Fighting The Right

The Blogging of the President: 2004 posted this:

David Brock’s organization, Media Matters (http://mediamatters.org), is now tracking the right-wing influence on media by writing down what Rush Limbaugh says. Digby has more on why this resource is useful.

[. . .] Is this effective liberal institution building? I wonder what Dave Johnson thinks. What do you think? Will all of this actually matter? Does it substitute for an ideology?

So here’s what I think:

I think the announcement of Media Matters is great news. It is one small, essential piece of the answer to the Right’s juggernaut. I think this new organization is also important because it (and Center for American Progress) is a sign that “our side” finally is starting to “get it” about building long term institutions designed to affect overall national attitudes, rather than mainly funding short-term, election-oriented efforts to build support around a candidate.

I spent some time with Brock several months ago and we talked about Media Matters, and about the effect of the Right’s infrastructure on our politics. The Right has built up this marketing/communications machine with the intention of moving America’s opinions to the right. Think about how this affects elections — the Right has this machine in place pounding out “ideas,” telling people lies like “Social Security is going broke,” “lawsuits are out of control,” “children are trapped in failing public schools,” and “tax cuts increase revenue.” After hearing this over and over, and hearing the Right’s proposed solutions, THEN along comes an election, and the Right can just plug in a generic candidate who spouts the slogans Americans are pre-conditioned to expect.

Meanwhile Progressive candidates have to start FROM SCRATCH, each election cycle, explaining to Americans about things like single-payer insurance and what the term means… and have to do it ALONE, and have to raise the money themselves to communicate to the public… It’s a nearly-impossible task when you think about it.

And between elections the Right’s huge infrastructure is doing research on marketing techniques, framing language, etc… And the whole time they are pounding out their propaganda all across America, writing books, opinion pieces, letters to the editor, articles, sending out speakers, pundits, talk show guests, etc. all repeating whatever talking points they’ve decided to use on the public, all with the overall goal of furthering their “movement.”

So I think the Right’s network of “advocacy organizations” with a marketing/communications focus is the reason we find ourselves in the situation we’re in. It’s not so much that it’s impossible to compete with their machine as that so far we haven’t barely even STARTED competing with it.

Media Matters and Center for American Progress are good beginnings. But they are only beginnings. The Right has over 500 organizations and they are massively funded, and COORDINATED, working together as part of “the conservative movement.” It is essential that we understand how the Right operates, and how they are funded, and, especially, how they are affecting American thought. It’s not illegal, it’s not a conspiracy, it’s smart.

So why does the Right have this and “our side” does not? I’ll quickly lay down a few reasons I think this is. First, the Right’s infrastructure evolved as a response to the 60’s “establishment” of scholarly academic-oriented think tanks. That they evolved as a response is a key – the institutions on “our side” were the frogs in the water as it warmed up, not noticing the changing environment until it’s too late. They have not evolved. Momentum was in place. Jobs and careers were on the line. Etc. — we all know how bureaucratic institutions are slow to respond.

The Right’s organizations grew up designed, from the start, to CHANGE MINDS AND PERSUADE because moderate and progressive thinking was the dominant paradigm. Historically, moderate and progressive organizations, largely already in place, did not face a need to change minds and persuade ideologically and so they were not designed to do that. The Right’s organizations were designed from the start to change minds and persuade, while moderate and progressive organizations were designed from the start to accomplish issue objectives. Now the Right has changed lots of minds, while moderate/progressive orgs are not designed to respond to today’s facts on the ground.

Most important I think is the Right’s understanding of funding as an investment in ideas and in the results that come from changing minds. The Right provides general operating support to advocacy organizations for the purpose of changing the way Americans think. Moderates and progressives generally DO NOT. They instead tend to fund PROGRAMS and ISSUES. This is a huge difference! This is the KEY problem with building organizations equipped to respond to the Right. It requires an evolutionary change in the way moderate and progressive money sees the world.

Moderate/progressive money works to accomplish specific objectives rather than affect overall public attitudes and politics. The Right’s organizations change minds and affect politics, and the result is votes for Republican politicians, who then accomplish the goals of the ideological movement. So all the money that is poured into environmental organizations, for example, is becoming more and more ineffective as the Right’s politicians and judges wipe out all the environmental gains. I always use the example of a philanthropist spending $500,000 a year on programs for an old-growth redwood grove. Maybe hiring a biologist, or funding lawsuits to protect from logging… Ten years later a politician might order the area logged “to protect against fires” or one Federalist Society judge might decide that resources should be used for corporate profit — and the $5 million is WASTED (and the trees are gone.) So the Right’s understanding that funding advocacy organizations is an investment pays off.

So I think our work now should be to persuade funders – philanthropists, foundations, etc. – of the need to change the way moderate and progressive organizations are designed, to recognize that there is an ideological war going on, and we need to start persuading the public that progressive values — community, democracy, sharing, nurturing, investment, responsibility and honesty — are superior to the right-wing ideology of greed and hate.

We need to start SERIOUSLY funding advocacy organizations for the LONG TERM. The Right is literally spending BILLIONS on this effort and it is time for our side to step up to the plate. Media Matters is a great start but it is one small organization. Center for American Progress is a great start, but it is one small organization. Neither is designed to reach the general public with a marketing/communications focus. We need to grow up 498 MORE organizations now, to fight back and take back our country.