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The Right-Wing Express

If you want to know how the conservative message machine was built and what progressives can do to respond, just ask Rob Stein.
 
 
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Consider that the conservative political movement, which now has a hammerlock on every aspect of federal government, has a media message machine fed by more than 80 large non-profit organizations – let's call them the Big 80 – funded by a gaggle of right-wing family foundations and wealthy individuals to the tune of $400 million a year.

And the Big 80 groups are just the "non-partisan" 501(c)(3) groups. These do not include groups like the NRA, the anti-gay and anti-abortion groups, nor do they include the political action committees (PACs) or the "527" groups (so named for the section of the tax code they fall under), like the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, which so effectively slammed John Kerry's campaign in 2004.

To get their message out, the conservatives have a powerful media empire, which churns out and amplifies the message of the day - or the week - through a wide network of outlets and individuals, including Fox News, talk radio, Rush Limbaugh, Oliver North, Ann Coulter, as well as religious broadcasters like Pat Robertson and his 700 Club. On the web, it starts with TownHall.com

Fueling the conservative message machine with a steady flow of cash is a large group of wealthy individuals, including many who serve on the boards of the Big 80.

Rob Stein has brilliantly documented all of the above in "The Conservative Message Machine Money Matrix," a PowerPoint presentation he has taken on the road across the country, preaching to progressives about the lessons that can be learned and the challenges that need to be overcome.

In the face of all the conservatives have assembled, Stein is nevertheless still optimistic, in part based on what he saw as promising, unprecedented levels of collaboration among progressives leading up to the 2004 election. But he emphasizes, there is much to do. "We, of course, continue to have far more challenges than answers or enduring capacities," Stein says. "Indeed, everything that happened in 2003-2004 can best be described as a 'stirring,' not a solution. We have miles to go before we have built a strategic, coordinated, disciplined and well-financed community of local, regional and national organizations, which collectively can mobilize a majority progressive constituency."

However, "progressives should not emulate what conservatives have done," says Stein, a former activist and chief of staff under Ron Brown at the Commerce Department in the Clinton administration. "Conservatives have built remarkably successful institutions and strategic alliances in the 20th century that presumably are consistent with their values and, we know, are effective in promoting their beliefs.

"Progressives have different values, this is the 21st century, the conservative infrastructure is in place and will continue to grow, and so we have to do it all differently," Stein adds. "We must build from both the ground up and from the top down. We must be technologically sophisticated and new media, narrowcast-savvy. We must build institutions capable of great flexibility to deal with the rapid pace of change in the world. We need a new generation of leaders able to integrate the local/global complexity of the world to manage our institutions in 2010, 2020 and beyond."

Since he left the Commerce Department, Stein worked at the Democratic National Committee, and has been a venture capitalist, specializing in women-owned businesses. His PowerPoint message is particularly aimed at educating people with power, influence and money - the high net worth individuals who can provide the backing to build a progressive infrastructure. After two stunning electoral defeats and the virtual Republican dominance in Washington these days, Stein's message has acquired a new urgency.

Stein says he woke up the day after Election Day in 2002 and realized "we have a one-party state in this country." He decided to figure out how it all happened - how conservatives, despite a healthy majority of Americans opposed to their platform and positions, managed to build an infrastructure and a message machine that is so effective and pervasive.

It Didn't Happen Overnight

The story of the conservative rise that Stein portrays begins back in the early 1970s, when there was panic among conservatives, especially in corporate boardrooms, that capitalism was under serious attack, and something drastic had to be done about it. The National Chamber of Commerce asked Lewis Powell, a former head of the American Bar Association and member of 11 corporate boards, to write a blueprint of what had to be done. The result, says Stein, is one the most prescient documents of our time. The memo lays out the framework, the goals and the ingredients for the conservative revolution that has gained momentum and power ever since. Two months after penning the memo, then-President Richard M. Nixon appointed Powell, a Democrat, to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Powell told the conservatives that they needed to confront liberalism everywhere and needed a "scale of financing only available through a joint effort" focused on an array of principles including less government, lower taxes, deregulation and challenging the left agenda everywhere. The conservative right, starting with seed money from the Coors Brewing family and Richard Mellon Scaife's publishing enterprise, moved forward to implement virtually every element of the Powell memo. It is a story of how the conservatives – in spite of political differences, ego, and competing priorities – were able to cooperate and develop a methodology that drives their issues and values relentlessly.

Starting with just a handful or groups, including the Heritage Foundation, in the early '70s, the conservatives built a new generation of organizations – think tanks, media monitors, legal groups, networking organizations, all driven by the same over-arching values of free enterprise, individual freedoms and limited government.

Stein describes how the message machine works. If Rush Limbaugh wants something on vouchers – it's immediately in his hands; if Fox News' Bill O'Reilly needs a guest to talk about the "death tax," he's got him from one of the think tanks. Stein estimates that 36,000 conservatives have been trained on values, issues, leadership, use of media and agenda development. These are not the elected officials, but rather the cadre of the conservative network. Stein figures that the core leaders of the Big 80 groups he studied are about 2,000 people who make between $75,000 and $200,000 and have all been trained in the Leadership Institute.

The wealthy conservative families that have been the early bread and butter of the movement and continue their support are relatively well known at this point, including Scaife from Pittsburgh, Lynde and Harry Bradley from Milwaukee, Joseph Coors from Colorado; and Smith Richardson from North Carolina. Important networking goes on at the Philanthropy Roundtable, where groups are showcased.

But the key today to keeping the message machine fed is what Stein calls the "investment banking matrix," which includes key conservatives like Grover Norquist, Paul Weyerich, and Irving Kristol, who raise, direct, and motivate. Stein estimates there are about 200 key people who invest an average of $250,000 a year and about 135 of them also serve on the boards of the Big 80 groups

"Each of these groups are 'mission critical,' and they are strategic, coordinated, motivated and disciplined," says Stein, adding that the investment bankers monitor them closely.

And contrary to popular belief among progressives, the conservatives who are part of that machine are of various stripes – far right, neo-conservative, libertarian, evangelical, etc. – but what makes them so successful is they form strategic alliances around common issues they support.

Then there is the conservative media machine, which operated at full power to get George W. Bush re-elected in 2004. Conservatives and their allies were able to magnify their message through a network of right-leaning TV and radio channels, including Rupert Murdoch's Fox News Channel, which provided Bush and Co. with a 24/7 campaign infomercial - for free. Here was a news network with more viewers than CNN and MSNBC combined, constantly repeating, often verbatim, the messages out of the White house and the Bush campaign.

More help for Bush came from the far-less known religious broadcasters. "Under the radar screen, the Christian Church community has created a formidable electronic media infrastructure and now plays a major role influencing public opinion," says Jeffrey Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy. The religious media are producing and distributing "news," commentary and cultural guides, and their reach and influence are undeniable.

As veteran investigative reporter Robert Parry argues, Bush's electoral victory proved that the conservatives have achieved dominance over the flow of information to the American people - so much so that even a well-run Democratic campaign stands virtually no chance for national success without major changes in the media system. "The outcome of Election 2004 highlights perhaps the greatest failure of the Democratic/liberal side in American politics: a refusal to invest in the development of a comparable system for distributing information that can counter the Right's potent media infrastructure," according to Parry. "Democrats and liberals have refused to learn from the lessons of the Republican/conservative success."

The Road Ahead

Now, for the audience hearing Stein's presentation – in the face of such devastating information, and the power of the conservative juggernaut – one might expect that paralysis and depression would set in among the listeners. But in fact the opposite has been happening. The problem is being named. It is visible, concrete, it makes people angry and then determined to act.

And, says Stein, there are "very important lessons" to be learned from the conservative experience over the past 40 years. For starters, progressives must learn to find common ground and set aside some differences they may have. "A movement is built upon 'marriages of convenience' among disparate, but inter-related, strains of a broad coalition which is able to agree upon some core values," Stein believes. "It is okay for there to be disagreement within the family; not everyone will be equally interested in the same set of issues."

Citing the example of the Apollo Alliance, Stein says progressive groups "must develop well-managed, highly effective, issue-focused strategic alliances which transcend their institutional egos and their competitive instincts."

Stein sees reason for hope, citing the progressive momentum and energy evident during the 2004 presidential campaign in groups like the Center for American Progress, AmericaVotes, America Coming Together (ACT) and the Campaign for America's Future.

"However one evaluates the actual performance of these initiatives – and obviously they all have strengths and weaknesses – they represent a new breed of collaborative enterprise," says Stein. "AirAmerica, Democracy Radio, and Media Matters are also important new beginnings. And this is all happening because a highly energized, more strategic community of high net worth individuals made significant new financial commitments to all of these enterprises. This is exceedingly hopeful."

But Stein is a realist as well and believes change will not happen overnight.

"Our major obstacles are atomization, balkanization and minimalization of our grassroots and national groups, our donors and our political operations," Stein adds. "We have very few effective strategic alliances among existing organizations (more this time electorally than ever before); very few organizations with the scale necessary to make a major impact; too few passionately progressive, politically motivated individual donors who know one another and work together; lack of long-term strategic thinking; lack of appropriate and necessary coordination and discipline; to name a few."

Nevertheless, the progressive community has a major asset base, in part developed during the 2004 election – with a good number of donors – at least 50 of whom have given in the $1-10 million level, and a small gaggle of billionaires. The devastating impact of Stein's PowerPoint, in an ironic way, is a good sign, because it gives people, especially donors, a handle on what is needed to move forward.

"A movement must have a diversified funding base of small, medium and large donors," Stein says. "The large donors must have the following attributes: be passionately progressive, intellectually curious, want to be operationally involved in the organizations they fund, willing to work and learn together as a community of donors, be willing to write very large checks every year to the groups they fund, and encourage their family and friends to also invest."

There are a lot of eyes on Stein as he moves forward to build a deeper, more dependable funding base for progressive infrastructure. Stein's effort is called the Democracy Alliance. He describes it as a network of high net worth individuals committed to promoting progressive ideals by investing in strategic, long-term local, regional and national capacity building.

One donor who sits on the board of a progressive foundation and has heard the Stein rap is worried that the "top down" nature of things so painfully obvious in the 2004 election could be perpetuated by Stein and other funding efforts like those of billionaires like George Soros and Peter Lewis. "It is so important to get resources down to the grass roots," says the donor, who wished to remain anonymous. "One of the major failings of these big donors meeting with each other and deciding where all the money should go is they reinforce each other. Where is the fresh thinking? They think one big idea should get all the money or one or two leaders should be the gatekeepers. That is not going to work. Putting all that money in the ACT basket certainly didn't do the trick in the past election, nor will giving it all to Podesta and Center for American Progress help build progressive infrastructure at the local level where it is needed, particularly outside of the Democratic party."

To his credit, Stein says quite clearly that "top down" and "bottom up" together are essential for future progressive success. Only time will tell whether he and his donors are prepared to let go of some of the controls, really get the money out of Washington, and let some roots grow at the local level.

This article is a version of material that will appear in the forthcoming book by AlterNet, "Start Making Sense: Turning the Lessons of Election 2004 into Winning Progressive Politics," edited by Don Hazen and Lakshmi Chaudhry. It will be available in April, published by Chelsea Green Publishing.

Don Hazen is the Executive Editor of AlterNet.