Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Wrong About the Right

Wrong About the Right
by Jean Hardisty and Deepak Bhargava

The now dominant narrative about the right's rise to power holds that
conservatives invested huge amounts of money in a number of think tanks
over the past thirty years and brilliantly framed their messages in ways
that were simple and resonated deeply with much of the American public.
By embracing a top-down, hierarchical movement structure and relentless
message discipline, the right was able not only to triumph at the ballot
box but also to change the very terms of political
discussion--demonizing "big government" and celebrating "tax relief,"
"personal responsibility" and "free-market capitalism."

This account of conservative strategy has piqued the interest of a
growing number of progressive groups, who argue that the left should
adopt a similar strategy. And it is currently driving the activities of
many major progressive donors.

The difficulty here is that, as an explanation of the right's
ascendancy, it is at best incomplete and at worst misleading. What's
more, it is not clear that progressives should emulate all of the
right's tactics, or that we will succeed by doing so. There are
certainly lessons to be learned from the right--but for the most part
they are different from those commonly assumed. Here is an alternative
view of the insights progressives should take away from three decades of
conservative domination.

Secrets of Their Success

(1) Ideological Diversity. There is no monolithic "conservative"
movement but rather a plethora of ideologies successfully harnessed
together in a grand coalition. In the 1970s, as the New Right emerged
from the discredited old right, a fragile truce was drawn among
libertarians, economic conservatives, social conservatives and
neoconservatives. Under the leadership of William F. Buckley Jr., editor
of the influential National Review magazine and host of TV's Firing
Line, tensions were negotiated and a "fusion politics" emerged that
allowed for cooperation across differences. Such a truce is more easily
maintained when a movement is winning, as the New Right was under
President Ronald Reagan. Now, in George W. Bush's second term, the fault
lines are reappearing.

The implication for progressives is that we ought to tolerate a
diversity of views and think strategically about how to align them to
common purpose rather than seek a homogeneity we falsely ascribe to
conservatives. Conservatives also found that it's not always the most
mainstream or moderate voices who win. Likewise, progressives with a
more radical vision, while working collaboratively in the larger
movement, must not let themselves be sidelined.

(2) Ideas, Not Messages. To the extent that conservatives were
serious about ideas--and to be sure they were and are--they started not
with "messaging" or "framing," two strategies currently in vogue among
progressives, but rather with inquiry into core beliefs about race,
government, family, markets and global economic and military domination.
These core beliefs were at first far outside the mainstream of accepted
political discourse. But by carefully constructing an ideological
blueprint for their movement (despite lack of complete buy-in from
every sector), the right has been working for more than twenty-five
years with a set of unifying ideological principles to which their
strategists and activists return time and again. Support for "family
values," limited government, a strong military, white domination and the
primacy of Christianity over other religions, when combined with a will
to power, have served the right well.

On the left many intellectual projects are more tactical in nature and
avoid asking fundamental questions--not about how we talk but about what
we actually believe. For instance, we are at our best when fighting a
reactionary policy or program, such as tax cuts for the wealthy or
attacks on voting rights. But progressives are not unified, or even
clear, about what we affirmatively want in terms of a role for
government, a just economy or rights for individuals and groups.

(3) Active Listening. It is often noted that the structure of the
conservative movement is hierarchical and that because the leadership
has such a high level of control, conservative campaigns have always
been well coordinated and executed with great precision. Less often
noted is that their masterstroke was not that they went off in a room
and decided on a few cornerstone values and then aligned their work and
campaigns to speak to those values. Their genius was that they first
engaged in a practice of active listening and found a core of resentment
among large numbers of Americans--about race, class, gender and
sexuality--that could provide the emotional base for a new intellectual
paradigm. They did this in the 1970s, at precisely the time when
liberals stopped listening, presuming that the reactionary
ideas of the old right were so far out of favor that only the most
uninformed and backward voters supported them. Today, liberals rely
heavily on polling--a shallow kind of listening--or push ideas at the
country without deeply engaging with people first.

(4) The Importance of Recruitment. Think tanks and their output of
ideas, analysis and information are a necessary but not sufficient
component of any effective social movement. Conservatives focused on
building powerful mass-based institutions that could provide muscle for
a conservative agenda, such as the National Rifle Association, the Moral
Majority, the American Family Association and, later, Focus on the
Family, Concerned Women for America and the Christian Coalition of
America. Many of these mass-based organizations were explicitly
Christian and played a vital role in recruiting evangelical and
fundamentalist Christians to the New Right of
the 1980s.

Further, the right's core leadership showed extraordinary creativity in
exploiting new technologies. For example, Richard Viguerie pioneered the
use of direct mail; Ralph Reed Jr. of the Christian Coalition developed
"stealth" methods of campaigning for political office without revealing
the candidates' actual right-wing agenda and used churches to mobilize
voters. The right's strategists focused not only on ideas and policies
but also on organizing a base and developing recruitment techniques to
build the base. The contemporary right has always been clear about the
importance of recruiting greater numbers to its movement. An examination
of right-wing campaigns reveals that, in nearly every case, the
opportunity for recruitment plays a central role in their
conceptualization and execution. Progressives would make a
tragic mistake by neglecting base-building in the current period.

(5) Electoral Politics as Means, Not End. The architects of the
right's rise to power did not view their project as the election of
Republicans to state and federal office. They perceived the Republican
Party as a tool to achieve certain ends, rather than as the end in
itself; the takeover of the party was important because it would turn
the country toward a reactionary agenda. That the takeover occurred is a
reflection of the potency of the strategy. This is crucially important
because some progressives tend to conflate the project of building a
just world with the project of electing Democrats to office. Winning
people over is our central task. After all, progressive advances do not
always come under Democratic administrations. It was Richard Nixon,
after all, who proposed a guaranteed annual income for the poor, while
Bill Clinton approved time limits on welfare benefits.

It's also important to remember that the right worked at the federal,
state and local levels and used both "inside" and "outside" strategies
to influence the realm of political office-holding and the terrain of
public opinion. No one aspect of movement-building was emphasized at the
expense of others. It is that strength--approaching movement-building as
a whole package--that explains much of the right's growth and

(6) Fearless Politics. The right has not been afraid to propose
extreme positions, knowing they will be pushed back to more moderate
ones still well to the right of the status quo. We've seen this in
almost every policy fight since 1980. By boldly taking stands that are
far outside the mainstream, the right has managed to pull the mainstream
to the right, which is why it is now perceived as speaking for the
majority. For progressives, meanwhile, timidity, ambiguity and constant
compromise have not proved successful strategies; projecting a clear,
principled and uncompromising voice of progressive values and policies
is not only morally compelling but strategically smart.

Learning From Our Own History

Historically, left and liberal agendas--the New Deal, civil rights laws,
the Great Society, women's advancement--have made progress when mass
movements have forced change. To be sure, the ideas of John Maynard
Keynes were crucial in legitimizing and pointing the way to a new form
of capitalism and FDR was the right leader for the times, but the New
Deal wasn't won by economic experts. It was won by ordinary people who
organized to create a sense of crisis and a mandate for change.

While there is no formula for a social movement, we know that successful
ones share some things in common. First, people become mobilized around
issues they hold dear; at some level they share a powerful vision about
what is wrong with society and how it must be improved; and they engage
in lots of diverse activities not under any one leader's direct control.
The resulting political motion and its effect lead to a change in
attitudes, practices and public policy.

Our current infatuation with the strategies and structures of the right
has led some progressives to call for a more streamlined, hierarchical
movement, but this is not how we've won in the past. Progressive
movements have been successful when they have not had a top-down
organizational structure. Also, this analysis fails to appreciate the
comprehensiveness of the right's movement-building style. And it does
not reflect progressive democratic principles. Consider, for example,
the civil rights movement. Despite the popular perception of the Rev.
Martin Luther King Jr.'s singular importance, the movement had many
sectors under many leaders, with different ideologies and different
priorities--people like Septima Clark, Ella Baker and Bob Moses, all of
whom believed in the centrality of developing ordinary people as agents
of change rather than in charismatic leadership or coalitions of elites.
The same could be said of the women's movement and the environmental
movement. Progressive movements certainly need a generally agreed-upon
critique of society and vision for change, as well as mechanisms for
coordination. But letting a thousand flowers bloom can prove a strength,
so long as power does not collect around the most "achievable" social
change as opposed to the most just social change.

Race and Social Change

A movement must have a dynamic leading edge before its positions become
majority positions. Many of the progressive gains in American history
were not majority agendas--ending slavery, civil rights, disability
rights, AIDS advocacy and farmworker boycotts succeeded as struggles led
by minorities. In some cases they were struggles led by people who
weren't even enfranchised. How is that possible?

Often, deeply felt issues raised by groups whose numbers are in the
minority have the power to convert, while issues that theoretically
should be in everyone's interest never take hold. A necessary (though
not sufficient) condition for an issue to attain broad majoritarian
support is vibrant, well-organized submovements. Many of our
submovements, such as the women's, environmental, LGBT and civil rights
submovements, are demoralized, underfunded and increasingly influenced
by their own more conservative wings. Further, the progressive
movement's tendency to downplay racial issues and concerns consistently
blocks our process of building from submovements' success to an
effective broad progressive movement. For instance, even though
African-Americans have been the core of progressive politics, it is
often African-Americans who have been taken for granted and neglected by
the progressive movement, which is too often white dominated and focused
on issues of concern to white activists. As long as the movement fails
to become more inclusive and democratic, it will continue to limp along
without access to the wisdom and insight of the most vital part of its
base. Race today is not simply a matter of black and white: Many other
groups and movements of immigrants--Latinos, Asian/Pacific
Island-Americans, Arab-Americans and Native Americans--must also have a
full seat at the table. Conservatives are avidly courting these groups.
When people of color look for allies to advance their issues, there is
no reason to assume they will support the larger progressive movement
when their issues receive only lip service and they are not widely
represented in the movement's leadership and decision-making structures.

This is not only about "credibility" or "diversity." It is actually
about effectiveness. The whiteness of our leadership has played out, for
example, in a tendency to write off large parts of the
country--including the South, the Southwest and the High Plains--which
has proved politically disastrous. Further, a predominantly white
leadership tends to neglect issues like immigrant rights and criminal
justice because they are not pressing concerns of the "majority" of
voters. The perception that an issue can't galvanize a wide majority or
appeal to at least 51 percent of the electorate can sink the issue in
the current climate of poll-driven strategizing. Certainly the
progressive movement needs to pursue programs that knit together diverse
constituencies, but even very broad issues such as healthcare or the
environment will look different when they reflect the concerns of all

The Role of Organizing

Some progressives consider grassroots organizing a remnant of an old
style of politics no longer relevant to our media- and money-saturated
times. Others think of it as an actual obstacle to the efficient,
hierarchical infrastructure they idealize. But conservatives have
nurtured their grassroots constituencies in civic institutions,
evangelical churches and gun clubs. Organizing is central to any
effective strategy for revitalizing the progressive movement.

Organizing, not to be confused with mobilizing, is ultimately what
changes people's minds. Whereas mobilizing is about moving people to
take certain actions (voting, lobbying policy-makers, coming out to an
event or calling your Congress member on an issue pre-selected by
someone else), organizing is about developing the skills, confidence and
practice among ordinary people to speak out in their own voice.

What ultimately forces change is human beings seeing fellow human beings
act from a place of deep conviction. That moment of recognition can
occur only when people who are living with an injustice bring their
experience to the public square. Of course, solidarity efforts are
crucial to social change. It's hard to imagine the farmworkers, or the
civil rights workers in the South, succeeding if they had failed to
rouse broader sympathy throughout the country. But they were able to do
this only because they spoke with an authenticity that transcended walls
of race and class prejudice. No policy paper or slick message will ever
replace the power of organizing.

Major changes in the social order require a leap of "nonconsent" by the
governed. That might be millions of people refusing the draft, or
thousands boycotting buses in Montgomery, or hundreds "dying in" to
protest delays in AIDS research. While the tidal wave of conservative
successes at the federal level is obvious, the less-obvious victories
progressives have had in recent years are largely attributable to
organizing: major new investments in affordable housing through housing
trust funds, new money for transit, living- and minimum-wage laws,
expansions in health coverage at the state level, more income supports
for low-wage workers, education access, driver's licenses for immigrants
and limits on natural resource extraction.

Organizing is, as George W. Bush might say, "hard work"--never more so
than in current circumstances. Memories of successful collective
struggle are fading fast among a new generation not raised with the
1960s as a backdrop. Market culture has penetrated all spheres of life,
and it has reinforced deeply individualistic strains in American
society. Also, pervasive economic insecurity, increasing work demands
and a shredded safety net have heightened the personal costs involved.

Organizing has always had an uneasy place not only in the broader
culture but also in progressive circles. It has frequently been
sidelined by expert-driven advocacy or by charismatic figures who lead
short-lived protest movements, and today it is at risk of being
displaced by a focus on think tanks and communications strategies.
Perhaps more alarming, however, is the relative decline of organizing as
a strategy relative to mobilization. The work of many 527 organizations
prominent in the Bush and Kerry campaigns of 2004 (America Coming
Together and the Media Fund, for example) seemed to be about parachuting
into communities and soliciting votes, with little thought about what
would be left behind.

For all the difficulties, progressives are engaging in some exciting
experimentation with new methods of base-building appropriate to our
times. Organized labor is in the throes of a debate about how to rebuild
membership. There has been an explosion in community-based "worker
centers" and in immigrant community organizations. And in a few states,
groups are beginning to work together across issue and constituency
lines to develop common long-term strategies. This success is very
fragile and tentative, however, and it is still the case that organizing
tends not to get the respect, attention or resources it needs from the
larger progressive community.

A problem closely related to the neglect of organizing is the failure of
many progressive organizations to recruit and encourage leadership from
young people, especially young people of color. Young people have
political, social and economic perspectives that differ from those of
older (usually Baby Boomer) activists, who were shaped by the events of
the 1960s and '70s. Younger activists, organizers and intellectuals will
enrich the movement and take it in new directions, if given the freedom
and the power to do so.

Clarifying Basic Principles

While the focus of progressive movement-building is now on creating
large organizations "to scale," yet another of the movement's greatest
challenges is being neglected: We are undecided on the larger principles
that underlie our work for social justice. Many people don't like to do
this "big picture" thinking. They prefer results-oriented activism
and practical solutions. And they are correct that larger
principles must be tied to people's everyday concerns and identifiable,
attainable goals.

But to be successful, mass organizing must be informed by visionary
principles as well as nuts-and-bolts techniques. Most bold new policy
proposals grow out of the everyday work that activists in submovements
do on various issues. These proposals--for example, national
healthcare, full rights and services for immigrants, or replacing
the racist criminal justice system--are not the polished, poll-tested,
slightly left-of-center ones increasingly attractive to
Democratic Party centrists. Indeed, they may seem fringe and far out of
the mainstream. But they have their roots in real material conditions.

What we lack are the overarching principles to tie these proposals
together. In the 1960s and '70s progressives generally agreed that
government had a responsibility to defend the weak or temporarily weak,
protect individual rights, provide a reasonable standard of living and
regulate private enterprise to protect the public from rampant greed and
criminal behavior. Battered by the right's relentless assaults on these
core principles, progressive movement activists today do not have a
coherent vision. Instead, we are driven by a vague sense of what a
better society would look like, a recognition of how times have changed
and persistent despair as we fight one defensive battle after another.

It is therefore essential that we address several fundamental questions
right now: What is the role and responsibility of government? How
can the racial imbalance of our movement's leadership be corrected? What
role should religion play in public life? How should progressives
respond to globalization? And what social issues should we identify as
"bottom line"? As principles that respond to these questions
emerge, we must not allow political expediency to trump creativity. The
voices of people of color, and young people and women of all races must
be explicitly sought out. Funding may facilitate this discussion, but it
will not in itself produce a dynamic vision. Think tanks alone will not
develop these principles, and framing and messaging will not substitute
for them. The process of drawing out larger principles must be an
organic one: a step-by-step process of slowly creating broad consensus.
Here, we can learn from the right's success with active listening.

While the challenges we face are considerable, they are not
insurmountable. But we must get moving so that when the tide of public
opinion turns in our direction, we are not caught flatfooted, with
a movement badly in need of reform and lacking the very basics needed to
seize the moment and go forward. The right was ready for the backlash of
the late 1970s. We must be ready for the coming backlash against the
outrages of the past twenty-five years.

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