Archive for the ‘Conservatism’ Category
Praise Bieber, this is delicious.
Ayn Rand took government assistance while decrying others who did the same
An interview with Evva Pryror, a social worker and consultant to Miss Rand’s law firm of Ernst, Cane, Gitlin and Winick verified that on Miss Rand’s behalf she secured Rand’s Social Security and Medicare payments which Ayn received under the name of Ann O’Connor (husband Frank O’Connor).
As Pryor said, “Doctors cost a lot more money than books earn and she could be totally wiped out” without the aid of these two government programs. Ayn took the bail out even though Ayn “despised government interference and felt that people should and could live independently… She didn’t feel that an individual should take help.”
My favorite part is when Pryor says that doctors cost a lot of money. Don’t they? It’s almost like we should have a social safety net in place – funded by taxpayer money – to help those taxpayers when they fall on hard times.
Wait! We totally have that already. Oh well. We better destroy it before our Galtian overlords tire of our whining and go have orgies on their Billionaires Only island.
Jonathan Chait wrote a piece about Ayn Rand and the American Right that reenforces a lot of what we already know (the Right sees the world as being divided into ‘producers’ and ‘leaches,’) but also offers some interesting anecdotes.
Pat Toomey, the former president of the Club for Growth and a Republican candidate for the Senate in Pennsylvania, has recently expressed an allegorical version of this idea, in the form of an altered version of the tale of the Little Red Hen. In Toomey’s rendering, the hen tries to persuade the other animals to help her plant some wheat seeds, and then reap the wheat, and then bake it into bread. The animals refuse each time. But when the bread is done, they demand a share. The government seizes the bread from the hen and distributes it to the “not productive” fellow animals. After that, the hen stops baking bread.
Got it? Stop asking me to pay for the roads I drive on, or the Sourdough gets it. Also, too, Socialism.
Chait stresses an important lesson for liberals. The elite Right aren’t interested in negotiating the area of acceptable pittance offered up by taxpayers as payment for living in a collectivist society. They truly, truly believe they should not be forced to pay taxes even though the state (i.e. taxpayers) largely subsidizes their production, and the actual manual labor of production is also done by taxpayers. Chait calls their certainty a “moral absolute.” Taking from the rich is always, always wrong, and that is not up for negotiation.
Sadly, the elite Right have also convinced Joe Nobody that he is also a MOU, another victim of the mooching herd.
At a health care town hall in Kokomo, Indiana, one protester framed the case against health care reform positively, as an open defense of the virtues of selfishness. “I’m responsible for myself and I’m not responsible for other people,” he explained in his turn at the microphone, to applause. “I should get the fruits of my labor and I shouldn’t have to divvy it up with other people.”
The speaker turned out to be unemployed, Natch. I’m reminded of the angry mobs of Medicare recipients turning out at town hall meetings to protest big gubment, and a certain Libertarian sweetheart who opposes government spending…unless it directly benefits him.
In this world, selfishness is the ultimate virtue. It’s why liberals will fail time and time again if they hope to appeal to the moral compasses of the Ruling Right and their brainwashed sycophants. It is doomed to fail simply because this blatant hypocrisy (using Medicare while opposing big government, screaming about government takeover while accepting federal payments) is dismissed as being acceptable because I’m the one doing it. It’s not okay for anyone else to receive aid, but if I’m the one in trouble, it’s permissible. Just for a little while. I deserve it, after all. I’m the one who really earned it.
Of course, Ayn Rand gives the Right a giddy thrill because — much like any Disney fairtytale or religion — she presents the world in this moral binary. Have you ever tried to convince someone God doesn’t exist? Yeah, that’s what it’s like trying to convince a wingnut that progressive taxation is good for society.
Here is Ross Douthat explaining why a billionaire, anti-choice zealots, and right-wing extremists hijacking U.S. politics is a victory for vaginas everywhere.
When historians set out to date the moment when the women’s movement of the 1970s officially consolidated its gains, they could do worse than settle on last Tuesday’s primaries.
I’ll give him points for a hilariously hyperbolic opening. Make your case, sailor.
It was a day when most of the major races featured female candidates, and all the major female candidates won. They won in South Dakota and Arkansas, California and Nevada. They won as business-friendly moderates (the Golden State’s Meg Whitman); as embattled incumbents (Arkansas’s Blanche Lincoln); as Tea Party insurgents (Sharron Angle in Nevada). South Carolina gubernatorial hopeful Nikki Haley even came in first despite multiple allegations of adultery.
But mostly, they won as Republicans. Conservative Republicans, in fact. Conservative Republicans endorsed by Sarah Palin, in many cases. Which generated a certain amount of angst in the liberal commentariat about What It All Meant For Feminism.
The question of whether conservative women get to be feminists is an interesting and important one. But it has obscured a deeper truth: Whether or not Palin or Fiorina or Haley can legitimately claim the label feminist, their rise is a testament to the overall triumph of the women’s movement.
Yesterday, I wrote about media pundits’ propensity to portray the extremely old and familiar as fresh and exciting. They do this to sell papers, drum up website hits, and to appear insightful and necessary. Maybe a handful do it out of boredom, or stupidity, believing what they are seeing really is something revolutionary.
In reality, there is nothing more sexist than assuming any woman’s political victory — regardless of the type of woman — is a progressive step forward for the feminist movement. Women are people, and people are a diverse bunch. It still matters what kind of woman wins the election. And the kind of women that won these races are either preposterously wealthy, staunch anti-feminists, or a healthy combination of both.
What happened on election day is an old story: rich, mostly white, right-wingers won. Oh, and they also happen to be girls. Hooray.
Basically, it will take more than Douthat calling this a victory for feminism to make it so.
Meg Whitman, the billionaire former eBay chief executive, won the Republican nomination for governor after spending a record $71 million of her money on the race. Quite simply, Whitman bought her victory, and this has nothing to do with the bonds of sisterhood or feminine strength. This is corporatism in a skirt.
In fact, Whitman herself seems to hate the notion of feminism. At least, she certainly doesn’t want anyone calling her such an offensive term. When asked if she is a feminist, Whitman replied, “I am a big believer in equal rights for all people … in a level playing field.” But she said, “I’m not a big label person.”
This could be NOW’s new slogan: Taking action for women’s equality since 1966…or whatever…we’re not big label people.
I know when Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony were taking on the male-dominated establishment, what sustained them was the thought that one day Blanche Lincoln (D-Walmart) would squeak out a victory despite being a corporate whore.
Apparently, it doesn’t matter than Lincoln is a turncoat Blue Dog Democrat, who voted with Republicans to allow warrantless government surveillance, the invasion of Iraq, and shot down the public option. All that matters is the stuff between her legs, which sort of goes against the whole notion of “feminism,” but nevermind. A girl won!
And then there’s Sharron Angle. I’ve written about her support of the right-wing extremist fringe, but Douthat skims over such silly details for the sake of preserving his narrative i.e. Things Are Super Awesome For Women Right Now. He’s going to jam this premise down your throat even though women earn around 79% of men’s median weekly salaries, and Congress just passed a healthcare bill that dramatically diminishes a woman’s right to choose the fate of her own body.
Angle proposed a bill that “would have required doctors to inform women seeking abortions about a controversial theory linking an increased risk of breast cancer with abortion.” (The abortion-causes-breast cancer theory is a myth, and was spread, in part, to discourage abortions). But I hear lying to scared, pregnant women for the sake of controlling their bodies is all the rage right now in the neo-feminist movement.
Other than the novelty of having survived not one — but multiple — allegations of adultery, Nikki Haley is extremely typical of the right-wing fringe. She has a 100 percent rating from the anti-abortion S.C. Citizens for Life group, and she calls on her website for the deportation of illegal immigrants. Oh, and if any of her white supremacist base, who may confuse her for a “raghead,” were concerned, don’t worry. She converted to Christianity.
Modern Republicans have grown wise to the fact that they’re never going to defeat feminism. Try as they did to shame, humiliate, and dismiss feminists as a bunch of ugly, barren spinsters, who refuse to shave their legs and can’t land a man, the propaganda campaign didn’t stick. Now, they’re left with only one option: hijack the movement.
In the same way President Obama’s victory was a sign that affirmative action is “no longer necessary,” so the victories of a handful of women (be they billionaires, right-wing extremists, turncoats, or militant anti-choicers) herald the dawn of a new feminism: one that is staunchly anti-woman, and represents only a class of wealthy, pro-Business, right wing extremists.
The distinguishing feature of Ricochet will be its unique format, which promises to look unlike any other site on the net. “It will not be a news aggregator, or a megachat like Daily Kos, but instead will be a feed like Facebook or Twitter or Tumbler,” says James Poulos, Ricochet’s managing editor. Approximately 40 contributors will have an online conversation that is akin to a conservative cocktail party.
ZOMG! Like Twitter?? What better way to launch a trailblazing forum than by ripping off one that already exists.
And who are the fresh-faced dissidents that have kicked down the door of mediocrity and said, “No, thank you! I think I’ll have something NEW!”?
Ricochet is the brainchild of two established conservatives, former Reagan speechwriter Peter Robinson and Hollywood producer-pundit Rob Long.
If ever there was hope for Conservatives to inject some vibrancy into a movement that has been hijacked by the lunatic fringe, it exists in a Twitter rip-off launched by the guy who published a book praised by Margaret Thatcher, and the dude who wrote for National Review and Cheers.
As we saw in the previous post, the entire conservative movement was organized around the single goal of changing the country’s dominant worldview, weaning it away from liberal assumptions about how the world works, and teaching Americans to assign meaning to the world using conservative values instead. They firmly (and rightly) believed that that once the rest of the country evaluated and prioritized reality the same way they did, the rest of the conservative political, economic, and social agenda could be implemented with strong popular support, and no meaningful resistance.
But the early architects of this plan, including Paul Weyrich, also realized that having strong ideas wasn’t enough. To succeed, they would also have to master the arts of persuasion.
“Ideas do not immediately have consequences,” wrote Eric Huebeck in his 2001 update of Weyrich’s long-followed plan. “They do not have an impact in direct proportion to the truth they contain. They have an impact only insofar as adherents of those ideas are willing to take measures to propagate those ideas.”
Or, as a more cynical conservative once put it: You gotta catapult the propaganda.
This may seem like heresy to liberals. We like to believe that the progressive worldview is so patently superior that intelligent people will readily see the logic of it, and then sensibly adopt it as the best way to think and live. If people resist it, it’s only because they don’t completely understand it (yet). Fixing that is simply a matter of education: we just need explain our vision more clearly. Our own resolute faith in the power of reason convinces us that reasonable people will be reasonably persuaded by reasonable discussion of reasonable ideas.
It’s time to consider the reasonable possibility that we may be wrong.
To our enduring detriment, movement conservatives never bought into that idea. They understood from the start that their ideas (which, frankly, don’t stand up nearly as well in the face of clear rationality) would need to be aggressively promoted and sold, using emotional appeals that went to the heart of human beings’ deepest desires and motivations. People don’t commit their time, energy, and fortunes to a movement because it’s all so logical and sensible. They join up because they’ve taken the movement’s worldview deep into their hindbrains as their basic model of reality, and made an emotional connection to the ineffable feelings the movement deliberately stimulated — in this case, fear, hate, and xenophobia as well as solidarity, reverence, hope, and security. In this model, the ideas only exist to provide a way to rationalize and express the deeper feelings the movement has already activated through other appeals.
Liberals operate from a position of strength on the battlefield of ideas — and this may be why we consistently overvalue reason and undervalue emotional appeals. Our ideas do have a strong intellectual appeal. But we tend to forget that they also have a far healthier emotional appeal, since we don’t have to resort to stimulating fear and hate to get people to buy into them. Still, we’ve been notoriously terrible at stirring people’s more positive and hopeful emotions, and getting them to resonate on a soul-deep level with the values that define our worldview. Clearly, we could stand to learn a thing or two from the conservatives about how they did this.
In this second part, we’ll look at some of the essential communications rules Huebeck gleaned from Weyrich’s original plans — and see how these rules might be adapted to make us more effective at winning people’s hearts and souls as well as their minds.
Don’t be afraid to set ‘em on fire
The hard, cold fact is that words and logic will never get us down to the deep, pre-rational places where people’s foundational worldviews are shaped. If we want to create change at that foundational level, we need to engage them emotionally, in the pre-verbal places where images, poetry, myths, and ritual reside.
The first thing we need to do is lighten way up on the long recitations of facts and figures and programs and policies. Most non-wonks don’t care about this stuff — the details just make them yawn. They’re bored by promises of new programs: most Americans are pretty well convinced by now that whatever the program is or how well-funded it may be, they probably won’t see any personal benefit from it, so it comes across as an empty promise. Yet Democratic candidates all the way back to Walter Mondale have been running and losing on just this kind of dispassionate, uninspiring wonk-talk. And then we wonder why the conservatives keep whipping our asses.
You’ll seldom catch conservatives talking wonky. They’re told from their very first candidate trainings to steer clear of anything that dwells on abstract facts or figures. People want viscerally engaging stories — emotional stories about people like them, inspiring mythic tales taken from history that express their highest ideals, vivid invocations outlining the shining details of a better future to come. They want clear-cut portrayals of good guys and bad guys that reverberate with the promise that justice will be done, and that they will be honored in the end as agents for good. We may grow up, but we never lose our childhood taste for an illustrative tale well-told. The conservatives knew this from the beginning, and turned this knowledge into a potent political strategy.
Mitt was singularly bad at it, which explains much of his failure. (McCain’s not much of an inspirational speaker, either.) On the other hand, Obama is singularly good at it, which is why he’s doing so well — even though the emotional outpouring he inspired by hitting these buttons makes a lot of more reason-based liberals squirm and reach for words like “cult” and “mass hysteria.” It’s potent proof of just how very uncomfortable we are with this — and also that we need to get serious about getting ourselves over it. Because Obama is doing exactly what every great progressive icon of the past did — and every modern progressive needs to learn to do — if we’re going to inspire the nation and get people to commit themselves, body and soul, to our worldview.
We’ve got a different message; but we’ve also got a long tradition of progressive speakers (Jefferson, TR, FDR, JFK, MLK) who knew how to tell our story in ways that grabbed people’s imaginations and set them on fire. It’s a proud liberal tradition that we are way past due to reclaim — and the conservatives are going to keep beating us until we do.
Talk in tangibles, not abstractions
Offer clear examples wherever possible. Use real people in real situations. Tie values statements to everyday experiences. Listeners need to understand how your message ties directly into the way they live their daily lives, so bring it down to ground level.
When we do use numbers, it should be in ways that are direct and personal. This war is costing your family $XXXX per year. Cancer rates in your neighborhood are up X% due to lax oversight of the plant. This program will enable XXX more kids from this county to afford college. If it can’t be expressed in terms of direct, concrete benefits to the individual listeners, it’s
probably a waste of breath.
Live out loud
Weyrich declared that the cardinal premise of the conservative movement is that “the power of example is far greater than the power of exhortation.” They actively sought out and promoted people who were living their worldview, and held them up as examples to others of the success that awaited anyone who joined up. They understood that the best salesmen for the cause were the people who weren’t afraid to live their conservatism right out loud.
Liberals tend to break out in a rash if you suggest that we should allow ourselves to be held up as role models for anyone. Who are we to be telling anyone else how to live? And besides: who needs all that scrutiny and judgment? But I’d argue that we might want to reconsider this. Like it or not, when we step up as leaders, people are watching — and many would-be progressives will be judging our movement and modeling their own lives after our example. Being a leader means accepting that burden with some grace, and recognizing example-setting as a central part of the job.
It’s an act of courage to step up, tell the world, “This is what a progressive looks like,” and then commit yourself to living up to the movement’s highest ideals. But it would only take a few million of us openly living out our values that way — not full of self-righteousness and judgment (people have had a bellyful of that), but modestly and graciously and without apology — to change the way our movement is perceived throughout the country. We’re offering the world an alternative. We need to commit our lives — literally — to showing them through our actions what that alternative looks like.
Huebeck and Weyrich told conservatives to quit their bitching about “leftist double standards and hypocrisy.” They recognized whining and pity-parties as a huge time and energy sink that drags everybody down, and sucks resources away from the movement. The real question movement conservatives needed to confront, they said, is: “What are we going to do about it?” They offered two solutions for the swamping despair that comes with the never-ending gush of stupidity from the other side.
First, they suggested that conservatives regard their opponents’ excesses with the same kind of dispassionate detachment one uses to survey the ravenings of rabid dogs or the aftermath of natural disasters. Accept that they do what they do because that’s who they are. They can’t help themselves; and it’s a useless distraction to be angry or frustrated with them, let alone to think for a minute that we can change their essential nature. If liberals got that detached and gave up complaining, it would dramatically reduce the volume of bloggage coming from our side; but it would also enable us to conserve our energy, stay focused on what matters, and help us endure for the long haul.
Second, they told conservatives to take responsibility — not only for themselves, but for the country as well. “Leftists are never morally responsible for the evil they commit,” wrote Huebeck, “but we as conservatives are morally responsible for not having done more to prevent them from committing that evil.” (Take a minute and breathe. Laugh, if you must. I know — the stupendous projection in that statement is just too much to take in all at once.)
Voluntarily assuming personal responsibility for everything the conservatives do sounds preposterous at first. But if you think about it, it’s actually a neat piece of ontological Aikido, and we might consider borrowing it. The right-wing has savaged the country. We are morally responsible for not stopping them. No, it’s not quite true — but if we go ahead accept responsibility for the outcome anyway, it reframes the situation in a way that puts us back in control of events. We’re no longer helpless underdogs at the mercy of an overwhelming foe outgunning us on every front. Instead — in our own minds, and eventually that of the country — we become the rightful People In Charge, endowed with a clear duty to stand up and put a stop to it.
The conservatives adopted this “we accept responsibility for the mess, and are thus in charge of cleaning it up” stance early on. They believed they owed it to God, the country, and their grandchildren to seize the reins of power and call a halt to the liberal onslaught. This belief has been central to keeping their troops engaged through 30 years of hard fighting — and it also mentally prepared them to move briskly into leadership when they finally started winning.
Know your enemy
Huebeck advised conservatives to “know more about the history of the left than any leftist, and be ready to beat liberals in any debate” — preferably by knowing so much that you can easily make them look foolish.
This advice has been mostly honored in the breach, which isn’t surprising when you consider how few serious scholars there are in the conservative world. (Buckley’s gone; and David Brooks and Bill Kristol couldn’t fill his shoes with all four feet.) Most of us have run into smart conservatives who’ve read Marx and Mill and Bentham and can debate their ideas; but a ridiculous amount of their so-called scholarship has been more along the lines of Jonah Goldberg’s Through-The-Looking-Glass rantings in Liberal Fascism. And their rhetorical skills — which rely largely on being able to out-scream people on cable talk shows or simply deny the existence of contrary facts — aren’t up to left-wing standards of proof, either.
Which means that it’s not all that hard to beat them, especially with that big steaming pile of conservative failures to point to. And every time we can humiliate a conservative in public by exposing their worldview as a barrel of hateful, immoral bilge, we win another small battle.
Master the mass media
“The ideas of the masses never come from the masses,” wrote Huebeck. “The most important thing any movement can do is capture the imagination of the people. One must give them dreams and ideas that have been put in terms they understand, and touch their hearts as opposed to their rational minds. If we cannot capture the imaginations of our members, then we cannot expect our members to make great sacrifices for us.”
To this end, conservatives have tried (with varying degrees of success) to produce movies, songs, radio, TV, and other popular culture products promoting their worldview. The religious conservatives have been so stunningly successful at this that you can now live your entire life in America, cradle to grave, watching nothing but conservative Christian TV, reading Christian books, using Christian school curricula, and listening to Christian radio stations. Tens of millions of Americans now live inside this cozy media bubble, where everything that fills their eyes and ears affirms their religious worldview, and nothing ever interferes to disturb it with unsettling questions.
Fortunately for us, apart from that seamless Christian cocoon, the only truly mass media that conservatives really seemed to have a flair for were talk radio and war movies. They really wanted to take over Hollywood, and are actively looking to grow their own Michael Moore-type documentarians, but neither effort has gone very well.
That’s because most American media professionals — including the best creatives — almost all skew toward the progressive side. The conservatives fully understand what that means, and they openly envy us these talented treasures. We’d do well not to underestimate their value, and to keep pioneering new outlets through which they can put their skills to work telling the progressive story.
Don’t be afraid to be obnoxious
“The thing we have most to fear is that we will be ignored….Complacency only serves the interests of
our opponents,” wrote Huebeck. “We must be willing to take measures that perhaps we would be unwilling to take under different, more ideal circumstances. We will have standards — we will never try to justify dishonesty, destruction of the personal reputation of our opponents, cheating, assault, etc…..however, we will not consider ourselves above appearing “unseemly” or surrendering some of our personal dignity…Which means being obnoxious if the situation requires it.”
This just explains so much, doesn’t it? From the get-go, the conservatives weren’t afraid of making total public asses of themselves (which is why they do it so often — and on such a grand scale). They figured out early that bad publicity was better than no publicity; and that at least some of the voters would soon realize that anyone willing to look like that much of an idiot must really have the strength of his or her convictions. Not only does being an obnoxious blowhard make you fearsome at school board meetings and garner stratsopheric ratings on talk radio; there’s also a certain martyrdom value in being harassed and ridiculed by the media for having the courage to stand on principle.
I don’t doubt that Weyrich borrowed this idea from the civil rights movement. Civil disobedience — which always involves making a public nuisance of yourself in the name of a higher good — is an old progressive idea. Old-style protests are a dying tactic; but the larger theme of boldly and fearlessly standing down conservatives, even when it might scuff up our dignity, is coming due to be resurrected and re-worked by a fresh generation.
Don’t be afraid to talk about morality
“‘Sensible’ people do not go to the barricades, do not make great sacrifices for a movement,” wrote Huebeck and Weyrich. “We need more people with fire in the belly, and we need a message that attracts those kinds of people. We must reframe this as a moral struggle, as a transcendent struggle, as a struggle between good and evil. And we must be prepared to explain why this is so. We must provide the evidence needed to prove this using images and simple terms.”
The way progressives talk about morality is one of the salient differences between the 2004 and 2008 elections. Somewhere in those four years, we’ve begun to find our moral voices — and are using them to tell stories that the country is strongly responding to.
Liberals are not, as the conservatives are wont to paint us, immoral. We believe in family, community, prudent budgets, and that America should be a force for good in the world. We think torture and pre-emptive war are wrong. We believe in equal justice and equal opportunity. And we believe that the planet’s ecosystems and the survival of humanity are more important than any amount of profit. Those are intensely moral stances that, taken boldly, draw the majority of Americans to our side.
Beyond that: America’s moral high ground rightfully belongs to progressives. It was progressive morality that formed the nation and fought the revolution. It freed the slaves, fought back the robber barons, unionized workers, ended the Depression, and won World War II. The conservatives have, on occasion, wrenched it out of our hands for couple decades here and there; and the results have invariably been a disasterous betrayal of our core values. This last time, they did it by promoting their own idea of “morality” — packaging it in a worldview that, ironically, opened the door to unprecedented amorality and lawlessness.
It’s time for us to seize back the moral high ground– but it won’t happen unless we overtly step up to fill the void and articulate a clear and specific moral vision to replace the decadent conservative worldview. Both Democratic candidates are doing a strong job of this — for now. But we can’t afford to stop talking this way when the campaign is over. The conservatives embedded their moral stance in every message they conveyed to Americans, regardless of the medium or the political cycle. Morality was central to every aspect of their communications strategy, and did much to cement their worldview in the public mind. We need to be equally scrupulous in expressing all of our ideas in the context of the larger progressive morality that drives them, without exception and without fail.
Don’t be afraid to use social intimidation as a weapon
“We must be feared, so that they will think twice before opening their mouths. They must understand that there is some sort of cost involved in taking a ‘controversial’ stand….we will be able to take some of the trendiness out of leftist cultural activism, because lukewarm advocates of leftist causes will be forced to actually get their hands dirty. Support of leftist causes will no longer be the path of least resistance.”
The conservative letter-writing campaigns really got rolling sometime in the mid-70s. Any time an article appeared in any paper — from the Sunday Suburban Shopper to the New York Times — that could be construed to disparage conservative values or conservative leaders, editors were deluged with cranky letters accusing them of bias, closed-mindedness, lack of professionalism, and worse. It was a blatant effort at operant conditioning, and it worked: within a few years, there wasn’t a newspaper editor in the country who didn’t develop a visible, involuntary twitch at the very thought of printing something that might reflect badly on conservatives.
That was a deliberate social intimidation campaign, and it played a large role in creating the right-wing media bias we’re working against today. And the intimidation was everywhere, to the point where many other Americans who didn’t really agree with the conservative agenda went along with it anyway because they didn’t want the trouble these people could dish out. A right-wing whispering campaign could tank a small business, ruin a reputation, put an end to a career. The Dirty Fucking Hippies slander was another social intimidation attempt, this one aimed at silencing an entire generation of liberal voices.
Two generations of Americans have internalized the “don’t-piss-off-the-wingers” lesson all the way down to their bones. They may not like the right-wingers — but they sure as hell don’t want to be on their bad side.
We are, quite frankly, not that mean — and it goes hard against our grain to intimidate people into doing our bidding. But we progressives could stand to get much, much more assertive about pushing back against this long siege by defending our own boundaries, standing up for our own dignity, and demanding that people present our ideas fairly and accurately. After all, nobody else is going to take us or our positions seriously until we learn to carry ourselves like powerful people worthy of their careful respect. We don’t have to be overtly intimidating; but it wouldn’t hurt for people to think twice before messing with us.
The good news on the media front is that our own letter-writing campaigns are now underway. Eric Boehlert at Media Matters points out that the AP got over 15,000 letters last week protesting the unprofessionalism of Nedra Pickler’s recent article parroting Republican talking points about Obama’s alleged lack of patriotism. Most of the letters were generated by Firedoglake’s brand-new tool that makes it easy to target local papers for e-mail complaint (and praise) campaigns.
But demanding respect from the media is just one step. We need to get not just good, but reliably great, at insisting on being treated with dignity and fairness on every front. The conservatives have had a good time for the past 30 years being the national political bully. It’s time to step up and give that bully the facedown he deserves.
We are Just Cooler Than That
One of the biggest problems the early conservatives face
d is that they were the straight, hopelessly out-of-it dweebs in a decade that valued Cool above everything. Weyrich, in another brilliant stroke of memetic Aikido, found a way to take this disadvantage and turn it into an enormous asset.
As Huebeck explains it, conservatives remedied this by taking on an added veneer of sophistication. “We must make it clear that we are seceding from modern life not because we are unable to cope with modern life, but because we are superior to modern life. We understand popular culture — we get it — we simply find it empty and meaningless.”
The Young Republicans of the early ’80s declared that they were the New Coming Thing, a counter-counterculture that offered a stinging critique of the 1960s Cultural Revolution. They declared that they old rebels and their anything-goes value system were exhausted and bankrupt; and announced that they were the New Rebels come to supplant a tired old order. Their clean-cut morality and real-world pragmatism served as irrefutable proof that they were, quite simply, Cooler Than The Rest Of Us.
It was a ridiculous conceit, but it worked. A large swath of Gen X, annoyed by Boomer excess and looking for change, were more than ready to sign on the more “pragmatic” conservative agenda; and their votes helped fuel the Republican takeover. The whole definition of “cool” made a similar generational shift. “Cool” wasn’t Peter Fonda in Easy Rider any more. “Cool” was scheming Ferris Bueller, ambitious Alex P. Keaton, and Melanie Griffith’s spunky Working Girl. “Cool” was an Armani suit, a Hermes tie, and a Harvard MBA.
But “Cool” is also a sword that cuts two ways. Progressives can easily adopt this same skeptical, above-it-all stance to launch a scathing critique of corporate greed-is-good culture. Supply-side economics? Unregulated markets? CEOs as cultural heroes? Yeah, we understand corporate culture — we get it — but we are sooo over it. It’s just so 1988. It’s empty and meaningless, and we (and all the other cool kids) are heading out toward something better. If you’re really cool, you’ll ditch that tie, find a job in sustainability, and come along with us. Because we’re the ones who own the future now.
In the third and final piece in this series, we’ll look at the specific ways that the conservatives took their ideas and their messages out into streets, and made themselves into a truly mass movement.
Part III: How Did Conservatives Convince the Public to Think Differently About Government?
Part III of a series exploring how conservatives took their worldview to the streets, undermining long-held views about government and society.
The conservative worldview has succeeded so wildly — and is still holding such tenacious sway over the ways Americans approach their current stack of problems — because the conservatives started out 30 years ago with a focused plan that put promoting their model of reality at the center of every other action. Over the past two posts, I’ve been mining the specific strategies that early planners like Paul Weyrich used to advance the conservative worldview, in the hope that we might gain some insight that will help us engage them directly on this deepest, most important territory.
Progressives will not be able to implement their vision of the future until we’re able to supplant the conservative worldview with our own. We won’t win until we take control of the discourse, offer Americans new ways to make meaning and evaluate and prioritize events, and get them to abandon conservative assumptions about how reality works.
I’d like to thank Bruce Wilson at Talk2Action again for turning me onto Eric Huebeck’s 2001 document that summarized, updated, and refocused the original Weyrich strategies. In this final piece, we’ll look some of the specific ways the conservatives structured their campaign to take their worldview to the streets, and ultimately replaced long-held democratic assumptions about government, economics, and society with the deadly and wrong-headed assumptions that now drive the thinking of the entire nation.
Capture Cultural Institutions
Thanks to David Brock, Joe Conason, Chris Mooney, Michelle Goldberg, and many others, more and more of us are becoming aware of the ways that conservatives have quietly moved in to take over almost every public and private institution in America. From churches to university faculties to public broadcasting to the Boy Scouts, the vast network of institutions that once taught people how to live in a liberal democracy and reinforced those values across society has been shredded to the point where it no longer functions. In its place is a new network of institutions — some of them operating within the co-opted shells of the old ones, others brand new — that reinforce the conservative worldview at every turn.
This takeover of the very insitutional fabric of the nation was a central part of the conservative plan from the very beginning. Weyrich understood that to change the discourse, you had to capture and control the institutions that were most directly responsible for promoting and sustaining it. And the rising conservatives pursued that goal with a vengeance.
The basic strategy was to build parallel organizations that shadowed the official ones until they could legitimately assume power within their domains. In some cases these were national institutes, professional organizations, formal committees and expert policy groups; in others, they were simply ad hoc groups of conservative citizens who showed up at all the meetings, studied the domain, wrote letters, and eventually became expert in all the same topics and issues the official authorities dealt with. Either way, over the course of a decade or two, there was hardly an influential institution in America that wasn’t operating without a gaggle of conservatives standing by to criticize every decision and thwart every attempt at action.
In some cases, such as government agencies, these self-appointed shadow officials hung around long enough, and demonstrated enough interest and expertise, that they eventually eased themselves into official positions from which they began to enact the conservative agenda. They joined public boards, got themselves appointed to commissions, and inflitrated local offices. In cases where they couldn’t directly take over, they set themselves up as the determined and loyal opposition, acting as political leg weights that hobbled and slowed down every aspect of goverment business for decades on end as they looked for opportunities to press their issues and impose their will. The official policymakers still held sway, but the constant resistance made them far less effective. In time, people would get frustrated with the inaction, and look for other leaders to get the job done. Too often, the people who’d created the resistance in the first place were the first ones tapped to take over.
Massive funding put up by conservative foundations also gave the movement clout over the country’s great non-profits, from which they insinuated themselves into research, health care, social services, education, and the arts. Pressure from investors, advertisers, and avid letter-writers narrowed the range of acceptable narratives in every kind of media. Shadow “professional” groups were established to challenge the basic Enlightenment-era premises of law, medicine, banking, teaching, pharmacy, and other essential professions.
All of this effort was in the service of one goal — to take over these institutions and eventually use them to promote conservative values
and worldview. They understood that when you control these institutions, you control the culture — and ultimately, you will also control the very discourse by which everyone inside the culture interprets reality. We’re coming up against the success of this strategy every time a Federalist Society judge comes up for confirmation, every time a hospital refuses to perform abortions, every time the police commission gets a brutality complaint and looks the other way, and every time we try to get a birth control prescription filled.
Huebeck was very clear that none of this about “reform.” He wrote: “We will not reform existing institutions. We only intend to weaken them, and eventually destroy them. We will endeavor to knock our opponents off-balance and unsettle them at every opportunity.” The conservatives knew that of all the various fronts in the war for American hearts and minds, seizing control of the country’s institutional core was is the one that mattered most.
And, unfortunately, we liberals left them to it. Throughout the 1960s, the Boomers had been challenging the authority of the old institutions, which they (often rightly) found stultifying, socially confining, and too often downright criminal. But there was a serious downside to this. When they abandoned the field, they left foundational American institutions (which had been dominated by GI-era rationalists from both parties) wide open for right-wing takeover — and the result is our lives are now dominated by the authority emanating from a new establishment that is far more stultifying, restrictive, and criminal that the 1960s rebels could have ever imagined.
It’s becoming obvious to more and more of us that we will not win until we start taking these institutions back. We’ve made a good start at creating progressive media networks, organizing our own political infrastructure, and defending education at all levels from conservative incursions. We’re having our say in the marketplace, particularly when it comes to agriculture and low-emissions vehicles. Science is not going gently into the ideological good night.
But it’s all just drops in the bottom of a large and leaking bucket. There are vast sectors in which the takeover proceeds unchallenged — and will remain so until we come back with the same pervasive intensity they brought to the job. We need thousands of those same small cadres of dedicated people who make it their business to target one institution, study it, become expert in it, and eventually mount a public challenge to its authority or move in and take it over. We need local MoveOn groups providing those scoutmasters, and local progressive churches taking strong stands against religious right school boards, and teams of local letter-writers who keep our issues on the op-ed pages of the weekly paper. We need professional organizations in every field that stand up to the ideologues and restore the rule of reason. We need to be as pervasive a presence in the life of conservative institutions as they have been in liberal ones.
It took them over 20 years to effect this takeover, so we also need to expect to be in this one for the long haul.
Don’t Trust the Democratic Party
Huebeck noted ruefully that movement conservatives “shot ourselves in the foot by expecting too much from the Republican Party.” It’s a feeling that’s becoming all too familiar to progressives assessing their relationship with the Democrats.
We’re tempted to forget that Progressives are not necessarily Democrats, any more than movement conservatives were necessarily Republicans. In each case, they are a separate movement that often finds its interests in consonance with those of a certain political party. But in both cases, they stand to lose tremendous amounts of power if they allow themselves to become co-opted and turned into an appendage of that party.
In the end, many conservatives — especially the religious right — lost track of that boundary, and forgot to consider their interests apart from the party. Without enough daylight between the two entities, it was easy for the GOP to start taking their Evangelical base for granted. With every passing election, it seemed, the party relied more and more on the religious conservatives for organization, money, and votes — and gave them less and less in return. This year, the conservative churches are in full fury over this betrayal. If the GOP loses, Evangelical disappointment will be at the heart of their defeat.
This is a special problem during election season, while progressives and the party work especially closely together to take back the White House and ensure a Democratic Congress. But, even as we fight the good fight together, progressives need to remember they are not us; and we are not them. Our movement must never forget that its an an entity apart from the Democratic party, with different interests and expectations of a different future. If we allow ourselves to be co-opted by the party, and are diverted into channeling all of our actions into activities that further the Democrats instead of our own progressive agenda, we’ll very quickly end up in the same place Evangelical conservatives are in right now — used, abused, and tossed aside.
It’s basic physics: Holding ourselves at a little more distance gives us extra leverage, forces them to work a little harder for our votes, and ultimately gives us more power to create the changes we seek.
Invest in our own members; grow our own leaders
Political leaders of all stripes like to expand their territory and hoard their power. Weyrich understood that personal empire-building is a selfish indulgence no successful movement can afford — first, because it leads people to put their own interests ahead of the movement, which should never be tolerated; and second, because it stunts the growth of new leaders and inhibits the transmission of leadership skills.
That’s why the early conservatives insisted that leadership should actively seek out leadership talent, nurture it, and groom it to assume power on its own. The more well-trained leaders the movement has, the bigger it can get, the more it can get done, and the faster its agenda will be adopted. Success depends on building a culture in which leaders are evaluated not by how much territory they control, but by the number and quality of new leaders emerging from underneath their wings.
Furthermore, giving people the chance to learn new skills and offering them new opportunities for personal growth is the most powerful way to bond them emotionally, socially, and even economically to the movement. In a time when people aren’t often given the chance to grow to their potential on the job, political work can provide a far more engaging and satisfying outlet for their ambitions. “Every member [must] be given the support to reach his maximum potential,” wrote Huebeck, who also observed that when we raise each others’ personal confidence and skill, it increases the confidence and skill of the movement as a whole.
This was the clause in the plan that launched a thousand wingnut welfare programs, stocked a hundred think tanks, and catapulted countless Young Republicans to positions of real power. But this lesson is far older than that. Earlier progressives understood the role that unions, churches, and civic organizations played in bringing along people who could become local, regional, and eventually national leaders. This isn’t something that happens just inside the Beltway. Finding and grooming emergent talent everybody’s job; and those who do it well have earned their place among our most esteemed leaders.
Ask people to invest in return
Changing the world is not a spectator sport. The early conservatives weren’t afraid to ask their members for incredible investments of time, energy, and money — investments that were essential if their p
erceived life-or-death struggle for the hearts and minds of America was to be won.
The money, in particular, matters. The conservatives realized that they would need to fund the the early years of their movement themselves until they racked up enough wins to attract foundation support. We progressives are short on corporate white knights; instead, we’ve built our movement on small donations from millions of Americans. Those people are making investments in us — and with every PayPal transfer they send, they are deepening their emotional bonds to our cause.
However, the problem with a lot of progressive fundraising is that it’s too often aimed at winning short-term battles. Pass or defeat this legislation. Win this election. Fund this organization for another year or two. Once that milestone has passed, groups have to conjure a new reason to get people to pony up. Donors figure that the battle’s won, and they can slack off now. Or it wasn’t won, and there’s no point in continuing to give. Either way, it doesn’t take long for donor fatigue to set in.
The conservatives largely avoided that problem by setting out one huge long-range goal that provided the all-in-one justification for an entire lifetime of generous giving. They were in it for nothing less than a total cultural transformation. Every smaller battle was just another step in the long war, which they expected to outlast their lifetimes. The leaders kept up their high expectations that their members would make enormous sacrifices — not just in the early years, but for decades on end until that transformation was complete. Nobody was allowed to slack off — and few wanted to. As the victories racked up and the stakes grew higher, the atmosphere got positively giddy — and the money pile kept getting bigger as people got more and more excited about the movement’s momentum.
We need to remind the progressive donor base that they play the deciding role in a battle that we, too, can expect to be fighting for the rest of our lives — and which will probably be the most important work of all of our lives. As such, we will continue to expect their full support until the job is done. And the more we win, the more we’ll prove that we deserve it.
Think nationally. Organize locally.
The original progressive movements drew on (and helped build up) a vast network of local political gathering places. By the 1920s, there wasn’t a county or town in the nation that didn’t have a permanent progressive hangout — a place where people came together for news, education, organizing, good times, and help when they needed it. Most of these places were union and grange halls; some were civic clubs, Democratic party offices, lodges, churches, pubs, or just some old place the local folks bought and fixed up for their own use.
The collapse of this physical infrastructure is one of the biggest losses we’ve sustained in the conservative attack on American institutions. Even as the country’s last union and grange halls were being emptied out by Republican labor and farm policies, the rising conservative movement was busy building a shadow network of its own. The religious right’s biggest contribution to the cause may have been the ready-made national chain of conservative meeting halls it provided in every small hamlet and burg. Every Evangelical church in the country was a potential nucleus around which a revolutionary cell could form. (Using churches is dicey business, but ministers were taught where the lines were, and the IRS often enough looked the other way. Besides, the broad “cultural transformation” frame meant that a lot of the most important work wasn’t political at all, but rather social and cultural, and therefore entirely appropriate to a church setting.) The GOP money guys still met (as always) at the exclusive downtown and country clubs; but the churches provided a place where conservatives of all classes could gather for social support, education, training, and coordinated local action in service of their revolution.
We’ve suffered mightily by not having that same ubiquitous network of public outposts from which to run our ground game. MoveOn.org has been our biggest boon in re-creating this: it took the lead in using the Internet to help local progressives find each other, and helped them begin to form permanent organizations in remote parts of the country. (Until MoveOn and the Dean meetups brought them together, many rural liberals had spent years believing they were the only ones in town.) The 50-State Strategy is also seeking to correct this, by opening Democratic party offices in as many towns and counties as possible across the country. But, though these are two good starts, we need to stay focused on the task of making sure there isn’t a village in America that doesn’t have a permanent space that progressives can call home. Once we restore our place as an integral part of the country’s physical landscape, becoming a natural and accepted part of its cultural landscape will follow on naturally.
Don’t just talk. ACT.
Huebeck’s definition of political action is pointed and narrow. Action is “1) the subversion of leftist-controlled institutions, or 2) the creation of our own institutions of civil society, whose sole purpose is outreach to, and the conversion of, non-traditionalists.” All action needs to have direct results, and should also deepen the skills of the members who engage in it. And it’s an important way of bonding people to the movement: “Action in the world encourages the identification of the member with, and dedication to the group.”
“For example, we will go to public lectures given by leftists and ask them ‘impolite’ and highly critical questions. We must, of course, be fully prepared beforehand for these sorts of excursions, and we must also be prepared to embarrass ourselves, especially at first,” wrote Huebeck. He also advises local groups to do charity work that will both build esprit de corps and generate good PR. “Bonding with others in one’s generation or society is the means by which values are strengthened and perpetuated. It is vitally important that we bond in such a way that the values perpetuated are our own.”
In other words: Our actions need to be good for the movement’s long-term goal of cultural change; good for the community; good for our group’s reputation; good for our own internal cohesion; and good for us as individuals. It’s an excellent set of criteria, and one that we might want to borrow as a sturdy yardstick for the essential worthiness of every activity we plan.
Concentrate on students and young adults
Conservatives capitalized handsomely on the energy of their youngest members. Weyrich and the rest of the early planners carefully nurtured the small handful of disaffected conservative students remaining on the nation’s campuses. They gave them enormous roles at very young ages, while they still had high enough energy and few enough encumbrances to work crazy hours under insane conditions. They also richly funded conservative college newspapers and journals; granted scholarships to promising students with a conservative bent in law, politics, media, and business; and opened their social and business networks to graduates looking for high-paying work. In a very real sense, they found these kids in their cradles, and promised to look after them to their graves.
They made this investment because they realized that if you get them while they’re young, they’ll stay with you for life. Thirty years later, looking at Washington’s middle-aged conservative True Believers, it’s obvious that this investment in nurturing the party’s most promising young sprouts paid off for them many times over.
We have our moment now, with the vast numbers of young voters who are rushing to the Democrats this election. But the conservative success with an earlier generation of young voters
tells us that we need to be very proactive about bringing these kids into the process, giving them some real power and some serious training, and returning their loyalty by attending well to their individual futures using every means available to us. If we want to build a progressive nation that will stand for the next 50 years, it’s not too early to start cultivating solid careers for those who will take over for us when we’re gone.
Be there for each other — especially when the pressure builds
Many of the above strategies — from creating permanent physical structures and solid career paths to establishing reliable internal funding flows — reflects the conservative battlefield mentality. They were determined to be self-sustaining and self-sufficient, beholden to no one in the liberal world. Another piece of this was social independence: Weyrich knew that conservatives had to learn to rely on each other, not the larger culture, for their social and emotional validation.
People creating change take a lot of flak from those profiting handsomely from the status quo. The more you start to win, the stronger and uglier this resistance gets. Movements often crack under this pressure — often when they’re right on the cusp of winning all the marbles, and the opposition is at its most intense.
But the founders of movement conservatism knew that people can withstand almost anything if they have the firm support and acceptance of their peers. They strengthened their followers against this pressure by teaching them not to give two hoots about what the rest of us think. To them, the only people who matter are the ones who believe as they do — the ones they trust to actually have their backs, look after their kids, and throw their bail when the opposition takes out after them with ugly intent.
The changes we seek now will eventually create equally tectonic shifts as we set the country back to right. The money and power is all lined up behind the conservatives; and they’ve already demonstrated their willingness to use it to viciously punish progressives who dare to challenge it.
We will only survive this if we learn to be equally self-sufficient. We cannot care what they think, do, or say about us. We need to make a point of being there for each other when the heat is on, and the cons come after one or another of us, hoping to pick us off. And that kind of defiance comes a lot easier when we make a point of looking to each other for validation, and building bonds of trust that will hold us tightly together when trouble comes.
Don’t Ever Give Up. We’re In This for The Long Haul.
Movement conservatism first started chipping away at the dominant liberal culture in the early 1970s. The strategies in these three articles were largely formulated in the decade that followed; and they’ve been the basic principles governing conservative behavior ever since.
From the very beginning, they realistically viewed their goal of cultural domination as a multi-generational fight. Those who started it didn’t expect to live to see the end of it — and they were right. The people who first plotted strategy and tactics 30 years ago are now passing into death and retirement; their movement is now in the hands of a carefully-nurtured second generation, and a third is already coming of age. The humiliations of the Bush era are sending them back to their local gathering spots to take stock and regroup; but just because they vanish from the scene for a few years, we mustn’t ever delude ourselves that they’ve finally gone away. They will be back — and, no doubt, their comeback will be largely constructed out of these same strategies.
Weyrich and Huebeck warned the faithful about just these kinds of setbacks. “We will not hunker down and wait for the storm to blow over. Our strategy will be to bleed this corrupt culture dry.” They told conservatives that good efforts and good intentions count for nothing, because losing is not an option for them. “The real question is: if the fight is winnable, why have we not won it? If it is not, why are we diverting our efforts elsewhere?”
It’s one last thing to bear in mind, a final challenge from the conservative movement’s master strategists. If the fight is winnable, why have we not won it? If it is not, then why are we diverting our efforts elsewhere? This struggle for America’s heart and soul and mind has gone on from the beginning, and it will never end. Being progressive means committing our entire lives to the work of promoting America’s founding Enlightenment worldview, building a thriving movement that will outlast us, and raising up people who will carry on when we’re gone. As long as conservative culture warriors are out there trying to undermine the very model of reality that defines American democracy, we’re going to need to be out there resisting their incursions and reminding the country why that foundation matters. We, too, are in this for the long haul.
Great article by Sara Robinson from TomPaine.com. I would recommend this article as a follow-up to those of you who have read Matt Bai’s The Argument. Progressives consistently get their asses handed to them by Conservatives because they insist upon competing within the alloted paradigm Conservatives grant them. As a result, even the most Progressive mainstream candidate claims to be “tough on terror.” Why? Because Conservatives have brainwashed Americans into believing a strong, large military is critical for their survival. Since Conservatives control the chess board, Progressives have a limited number of acceptable maneuvers they can execute lest they are clotheslined by a media that willingly perpetuates Conservative commonplaces.
Progressives need to change the way they fight. They need to change the way Americans -think- in order to show them that the Progressive ideology is the only compassionate, moral way into the 21st century.
“The same strategies that allowed Conservatives to take control of the country can help us undo their damage.” (Part one in a series.)
Make no mistake: When the conservatives set out to take over America 30 years ago, they were working off of a well-thought-out plan.
The plan was put in place by a wide variety of thinkers — but three of the main strategists were Howard Phillips, Richard Viguerie, and Paul Weyrich, each of whom wrote important books and papers laying out the goal of creating a conservative America, and showing specifically how the movement could make that happen.
The ideas in these plans went through various iterations through the decades; but their essential goals and intentions never changed much. And, as it turned out, they didn’t have to: the plan worked so well and kept the conservative base so focused and engaged over the long term that it didn’t need much more than an occasional refresher, or the odd subplan elaborating on how the main ideas should be applied in some specific domain.
Reading these plans now, as a progressive, it strikes me: We’re now living in an America in which every institution is dominated by these guys. Every facet of our looming disaster was dictated by bankrupt conservative ideas; yet our very ability to visualize fresh alternatives has been constricted by the frames they deliberately laid around our language and discourse. Most of the country finds it hard to even contemplate or discuss our predicaments in anything but conservative terms. It’s clear they’ve done more than merely mess up our country; they’ve also, quite intentionally, messed with our minds.
As it turns out, messing with our minds wasn’t just one part of the plan; it was the essential goal of the entire plan of conquest. They used sociology, social psychology, linguistics, and a subtle understanding of human motivation to get into our heads and change the way we processed reality itself, in ways that made it impossible to question all the other things they were up to.
Ending conservative dominance will require us to undo the vast memetic and ontological damage they’ve wrought on two entire generations of Americans. We have no choice but to fight this fire with fire of our own. And the first thing we need to do is understand, very specifically, how they did it. Fortunately, this isn’t hard: the basics are all laid out in their original written plans.
Last year, over at Talk2Action, Bruce Wilson dug up one of the most recent rewrites of Weyrich’s version of the plan — a 2001 manifesto published by the Free Congress Foundation, written by Eric Heubeck that concisely summarized and updated the essentials of the plan Weyrich had been promoting since the early 80s. Wilson rewrote the document — mostly by replacing the word “conservative” with “progressive” and sprinkling in a few liberal philosophical points. The results are worth a careful reading, because in Heubeck and Weyrich’s complaints and solutions, Wilson found a great deal of wisdom we can use about how to build a lasting progressive majority.
Over this and the next two posts, I’m going to revisit Weyrich and Heubeck’s Free Congress manifesto, and lay out the specific lessons progressives can draw from the plans and strategies that drove 30 years of conservative movement-building. We’ll get the map to the the battlefield they’re really fighting on; and what it will take for progressives to engage them there and win. The same strategies that allowed them to take control of the country and change the shape of American history may, with some adaptations to our own liberal values, allow us to undo the damage as well.
The first post addresses the role ideas — which ones they specifically chose to promote, and why — played in the conservative renaissance, and should play in the coming progressive era as well. The second one will discuss the details of how these ideas are presented to the public. The last one discusses specific tactics that the conservatives used — and we might consider emulating — to embed their desired memes in the mass culture, ensuring their continued dominance of the discourse.
Many Tactics, One Goal: Promoting the Progressive Worldview
“The conservative movement is defensive, defeatist, depressed, and apologetic. It lacks self-confidence, virility, energy, intensity, vigor, aggressiveness, vitality, and a firm belief in the rightness of its cause … This is because it has relied solely on activism and politicking, without reaching out to change the underlying assumptions of the culture … The result of this misplaced focus is a society that does not recognize culturally conservative views, and is gradually coming to despise them … imaginations are seldom captured by policy wonks on C-SPAN.”
Heubeck and Weyrich argued over the years that their movement’s single core task — the one that every other activity must align with and ultimately support, because it’s the one that justifies the entire movement’s existence — is the transmission and dissemination of the conservative worldview. Most of the foundational thinking on conservatism already existed, they argued, so there was no need to waste time re-inventing philosophical wheels. The movement’s main job was to get those wheels rolling back out into every corner of the American countryside.
In other words: It’s not a movement; it’s a sales job. And the product we’re selling isn’t economics or policy or morality. It’s much deeper than that: it’s a worldview that determines the way you look at everything. Conservatives set out to give Americans a radical new way to analyze the essential questions of human existence. As Heubeck put it: “We must win the people over culturally — by defining how man ought to act, how he ought to perceive the world around him, and what it means to live the good life. Political arrangements can only be formed after these fundamental questions have been answered.” (Italics mine.)
What is the meaning of life? How should we relate to each other? Our families and communities? Other nations? God? The planet? What is good, and how do we recognize it? What is evil, and how should we respond?
These are the basic ontological questions on which our ability to parse the rest of reality depends — the foundations of every human’s cognitive model of the world. Change th
ese underlying assumptions, and the way we prioritize and evaluate everything else in the world necessarily changes, too. The conservatives recognized this — and that’s why they made selling the conservative worldview, via every possible channel, the central focus of their movement. Once they’d gotten us to accept their basic assumptions about reality, they knew, the rest of their agenda would follow naturally.
The conservative critique of the dominant liberal worldview was sharp and pointed; and they aggressively promoted it at every opportunity. (And if no opportunity presented itself, they weren’t abashed about going out and creating one.) They set themselves up as a daring and controversial counterculture that offered an original and rebellious alternative to the prevailing set of cultural assumptions.
As Heubeck complains in the paragraph above, politics and activism are bloodless (and bloody temporary) unless they’re rooted in this kind of deeper ontological shift. That’s the real battlefield conservatives are fighting this war on; and we will not beat them until we can get down to that level and challenge them there directly. If their movement exists to sell a conservative worldview, then our movement must also zero its focus on the only goal that matters in the end: to proclaim and promote Enlightenment values throughout the land (and to all the inhabitants thereof). Our status as a mass movement begins and ends with our ability to inspire the masses to share our worldview. Promoting that worldview is the only goal that matters; and every action we take should be aimed at moving us toward that outcome. When that epistemology is widely accepted, implementing our policies will proceed easily and naturally, with minimal opposition.
Fortunately, we’re starting from a place of strength here. Progressive ideals are far more compelling — and far more true to America’s historical, political, and cultural legacies — than conservative ones ever have been or will ever be. Bruce Wilson, in his re-casting of Heubeck’s 2001 article, produced a sharp summary of the progressive worldview we stand for — the product that our movement must exist to sell:
“Enlightenment values mean, in part, a tradition of respect for societal diversity and political pluralism and a spirit of self-restraint rooted in an altruistic commitment to the common good, an ethic of civic and political engagement, and a belief in free inquiry and the scientific method, and a belief that while we can never achieve absolute objective truth we must nonetheless distinguish opinion, ideology, and religious belief from that which science can tell us.
“Further, Enlightenment values hold that our society must be sustainable and in harmony with our essential human nature, and that we must learn what science can tell us of what our human nature actually is. Enlightenment values must, if they are truly held, include mechanisms by which they can be sustained and perpetuated in human culture lest they be overwhelmed by forces of ignorance, bigotry, religious and ideological zealotry, and barbarism. Enlightenment values are the opposite of those tendencies, which appeal to the lowest human instincts and drives; barbarism means fidelity solely to oneself, not to an enlightened social code worked out over centuries, representing the accumulated wisdom of generations of men and women … Enlightenment culture at its best as “lucidity of mind, intellectual curiosity and hospitality, largeness of temper, objectivity, the finest sense of social life, of manners, of beauty.” And this view of culture is clearly incompatible with abstracted ideology and zealotry of all kinds, and with mere egoism.”
Everything Americans do — the institutions and physical infrastructure we build, the investments and decisions we make, the goals we set and the ideals we cherish — emerges from and is evaluated according to our essential assumptions about how the world works. Getting people to understand and embrace the basic premises of the liberal worldview is the first and most critical step to creating a lasting progressive era in the United States. When that’s accomplished, we can set about reforming every one of society’s institutions so that it reflects those values — much as the conservatives hoped to do before they blew it all up so badly.
Even with the recent setbacks, though, we need to face the fact that the conservatives still control much of the ontological field. Their singular worldview has dominated and defined our national decision-making for nearly 30 years. People may be desperate for change and some new ideas — but even so, we’d be wise not to underestimate how much time it’s going to take to remove all the constraints they’ve put on people’s thinking. We’d be even wiser to become very energetic about promoting ourselves as a new, fresh alternative counterculture that’s not afraid to confront a crufty and crumbling status quo.
Convince Americans We’re Trustworthy to Lead
In the early years of their revolution, the biggest problem conservatives faced was that the public simply didn’t trust them to lead. Goldwater’s defeat, Reagan’s turbulent governorship, and Nixon’s disgrace defined the narrative about their trustworthiness — and it wasn’t a pretty tale.
So, through the 1970s, they focused on fixing that perception. Reagan was their main asset here: he had a gift for communicating conservative values to Americans in ways that made them sound almost reasonable if you didn’t think too hard. He convinced them that he and his party were worthy stewards of our tax dollars and the public trust; and, by coining phrases like “tax-and-spend liberal” and invoking non-existent welfare queens in Cadillacs, he also persuaded the country that the Democrats — and government in general — were venal, corrupt, inept and completely unworthy of trust.
(This core imperative also explains why they were so rabidly driven to tear down Bill Clinton. By the early 1990s, movement conservatives — and a good share of the country — had thoroughly bought into the idea that Democrats were inherently untrustworthy and hence illegitimate stewards of the public trust. In many parts of the country, progressives are still working upstream against that “don’t trust liberals” meme — and we will yet be for a long time to come.)
The Great Democratic Moment of 2008 came about partly because we’ve gotten so much smarter about organizing ourselves — but we also owe much of it to the conservatives’ spectacular bull-elephant blundering that carelessly shattered the precious trust that Reagan had so carefully cultivated. It’s not enough for people to vote for Democrats because they hope for change this cycle. If we want a permanent progressive majority, we have to reach out to inspire and keep the country’s deep trust in our ideas and our leadership. We need their loyalty for the long run.
Align Strategy with Tactics …
Heubeck bemoans the fact that, among conservatives, “those who think do not act, and those who act do not think.” Their movement has struggled with a disconnect between strategists like Phillips and Weyrich and the activist base — though, evidently, they did eventually find a way to resolve it, because the path they ultimately followed to dominance was in fact the one their strategists originally laid out for them.
I’ve heard (and had) the same conversation with any number of strategically-minded progressives. We have a growing army of wonderful, energetic, skilled activists out there doing the organizing and moving the message. We also have a smaller and very much neglected cadre of strategic big-picture thinkers who are looking way out ahead, figuring out where we want to go and how best to get there. And not only do the two factions seldom talk — when they do talk, they often find they’re not even speaking the
same language. Activists dismiss strategists as thinking too big-picture, and not understanding the realities on the ground. Strategists see the activists running off in all kinds of directions, instead of aligning their energies and focusing them on well-chosen small battles that will pay off in much bigger victories down the road.
(This disconnect may explain some of the criticisms making the rounds about Barack Obama. Obama speaks in large generalizations about principles, values, and large-scale visions of what the world should be. This is energizing to strategic thinkers, who see the same big picture he does and who understand that you have to create that kind of overarching vision of the change you want to create before you can fill in the details. However, that same style drives wonkier folks crazy: they’re very uncomfortable with that lack of detail. They don’t want the big-picture stuff; they want to know exactly what they’re hiring him to do. Neither side is wrong; but Obama’s much better at speaking to the former than the latter.)
It’s cheering to realize that conservatives have had ongoing issues with this exact same problem. But it also points up the sobering truth that we won’t beat them unless we also learn how to bridge that gap so we can maximize the skills of both groups. We need to get the people who are capable of plotting long-range strategy linked up closely with the people who have the tactical skills to execute it — and both sides need to have the wisdom to know and respect that they’re bringing different but important things to the same party.
… But Invest in Creating Elite Tacticians
In Weyrich and Heubeck’s model, no successful movement goes anywhere without a tightly-knit, trusted, trained core of elite activist leaders who are all working for the same goal. Heubeck writes: “It is more important to have a few impassioned members than a large number of largely indifferent members.” If the core is energetic, smart, and strong, all the rest will naturally fall into place around it.
We need to be equally insistent on finding and cultivating brilliant leaders and organizers — but do it in a way that respects the progressive mindset. Conservatives have a strongly hierarchical worldview that supports the creation of an inner-circle elite that directs policy, strategy, and action for everyone else; it also attracts people who are quite happy falling into line behind these leaders. Progressives, on the other hand, tend to think in networks, systems, and matrices — multilayered thinking that grants temporary authority to whoever’s most skilled on the subject at hand, but otherwise holds everyone to be more or less equal. We value open communication, broad networks of trust, and empowering people to take charge and run their own show. Deference and status games don’t come nearly as easily to us — and we like it that way.
But we would do well to develop a tradition of valuing and respecting our most experienced leaders, extending them a little more trust, and learning how to be good followers when the occasion demands it. It’s a common liberal conceit to think that any one of us could do what they do — but the hard fact is, the skills that make a great activist aren’t all that common, and we need to take better care of the ones that emerge from our midst. There’s a time for big consensus-building all-in conversations; but there’s also a time to stop talking, fall in line, and do what needs to be done without backbiting or second-guessing the decision. We lose a lot of good leaders simply because they get tired of trying to keep all the frogs in the wheelbarrow, which takes their focus off of the more important task of getting the wheelbarrow where it’s going. It’s one of the most typical ways in which we burn out our own most talented folks. More cooperative frogs would help us keep those people around — and also allow them to save their energy and attention for the things that really matter.
Never Miss A Chance To Challenge the Dominant Ideology
We must be prepared to confront and openly reject conservative ideology wherever it appears — and use those teachable moments to present the case for a truly progressive counter-culture based on the excellence and rigor of our own values.
Heubeck’s manifesto categorically rejects “materialism, hedonism, consumerism, egoism, and the cult of self-actualization.” Oddly, most progressives would agree with all of these, save the last one. But, unlike conservatives, we reject these values not only in individuals; we also resist them when they appear in private and public institutions. We reject materialism and consumerism that lead to the desecration of the planet; hedonism and egoism that lead people to deny their connections to the larger whole; and the cult of self-actualization that’s been so permissive in allowing corporations to do whatever is necessary to ensure their survival and profits.
The conservatives promoted their worldview by 30 years of constant criticism of the left, attacking our very legitimacy at every turn. Heubeck declared: “We will not give them a moment’s rest. We will endeavor to prove that the Left does not deserve to hold sway over the heart and mind of a single American. We will offer constant reminders that there is an alternative, a better way.”
Americans have had enough of the conservatives’ tired old ideas, and are ready and eager to hear about our better way. Like the conservatives, we should not pass up a single chance to present our alternative vision. And if the teachable doesn’t present itself, we also need to emulate the conservative example, and be assertive about creating those moments for ourselves.
Since the goal of the conservative movement was to change the world, one person at a time, they got very organized about how they welcomed and integrated new converts to the movement. We’ll look at that in more depth in the third piece of this series; but for now, it’s enough to say that suspicion and recrimination have no place in the moment that a newcomer appears at our door.
We need to respect how very hard it its to leave behind your old worldview and intentionally cross over to a new one — especially one that you’ve been taught to hate, and that everyone you know despises. People feel disoriented for a while. They don’t know whom to trust, or where they fit in. Bumping up against progressives who reject them because of their faith or their rural roots or their funny clothes is a sure-fire way to send them back into the fold. When people have had enough of the corruption of conservative culture, we need to embrace them and make them feel at home among us.
However, Heubeck also makes it clear that they need to come to us voluntarily. Yes, building a movement is a sales job — but the sale is closed when they accept our terms, not when we bend to meet theirs. The conservatives understood that their worldview and principles were absolutely central to the entire enterprise, and should never be compromised for anyone. If someone didn’t agree, fine. Take it or leave it. We will not fudge our own convictions in the hopes of drawing off a few more votes from off some sub-group or another. In time, the conservatives knew, those little compromises form the cracks that undermine the entire movement.
Keep Your White Hats On
Weyrich thought it was vital that the rising conservatives be seen as a purely defensive movement. The public needed to understand that they didn’t start this fight (though, of course, they did) and weren’t imposing their views on anyone (though, in fact, they were); they were simply doing what was necessary to protect American traditional culture, resolutely standing guard against terrifying incursions by a barbarian horde from beyond the gates of civilized society. (Yes
, most of them really do see themselves this way.) When they go forth to do battle with evil and corrupting forces of liberalism, “Defender of Civilization” is the motto emblazoned across their shining white helmets.
Furthermore, that Good Guys In White Hats position is a perfect set-up for creating martyrs for the cause. Heubeck and Weyrich anticipated this prospect eagerly. “As our movement grows, the Left will become increasingly likely to try to use the powers of the state to squelch our movement, using whatever pretext they are able to invent.” (As we all understand now, the conservative capacity for projection has no known limits.) This persecution would create sympathy, they noted, and lend further credence to their social critique.
Yeah, it’s obvious they’ve watched just wa-a-a-y too many Charlton Heston movies. But that righteous sense of defending everything we hold sacred against the incursions of a profane enemy is a powerful way to animate a movement. And we have a story of our own to tell: We are defending the Constitution, the Enlightenment traditions of the country’s Founders, and the animating ideals of America Itself against a cabal of the very same kind of economic royalists and religious zealots who forced our nation into the last Revolution. The battle we face is the same one they fought; and we owe it to their memories to fight it hard and well.
It should also be noted — as Valerie Plame, Don Seligman, and Siebel Edmonds would be the first to testify — the Right hasn’t hesitated to use the powers of the state to crush our movement, and persecute progressive martyrs. They’ve apparently forgotten Heubeck’s warning that every one of these they create only adds to the public sympathy for our cause.
Don’t Underestimate the Resistance
Heubeck and Weyrich advise conservatives to be ready for trouble from any direction at any time. They declare: “There is no excuse for ever being surprised by the ferocity or ingenuity of [liberal] attacks.”
Conservative paranoia — rooted in the fundamental belief that humans are essentially evil and untrustworthy — lends itself nicely to this ever-ready, always-sleep-with-your-eyes-open posture. Liberals, who start from the premise that humans are usually good and trustworthy at heart, find it much harder to think defensively; and most of us have strong ethical lines beyond which we simply will not go.
But if we’re in this fight to win, we need to get serious about being prepared for the worst. After all, we have far more to fear from them than they do from us. Those people are not our friends; and they’ve proven over and over that they will stick it to us any way they can, any time they can — without regard to manners, friendship, ethics, or the limits of the law. The ends will, in all times and places, justify whatever means are at hand. We underestimate their capacity for mischief at our own peril.
Heubeck and Weyrich were deeply worried about the insularity that too often sets into activist communities. “An excessive amount of intellectualization divorced from application in the real work is a kind of escape from reality, or the creation of a virtual reality. Thinking becomes tired, static, and inward-looking. People become more interested in creating mental utopias than having a real impact on society. Scholars become mere pedants; ideas are no longer creative and vital. Ideas interest us only insofar as they offer a guide to action. There is a place in society for abstract, academic discussion. This is not that place.”
Discussion lists, warns Heubeck, are too often traps for the unwary. (Blogs didn’t exist yet, but I’m sure that that if they had, he’d have included them, too.) We spend so much time sharing our esoteric enthusiasms, complaining about stuff nobody else cares about, and reaffirming each others’ worldview that we fail to do the real work of the movement, which is getting out there and winning new hearts and minds to the cause. We become hypersensitive (and sometimes downright surly) in the face of earnest questions from outsiders who don’t understand the secret language of our groupthink. We build up walls that keep new members out, and harden into a cloistered elite that has no room for newcomers.
If the goal is to build a mass movement, those developments are absolutely fatal. And the only way to avoid it is to insist that our groups stay open to new members and ideas, and actively engaged with work that promotes our ideas in the larger non-progressive world.
Even when we lose, we win
Americans, more than anything, want to know what their political leaders stand for. They don’t even have to like it — they just want to know where your moral center is, and whether or not you know what The Right Thing looks like so you can do it when the job demands it. Invariably, we think more highly of conservative politicians known for standing their ground (a reputation John McCain worked to his advantage for decades, and Ronald Reagan rode all the way to the White House) than we do of liberal ones who are seen to be twisting in the latest breeze. (This is where the flip-flopper libel was born, and why it will not die until Democrats grow a spine.)
Weyrich, Phillips, and the other conservative strategists understood from the very beginning that, as long as they stood on principle, they would win the war even if they lost every battle. In their own minds, conservatives never lose; even when they’re knocked flat on their butts, they figure it was just another small step toward the inevitable day that they win. The lesson they learn isn’t “don’t try that again.” It’s “come back and do it better next time.”
That’s why the best thing Democrats can do is push their agenda hard, taking boldly progressive stands that openly challenge the Republican status quo. Yes, they’ll lose a great many of those challenges. But every loss can be turned into a bit of political theater, a morality play that proves a larger point: There are enduring principles that are worth more to us than a mere political loss or a little public embarrassment. We will stand for these things through whatever comes, because they are the very reason for our political existence. We, too, will keep coming back for as long as it takes.
In the next post, I’ll look at some of the specific communications strategies conservatives adopted to increase the appeal of their ideas, and embed them deeply in American mass culture.