YearlyKos – Building Progressive Infrastructure

Following are my prepared remarks to the YearlyKos panel on Building Progressive Infrastructure. Also speaking were Markos Moulitsas Zúniga, Jerome Armstrong and David Sirota: (There’s a snippet of video here. I’ll post a link to a complete video if it becomes available.)

Thank you for inviting me to come to YearlyKos to talk Creating Progressive Infrastructure. I’m Dave Johnson. I blog at seeing the Forest and I’m a Fellow at the Commonweal Institute.

One of the things the bloggers have been pounding on for at least a couple of years is the idea of building Progressive Infrastructure.

For decades you haven’t been able to go anywhere without hearing – over and over – that conservatives are good and liberals and their ideas are bad and stupid and shameful and evil – and a hundred variations on that theme. Have any of you encountered that message?

Conservatives are marketing what President Bush would call “conservativityism,” and doing it very well. And the broad, general public hears hardly ANYTHING in response from our side to fight back against that basic underlying propaganda argument.

How did it get to be that way?

Back in the 50s and 60s, in the decades following FDR and World War II, it was a time when most Americans agreed that it was good to help each other, pay their taxes, to help the poor, to send kids to public schools, to protect the environment – all those llllliberal things. America had a PROGRESSIVE CONSENSUS. And in that environment Progressive organizations grew up designed around using limited resources to get the important things done in those areas where everyone agreed things needed doing. At the same time, in politics Democrats could rely on a solid majority so progressive political operations were designed around getting their voters to the polls.

Reorganizing after Goldwater’s 1964 defeat, the Right accepted that this Progressive consensus existed and started to build up organizations designed to change people’s minds, to reach out and PERSUADE THE PUBLIC that their way is better. They set up marketing-oriented organizations that touted the benefits of a conservative approach and promoted social values that are compatible with conservative thinking. They worked to get their message into the media, hiring and training people to write columns and articles and books and appear on radio and TV shows and go out around the country and give talks. They started training and paying people to work on campaigns and work for the people who got elected and to run for office themselves. They set up a media “Echo chamber” with conservative movement authors and commentators citing conservative movement “scholars” and “Institutes,” and so on, until their “reports” and “studies” seemed to have great credibility and seemed to be coming from every media outlet. And they established their OWN magazines and newspapers and radio shows and TV shows and later networks. And they always talked selectively about American beliefs and values in ways that made them seem truly conservative—they worked on changing how Americans thought about themselves and their world.

For more about the history of this movement go to (moved, out of date)…

Today, the right is so effective because after 30 years of constant marketing and sophisticated use of techniques like strategic narrative and social desirability bias – and repeating that a conservative approach is better, and liberals are bad and stupid and incompetent and unpatriotic and evil, with almost NO COUNTER ARGUMENTS reaching them from Progressives, the public FOR SOME REASON thinks that Progressives are bad and stupid and incompetent and unpatriotic and evil, and that conservatives offer a better way! Imagine that – a public that is trained to respond to marketing has responded to 30 years of ceaseless, unanswered marketing!

And it’s like the Progressives just didn’t notice what was happening.

Suppose you built a car and your competitors spent millions advertising that your car breaks down or is unsafe, and you never advertise what’s good about your car – do you think very many people would BUY the cars you make?

So on the one hand you have Conservative organizations designed to attack and change people’s minds away from progressive values. On the other you have Progressive ISSUE-oriented organizations, built in another time, when everyone agreed with progressive values so they didn’t NEED to market to the public promoting the benefits of a progressive approach.

And here we are — even now most progressive issue organizations STILL aren’t designed to reach the broad, general public and make the underlying argument that liberal and progressive values and ideas are BETTER – they are not marketing the benefits and the values, only issues.

How many times have you heard it said that if we just get the facts out about our issues, the public will support us. Well, that is not how marketing works.

Times change and the understanding that provides support for our issues has eroded.

Two Yale students, Jennifer Krencicki and Dahvi,Wilson, gave me a great analogy to help understand the advantage of marketing values instead of issues. They remind us about the GOT MILK? campaign. The milk companies could have all advertised their respective brands against each other, but they saw that their problem was that the public was drinking less milk overall. So instead of marketing their individual brands, THEY MARKETed THE IDEA THAT PEOPLE SHOULD DRINK MORE MILK. The result was that … well, people drank more milk — and ALL THE MILK BRANDS saw their sales rise!

So we need to stop looking to every next election, expecting some messiah candidate to show up and lead us out of the wilderness and back to a majority status – and instead start thinking long-term and big-picture. We have to stop emphasizing narrow issues that split us apart, and start talking about the underlying values that tie our issues together. We have to stop focusing on our narrow issue silos, and follow the original American motto—“e pluribus unum”—because even though we progressives are many, at heart we are all one.

To be specific, we have to fund and build the kinds of organizations that market to the public the idea that Progressive values and a Progressive approach to issues – democracy and community, we’re all in this together – benefit the public more than a conservative “you’re on your own — everyone out for themselves” approach. We need to fund and build organizations that train writers, speakers, TV and radio commentators, activists, leaders and candidates — and other organizations that HIRE people so they can have careers and make a living fighting for OUR values.

I have focused here on one area of progressive infrastructure – marketing – to give an idea of the kind of things we are missing. There are other pieces of this pie that are in similar cirsumstances – political operations, training and recruiting, and providing ways to make a living. We need to build in these areas as well.

And, more than anything, we need to pay bloggers and pay them A LOT!!

If we do these things, over time, the public will come back.

Thank you.

3 thoughts on “YearlyKos – Building Progressive Infrastructure

  1. My own take at this is that Democrats and liberals are weakest with what I call passive voters — those who are concerned enough to vote, but who depend entirely on free media and don’t (and often can’t, perhaps because of family and two jobs) spend much time or money informing themselves.
    Unless these people happen to live or work in one of the remaining areas which have been effectively organized by Democrats, they will pick up the “ambient political opinion”, which will be conservative. I think that these people are the source of the big discrepancy between issue polls and actual election results. A passive voter might be moderate or liberal on most issues, but during the election campaign he will be persuaded that the actual Democratic candidate is terribly flawed and not fit to govern.
    These voters, as I suggested, aren’t necessarily either stupid or lazy. Often they really don’t have the time, and have no non-Republican source of political information active in their world. We should really think of uninformed voters as our own failure (and the result of Republican jamming of the media), and not as the voter’s failure.
    I’ve been guilty myself of talking about the stupid voters, and I hear others saying much worse things than I ever would. As I’ve been saying for awhile, Republican populism is fake, but Democratic elitism is real. I think that Ivy League whiz kids and blocs of credentialed professionals and institutional leaders tend to swing the Democrats in an elitist, condescending direction.

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