Creating Movements

This is written in response to Chris Bowers MyDD post, Structural Flaws. Chris is writing about a New Republican piece by John Judis, titled Structural Flaw.

In a quick summary toward the points I want to make, Judis wrote,

“Liberalism’s success … was based primarily upon … [including] popular pressure from below…”

and later,

“Business also joined the battle for ideas, funding new public policy groups and think tanks that issued reports … arguing that government regulation and high taxes and spending were responsible for the country’s economic slowdown. These ideas found a receptive audience among the country’s opinion-makers. … These attitudes permeated public opinion, particularly in the late ’70s. The public … became skeptical about taxes and regulations and any new program that appeared to be based on government expansion. “

So we know that Judis understands that “popular pressure from below” drives the success of political movements, and that the Right invested in changing public attitudes, which over time has paid off with votes. But, reading the piece, I get frustrated because I don’t see what I think is an important component of what could be done to reverse things. By saying that a national upheaval similar to the 30s and 60s “doesn’t appear imminent” he seems to pass over the idea of making it happen.”

The way the Right made it happen was by building organizations designed to persuade the public. It worked. It was very expensve and took time, but it worked. This should be understood as investment in our future.

This is on my mind because I have been thinking about President Clinton’s “triangulating” strategy. I think Clinton looked at the politics of the 90’s and devised some brilliant tactics for dealing with the way things were and the reality of the moment. Yes, much of the pubic had been convinced by right-wing persuasion that government was bad, free-market bypassing of democracy was good, etc. So Clinton worked with that, even hijacked some of the Right’s rhetoric (and corporate money) and turned it against them. It was a brilliant tactics to declare “the era of big government is over” and it gained political advantage for Democrats at the time, but things like that sacrificed the future to the Right.

So I think he missed the very important component of also working to change the way things were. He did little to put in place, fund, and grow vehicles for changing that reality, like think tanks and media to counter the Right’s machine. His “third way” worked poitically for the day, but ate the seed corn. There was no component of investment in the future.

In Chris’ post, he says he “would like to present the outline of a program to structurally alter the electorate and the institutions that shape opinion that I believe would allow for the desired increase in liberalism and decline in conservatism nationwide” and gives us four points toward this end: Countering The Republican Noise Machine by “altering the content of existing outlets of political information” and ” the creation of new outlets”; Structural union reorganization to increase organizing to drive up union membership; Election reform to reduce mass disenfranchisement, influence of money and gerrymandering; and The fostering of new mass membership organizations bringing “new types of civic and grassroots organizations that will serve as outlets of information, action and coordination.”

While I agree with all four points I would ask Chris to elevate and elaborate on what he means by the “institutions that shape opinion” component, and “the distribution and dissemination of political thought”. The Right has been pounding the public with their ideological messaging, using advanced persuasion techniques, for decades. Ad

Marketing works. But for it to work, we have to reach the public instead of just talking to each other. For example, environmental groups have to reach out and talk to people who are not members of environmental groups, and they have to do it in a way that regular, working people who do not pay a lot of attention to issues like global warming and who think they want and need SUVs can relate to, and say it using words they will agree with, and nod their heads, and say “that makes sense.” But doing that takes a special kind of comunication, that is put together by studing how those people “hear” information, and what factors are involved in making it “stick.” So I think that existing Progressive organizations should consider whether they are effectively reaching new people, and reaching them with effective, modern marketing techniques.

But along with asking existing organizations to change the content and targets of their own communications, I think we also need to start building and funding organizations that do nothing but reach the general pubic – in places like Kansas and Alabama – with pro-Progressive messages. Thes eorganizations would specialize in studying the “target demographic” to learn Progressive values and ideas are better for the public-at-large, and we need to start explaining that again, almost from scratch.