Tea partiers go grassroots.
Drew Ryun surveys the Dallas hotel conference room. He can feel the dissatisfaction—anger, even—radiating from the 40 or so newly minted conservative activists seated in front of him.
“You are all here because you are upset about something,” says Ryun, executive director of American Majority, whose mission is training a national network of activists committed to limited government. “You want to know what you can do to turn the tide in this country.”
There are a few murmurs and a boisterous, “Yes!”
“We all share common values as conservatives. We all want to hold our elected officials accountable,” he says, pacing the front of the room. “But here’s a test: Who here can name every member of your school board?”
Ryun is practicing the ancient art of political organizing, a tradition once thought lost in the age of television campaigning. With the Christian Right and the Obama Left having reinvented personal politicking for the 21st century, the old wizardry is making a comeback. After the tea parties are over and the Fox News van has skipped town, American Majority is training activists to win elections at the grassroots.
At this Thursday-night meeting in late September, Ryun uses the audience’s ignorance as a teachable moment. He has demonstrated that angry chants and loud shouts do not an effective activist make. Like an Army drill sergeant, he’s tearing down these wannabes and building them up as political warriors with a full complement of weaponry.
“OK. So what are you so pissed about? The people that make decisions are the ones that actually get elected to office,” Ryun says. “If you don’t know who the people are that are making the decisions that most directly affect you, what are you so mad at?”
Ryun helped his twin brother Ned launch American Majority in January 2008. They are the sons of former Kansas Republican Congressman Jim Ryun, whom the National Review ranked as the most conservative member of Congress in 2006. Ned, president of American Majority, worked as a writer in President George W. Bush’s administration. Drew previously ran the grassroots operation of the Republican National Committee.
Nevertheless, the group claims to be nonpartisan—a requirement to keep its nonprofit status. The Ryuns say their efforts are ideological, not partisan; they consider most elected Republicans either insufficiently conservative or, worse, falsely conservative.
American Majority has a field office in Dallas. Since it opened in late May, the group has held 12 training sessions (half for activists, half for candidates), with six more on this year’s calendar. Ryan says American Majority’s goal for 2010 is a thousand new activists and 100 candidates running in Texas.
The training session makes it clear that the members of this audience are not the “crazy uncles” you see on TV. They’re the kind of folks who will work the call centers, walk blocks, and, potentially, translate the Tea Party movement into a political force.