A typical generic blog post written by a Progressive in the last several months would read something like this: “Everyone can sum up the Republican core beliefs in a sentence or two, while Progressives need to search for a candidate who can articulate core Progressive values.” Some bloggers might also refer to George Lakoff’s “framing” work as a solution to the problem. Not being able to explain your product concept in a sentence is a classic marketing problem, and what these posts show is a budding awareness that Republicans have been outmarketing Democrats. Think about this – if you are in a “red state” area you are told a hundred different ways every day why business is good and government is bad and why unregulated free markets work better than democracy. But you are never told the other side of the story.
The Republicans win because the modern Right has developed around the core idea of persuading people to support their ideology, which then leads to support for their issues and candidates. In other words: marketing. The Right developed this persuasion capability in reaction to the dominance of the existing “liberal establishment.” Because of this, most of their organizations are designed as advocacy and communications organizations, with the mission of reaching the general public and explaining what right-wing ideas are and why they are better for people. Today’s Progressives, on the other hand, think there already is a public consensus supporting their ideals and values, so they have not developed a culture that is oriented around persuading people, and their organizations are not designed at their core to persuade the public to support them.
For example, everyone used to think that it is moral to help the poor or protect the environment, so there are organizations that are designed to do that. Then along comes the right, funding organizations designed to convince people it is wrong to do these things. The result today is that on one side you have organizations trying to help the poor, protect the environment, etc. On the other you have organizations telling people what those organizations are doing is wrong. But now you have no one explaining to people that it is GOOD to help the poor and protect the environment so over time support for helping the poor obviously will erode and eventually the organizations that help the poor will be in trouble and have little public support.
So you can see how things got to be the way they are. Democrats understand themselves as a political party, not as a movement. The party grew out of a time when people already understood why they were Democrats or not, so there was no need for organizations that talked to the general public about why it is good to be a Democrat. Instead the party naturally focused on elections. And it is still that way. Democrats look for the “right candidates” to appeal to voters. The candidate is expected to “voice” the issues, and develop messaging that works, and is expected to do it after putting together a campaign team, which happens during and after the primaries. The Democrats use the election cycle as a time to come up with specific “issues” and “messages” and educate the voters. Then the campaign is supposed to reach the voters and educate them about the candidate and the issues… This is the old way of understanding politics. The problem is that times have changed — they have been changed by the rise of “movement conservatism.”
On the Right, they developed their movement in response to the existing liberal consensus, which means that their movement developed based on the idea of changing people’s minds away from those liberal ideas and values. So the result is that today the Right is structured around persuasion, while the Democrats are not. And their organizations have spent decades studying how best to persuade people.
For Republicans, functions like message and issue development are handled by the multitude of “conservative movement” organizations, not the Republican Party or its candidates. A Republican candidates’ job is to voice the messages of the Right but not to develop the messages, like a Democratic candidate is expected to do. The job of Republican campaigns is to take advantage of the issues that their constituency has already been exposed to, not to define the issues from scratch like Democrat candidates have to do. And the Party’s job is to harvest the voters at election time.
Organizations like the Heritage Foundation comprise the persuasion machine of the Right. Republican candidates get their talking points from these organizations. They get their issues – tort reform, Social Security privatization, NCLB Act, etc. – from these organizations. The organizations spend years educating the public about the particulars — “lawsuit abuse”, woman gets a million for spilling hot coffee in a moving car, environmentalism costs jobs, Social Security is going broke, etc. They do the core research to learn how to reach the public, what words to use, etc. A focus group might show that some voters will change their minds if they think Democrats are “rich elites who drink lattes” and a week later every single columnist, talking head, talk show host, etc. is saying that Democrats are rich elitists who drink lattes. It is not about their candidates — I mean, look who they run! Compare Bush the person or the candidate to Gore or Kerry, and then try to tell me it is about the candidates!
The Party is not the SOUL (ideology) of the Right. It is the other way around: the Right and their organizations are the soul of the Party. And what is the Right, in this context, at this time? Understanding this points us to a path out of this.
The Right as I use it is the “conservative movement” — a few hundred well-funded ($300 million per year that is NOT counted as “election spending”) and centrally coordinated (Grover Norquist, Philanthropy Roundtable, etc.) advocacy organizations, all preaching right-wing “free-market” ideology. They preach the ideology. They persuade people. THEY define the issues and educate the public. Not the Party, not the candidates, not the campaigns.
The way out of this is to understand that we need to EDUCATE AND PERSUADE THE GENERAL PUBLIC about the fact that core Progressive ideas and values are good for them. What we are instead doing now is spending a LOT of money on narrow-interest environmental and other kinds of interest organizations that largely talk to the converted. Environmentalists have to combine forces with civil justice advocates, consumer litigation advocates, peace activists, etc. and all together go after the Right AS ONE.
We need to change what our existing organizations see as their core mission. They need to understand that the public consensus they thought they have is not there anymore. They need to understand that to survive a good part of their effort has to be toward persuading the public that the core progressive values of democracy and community are good, and benefit them, and only then can they also do the work that before now they thought was their core mission, be it environmentalism, helping the poor, or whatever else they do.
And, more important, we all need to understand that new organizations have to be started, with their entire mission being to educate and persuade the general public that core progressive values of democracy and community, and all the things that means, are better for them than right-wing ideology.