Phi Beta Cons

The Right take on higher education.

Lessons for College Activists: The ACORN Takedown


As word comes that the IRS is now severing ties with ACORN, and ACORN has filed suit against James O’Keefe and Hannah Giles (an odd choice, considering that the discovery process will make this scandal the gift that keeps on giving), it’s worth considering lessons learned from this, the most successful single act of college activism in a decade (or more). After all, when was the last time that an undergraduate and graduate student triggered such a massive media, popular, and governmental response? Already, histories are being written, but a dry recitation of facts isn’t much of a guide for aspiring conservative journalists and activists. What can we learn?

First, be creative. Too many college activists look at one or more standard paths to influence. Want to write? Start a blog, maybe get a column in your student newspaper, write an op-ed or two, intern at a conservative publication, and let talent (and fate) take its course. More politically partisan? Intern with a legislator, become a staffer, work for the right campaign, and let talent (and fate) take its course. There’s nothing wrong with these tracks, of course, but they’re well-worn, highly competitive, and — quite frankly — not all that transformational. If James and Hannah had merely written a column about ACORN, would they have accomplished anything?

Second, pick your targets wisely. This is where James and Hannah’s true genius emerges. In ACORN, they targeted an institution that (1) is widely known to be corrupt but (2) is zealously protected by the Left and the legacy media. Such an environment positively breeds the kind of mindset on display on the videos. People who feel invulnerable do foolish things. Because the legacy media hasn’t closely scrutinized leftist organizations, any number of institutions — from foundations to faculty departments to professional organizations to prominent activist groups — are ripe for the plucking.

Third, be brave. It took no small amount of guts for James and Hannah to pull this off. While they were never in any physical danger, their actions were certainly more “up close and personal” than sitting behind a keyboard and hammering out a blog post, or standing in a crowd at a tea party, or helping a congressman craft legislation.

I’ve spent quite a bit of time around young conservatives. Too many seem to have the “plan” all figured out. They know exactly how they want to help change the world, but their stories sound a lot alike. We can’t all write books like Jonah or blog like Michelle or do both (like they do). And we certainly can’t all be key players on Capitol Hill. As James and Hannah demonstrated, there’s more than one way to create the kind of change we really can believe in.

But, please, don’t everyone run out and buy your own hidden camera. That field has been plowed.  


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