Since leaving the Hill, I’ve spent my career in national security. I love my work and enjoy the rush I get when reading the new defense bill or digging into complex artificial intelligence code.
I’m a policy nerd, and I love it.
My approach to my work flows directly from the conservative ideas I developed during my three years as the Chair of the St. Olaf College Republicans. I delight in the quiet everyday conservatism of pushing pragmatic, data driven policy that thoroughly embraces facts and science. In my view, a conservative policy is one driven not by high soaring ideals, but fact based reality. A perfect fit for policy geek. While I remain steadfast to this interpretation of conservatism, the Republican Party and the conservative movement have unquestioningly followed Donald Trump down a different path.
While I once led the College Republicans, I have since left the party. They have been coopted by radicals, have become apologists for terrorism, and continue to promote dangerous ideas. As a former conservative leader on campus and someone who has devoted his career to national security, I feel it is my responsibility to write directly to Ole conservatives and urge then to de-escalate and reassess their place in the conservative movement.
Ole conservatives: The insurrection at the capital should have been a wakeup call. Things have gone off the deep end. To those of you who embrace President Donald Trump: I urge caution. He is no conservative and lacks a moral compass. As we witnessed, following his path leads to disunity and violence. I shouldn’t have to remind you that radical conservative is an oxymoron.
Never would I have expected my work in national security to put me so diametrically opposed to a party I once embraced. How can the party of law and order and sensibility so flagrantly embrace violent radicalism, demagoguery, and a systematic denial of the truth? Donald Trump has twisted conservatism and turned the ‘swamp’ into an acidic bog.
There is a way out, however.
Since my days as the College Republican Chair, I’ve learned there is no better way to persuade a conservative than to mention my former title. Political familiarity immediately builds trust and lowers defenses, making opinions malleable. Conservatives listen to conservatives.
Ole Conservatives: This is a call to action. We can be listened to, and therefore we have the unique power and responsibility to calm politics down to a simmer and promote a renaissance of pragmatic, rationalist, conservatism. We can push the kind of nerdy conservatism I bring to work every day.
This will not be easy, however.
Leadership will be required. The Republican Party and conservative circles need adults in the room. For maximum impact, I call on you to join a conservative organization or even the Party itself so that you can voice your opinions from the inside push for moderation. Seek to normalize truth-based, sensible conservatism. Create a positive culture from within.
Backbone will be required. Racist and conspiracist elements unfortunately have become commonplace in the Republican Party. Take a page from our liberal friends and don’t be afraid to speak out against these corrosive ideas. Such beliefs cannot persist without account.
Most importantly, diplomacy will be required. Listen to the radicals. Make them heard.
Understand them. It is only by establishing trust, knowing their talking points, and building some sense of common ground that they will listen back. I know this approach works.
Deescalating is not enough, however. Conservatives need a new trajectory and a reassessment of ideology. I believe conservatism can be something more than the Republican Party has to offer. Modern conservatism should be an ideology of pragmatism.
If something works, do it. If it doesn’t, cut it. How do we know what works? Experiments.
The conservative tool belt should be filled with data, pie charts, and regression models. Using these tools conservatives can craft technocratic solutions while counterbalancing high minded liberal programs through gentle scrutiny, reassessment, and reform. This is what ‘running the government like a business’ should really look like.
In essence, a conservative party should be the party of nerds.
Ole Conservatives: It is time to stop reading, and time to act. Go out, listen, advocate, moderate. You can best change minds and it is your burden to pull the country back from the abyss and recapture the conservative movement. So, grab your pocket protectors, defog your glasses, and let’s make conservatism nerdy again!
Matthew Mittelsteadt ’15 is currently an Artificial Intelligence Policy Research Fellow at Syracuse University Institute for Security Policy and Law. Mittelsteadt studied economics, Russian area studies and film studies at St. Olaf.