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HOW TO FIGHT BACK
The right seems to be taking over everywhere. They are tearing down so much that we care about – environmental programs, family planning programs, basic “safety net” programs, causing massive budget deficits, etc. How did we get into this predicament and what do we do to get out of it? How did the right shift the center of American public opinion? And how can we beat them at their own game?
The Predicament – The extreme right-wing took complete control of the Federal Government on Nov. 5th. The solution — Fight Back with the Commonweal Institute.
Those of us fighting for common sense policies that protect the environment, prevent corporations from abusing workers, investors and the communities around them, provide pregnant women with basic health care, and ensure that the rich pay their fare share of society’s needs (among other things) are now reduced to fighting a rear-guard action to prevent further damage.
We see it every day in the headlines – education, health care, public parks and even roads, police and fire departments — all face massive budget cuts. It seems you can’t open up a paper or turn on the television without hearing about an environmental setback, a school closing, a hospital shutting down, the cost of health insurance rising or another corporation laying off massive numbers of workers after moving production overseas. It’s just overwhelming!
This is not your grandmother’s country.
What happened to the common sense, mainstream middle of the road politicians like Sen. James Jeffords that your grandmother used to cast votes for without hesitation? He had to leave his own party, saying the extremists have taken over! Why has the extreme right-wing pulled the country so far to the right that sometimes you have to look very closely to tell the difference? How did the “center” of the American political spectrum shift so radically to the right over the last three decades? And what can we do to shift it back?
What can we do about it?
It is important to understand what has been happening to us! How did the right shift the center of American public opinion? And how can we beat them at their own game? They have been so effective, maybe we ought to be doing some of what they’ve been doing! (Acting with honesty and ethics, of course!)
So I’d like to write about the right-wing movement’s campaign to move the public to the right. By examining how it was done we can learn how to counter it, and move the public and the country back into balance, back to the center back to sanity. And then I’ll describe the Commonweal Institute’s plan to do something about it.
Part 1 – What has been happening to us?
Pushed to the right.
The American public has been the target of an ongoing, deliberate, planned campaign to push them to the right.
Who is funding this campaign?
A small group of wealthy far-right and Christian-right individuals, foundations and corporations. Since the early 1970’s, they have been pouring literally hundreds of millions of dollars into a small group of think tanks and organizations in order to create the appearance of a much larger “movement.” You might recognize some of the following names: The Heritage Foundation (founded in 1973), The American Enterprise Institute (founded in 1943, but whose budget exploded from $1 million a year in 1970 to $11 million a year by 1981), the Cato Institute (founded in 1977), the Free Congress Foundation (founded in 1977 by Paul Weyrich, who also helped found The Heritage Foundation), The Federalist Society (founded in 1982), the Competitive Enterprise Institute (founded in 1984). These organizations did not exist a few decades ago, but now are cited with overwhelming regularity by mainstream media and politicians. The research to back this up is on the Commonweal Institute’s web site, at http://www.commonwealinstitute.org/information.html. I also go into detail about this subject in a recent article, Who’s Behind the Attack on Liberal Professors?, online at http://hnn.us/articles/1244.html.
What’s remarkable is that when you look at these, and about 500 other similar organizations that have sprung up since the early 1970’s, they are all funded by the same few people, corporations and foundations! You’ll find that Richard Mellon Scaife and his family foundations, and the Bradley Foundation, Olin Foundation, Smith Richardson Foundation, and Coors family foundations and a few corporations and individuals are funding and coordinating almost all of the activities of this right-wing “movement.” What seems like a number of different organizations and individuals is really just a small group.
What do they get for their money?
Studies and policy papers (“idea product”) specifically designed to support right-wing political positions. Translated by modern marketing techniques (polling, focus groups, psychological profiling…) into easy to digest sound bites that resonate emotionally and culturally, these “ideas” are promoted by “independent experts” and “scholars” through far-right outlets such as TV’s Fox News, the Internet’s Drudge Report and NewsMax, Rush Limbaugh and talk radio, newspapers like the Washington Times, and a multitude of right-wing columnists, pundits, authors and celebrities (many of which are dependent on right-wing institutions for their paychecks).
How pervasive are these ideas?
The “communications engine” of the right-wing goes far beyond the self-consciously “conservative” institutions cited above. An extraordinary number of the “talking heads” on network television (“Meet The Press” on NBC), cable (CNBC) and public TV (McLaughlin Group), articles and letters on the editorial pages of national newspapers (the New York Times, The Washington Post, USA Today), “sources” and experts in news stories, “studies” referred to in magazine articles (US News and World Report, Time, Newsweek, etc.), and books reviewed in the paper get their “talking points” from these extreme right-wing organizations. This is all well documented in the research gathered by the Commonweal Institute at
What are some examples of these right-wing “ideas”?
“The public schools are failing.” “Raising taxes slows economic growth and takes money out of the average worker’s paycheck.” “Social Security is going broke.” Sound familiar? These are part of a very conscious and deliberate attempt to frame public opinion in a way that makes the otherwise extreme sounding solutions favored by the right wing seem reasonable. The organizations funding the right wing think long term: contracting out the operation of public schools to private, for-profit corporations would have been unthinkable just decade or two ago (along with other schemes that privatize and commercialize public education, such as “vouchers” and “Channel One”), but now that we’ve had thirty years of continual harping on the “failure of public education”, it sounds vastly more reasonable to an American public that rarely hears any dissent from this manufactured “conventional wisdom”.
How much money are we talking about?
Over $1 billion dollars in the last decade, alone. A BILLION. One, followed by nine zeros. That doesn’t even count more conventional attempts to influence the political process and public dialogue, such as donations to candidates and paid “issue” advertisements. They’ve been so successful at flooding the nation’s “marketplace of ideas” that moderate and “left wing” opinions go almost completely unheard in the mainstream media. The right’s “success” hasn’t stopped the flood of money – over the next two years, these organizations anticipate pouring over $400 million dollars into the 500+ right wing groups working to influence the American public’s views and perspectives on key issues.
How can I see this in action?
When you read a commentary or hear from an “expert” that seems right wing, make a note of what organization(s) they are associated with. Then go to MediaTransparency.org at http://www.mediatransparency.org/ and use their excellent Search capability to look them up and see where they get their money. For those individuals whose associations are unmentioned, use the Google search engine and search on the author’s name to discover what organizations they are affiliated with. If you do this a few times, you’ll begin to see a pattern of a small group of right-wing foundations showing up again and again. Mention this the next time you’re talking with a friend or neighbor – encourage them to check this out as well. Over time, this will increase the public’s awareness and decrease the effectiveness of these tactics.
Where can I find out more information about these groups?
The Commonweal Institute has made available a collection of links to research that details the establishment and financing of the “conservative movement”, as well as the individuals, organizations, institutes and foundations that fund it. See Commonweal’s Information page, online at http//www.commonwealinstitute.org/information.html. Studying these resources will help you better understand the biases and influences underlying media coverage.
Scott Rosenberg’s Salon weblog summed this process up just the other day
“What did the Republicans do in the 1970s? They went back to their roots and created institutions for the long-term. They spent money on think-tanks and local organizations and decided to build a new party from the ground up that appealed to conservatives. They elected Ronald Reagan in 1980, and the party they built then is the same party that Karl Rove is orchestrating today. The fringe-y think tanks of the ’70s — like the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute — now provide an endless supply of talking-head and op-ed support for right-wing policies. And, give them credit, they’re just full of ideas.”
Part 2 – How is the Commonweal Institute going to shift the center of American public opinion?
The Commonweal Institute will provide message leadership.
The Commonweal Institute is committed to advancing moderate and progressive principles through message leadership, using strategic marketing and aggressive communication of ideas. We are working to bring positive moderate and progressive messages to the public and build widespread support for the issues we care about. Our goals: to swing American public opinion back towards a moderate/progressive perspective; to restore balance to the marketplace of ideas; to revitalize and reenergize the democratic process; to advance the values of fairness, justice, and opportunity and to help create a equitable society with sustainable economic development.
The Commonweal Institute will use modern marketing and public relations methods to advance moderate and progressive principles to the broad, mainstream public — some of the same techniques that the right wing has used so effectively to dominate our nation’s marketplace of ideas, but used honestly and ethically. The “idea product” of moderate/progressive think tanks and other organizations will be translated into researched, effective messaging that resonates with target audiences. This means polling & focus groups to uncover issues important to the targeted demographic & psychographic groups and cognitive interviewing, linguistic analysis, framing analysis, etc. to determine effective emotional messaging that reaches these target groups. Because people respond best to stories that trigger an emotional response, using words that evoke images in the mind and metaphors that hook facts to their deeper feelings, giving them a sense of “Oh yeah, that’s right.”
The Commonweal Institute will work with other organizations to use multiple channels of communication to reach the widest possible set of audiences. These channels of communication will include books, articles, columns, commentaries, letters to the editor, newsletters, on-line information, expert speakers, scholars, talk show guests, video clips, tapes, media training for activists and advertisements, as well as providing talking points and other ready-to-go materials for use by opinion leaders, public speakers, educators, activists, talk show hosts and guests and the general public — the exact same set of tools and techniques that the right wing has been using to shape public opinion over the past three decades.
An example: If the rumored “liberal radio talk show network” does gets started, the talk-show hosts will need things to talk about, and will need to know how to talk about them in ways that reach out and grab a mainstream general public audience. THIS is what Commonweal will do. The Commonweal Institute will provide the wording, data, issues, framing, even many guests.
Manufacturing “conventional wisdom”.
The right has used the technique of repeating something often enough that people believe it (the “public schools are failing”, “Social Security is going broke,” “we need to cut taxes to stimulate the economy”). Commonweal Institute will provide message leadership, creating conventional wisdom that reflects moderate and progressive principles by repeating messages that build support for moderate and progressive principles, over and over again, through many outlets, using words that resonate with people, until public opinion changes.
A battle of ideas.
We progressives and moderates have a clear advantage in the battle of ideas — we don’t have to lie, trick or otherwise fool the public to get them to agree with us! In fact, we are going to do the opposite — we’re going to tell it like it is. The right wing is trying to convince the public to do absurd things, such as giving up their Social Security, pensions, healthcare, environmental regulations, workplace safety rules, environmental protections and all the rest of the benefits and protections we have built up over the years, just so that some rich white guy can upgrade his five car garage to a seven car garage and park another couple of Ferraris in it. That’s why, even with all the billions spent and all the domination of the media they’ve developed, they STILL can’t get a majority of the voters to agree with them, even after convincing so many people to give up voting entirely!
Multi-issue vs. single issue.
While many issue-organizations offer good information for their issues, they tend to be financially dependant on reaching out to their own base of supporters. Many have limited budgets and cannot reach as many as they would like. Fundraising is difficult and ongoing, and it makes sense to reach people who will tend to support your cause. It is not typically economical for single-issue organizations to spend the money to reach out to the mainstream, general public. So out of necessity there is a lot of preaching to the converted. In addition, more and more, they are fighting shorter-term defensive battles, as they endure constant attack by right-wing elements.
To reach out to wide general audiences, talking about a number of issues, you need a different kind of organization. Moderates and progressives need to fund and develop infrastructure. This is what the Commonweal Institute is.
The beginnings of a foundation for progress.
What we’re creating at the Commonweal Institute is an “infrastructure” organization. These are what the right-wing has been building over the past three decades. The Commonweal Institute will work to change underlying public attitudes, by translating particular issues and causes into a larger framework of understanding, and communicate that general perspective to the public at large.
Growing the base.
Changing underlying public attitudes toward the moderate/progressive perspective will bring the growth of the base of support for moderate and progressive organizations and leaders. Environmental, social, health, and other types of organizations will see their own support and funding base increase. They will also have some of their burden reduced as government again picks up some of the load.
It’s not about picking the right politicians.
Politicians and parties follow the lead of the people. Once the Commonweal Institute is able to change the public’s core attitudes, moderate and progressive leaders and officials will have an easier job convincing voters that they have the right solution, since the public will already understand the issues it faces, and will already be asking for what they are suggesting. This will be a lot easier for candidates and elected officials than having to explain the background of issues, introduce the programs, and convince the voters that they have the right ideas and solutions, all at the same time, and in a single 15 to 30 second sound bite.
Some good news.
Lack of money is not what has been handicapping moderates and progressives. There is actually a lot of money available on the moderate/progressive side. It just hasn’t been used as effectively as the money poured into right-wing idea machine infrastructure. There are some good articles about this on Commonweal’s information page, online at http://www.commonwealinstitute.org/information.html.
Much of the money supplied by moderates and progressives goes to fund narrow programs with limited and specific goals. This once worked well as a way to get a lot done with limited funds. But “program funding” is not as effective in a time when so much that we care about is under attack from right-wing organizations! There is no “fight back” component in this kind of funding.
This style of funding creates organizations that lack the flexibility to quickly respond to changing needs. Opportunities are often lost as a result, when the resources to take advantage of them are unavailable until the next annual budget cycle. The right has provided general operating funding money for use any way the organizations want, as long as it is spent to further the right-wing ideological movement, according to their specific long-term strategic goals. Moderate and progressive donors need to do much more of this.
So the money is there, but until this funding pattern changes, organizations like the Commonweal Institute must be funded by individual donors who understand the necessity of the task at hand and want to help out. You, in other words.
Return on investment.
Here’s an example of the funding problem. Many of us support local members of the national Land Trust Alliance, such as The Sempervirens Fund in Santa Cruz County, California, which is working to permanently protect the area’s remaining ancient old growth redwoods by acquiring land and integrating it into the public parks system. They are currently working to raise $13.4 million to save the San Lorenzo River Redwoods. But that huge investment, and others like it, can be undone overnight, wasting all the money, if public officials decide to gut anti-logging protections in the state parks under the guise of “forest fire prevention”, or even sells off the state parks. (Yes, they’re even talking about selling state and national parks)!
Progressives and moderates face losses like this across our entire “investment portfolio” of programs, because they have failed to build infrastructure that works to change underlying attitudes, along with funding specific projects and programs. Without this infrastructure, progressives and moderates will continue to experience losses and lack the ability to generate the kind of large-scale public reaction that makes ideas like clear-cutting our national forests under the guise of “fire protection” non-starters.
The Commonweal Institute will increase our return on the investments we make in organizations and programs that work on specific issues.
OK, I wrote a lot here today. Let me sum up
Please take a look at the collection of resources on Commonweal’s Information Page at http://www.commonwealinstitute.org/information.html. No matter what else you take away from reading this, learning about what the right-wing has been doing and telling others is one of the most effective ways to immunize yourself and combat their pervasive messaging!
And, of course, if you agree that it is time to work “to restore balance to the marketplace of ideas,” please go to this web page, http://www.commonwealinstitute.org/youcanhelp.html, and help build the Commonweal Institute. FIGHTING BACK TAKES MONEY. But there are a lot of us!
We are reaching out to all Americans, and asking for your participation in democracy, your birthright, and your obligation as a citizen. We are just facilitators of your participation. Even a little can help us a lot, in rallying people to the cause. Even one dollar says you care.
Give….give time, give attention, give your presence at rallies, give the time to get informed, and if you have a few dollars, give to Commonweal Institute so we can continue the fight.
Where did you give money last year? How many charities got $10 or $100? Add it up. Does that really reflect your own priorities? Why not consider making one big gift this year to one nonprofit that can make a difference, needs to make a difference, now? This may be the most important issue of all — your own political freedom and the fate of democracy. Put the money where your beliefs are. Give what you can, and get active.
There is a version of this, designed and formatted to be sent as an e-mail message for forwarding, available online at: http://www.commonwealinstitute.org/ltr030403.rtf