After Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) gave her rousing speech at the New Populism Conference Thursday, she, of course, was asked if she was going to run for President. (The crowd was chanting “Run, Elizabeth, Run!”)
Warren replied, “I am not running for president,” which prompted one hopeful progressive to tweet, “Interesting choice of tense.”
This reminded me of this scene from Monty Python’s Life of Brian:
In the scene, imagine that progressives chase Sen. Warren through the desert. Finally, she says, “I am not running for President, do you understand? Honestly!” A woman cries out, “Only the true candidate denies her candidacy.”
After lunch, the Communication Workers of America’s President Larry Cohen talked about the Democracy Initiative, “creating a common narrative setting the state for common collective action,” a new approach that comes out of labor and other progressive causes continually losing.
Cohen discussed the massive increase in the amount of corporate and billionaire money going into politics since Citizens United, and said “we have to be insane” if we are only going to be involved in electoral politics as a way to try to move forward on obtaining economic justice. Instead of politics, we have to build movements and the organizations that work with movements.
Speaking of how different progressive-aligned groups currently tend to compete for scarce resources and to move their own issues, often over and above working together to advance general goals, Cohen asked, “Can we put a little more into common ideas?”
Today’s situation necessitates common movement-building, Cohen said. (And, in fact, the promotion of a general progressive agenda would do more to advance the issues of all of the “silo” groups than what they are achieving on their own as conservatives dominate our politics.)
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) also talked about the enormous amount of money the billionaire Koch brothers and others have put into right-wing politics and other efforts to push right-wing ideas.
Finally, Rev. William Barber II gave a moral vision, talking about a “fusion” movement of black, white and all types of people coming together to fight for the things regular people need. “The movement is about the moral fabric of our society,” he said, and “I don’t want people to go left or right, I want them to go deeper into who we are called to be.”
The Answer Is Movement-Building
The Koch brothers, other billionaires and corporate groups have been remarkably successful in pushing Congress to pass legislation that helps their interests while hurting the rest of us. How did they do it?
Last weekend the New York Times ran a story, “Quixotic ’80 Campaign Gave Birth to Kochs’ Powerful Network,” that looked at the origins of the Koch brothers’ shadowy network of front groups, think tanks and other organizations.
The key lies in a 1974 Charles Koch speech in which he said, “The most effective response was not political action, but investment in pro-capitalist research and educational programs” – in other words, institutions they built that reached the public to tell them about libertarian, anti-government philosophy. The Times quoted Koch as saying, “The development of a well-financed cadre of sound proponents of the free enterprise philosophy is the most critical need facing us today.”
The Kochs, other billionaires and the corporations put their money into think tanks, communication outlets, publishers, various media, etc. with a long-term plan to change the way people see things. This “apparatus” has pounded out corporate/conservative propaganda 24/7 for decades.
You can’t get away from it. The conservative movement rewards its friends and punishes, smears, intimidates, bullies, discredits and otherwise “neutralizes” its opponents. That is how they were able to get Congress to lower taxes on the rich and corporations, break unions, defund schools and the rest of the things that have made them so much money and wreaked havoc on the rest of us. The money was not for politicians who run for office today (not all of it, anyway); it was to build organizations to execute long-term strategies to get what they want tomorrow.
The moral of the story: the right put its resources into long-term movement building, setting up think tanks, radio shows, even an entire TV network to reach the public to persuade them that conservative ideas would make their lives better. They infiltrated and took over organizations like the National Rifle Association and set up rapid-response organizations to pressure politicians. They deliver for their constituents – the billionaires and their giant corporations – and keep “our side” from delivering for ours, the American people.
On our side the money, resources and effort tend to go into candidates, with so many people looking for a “messiah” candidate to lead them out of the wilderness and somehow convince the public of the rightness of our cause. Then after the campaigns are over, the infrastructure dissolves, the expertise disperses, needing to be rebuilt from scratch two or four years later. It is a remarkably ineffective approach.
Some might say the right’s success came about because there is so much more money on the corporate/conservative side. But we have the numbers. Imagine if 100 million left-of-center Americans gave an average of $100 (27.4 cents a day) each year to build progressive organizations… (Hint: That adds up to $10 billion a year.)
Imagine dozens of fully funded, fully staffed progressive organizations reaching out to all corners of America, employing people to write op-eds, appear on the radio, speak to audiences, knock on doors. Imagine TV commercials telling and showing people how progressive values and a progressive approach to issues would do good things for regular people. Imagine our elections after a few years pushing back against the kind of propaganda we constantly have to hear from the right, usually unanswered.
Money put today into efforts to build an ongoing information infrastructure is money put into every single progressive initiative and candidate in every single future election.