Stephen Harper gives a speech at the IDU forum in 2019. Image: International Democrat Union/Twitter

It was in Wisconsin in 2004 when I working on the campaign to thwart George W. Bush’s second term that I first learned about how effective the conservative organizing machine was. Since then I have been a get-out-the-vote staffer for many U.S. elections, and have been consistently impressed by their machine. Here is what I know about what they do.

In 2004, the U.S. Democrats, large non-profits and lobbying firms had all discovered data mining and big data. We had an unwieldy, duplicative, marginally useful, and rather alarming — from a personal privacy point of view — data project running alongside our get-out-the-vote efforts.

In November, I got on the plane home. Many of the volunteers who worked with me, and with other “battleground state” co-ordinators, were amazing people who had literally taken a year off from their lives to try to defeat Bush.

The co-ordinators and volunteers had been parachuted in all over Wisconsin and the country to run a big budget vote-getting operation. We had no followup plan to keep the energy that these amazing volunteers had invested in the campaign into a post-election “keep the pressure on” effort.

On the plane, I ended up seated next to my Republican counterpart from Wisconsin. He was an engaging and chatty mid-sized business owner.

The Republicans had given him four exurbs outside of Milwaukee as turf for an entire year. He had mapped all the people in local business and local school boards. He had built a local organizing campaign in these areas and built organic support — as we do in community organizing — and then he had left a simple email Listserv in place with three employees to manage it.

These three people would feed the Listserv, keep it active, let people post whatever they wanted, but steered the conversation to their main talking points: cutting taxes and government, and building community participation and engagement.

The goal of the employees was to look for posts about solvable local issues, like places that needed crosswalks or bus stops. Then they would reach out to the person who posted the solvable issue and offer branded GOP help.

It didn’t matter if the person got their crosswalk or not. If they did, the organizer took credit. If they didn’t, it was the big bad overpaid government’s fault for not supporing the community.

These communication networks have helped give rise to right-wing news networks, deep Republican support in the suburbs, and were fundamental for the growth of the Tea party and the other monstrous mutations of that movement. These communication networks have also been integral to the GOP’s domination of local politics outside of big cities. 

In 2012, I was in Ohio as part of the leadership for the Cleveland get-out-the-vote effort. We won 17 counties in Ohio, including Cuyahoga county. The Republicans won the other 71 counties.

It is true that the counties the Democrats won had larger populations. However, despite the fact we knew that we needed to keep organizing after Obama, we again left without building anything to keep those who had been mobilized by the GOTV effort active.

I noticed two things that were a testament to the Republicans’ ongoing organizing effort. We had almost no volunteers in Ohio and paid thousands of people to canvass and work on the GOTV efforts. The Republicans had a mostly volunteer effort in the counties they focused on, despite the fact that Mitt Romney was not an exciting candidate. The second was a Lyme disease discussion and flyer. 

Obama and Romney’s teams were both in West Virginia talking about health care. Romney started talking about Lyme disease. Obama’s team looked at each other perplexed, talking about “Obamacare” and other big issues. 

In the central United States, particularly in non-urban areas, the deer population had been skyrocketing and so had cases of Lyme disease. Lyme disease is expensive to treat and is a long-term illness which is not covered by many insurance plans, including many plans in Obamacare. So the Lyme disease issue resonated.

The Republicans knew it was an issue because of their information gathering networks. The Democrats on the ground may well have known about the issue and heard about it at the doors, but could not push it into the federal campaign’s talking points. It is issues like Lyme disease that have built resonance and caught fire on social media.

These organizing strategies are not particular to the United States. In Canada, there are conservative elements that have been implementing the exact same strategies as Republicans in the United States, as shown by the Ford brothers. Conservatives are also capitalizing on racists in Canada. 

This is not just random synchronicity — it is co-ordinated. We are learning more and more about people who are paid to troll here in Canada and around the world and other ways in which we are being manipulated. Meanwhile, federal and provincial Liberal and NDP establishments keep funding data mining and unwieldy data projects, just like similar parties around the world. 

One way that conservatives share strategies is through the International Democrat Union (IDU), whose goal is to strengthen conservative and right-wing politicians around the world. The current chairperson of this body is Canada’s very own Stephen Harper.

Of course, this is not the only way that the synchronicity between countries is produced. There is a well-funded exchange of advisors among like minded politicians around the world. It is an interesting development to see that Harper is the chairperson of the IDU, and it will be worth keeping an eye on what he is doing.

Image: International Democrat Union/Twitter


Maya Bhullar

Maya Bhullar has over 15 years of professional experience in such diverse areas as migration, labour, urban planning and community mobilization. She has a particular interest in grassroots engagement,...