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What I’ve Learned About Political Activism
My acceptance speech for the second annual City Journal Award.
I recently traveled to New York City to accept the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal Award, which “recognizes individuals whose ideas have pushed back on destructive policies and inspired efforts to protect the liberties of all Americans.” The following is a condensed and lightly edited transcript of my acceptance speech, which describes some of the lessons I’ve learned about political activism.
It is an honor to receive the City Journal Award, particularly, because getting an award from your colleagues, the people who know you best, is something really special.
Last year’s winner was Heather Mac Donald, who has been an inspiration for me. As I was doing the research for America’s Cultural Revolution, I always found myself going back to City Journal pieces and, in particular, back to Heather’s writing, which shows the amazing continuity of this work. We are following principles that we did not invent, but rather, that we have inherited, reinterpreted, and reawakened in people. And I see that in City Journal every day, both in the work of my current colleagues, as well as in the magazine’s archives.
In these brief remarks, I wanted to talk about what I’ve learned about activism over the last few years. As City Journal editor Brian Anderson mentioned earlier tonight, I am an “accidental activist,” and that experience he described, about my quixotic and abortive run for the Seattle City Council, is one that still stings. But I will say, in the six-week period of that naïve attempt, I learned everything there is to know about politics. I learned how power works. I learned how language works. I learned how media works. I learned how institutions work. I learned how all of those things start to assemble when you challenge them—and then the thugs come after you. They find out where your kids go to school and they threaten your family.
And that was, for me, a terrifying period. And quitting the race was something that I really didn’t want to do. It wasn’t something I was happy about, but ultimately, I made the choice to bow out, which, in hindsight, turned out to be a phenomenal choice, because, even if we had won, imagine having the Seattle City Council seat—one of the worst jobs you could ever have. It was a blessing in disguise that helped me see reality more clearly. I truly saw the hideous face of the Left. If you see what they’ve done to major cities, what they’ve done to our institutions, what they’re doing to kids—behind the mask of tolerance, you see something much darker. You see something much more sinister. I saw them face-to-face. I saw their eyes at close distance, and I really understood what we’re dealing with.
After licking my wounds, this experience gave me a sense of mission and a sense of how things actually work. And what I’ve learned is that conservatives have a tendency to treat politics as if it were an Oxford-style debate: You get in a beautiful room like this one, this person talks, that person talks, the audience sorts out the best idea, and the best idea wins. But that’s not how it works in practice. And so, I learned from the best—the left-wing ideologues in Seattle—how to pursue political change, how to work with narrative construction, and how to drive home policy results. I studied my losses and learned some of the tricks of the trade.
When I look at the work I’ve done the past few years, it boils down to three simple steps. The first component is this: Lots of people offer commentary, but few offer hard-hitting new information, which is the lifeblood of media and how to change the public’s perceptions of institutions, policies, and culture. You can say “critical race theory is a problem” or “DEI is a problem”—but when you have the documents, images, words, and PowerPoint presentations, that’s when you can make the arguments meaningful to the public and craft them in a way that leads people to ask questions and, ultimately, to demand concrete changes.
The second element is the activism component, which, in my case, as a person in media, simply means arguing and fighting—something that I love to do. You might have heard of a Japanese tidiness expert named Marie Kondo, who recommends that you find the knickknacks and household objects that “spark joy.” For me, fighting with people about politics sparks joy. I love it. Sometimes I come home—and it’s odd because I live in a small town in the middle of nowhere—and tell my wife with excitement, “A process server came by and subpoenaed me on behalf of the ACLU,” or, “I’m under federal civil rights investigation for refusing to use ze/zir pronouns.” We have to be fearless. We have to be courageous, joyful, and willing to take incoming fire. We have to learn how to manipulate it, absorb it, and redirect it, while never taking it to heart, never allowing people who hate us and hate our values to define who we are.
And the third key element is to turn activism into policy. That’s the prize at the end of the process. You do the reporting, you come up with a solution, you fight for it, and then, eventually, a group of people hash it out in a state legislature and the governor signs the bill. That, to me, is the essence of the process. If we really believe that our ideas can make our institutions, schools, and society better, we should have the self-confidence to demand that those ideas become law.
We are a republic. And ultimately, that’s what drives my work and what, in my opinion, has made it successful. I’ve always sought to cultivate an emotional response and then guide it toward concrete action that will actually improve people’s lives. That’s the formula I’ve learned, mostly by trial and error, the past few years. And it’s been such a joy to do it with Manhattan Institute and with City Journal.