Think Tanks

This is a replacement of a Think Tanks piece that was posted yesterday by accident.

A good article on right-wing think tanks, reprinted at, of all places, the Heritage Foundation, The charge of the think-tanks.

A key point, similar to one I made before in Don’t Blame the Democrats. From Charge of the think tanks:

“The think-tanks’ influence is partly related to the intellectual barrenness of America’s two main parties. The Democrats and Republicans are little more than vehicles for raising and distributing campaign contributions. They have no ability to generate ideas of their own, and little control over individual politicians trying to burnish their reputations with new thinking.”

From Don’t Blame the Democrats:

The Republicans have in place a broad “idea development and communication infrastructure” that has successfully moved the public to the right. This involves “think tanks” like the Heritage Foundation supplying position papers, talking points and commentary that goes through a marketing department and are endlessly repeated to the public through so many channels, from Rush Limbaugh to Fox News to the Washington Times. This communications machine has been called “The Mighty Wurlitzer.”

After the public has been barraged with the messaging from The Mighty Wurlizter, the Republican politicians step in and harvest the results.

Politicians and parties respond to the public. To change the direction of the country we need organizations that work to change the underlying attitudes of the public. The right has a comprehensive, coordinated network of advocacy organizations, working to change public attitudes, pushing an entire ideological framework that says there are “market solutions” to almost every problem. (Recently, as you know, they even pushed a market solution to terrorism – a “trading room” in the Pentagon where people would place bets on terrorist attacks.)

The right’s advocacy organizations advocate privatization, deregulation, and limiting government. Moderates and progressives need organizations that perform a similar function — to counter this right-wing ideological marketing effort. Moderates and progressives have lots and lots of narrow-focus, single-issue organizations that speak about their specific issues and only their issues – environmental organizations, peace organizations, family planning organizations, you name it – but do not generally reach out to the general public, and when they do it is with a narrowly focused message concerning their issue.

So what about organizations that reach the general public to defend ideas of community, sharing, taking care of each other, working together to solve our mutual problems, and democracy? Without organizations that work to address underlying public attitudes, the work of all the single-issue organizations is undermined.

Let me give an example of what I mean. Recently People For the American Way came out with an important study of the school voucher movement, concluding that the voucher idea is only a step toward privatizing – yes getting rid of, not improving – public schools. The report is “Voucher Veneer: The Deeper Agenda to Privatize Public Education.” (There is a short press release describing this report: “PFAWF Report Exposes Disturbing Agenda Behind Attacks On Public Education.”)

Well how do you fight this? Do you put out information opposing vouchers? Put out facts and figures, and refute each pro-voucher point? Do you put out information about how public schools are good and necessary?

Here is the problem with this. The school voucher concept and the school privatization concept rest on a larger ideological framework involving privatization, free markets and Darwinian competition. So when you try to refute each of their voucher arguments point-by-point, it just bounces of a preventative shell of underlying ideological beliefs. When a person has come to believe the underlying ideology that free markets are always good, government is always bad, Darwinian competition is always good, privatization is always good, then your anti-voucher arguments are just going to bounce off of that person. The anti-voucher arguments are surface-level arguments that will not penetrate that underlying ideological shell – that framework of concepts that the right has inserted into that person’s head. Until that person is exposed to messaging that counters that underlying right-wing ideological crap, you will not have success with surface single-issue arguments.

Whew, that was a mouthful. I’m saying that you have to work on a person’s deeper understanding of a framework that ALL the other concepts fit into. You can’t argue environmentalism or libraries or public schools or helping the poor to a person who has bought into the free-market, anti-government, “strict father morality” ideological framework. Instead you have to work to counter that programming first, and then you can address your narrower issues. You have to do what school civics class used to do – explain and repeat the concept of the common good, the commons, sharing and cooperating. And you have to do a lot of work explaining and reinforcing the idea that people are created equal, that every person has equal representation in our society, that each person has an equal vote rather than each dollar.