about feeling or sentiments. This model requires doing something and getting results. The sentiments model permits the Conservative to self-declare, self-assess, and affirm himself as an epitome. The empirical model demands proof. This one specifies goals and timing, calculates progress, shares best practices, and expunges bad ones. Participating isn’t “to seek for utopia,” as Kirk warns us not to do, and it isn’t about perfectibility or overreaching. Taking part is joining just the kind of voluntary community Kirk endorses. However, it does move. Where Conservatism presents as the right to stay just as one is, this one aims for a goal and moves toward it in the certainty that to seek betterment, however modest, is possible and beneficial even for such an imperfectible creature as the guy who wants to lose his love handles.

New technologies for collaborating in virtual militias will unleash countless variants. This model of well-regulated militancy doesn’t settle for pessimism and stasis. It moves, and in moving it does what Conservatism so often declines to do: it conserves.

Virtual militias regulated by facts are more powerful than metaphorical militias based on ideology. In performance, their versatility and practical value defeat the dogmatism and shallow platitudes that are all many ideological sodalities can manage. Movement Conservatives fighting this mindset are going to reap the whirlwind.

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