Allison Kilkenny: Unreported

What We Can Learn From Conservatives About Winning in Politics: Parts 2 & 3

Posted in activism, Conservatism, politics by allisonkilkenny on March 16, 2008


Part 1

Part II: Learning from How Conservatives Push Their Cultural Worldview

As we saw in the previous post, the entire conservative movement was organized around the single goal of changing the country’s dominant worldview, weaning it away from liberal assumptions about how the world works, and teaching Americans to assign meaning to the world using conservative values instead. They firmly (and rightly) believed that that once the rest of the country evaluated and prioritized reality the same way they did, the rest of the conservative political, economic, and social agenda could be implemented with strong popular support, and no meaningful resistance.

But the early architects of this plan, including Paul Weyrich, also realized that having strong ideas wasn’t enough. To succeed, they would also have to master the arts of persuasion.

“Ideas do not immediately have consequences,” wrote Eric Huebeck in his 2001 update of Weyrich’s long-followed plan. “They do not have an impact in direct proportion to the truth they contain. They have an impact only insofar as adherents of those ideas are willing to take measures to propagate those ideas.”

Or, as a more cynical conservative once put it: You gotta catapult the propaganda.

This may seem like heresy to liberals. We like to believe that the progressive worldview is so patently superior that intelligent people will readily see the logic of it, and then sensibly adopt it as the best way to think and live. If people resist it, it’s only because they don’t completely understand it (yet). Fixing that is simply a matter of education: we just need explain our vision more clearly. Our own resolute faith in the power of reason convinces us that reasonable people will be reasonably persuaded by reasonable discussion of reasonable ideas.

It’s time to consider the reasonable possibility that we may be wrong.

To our enduring detriment, movement conservatives never bought into that idea. They understood from the start that their ideas (which, frankly, don’t stand up nearly as well in the face of clear rationality) would need to be aggressively promoted and sold, using emotional appeals that went to the heart of human beings’ deepest desires and motivations. People don’t commit their time, energy, and fortunes to a movement because it’s all so logical and sensible. They join up because they’ve taken the movement’s worldview deep into their hindbrains as their basic model of reality, and made an emotional connection to the ineffable feelings the movement deliberately stimulated — in this case, fear, hate, and xenophobia as well as solidarity, reverence, hope, and security. In this model, the ideas only exist to provide a way to rationalize and express the deeper feelings the movement has already activated through other appeals.

Liberals operate from a position of strength on the battlefield of ideas — and this may be why we consistently overvalue reason and undervalue emotional appeals. Our ideas do have a strong intellectual appeal. But we tend to forget that they also have a far healthier emotional appeal, since we don’t have to resort to stimulating fear and hate to get people to buy into them. Still, we’ve been notoriously terrible at stirring people’s more positive and hopeful emotions, and getting them to resonate on a soul-deep level with the values that define our worldview. Clearly, we could stand to learn a thing or two from the conservatives about how they did this.

In this second part, we’ll look at some of the essential communications rules Huebeck gleaned from Weyrich’s original plans — and see how these rules might be adapted to make us more effective at winning people’s hearts and souls as well as their minds.

Don’t be afraid to set ’em on fire

The hard, cold fact is that words and logic will never get us down to the deep, pre-rational places where people’s foundational worldviews are shaped. If we want to create change at that foundational level, we need to engage them emotionally, in the pre-verbal places where images, poetry, myths, and ritual reside.

The first thing we need to do is lighten way up on the long recitations of facts and figures and programs and policies. Most non-wonks don’t care about this stuff — the details just make them yawn. They’re bored by promises of new programs: most Americans are pretty well convinced by now that whatever the program is or how well-funded it may be, they probably won’t see any personal benefit from it, so it comes across as an empty promise. Yet Democratic candidates all the way back to Walter Mondale have been running and losing on just this kind of dispassionate, uninspiring wonk-talk. And then we wonder why the conservatives keep whipping our asses.

You’ll seldom catch conservatives talking wonky. They’re told from their very first candidate trainings to steer clear of anything that dwells on abstract facts or figures. People want viscerally engaging stories — emotional stories about people like them, inspiring mythic tales taken from history that express their highest ideals, vivid invocations outlining the shining details of a better future to come. They want clear-cut portrayals of good guys and bad guys that reverberate with the promise that justice will be done, and that they will be honored in the end as agents for good. We may grow up, but we never lose our childhood taste for an illustrative tale well-told. The conservatives knew this from the beginning, and turned this knowledge into a potent political strategy.

Mitt was singularly bad at it, which explains much of his failure. (McCain’s not much of an inspirational speaker, either.) On the other hand, Obama is singularly good at it, which is why he’s doing so well — even though the emotional outpouring he inspired by hitting these buttons makes a lot of more reason-based liberals squirm and reach for words like “cult” and “mass hysteria.” It’s potent proof of just how very uncomfortable we are with this — and also that we need to get serious about getting ourselves over it. Because Obama is doing exactly what every great progressive icon of the past did — and every modern progressive needs to learn to do — if we’re going to inspire the nation and get people to commit themselves, body and soul, to our worldview.

We’ve got a different message; but we’ve also got a long tradition of progressive speakers (Jefferson, TR, FDR, JFK, MLK) who knew how to tell our story in ways that grabbed people’s imaginations and set them on fire. It’s a proud liberal tradition that we are way past due to reclaim — and the conservatives are going to keep beating us until we do.

Talk in tangibles, not abstractions

Offer clear examples wherever possible. Use real people in real situations. Tie values statements to everyday experiences. Listeners need to understand how your message ties directly into the way they live their daily lives, so bring it down to ground level.

When we do use numbers, it should be in ways that are direct and personal. This war is costing your family $XXXX per year. Cancer rates in your neighborhood are up X% due to lax oversight of the plant. This program will enable XXX more kids from this county to afford college. If it can’t be expressed in terms of direct, concrete benefits to the individual listeners, it’s probably a waste of breath.

Live out loud

Weyrich declared that the cardinal premise of the conservative movement is that “the power of example is far greater than the power of exhortation.” They actively sought out and promoted people who were living their worldview, and held them up as examples to others of the success that awaited anyone who joined up. They understood that the best salesmen for the cause were the people who weren’t afraid to live their conservatism right out loud.

Liberals tend to break out in a rash if you suggest that we should allow ourselves to be held up as role models for anyone. Who are we to be telling anyone else how to live? And besides: who needs all that scrutiny and judgment? But I’d argue that we might want to reconsider this. Like it or not, when we step up as leaders, people are watching — and many would-be progressives will be judging our movement and modeling their own lives after our example. Being a leader means accepting that burden with some grace, and recognizing example-setting as a central part of the job.

It’s an act of courage to step up, tell the world, “This is what a progressive looks like,” and then commit yourself to living up to the movement’s highest ideals. But it would only take a few million of us openly living out our values that way — not full of self-righteousness and judgment (people have had a bellyful of that), but modestly and graciously and without apology — to change the way our movement is perceived throughout the country. We’re offering the world an alternative. We need to commit our lives — literally — to showing them through our actions what that alternative looks like.

No whining

Huebeck and Weyrich told conservatives to quit their bitching about “leftist double standards and hypocrisy.” They recognized whining and pity-parties as a huge time and energy sink that drags everybody down, and sucks resources away from the movement. The real question movement conservatives needed to confront, they said, is: “What are we going to do about it?” They offered two solutions for the swamping despair that comes with the never-ending gush of stupidity from the other side.

First, they suggested that conservatives regard their opponents’ excesses with the same kind of dispassionate detachment one uses to survey the ravenings of rabid dogs or the aftermath of natural disasters. Accept that they do what they do because that’s who they are. They can’t help themselves; and it’s a useless distraction to be angry or frustrated with them, let alone to think for a minute that we can change their essential nature. If liberals got that detached and gave up complaining, it would dramatically reduce the volume of bloggage coming from our side; but it would also enable us to conserve our energy, stay focused on what matters, and help us endure for the long haul.

Second, they told conservatives to take responsibility — not only for themselves, but for the country as well. “Leftists are never morally responsible for the evil they commit,” wrote Huebeck, “but we as conservatives are morally responsible for not having done more to prevent them from committing that evil.” (Take a minute and breathe. Laugh, if you must. I know — the stupendous projection in that statement is just too much to take in all at once.)

Voluntarily assuming personal responsibility for everything the conservatives do sounds preposterous at first. But if you think about it, it’s actually a neat piece of ontological Aikido, and we might consider borrowing it. The right-wing has savaged the country. We are morally responsible for not stopping them. No, it’s not quite true — but if we go ahead accept responsibility for the outcome anyway, it reframes the situation in a way that puts us back in control of events. We’re no longer helpless underdogs at the mercy of an overwhelming foe outgunning us on every front. Instead — in our own minds, and eventually that of the country — we become the rightful People In Charge, endowed with a clear duty to stand up and put a stop to it.

The conservatives adopted this “we accept responsibility for the mess, and are thus in charge of cleaning it up” stance early on. They believed they owed it to God, the country, and their grandchildren to seize the reins of power and call a halt to the liberal onslaught. This belief has been central to keeping their troops engaged through 30 years of hard fighting — and it also mentally prepared them to move briskly into leadership when they finally started winning.

Know your enemy

Huebeck advised conservatives to “know more about the history of the left than any leftist, and be ready to beat liberals in any debate” — preferably by knowing so much that you can easily make them look foolish.

This advice has been mostly honored in the breach, which isn’t surprising when you consider how few serious scholars there are in the conservative world. (Buckley’s gone; and David Brooks and Bill Kristol couldn’t fill his shoes with all four feet.) Most of us have run into smart conservatives who’ve read Marx and Mill and Bentham and can debate their ideas; but a ridiculous amount of their so-called scholarship has been more along the lines of Jonah Goldberg’s Through-The-Looking-Glass rantings in Liberal Fascism. And their rhetorical skills — which rely largely on being able to out-scream people on cable talk shows or simply deny the existence of contrary facts — aren’t up to left-wing standards of proof, either.

Which means that it’s not all that hard to beat them, especially with that big steaming pile of conservative failures to point to. And every time we can humiliate a conservative in public by exposing their worldview as a barrel of hateful, immoral bilge, we win another small battle.

Master the mass media

“The ideas of the masses never come from the masses,” wrote Huebeck. “The most important thing any movement can do is capture the imagination of the people. One must give them dreams and ideas that have been put in terms they understand, and touch their hearts as opposed to their rational minds. If we cannot capture the imaginations of our members, then we cannot expect our members to make great sacrifices for us.”

To this end, conservatives have tried (with varying degrees of success) to produce movies, songs, radio, TV, and other popular culture products promoting their worldview. The religious conservatives have been so stunningly successful at this that you can now live your entire life in America, cradle to grave, watching nothing but conservative Christian TV, reading Christian books, using Christian school curricula, and listening to Christian radio stations. Tens of millions of Americans now live inside this cozy media bubble, where everything that fills their eyes and ears affirms their religious worldview, and nothing ever interferes to disturb it with unsettling questions.

Fortunately for us, apart from that seamless Christian cocoon, the only truly mass media that conservatives really seemed to have a flair for were talk radio and war movies. They really wanted to take over Hollywood, and are actively looking to grow their own Michael Moore-type documentarians, but neither effort has gone very well.

That’s because most American media professionals — including the best creatives — almost all skew toward the progressive side. The conservatives fully understand what that means, and they openly envy us these talented treasures. We’d do well not to underestimate their value, and to keep pioneering new outlets through which they can put their skills to work telling the progressive story.

Don’t be afraid to be obnoxious

“The thing we have most to fear is that we will be ignored….Complacency only serves the interests of our opponents,” wrote Huebeck. “We must be willing to take measures that perhaps we would be unwilling to take under different, more ideal circumstances. We will have standards — we will never try to justify dishonesty, destruction of the personal reputation of our opponents, cheating, assault, etc…..however, we will not consider ourselves above appearing “unseemly” or surrendering some of our personal dignity…Which means being obnoxious if the situation requires it.”

This just explains so much, doesn’t it? From the get-go, the conservatives weren’t afraid of making total public asses of themselves (which is why they do it so often — and on such a grand scale). They figured out early that bad publicity was better than no publicity; and that at least some of the voters would soon realize that anyone willing to look like that much of an idiot must really have the strength of his or her convictions. Not only does being an obnoxious blowhard make you fearsome at school board meetings and garner stratsopheric ratings on talk radio; there’s also a certain martyrdom value in being harassed and ridiculed by the media for having the courage to stand on principle.

I don’t doubt that Weyrich borrowed this idea from the civil rights movement. Civil disobedience — which always involves making a public nuisance of yourself in the name of a higher good — is an old progressive idea. Old-style protests are a dying tactic; but the larger theme of boldly and fearlessly standing down conservatives, even when it might scuff up our dignity, is coming due to be resurrected and re-worked by a fresh generation.

Don’t be afraid to talk about morality

“‘Sensible’ people do not go to the barricades, do not make great sacrifices for a movement,” wrote Huebeck and Weyrich. “We need more people with fire in the belly, and we need a message that attracts those kinds of people. We must reframe this as a moral struggle, as a transcendent struggle, as a struggle between good and evil. And we must be prepared to explain why this is so. We must provide the evidence needed to prove this using images and simple terms.”

The way progressives talk about morality is one of the salient differences between the 2004 and 2008 elections. Somewhere in those four years, we’ve begun to find our moral voices — and are using them to tell stories that the country is strongly responding to.

Liberals are not, as the conservatives are wont to paint us, immoral. We believe in family, community, prudent budgets, and that America should be a force for good in the world. We think torture and pre-emptive war are wrong. We believe in equal justice and equal opportunity. And we believe that the planet’s ecosystems and the survival of humanity are more important than any amount of profit. Those are intensely moral stances that, taken boldly, draw the majority of Americans to our side.

Beyond that: America’s moral high ground rightfully belongs to progressives. It was progressive morality that formed the nation and fought the revolution. It freed the slaves, fought back the robber barons, unionized workers, ended the Depression, and won World War II. The conservatives have, on occasion, wrenched it out of our hands for couple decades here and there; and the results have invariably been a disasterous betrayal of our core values. This last time, they did it by promoting their own idea of “morality” — packaging it in a worldview that, ironically, opened the door to unprecedented amorality and lawlessness.

It’s time for us to seize back the moral high ground– but it won’t happen unless we overtly step up to fill the void and articulate a clear and specific moral vision to replace the decadent conservative worldview. Both Democratic candidates are doing a strong job of this — for now. But we can’t afford to stop talking this way when the campaign is over. The conservatives embedded their moral stance in every message they conveyed to Americans, regardless of the medium or the political cycle. Morality was central to every aspect of their communications strategy, and did much to cement their worldview in the public mind. We need to be equally scrupulous in expressing all of our ideas in the context of the larger progressive morality that drives them, without exception and without fail.

Don’t be afraid to use social intimidation as a weapon

“We must be feared, so that they will think twice before opening their mouths. They must understand that there is some sort of cost involved in taking a ‘controversial’ stand….we will be able to take some of the trendiness out of leftist cultural activism, because lukewarm advocates of leftist causes will be forced to actually get their hands dirty. Support of leftist causes will no longer be the path of least resistance.”

The conservative letter-writing campaigns really got rolling sometime in the mid-70s. Any time an article appeared in any paper — from the Sunday Suburban Shopper to the New York Times — that could be construed to disparage conservative values or conservative leaders, editors were deluged with cranky letters accusing them of bias, closed-mindedness, lack of professionalism, and worse. It was a blatant effort at operant conditioning, and it worked: within a few years, there wasn’t a newspaper editor in the country who didn’t develop a visible, involuntary twitch at the very thought of printing something that might reflect badly on conservatives.

That was a deliberate social intimidation campaign, and it played a large role in creating the right-wing media bias we’re working against today. And the intimidation was everywhere, to the point where many other Americans who didn’t really agree with the conservative agenda went along with it anyway because they didn’t want the trouble these people could dish out. A right-wing whispering campaign could tank a small business, ruin a reputation, put an end to a career. The Dirty Fucking Hippies slander was another social intimidation attempt, this one aimed at silencing an entire generation of liberal voices.

Two generations of Americans have internalized the “don’t-piss-off-the-wingers” lesson all the way down to their bones. They may not like the right-wingers — but they sure as hell don’t want to be on their bad side.

We are, quite frankly, not that mean — and it goes hard against our grain to intimidate people into doing our bidding. But we progressives could stand to get much, much more assertive about pushing back against this long siege by defending our own boundaries, standing up for our own dignity, and demanding that people present our ideas fairly and accurately. After all, nobody else is going to take us or our positions seriously until we learn to carry ourselves like powerful people worthy of their careful respect. We don’t have to be overtly intimidating; but it wouldn’t hurt for people to think twice before messing with us.

The good news on the media front is that our own letter-writing campaigns are now underway. Eric Boehlert at Media Matters points out that the AP got over 15,000 letters last week protesting the unprofessionalism of Nedra Pickler’s recent article parroting Republican talking points about Obama’s alleged lack of patriotism. Most of the letters were generated by Firedoglake’s brand-new tool that makes it easy to target local papers for e-mail complaint (and praise) campaigns.

But demanding respect from the media is just one step. We need to get not just good, but reliably great, at insisting on being treated with dignity and fairness on every front. The conservatives have had a good time for the past 30 years being the national political bully. It’s time to step up and give that bully the facedown he deserves.

We are Just Cooler Than That

One of the biggest problems the early conservatives faced is that they were the straight, hopelessly out-of-it dweebs in a decade that valued Cool above everything. Weyrich, in another brilliant stroke of memetic Aikido, found a way to take this disadvantage and turn it into an enormous asset.

As Huebeck explains it, conservatives remedied this by taking on an added veneer of sophistication. “We must make it clear that we are seceding from modern life not because we are unable to cope with modern life, but because we are superior to modern life. We understand popular culture — we get it — we simply find it empty and meaningless.”

The Young Republicans of the early ’80s declared that they were the New Coming Thing, a counter-counterculture that offered a stinging critique of the 1960s Cultural Revolution. They declared that they old rebels and their anything-goes value system were exhausted and bankrupt; and announced that they were the New Rebels come to supplant a tired old order. Their clean-cut morality and real-world pragmatism served as irrefutable proof that they were, quite simply, Cooler Than The Rest Of Us.

It was a ridiculous conceit, but it worked. A large swath of Gen X, annoyed by Boomer excess and looking for change, were more than ready to sign on the more “pragmatic” conservative agenda; and their votes helped fuel the Republican takeover. The whole definition of “cool” made a similar generational shift. “Cool” wasn’t Peter Fonda in Easy Rider any more. “Cool” was scheming Ferris Bueller, ambitious Alex P. Keaton, and Melanie Griffith’s spunky Working Girl. “Cool” was an Armani suit, a Hermes tie, and a Harvard MBA.

But “Cool” is also a sword that cuts two ways. Progressives can easily adopt this same skeptical, above-it-all stance to launch a scathing critique of corporate greed-is-good culture. Supply-side economics? Unregulated markets? CEOs as cultural heroes? Yeah, we understand corporate culture — we get it — but we are sooo over it. It’s just so 1988. It’s empty and meaningless, and we (and all the other cool kids) are heading out toward something better. If you’re really cool, you’ll ditch that tie, find a job in sustainability, and come along with us. Because we’re the ones who own the future now.

In the third and final piece in this series, we’ll look at the specific ways that the conservatives took their ideas and their messages out into streets, and made themselves into a truly mass movement.

PART III:

Part III: How Did Conservatives Convince the Public to Think Differently About Government?

Part III of a series exploring how conservatives took their worldview to the streets, undermining long-held views about government and society.

The conservative worldview has succeeded so wildly — and is still holding such tenacious sway over the ways Americans approach their current stack of problems — because the conservatives started out 30 years ago with a focused plan that put promoting their model of reality at the center of every other action. Over the past two posts, I’ve been mining the specific strategies that early planners like Paul Weyrich used to advance the conservative worldview, in the hope that we might gain some insight that will help us engage them directly on this deepest, most important territory.

Progressives will not be able to implement their vision of the future until we’re able to supplant the conservative worldview with our own. We won’t win until we take control of the discourse, offer Americans new ways to make meaning and evaluate and prioritize events, and get them to abandon conservative assumptions about how reality works.

I’d like to thank Bruce Wilson at Talk2Action again for turning me onto Eric Huebeck’s 2001 document that summarized, updated, and refocused the original Weyrich strategies. In this final piece, we’ll look some of the specific ways the conservatives structured their campaign to take their worldview to the streets, and ultimately replaced long-held democratic assumptions about government, economics, and society with the deadly and wrong-headed assumptions that now drive the thinking of the entire nation.

Capture Cultural Institutions

Thanks to David Brock, Joe Conason, Chris Mooney, Michelle Goldberg, and many others, more and more of us are becoming aware of the ways that conservatives have quietly moved in to take over almost every public and private institution in America. From churches to university faculties to public broadcasting to the Boy Scouts, the vast network of institutions that once taught people how to live in a liberal democracy and reinforced those values across society has been shredded to the point where it no longer functions. In its place is a new network of institutions — some of them operating within the co-opted shells of the old ones, others brand new — that reinforce the conservative worldview at every turn.

This takeover of the very insitutional fabric of the nation was a central part of the conservative plan from the very beginning. Weyrich understood that to change the discourse, you had to capture and control the institutions that were most directly responsible for promoting and sustaining it. And the rising conservatives pursued that goal with a vengeance.

The basic strategy was to build parallel organizations that shadowed the official ones until they could legitimately assume power within their domains. In some cases these were national institutes, professional organizations, formal committees and expert policy groups; in others, they were simply ad hoc groups of conservative citizens who showed up at all the meetings, studied the domain, wrote letters, and eventually became expert in all the same topics and issues the official authorities dealt with. Either way, over the course of a decade or two, there was hardly an influential institution in America that wasn’t operating without a gaggle of conservatives standing by to criticize every decision and thwart every attempt at action.

In some cases, such as government agencies, these self-appointed shadow officials hung around long enough, and demonstrated enough interest and expertise, that they eventually eased themselves into official positions from which they began to enact the conservative agenda. They joined public boards, got themselves appointed to commissions, and inflitrated local offices. In cases where they couldn’t directly take over, they set themselves up as the determined and loyal opposition, acting as political leg weights that hobbled and slowed down every aspect of goverment business for decades on end as they looked for opportunities to press their issues and impose their will. The official policymakers still held sway, but the constant resistance made them far less effective. In time, people would get frustrated with the inaction, and look for other leaders to get the job done. Too often, the people who’d created the resistance in the first place were the first ones tapped to take over.

Massive funding put up by conservative foundations also gave the movement clout over the country’s great non-profits, from which they insinuated themselves into research, health care, social services, education, and the arts. Pressure from investors, advertisers, and avid letter-writers narrowed the range of acceptable narratives in every kind of media. Shadow “professional” groups were established to challenge the basic Enlightenment-era premises of law, medicine, banking, teaching, pharmacy, and other essential professions.

All of this effort was in the service of one goal — to take over these institutions and eventually use them to promote conservative values and worldview. They understood that when you control these institutions, you control the culture — and ultimately, you will also control the very discourse by which everyone inside the culture interprets reality. We’re coming up against the success of this strategy every time a Federalist Society judge comes up for confirmation, every time a hospital refuses to perform abortions, every time the police commission gets a brutality complaint and looks the other way, and every time we try to get a birth control prescription filled.

Huebeck was very clear that none of this about “reform.” He wrote: “We will not reform existing institutions. We only intend to weaken them, and eventually destroy them. We will endeavor to knock our opponents off-balance and unsettle them at every opportunity.” The conservatives knew that of all the various fronts in the war for American hearts and minds, seizing control of the country’s institutional core was is the one that mattered most.

And, unfortunately, we liberals left them to it. Throughout the 1960s, the Boomers had been challenging the authority of the old institutions, which they (often rightly) found stultifying, socially confining, and too often downright criminal. But there was a serious downside to this. When they abandoned the field, they left foundational American institutions (which had been dominated by GI-era rationalists from both parties) wide open for right-wing takeover — and the result is our lives are now dominated by the authority emanating from a new establishment that is far more stultifying, restrictive, and criminal that the 1960s rebels could have ever imagined.

It’s becoming obvious to more and more of us that we will not win until we start taking these institutions back. We’ve made a good start at creating progressive media networks, organizing our own political infrastructure, and defending education at all levels from conservative incursions. We’re having our say in the marketplace, particularly when it comes to agriculture and low-emissions vehicles. Science is not going gently into the ideological good night.

But it’s all just drops in the bottom of a large and leaking bucket. There are vast sectors in which the takeover proceeds unchallenged — and will remain so until we come back with the same pervasive intensity they brought to the job. We need thousands of those same small cadres of dedicated people who make it their business to target one institution, study it, become expert in it, and eventually mount a public challenge to its authority or move in and take it over. We need local MoveOn groups providing those scoutmasters, and local progressive churches taking strong stands against religious right school boards, and teams of local letter-writers who keep our issues on the op-ed pages of the weekly paper. We need professional organizations in every field that stand up to the ideologues and restore the rule of reason. We need to be as pervasive a presence in the life of conservative institutions as they have been in liberal ones.

It took them over 20 years to effect this takeover, so we also need to expect to be in this one for the long haul.

Don’t Trust the Democratic Party

Huebeck noted ruefully that movement conservatives “shot ourselves in the foot by expecting too much from the Republican Party.” It’s a feeling that’s becoming all too familiar to progressives assessing their relationship with the Democrats.

We’re tempted to forget that Progressives are not necessarily Democrats, any more than movement conservatives were necessarily Republicans. In each case, they are a separate movement that often finds its interests in consonance with those of a certain political party. But in both cases, they stand to lose tremendous amounts of power if they allow themselves to become co-opted and turned into an appendage of that party.

In the end, many conservatives — especially the religious right — lost track of that boundary, and forgot to consider their interests apart from the party. Without enough daylight between the two entities, it was easy for the GOP to start taking their Evangelical base for granted. With every passing election, it seemed, the party relied more and more on the religious conservatives for organization, money, and votes — and gave them less and less in return. This year, the conservative churches are in full fury over this betrayal. If the GOP loses, Evangelical disappointment will be at the heart of their defeat.

This is a special problem during election season, while progressives and the party work especially closely together to take back the White House and ensure a Democratic Congress. But, even as we fight the good fight together, progressives need to remember they are not us; and we are not them. Our movement must never forget that its an an entity apart from the Democratic party, with different interests and expectations of a different future. If we allow ourselves to be co-opted by the party, and are diverted into channeling all of our actions into activities that further the Democrats instead of our own progressive agenda, we’ll very quickly end up in the same place Evangelical conservatives are in right now — used, abused, and tossed aside.

It’s basic physics: Holding ourselves at a little more distance gives us extra leverage, forces them to work a little harder for our votes, and ultimately gives us more power to create the changes we seek.

Invest in our own members; grow our own leaders

Political leaders of all stripes like to expand their territory and hoard their power. Weyrich understood that personal empire-building is a selfish indulgence no successful movement can afford — first, because it leads people to put their own interests ahead of the movement, which should never be tolerated; and second, because it stunts the growth of new leaders and inhibits the transmission of leadership skills.

That’s why the early conservatives insisted that leadership should actively seek out leadership talent, nurture it, and groom it to assume power on its own. The more well-trained leaders the movement has, the bigger it can get, the more it can get done, and the faster its agenda will be adopted. Success depends on building a culture in which leaders are evaluated not by how much territory they control, but by the number and quality of new leaders emerging from underneath their wings.

Furthermore, giving people the chance to learn new skills and offering them new opportunities for personal growth is the most powerful way to bond them emotionally, socially, and even economically to the movement. In a time when people aren’t often given the chance to grow to their potential on the job, political work can provide a far more engaging and satisfying outlet for their ambitions. “Every member [must] be given the support to reach his maximum potential,” wrote Huebeck, who also observed that when we raise each others’ personal confidence and skill, it increases the confidence and skill of the movement as a whole.

This was the clause in the plan that launched a thousand wingnut welfare programs, stocked a hundred think tanks, and catapulted countless Young Republicans to positions of real power. But this lesson is far older than that. Earlier progressives understood the role that unions, churches, and civic organizations played in bringing along people who could become local, regional, and eventually national leaders. This isn’t something that happens just inside the Beltway. Finding and grooming emergent talent everybody’s job; and those who do it well have earned their place among our most esteemed leaders.

Ask people to invest in return

Changing the world is not a spectator sport. The early conservatives weren’t afraid to ask their members for incredible investments of time, energy, and money — investments that were essential if their perceived life-or-death struggle for the hearts and minds of America was to be won.

The money, in particular, matters. The conservatives realized that they would need to fund the the early years of their movement themselves until they racked up enough wins to attract foundation support. We progressives are short on corporate white knights; instead, we’ve built our movement on small donations from millions of Americans. Those people are making investments in us — and with every PayPal transfer they send, they are deepening their emotional bonds to our cause.

However, the problem with a lot of progressive fundraising is that it’s too often aimed at winning short-term battles. Pass or defeat this legislation. Win this election. Fund this organization for another year or two. Once that milestone has passed, groups have to conjure a new reason to get people to pony up. Donors figure that the battle’s won, and they can slack off now. Or it wasn’t won, and there’s no point in continuing to give. Either way, it doesn’t take long for donor fatigue to set in.

The conservatives largely avoided that problem by setting out one huge long-range goal that provided the all-in-one justification for an entire lifetime of generous giving. They were in it for nothing less than a total cultural transformation. Every smaller battle was just another step in the long war, which they expected to outlast their lifetimes. The leaders kept up their high expectations that their members would make enormous sacrifices — not just in the early years, but for decades on end until that transformation was complete. Nobody was allowed to slack off — and few wanted to. As the victories racked up and the stakes grew higher, the atmosphere got positively giddy — and the money pile kept getting bigger as people got more and more excited about the movement’s momentum.

We need to remind the progressive donor base that they play the deciding role in a battle that we, too, can expect to be fighting for the rest of our lives — and which will probably be the most important work of all of our lives. As such, we will continue to expect their full support until the job is done. And the more we win, the more we’ll prove that we deserve it.

Think nationally. Organize locally.

The original progressive movements drew on (and helped build up) a vast network of local political gathering places. By the 1920s, there wasn’t a county or town in the nation that didn’t have a permanent progressive hangout — a place where people came together for news, education, organizing, good times, and help when they needed it. Most of these places were union and grange halls; some were civic clubs, Democratic party offices, lodges, churches, pubs, or just some old place the local folks bought and fixed up for their own use.

The collapse of this physical infrastructure is one of the biggest losses we’ve sustained in the conservative attack on American institutions. Even as the country’s last union and grange halls were being emptied out by Republican labor and farm policies, the rising conservative movement was busy building a shadow network of its own. The religious right’s biggest contribution to the cause may have been the ready-made national chain of conservative meeting halls it provided in every small hamlet and burg. Every Evangelical church in the country was a potential nucleus around which a revolutionary cell could form. (Using churches is dicey business, but ministers were taught where the lines were, and the IRS often enough looked the other way. Besides, the broad “cultural transformation” frame meant that a lot of the most important work wasn’t political at all, but rather social and cultural, and therefore entirely appropriate to a church setting.) The GOP money guys still met (as always) at the exclusive downtown and country clubs; but the churches provided a place where conservatives of all classes could gather for social support, education, training, and coordinated local action in service of their revolution.

We’ve suffered mightily by not having that same ubiquitous network of public outposts from which to run our ground game. MoveOn.org has been our biggest boon in re-creating this: it took the lead in using the Internet to help local progressives find each other, and helped them begin to form permanent organizations in remote parts of the country. (Until MoveOn and the Dean meetups brought them together, many rural liberals had spent years believing they were the only ones in town.) The 50-State Strategy is also seeking to correct this, by opening Democratic party offices in as many towns and counties as possible across the country. But, though these are two good starts, we need to stay focused on the task of making sure there isn’t a village in America that doesn’t have a permanent space that progressives can call home. Once we restore our place as an integral part of the country’s physical landscape, becoming a natural and accepted part of its cultural landscape will follow on naturally.

Don’t just talk. ACT.

Huebeck’s definition of political action is pointed and narrow. Action is “1) the subversion of leftist-controlled institutions, or 2) the creation of our own institutions of civil society, whose sole purpose is outreach to, and the conversion of, non-traditionalists.” All action needs to have direct results, and should also deepen the skills of the members who engage in it. And it’s an important way of bonding people to the movement: “Action in the world encourages the identification of the member with, and dedication to the group.”

“For example, we will go to public lectures given by leftists and ask them ‘impolite’ and highly critical questions. We must, of course, be fully prepared beforehand for these sorts of excursions, and we must also be prepared to embarrass ourselves, especially at first,” wrote Huebeck. He also advises local groups to do charity work that will both build esprit de corps and generate good PR. “Bonding with others in one’s generation or society is the means by which values are strengthened and perpetuated. It is vitally important that we bond in such a way that the values perpetuated are our own.”

In other words: Our actions need to be good for the movement’s long-term goal of cultural change; good for the community; good for our group’s reputation; good for our own internal cohesion; and good for us as individuals. It’s an excellent set of criteria, and one that we might want to borrow as a sturdy yardstick for the essential worthiness of every activity we plan.

Concentrate on students and young adults

Conservatives capitalized handsomely on the energy of their youngest members. Weyrich and the rest of the early planners carefully nurtured the small handful of disaffected conservative students remaining on the nation’s campuses. They gave them enormous roles at very young ages, while they still had high enough energy and few enough encumbrances to work crazy hours under insane conditions. They also richly funded conservative college newspapers and journals; granted scholarships to promising students with a conservative bent in law, politics, media, and business; and opened their social and business networks to graduates looking for high-paying work. In a very real sense, they found these kids in their cradles, and promised to look after them to their graves.

They made this investment because they realized that if you get them while they’re young, they’ll stay with you for life. Thirty years later, looking at Washington’s middle-aged conservative True Believers, it’s obvious that this investment in nurturing the party’s most promising young sprouts paid off for them many times over.

We have our moment now, with the vast numbers of young voters who are rushing to the Democrats this election. But the conservative success with an earlier generation of young voters tells us that we need to be very proactive about bringing these kids into the process, giving them some real power and some serious training, and returning their loyalty by attending well to their individual futures using every means available to us. If we want to build a progressive nation that will stand for the next 50 years, it’s not too early to start cultivating solid careers for those who will take over for us when we’re gone.

Be there for each other — especially when the pressure builds

Many of the above strategies — from creating permanent physical structures and solid career paths to establishing reliable internal funding flows — reflects the conservative battlefield mentality. They were determined to be self-sustaining and self-sufficient, beholden to no one in the liberal world. Another piece of this was social independence: Weyrich knew that conservatives had to learn to rely on each other, not the larger culture, for their social and emotional validation.

People creating change take a lot of flak from those profiting handsomely from the status quo. The more you start to win, the stronger and uglier this resistance gets. Movements often crack under this pressure — often when they’re right on the cusp of winning all the marbles, and the opposition is at its most intense.

But the founders of movement conservatism knew that people can withstand almost anything if they have the firm support and acceptance of their peers. They strengthened their followers against this pressure by teaching them not to give two hoots about what the rest of us think. To them, the only people who matter are the ones who believe as they do — the ones they trust to actually have their backs, look after their kids, and throw their bail when the opposition takes out after them with ugly intent.

The changes we seek now will eventually create equally tectonic shifts as we set the country back to right. The money and power is all lined up behind the conservatives; and they’ve already demonstrated their willingness to use it to viciously punish progressives who dare to challenge it.

We will only survive this if we learn to be equally self-sufficient. We cannot care what they think, do, or say about us. We need to make a point of being there for each other when the heat is on, and the cons come after one or another of us, hoping to pick us off. And that kind of defiance comes a lot easier when we make a point of looking to each other for validation, and building bonds of trust that will hold us tightly together when trouble comes.

Don’t Ever Give Up. We’re In This for The Long Haul.

Movement conservatism first started chipping away at the dominant liberal culture in the early 1970s. The strategies in these three articles were largely formulated in the decade that followed; and they’ve been the basic principles governing conservative behavior ever since.

From the very beginning, they realistically viewed their goal of cultural domination as a multi-generational fight. Those who started it didn’t expect to live to see the end of it — and they were right. The people who first plotted strategy and tactics 30 years ago are now passing into death and retirement; their movement is now in the hands of a carefully-nurtured second generation, and a third is already coming of age. The humiliations of the Bush era are sending them back to their local gathering spots to take stock and regroup; but just because they vanish from the scene for a few years, we mustn’t ever delude ourselves that they’ve finally gone away. They will be back — and, no doubt, their comeback will be largely constructed out of these same strategies.

Weyrich and Huebeck warned the faithful about just these kinds of setbacks. “We will not hunker down and wait for the storm to blow over. Our strategy will be to bleed this corrupt culture dry.” They told conservatives that good efforts and good intentions count for nothing, because losing is not an option for them. “The real question is: if the fight is winnable, why have we not won it? If it is not, why are we diverting our efforts elsewhere?”

It’s one last thing to bear in mind, a final challenge from the conservative movement’s master strategists. If the fight is winnable, why have we not won it? If it is not, then why are we diverting our efforts elsewhere? This struggle for America’s heart and soul and mind has gone on from the beginning, and it will never end. Being progressive means committing our entire lives to the work of promoting America’s founding Enlightenment worldview, building a thriving movement that will outlast us, and raising up people who will carry on when we’re gone. As long as conservative culture warriors are out there trying to undermine the very model of reality that defines American democracy, we’re going to need to be out there resisting their incursions and reminding the country why that foundation matters. We, too, are in this for the long haul.

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