Intellectual Crisis of the Left

Over at Blogging of the President Matt Stoller is writing about “the intellectual crisis of the left.” He summarizes posts on the subject by Peter Levine and Mark Schmitt of the Decemberist.

I piped in with the following, and repeat the comment here:

Levine writes (as paraphrased by you) that

“Creating a network of left-wing institutions to play hardball politics with the right as the radicals have done (such as Air America to balance Rush Limbaugh), doesn’t make sense, and can only lead to a further fraying of our civic culture.”

I’d like to take issue with that view of what Progressive organizations would do, if only we could get them funded. I’m much closer to Schmitt’s view.

Let’s step back a minute and think about what the Right’s huge advocacy infostructure is and how it affects our politics. First, take a look at Jerry Landray’s Media Transparency article about the huge machine backing up Bush’s campaign efforts, and the recent NCRP study it discusses. (And some of my own research starting here.)

Here’s how I see it: This huge infrastructure of the Right — “the Wurlitzer” — has spent decades softening up the public, spreading right-wing memes through the population, creating “conventional wisdom” that we need “tort reform,” “tax relief,” “school choice,” and that “Social Security is going broke” and many more such themes. So after hearing this, over and over, the public is ready to support politicians offering solutions to these “problems.”

So what these organizations do is lay the groundwork for the Republican Party to come in and harvest votes. It hardly matters who their candidate is, the election script is already written, they just repeat it, and they have this huge chorus backing them up nationwide. So come election time, the public has already been prepped.

Progressives and Moderates have very few real advocacy organizations in place — especially not those that promote general Progressive principals out to the general public. As a result, the public is not prepped for Progressive issues. Our politicians have to educate the public about problems and issues from scratch, alone, and must do it during each election cycle. And not just alone, as in a voice in the wilderness against the huge right-wing chorus, but also they do not get the kind of marketing advice and assistance that organizations like the Heritage Foundation offer.

Mark Schmitt nails this when he writes,

“Having worked on a presidential campaign in 2000, I came to the conclusion that the hardest thing to do within a campaign, even an idea-driven campaign, is to develop new ideas, because the field operation, the message-of-the-day, the press, dealing with the candidate’s time, etc., consume everyone’s energy. The best a campaign can do is to pick up on and promote ideas already developed, and so I see campaigns as the moment where we measure the availability of new ideas in the larger world, and the success of other groups and people in developing the kind of visions and policy blueprints that candidates can use. If the candidates fail to do so, it is at least in part an indication of the failure of the think tanks or other institutions that are supposed to do the job.

But I don’t think the problem is that our “think tanks or other institutions” are failing to do the job, I think the problem is that WE are failing to understand that this is the job of these think tanks and other institutions and not the politicians and parties. So it’s really WE who are to blame for not creating and funding them.

We often complain that the “Democratic Party” is not “finding its voice” and is not explaining issues well, etc. We complain that Kerry is not voicing the issues effectively. But look at the other side. Do you think Bush is this amazing master of communications. NO! He just repeats what the right-wing machine feeds him. The Republican Party is little more than the candidate wing of this huge apparatus. So we shouldn’t be blaming the Democratic Party, this is not their job. The job of politicians is to reflect the will of the public. The job of a network of advocacy organizations is to set up that background of public understanding for them.

Politicians on the Right have such an easy job! The public has been hearing decades of “what’s wrong with” public schools, lawsuits, etc. AND hearing “experts” talk about how to solve those problems, so the politicians of the Right just come in and pick up on that.

THAT is the role of the Right’s network of advocacy institutions. The progressive Center for American Progress is one small, small beginning towards doing something about this. But they are just one organization, and their focus is current legislative issues — sort of trying to beat back the tide. The Right has over 500 such organizations in place. They have literally thousand of well-funded operatives. Our side needs people to step up to the plate and start funding these kinds of organizations as well.

So I think that yes, we DO need a network of left-wing institutions. But what I think they should be doing is putting out books, articles, op-ed pieces, and people to talk on the radio and TV, all advocating a return of progressive values of community, democracy, sharing, nurturance, tolerance, etc. I see this as an effort to restore civility, not to further fray our civic culture. I think that leaving the Right’s institutions in charge of the megaphone is what is very, very dangerous to our civic culture. But, as I said, my vision of this is that the organizations are conducting the research into how to better our society, and doing the research on the nest ways to put the word out there, advocating progressive values of community, etc.

(Some time ago I wrote something similar in Don’t Blame the Democrats.)