Building the Countermovement

Election '04

"The ability to defeat the enemy," writes Sun Tzu in The Art of War, "means taking the offensive." For far too long, progressives have been on the defensive against the surging conservative movement. In order to stem the conservative tide and to win the hearts and minds of Americans, progressives need to go on the offensive and develop a commonsense countermovement with a quick ramp-up, long-term resolve, and sufficient resources reaching far beyond the 2004 election.

To accomplish this goal, progressives should look to the architecture of the conservative movement, which according to the founder of the Heritage Foundation, Paul Weyrich, was built on "the four M's: mission, money, management and marketing." While each of these factors has played a critical role in the ascendancy of the conservative movement, perhaps the most important is marketing.

To understand the role of marketing, think of policies as the products in "a marketplace of ideas" and public opinion polls as indicators of consumer preference. Polls consistently show that the majority of Americans are more closely aligned with the Democratic Party on the issues than they are with the Republican Party. Yet today twice as many Americans identify themselves as conservatives than as progressives.

How to explain this seeming paradox? Usually the preferred, or superior, product wins out in the marketplace, but not always. An inferior product can dominate with superior marketing. And this is precisely what has happened in American politics: Conservatives offer less desirable, inferior policies, but dominate through superior marketing.

There are four primary aspects of marketing to consider: There's the building of a brand identity; there are products, which in the marketplace of ideas are policies and positions; there's promotion, or how you "name and frame" your policies; and finally there's placement, or the distribution channels used to reach the consumer.

Competitive Advantages and Untapped Resources

A progressive movement should be built on the four M's, plus one more M, mobilization. Progressives need to think strategically and long-term, like conservatives, while drawing upon their unique, competitive advantages and untapped resources.

In terms of competitive advantages, Americans not only prefer the positions and policies of the Democratic Party, but according to Ruy Texeira and John Judis, coming demographic shifts will also favor Democrats. Hundreds of advocacy organizations already exist that can be linked and coordinated by building infrastructure. Mobilization has always been the domain of left, and with the point-and-click activism pioneered by, progressives have the technological edge as well.

At least in part, conservatives' monetary advantage can be offset by the vast, and largely untapped, progressive creative community, which includes a line-up of potential celebrity spokespeople for progressive issues that would literally make Madison Avenue weak at the knees. While at once building Air America, News World International and other dedicated distribution channels, progressives should use their wits and their wit and aim for the networks, primetime, and mainstream entertainment and media.

Of course, having the truth on your side doesn't hurt, and a cadre of media-savvy, progressive spokespersons must be developed to vociferously counter conservatives' disinformation, character assassination and spurious statistics. But the truth alone is not enough. Progressives must communicate, and market, who they are and what they stand for, to win the hearts and minds of a majority of Americans.

Marketing: Building a Progressive Identity

The ultimate counter to the conservative movement is a progressive movement. Why progressive and not liberal? The word "progressive" frames the conservative movement for what it truly is: a regressive, backward movement. As its antithesis, it contrasts conservatives, who are stuck in the past and seek to resist change, with innovative, forward-looking progressives.

Consider the implications of the progressive frame on the war on terror. Conservatives missed the 9-11 threat because they were "preserved in amber," as Richard Clark put it, obsessed with Cold War thinking. The terrorist threat that America faces post-9-11 requires a modern foreign policy paradigm. The solution to a network of global terrorists that reaches across international borders lies in transnational networks and cooperation, not in regional Cold War models, alienating allies, and inflaming antagonisms.

Similarly, the progressive frame exposes conservative domestic policies for what they truly are: a rollback of the gains and progress that America has made over the past century.

In looking at the voting records of members of Congress since the 1790s, sociologist G. William Domhoff found that by and large, conservatives have generally opposed all of the progressive changes in American history, such as voter rights, worker protections and civil rights. These significant progressive achievements, gains in equality, and an expansion of the basic rights that most of us consider central to American values, are today taken for granted by the right and the left alike. It is these very strides that today's conservatives seek to undo.

However, the glorious times of yore that conservatives long for are not ones that most Americans would care to relive. Think of Trent Lott who waxes nostalgic for the good ol' days of segregation. Or Newt Gingrich who wrote a fictional book on the Civil War, in which the Confederacy beats the Union at Gettysburg. Or Ann Coulter who said in an interview with the Guardian (UK) that America would be better off if women never got the right to vote. Or the free market absolutists who long for the elimination of all regulations, creating conditions like those during the Industrial Revolution when workers had no rights, no benefits, and worked 18 hour days, and corporations churned poisons into the environment at will.

A progressive movement stands as the antithesis to this backward conservative thinking. Progressives are framed as positive, innovative and forward-looking, and conservatives as out of touch and "preserved in amber."

Product: Progressive Policies

Progressives share a common set of values. According to cognitive linguist George Lakoff, these values center on our children's future: their health, their prosperity, their education, and the environment, as well as the global situation that they inherit. From the pilgrims on the Mayflower to our newest waves of immigrants, for more than 300 years, people have come to America to give their children a chance at a better life.

Securing that future through forward-looking policies, bold vision and political reform is the mission that unites progressives. To this end, progressive issues include everything from quality public education, to global warming, to a healthy and poison-free environment, to energy independence, to healthcare and wellbeing, to economic opportunities, to safety and security, to federal deficits.

This last issue -- deficits -- marks a major departure from the perception of the liberal Democratic Party. Progressives are concerned with exorbitant, structural deficits because they represent the debt that our children and grandchildren will inherit. This shift also reflects the reversal in ideology of the two parties that has transpired over the past twenty years. Progressive Democrats have become the party of fiscal responsibility and "conservative" Republicans have become the party of the "credit-card conservatives," with all three of the Republican Administrations in the past quarter century running record deficits and former deficit hawks becoming deficit apologists.

Finally, and most important for long-term sustainability, progressives must address campaign finance reform. It's time to end the preferential treatment of big business and parasitic lobbyists in Washington. America's broken campaign finance system is rigged for corporate special interests and Republicans to win the game, with lobbyists throwing just enough to Democrats to keep them in a game where the fix is already in.

If action generally comes about through self-interest, and a win-win is said to come about when the self-interested thing to do is also the right thing to do, then this is the ultimate win-win for the Democratic Party. Millions of disaffected Americans never bother to vote and a Harris Interactive poll found that a whopping 87% of Americans believe that big corporations have far too much power and influence in Washington.

Progressive reformers can potentially appeal to those Americans who identify themselves as Independents (39%) and the millions of disaffected nonvoters. By becoming the leading advocate of sweeping campaign finance reform, the Democratic Party will bring in new voters, strengthen their coalition and ensure their self-preservation over the long-term.

While conservatives are stuck in the past, seek to resist change, and favor short-term political and economic gain over long-term solutions, progressives represent the future and embrace progress, innovation, and policies that ensure a brighter future for all. Democrats must clearly and effectively communicate the progressive agenda, while distinguishing themselves from today's conservative Republicans at every turn.

Promoting Progressive Ideals

In our modern information era, we all suffer from information overload and Karl Rove and Team Bush recognize this. They have figured out that what you say is often more important than what you do. By no means should progressives play the same insidious game of double-speak as does the Bush Administration, but Democrats must recognize that "naming and framing," what you say and how you say it, is vitally important. Rather than "elevating the policy dialogue," Democrats need to use plain-speak and frame issues in ways that resonate with the majority of Americans.

The conservative brand has been successfully built and promoted around powerful, yet simple, connotations of patriotism, strength, down-home values and righteousness. Progressives should promote their ideals around these same fundamental pillars. They should launch a "progressive patriots" campaign and redefine what it means to be patriotic. As George Lakoff suggests, progressives should campaign "to make America strong again" both at home and abroad. The Democratic Party should position itself as the defenders of the people to the GOP's guardians of the powerful, by vowing to end the stranglehold of corporate special interests and lobbyists over our democracy.

Equally important is a strong moral vision for America. As the Right has successfully co-opted morality and religion and framed morality as exclusively the politics of personal moral conduct, Democrats have given up talk of moral issues in a country where 50 percent of people report attending religious services weekly or almost weekly. Yet in so doing they have forgotten that President Kennedy spoke of civil rights as "a moral issue" and that moral framing was behind President Johnson's "War on Poverty." It was Teddy Roosevelt who said, "Conservation is a great moral issue, for it involves the patriotic duty of ensuring the safety and continuance of the nation."

Progressives must realize, as Lakoff points out, that all politics are moral. The Democrats must once again embrace moral politics and reshape the debate around what kind of nation America wants to be. Does America want to be the kind of nation that, as Ronald Reagan used to say is a "shining city on a hill," or the kind of country that disregards our allies, abandons global treaties, and breaks international law? Does America want to be kind of country that is ruled by greed and self-interest and lets millions of children go hungry, or the kind of nation that gives people who work hard and play by the rules a helping hand when they are in need? These are the kind of moral questions that Democrats need to bring back into the discourse.

Management and Resources

In the winner-take-all, two-party American electoral system coalition building is essential. The positive and forward-looking progressive ideology -- the promise of a better future for all Americans -- offers Democrats the opportunity to win the hearts and minds of a majority of Americans and to build a strong, broad, cohesive coalition.

In terms of infrastructure, a multi-tiered strategy can link public interest organizations, the DNC, candidates and a cadre of spokespeople and media-trained policy experts from progressive think tanks, all reinforcing progressive positions and messages, while retaining their autonomy. A permanent coordinating body, outside of the Democratic Party, can serve to manage these ad-hoc relationships and coalitions.

Adequate resources will also be vital far beyond the 2004 election. Giving by some left-leaning foundations can be reshaped around the model outlined in the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy's report "Axis of Ideology." While grassroots e-giving can sustain various organizations and campaigns, progressive patrons, such as George Soros, will be essential to build infrastructure and endowments for think tanks like the Center for American Progress.

Conservatives have what is known in business as the first-mover advantage; they've been at this for more than two decades. To successfully stem the conservative tide, the counter-movement will need a quick ramp-up, long-term commitment, and sufficient resources.

A New Progressive Era for the 21st Century

While at once forward-looking, a progressive movement is also well rooted in the historic tides of reform in America. A century ago, Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson's progressivism was about restoring America's faith in a broken system, giving power back to the people, fighting against the "malefactors of wealth" and political machines, working for environmental preservation and conservation, and creating a system of checks and balances between government and business, with government serving as a steward for the people.

Today, conditions exist that are strikingly similar to those that brought about the progressive era a hundred years ago: the unchecked power and influence of corporations and special interests over government; a transitioning economy; major demographic shifts; the concentration of power and wealth into the hands of a few; the rapid consolidation of business through mergers and acquisitions; concerns about the health and wellbeing of workers; and an urgent need for greater environmental protections.

It may well be that the confluence of these factors is creating the foundation for a major political realignment in America and that given the law of equilibrium and the cyclical nature of history, a new progressive era is upon us. It's time for the Democratic Party to seize the opportunity, to reinvigorate their platform, and to go on the offensive and offer Americans a bold, progressive vision for the future.

Laurie Spivak manages a UCLA research center devoted to the study of civil society, philanthropy, and nonprofit and grassroots organizations and movements. This article is adapted from her forthcoming book, "Counter-movement."

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