Who Is Responsible?

I’m reading this NY Times story about the Democrats trying to find a message, etc. I don’t agree that the problem is that the Democrats don’t have a message, or that it is their responsibility to develop one. Politicians RESPOND to the public. That’s their job. A while back I wrote a piece about this, Don’t Blame the Democrats. I’m going to repeat and expand on that piece here, and tell you who I blame – who I challenge to step up to the plate and fix this problem.

I have written about how the right has in place a broad, extremely well-funded “idea development and communication infrastructure” and how this has successfully moved the public to the right. This infrastructure consists of think tanks like the Heritage Foundation and American Enterprise Institute (the people who brought you the Iraq war) to develop and refine their ideology, and a communications infrastructure that pumps their message out. This is the “message amplification infrastructure.” Some of the communication channels are Rush Limbaugh and all of AM radio, Fox News and most of the TV pundits, the Washington Times and other newspapers, various magazines, various book publishers, and numerous organizations endlessly repeating the ideological messages to the public.

As I wrote before: “After the public has been barraged with the messaging from The Mighty Wurlizter, the Republican politicians step in and harvest the results.” In other words, politicians respond to the public. To change the country don’t rely on the politicians, instead you must change the public. This is how the right has accomplished so much. They have been pumping their ideological message to the public, following a long-term strategy, and over time succeeded in moving the public to the right. Only then would the public vote for their candidates.

As one example of this process, let’s look at the right’s movement to get rid of public schools. For so many years the right-wing infrastructure has been pumping out the message that “public schools are failing.” After some time, hearing this message over and over, a consensus grows that there is a problem with public schools. Right-wing politicians can then promise “solutions,” like vouchers, and their message resonates with a public that is primed to believe there is a “problem” requiring a solution. This public is also primed, through repetition of other messaging, to believe that private companies are more effective than government, etc. So the environment for accepting private schools as a “solution” to the “problem” of failing public schools has been set up. (It doesn’t matter if there really is a problem, as long as a large enough share of the voting public believes there is.)

Now contrast this with the progressive approach to the health care problem. A progressive politician can come to the public saying we need “single-payer health insurance” or even the shorter “universal health care.” The response from the public is going to be, “What?” because so few of the public have heard of these terms, much less been pounded with progressive messages about the problems with the health care system. So the way things work now, progressive politicians have to come in explaining from scratch the problems, and trying to educate the public with their detailed solutions. This is because the support base for their ideas was not developed in advance by a comparable ideological infrastructure.

Do we blame the Democrats for this? The Republican Party “harvests” the environment set up by the well-funded “idea development and communication infrastructure.” But it wasn’t the Republican Party that set up this infrastructure. So I don’t think we can blame the Democratic Party for the absence of a comparable infrastructure on the left. The right-wing infrastructure was set up by a few right-wing philanthropists with a vision and not by the Republican Party.

So when looking for someone to “blame” perhaps we should look to someone other than Democratic politicians. Perhaps we should look to the people who FUND moderates and progressives. Let me explain what I mean.

Here’s how the right manages to have such an infrastructure in place, while progressives and moderates are left struggling with each other and barely getting their messages out to the public. There’s a lot of money out there on the right, but there’s also a lot of moderate and progressive money out there. The difference is that the right uses its money to provide general operating funding to “advocacy” organizations that exist to come up with ways to convince the public to vote Republican. The organizations on the right are funded just to exist, and the money continues year after year, so they do not have to spend so much of their time raising money, instead concentrating on effectively carrying out their ideological objectives.

On the other hand, moderate and progressive philanthropists have traditionally provided money for specific programs with the intent of doing good in specific ways. This system of “program funding” evolved as the best way to apply scarce resources to projects with goals for which there was a general public consensus of support. This system evolved at a time when helping the poor, protecting the environment were all widely supported by the public.

But now the right’s ideology machine has eroded that public support, and the programs funded by this system are less effective. The right uses their machine to get politicians elected that will carry out their agenda of dismantling almost everything that the moderates and progressives have been funding. When this happens, the moderate and progressive money is wasted. The example I like to use is a program to protect a redwood grove, costing $500,000 a year for the last 10 years. But now an elected official issues a decree that the best way to protect forests from fire is to remove the trees, or an ideological judge rules that trees are better used for industry — and just like that the redwood grove is gone, and the $5,000,000 spent over 10 years is completely wasted. AND on top of that the local radio stations are mocking the funders as “evironmental whackos” or “eco-terrorists,” and perhaps people are picketing their offices with signs saying they are “anti-capitalist.”

Program funding was not designed to counter the current destructive opposition from the right. Moderate and progressive funding must start taking this into account, and start building an infrastructure that reaches the general public with messaging that moves underlying attitudes back toward moderate and progressive principles. This would provide an environment where moderates and progressives can get public support to protect the programs that are so important to all of us.

Moderate and progressive philanthropists must step up to the plate. As with anything that has been in place for a long time, program funding is an entrenched system, with bureaucracies in place, and lots of careers depending on the system staying just the way it is. But moderate and progressive philanthropists and foundations must recognize that this is no longer the most effective use of their money. Moderate and progressive philanthropists and foundations must step up to the plate and begin providing general operating funding to advocacy organizations who will work to move the public back away from this right-wing ideological nonsense that we have been subjected to for so long! This will provide an underlying base of support for the programs we all care about. This will help persuade the public to elect candidates who will protect the programs they care about. This will persuade the public to support the organizations that are trying so hard to protect the environment and help the poor and all the rest. We all need the work done to strengthen the underlying public attitudes of support for these goals, to strengthen and build the base of support upon which the organizations and programs rest.

If you are fortunate enough to have possession of so much of the resources, you have the responsibility to use them in the best possible way. You have the duty to see that there is a threat from the right that must be countered. It is not the job of a political party – politicians respond to the public. It is your job to use your resources to educate the public, to move them back from the right, to counter the ideological propaganda that the right is bombarding us with, to defend the programs we all care so much about.