Wake Up, Progressives: The Right Is Ready to Rumble (Our Side, Not So Much)

News & Politics

It's easy to miss the threat of someone who's misinformed, paranoid and more than a little crazy. But when that someone has oodles and oodles of dollars, organizing prowess, and private ownership of a significant book-publishing company and a television network, you'd better watch out.

The fodder for ridicule provided by the weekend's Conservative Political Action Conference gave progressive journalists, including me, the opportunity to have lots of gleeful word fun examining the internecine battles over gay rights and torture, Ron Paul's victory in the presidential straw poll, Ann Coulter's tired act, Glenn Beck's medicine show -- and a host of other madness.

But ridicule is not activism. It makes us feel better, assuring us of our superiority while the other side gathers steam for the fight ahead.

I do not mean to dismiss the work of the many tireless progressive activists engaged in keeping health-care reform alive, keeping progressive media vibrant, bringing feminism to a new generation, or fighting labor's good fight. Nor do I mean to dis the funders and major donors of progressive causes. But unless progressive leaders truly reassess, at an operational and structural level, the organization of the right, I will remain doubtful of our ability to compete at the moment when the right has found a cause around which to unite: hatred of all things Obama.

It wasn't the predictable program at CPAC that brought me to this point: not the panel on the ostensible global warming hoax or the one on "Saving Freedom From the Tax Collectors," or the speeches by U.S. senators calling the president a tyrant and a socialist. I've been covering the right a long time; I'm used to that kind of thing.

No, it was my tour through a seemingly endless exhibit hall that rang my alarm bell -- table after table piled with glossy, slickly produced literature, trinkets and treats. The whiff of underfunding that so often pervades the exhibit halls of progressive confabs was hard to locate here.

I got a bright yellow bag, gratis, emblazoned with the letters 'NRA". Newsmax gave me a deck of Ronald Reagan playing cards (a different Reagan quote on each card).

The Claire Boothe Luce Policy Institute supplied me with a nicely produced date book featuring photographs of the right's leading ladies: Phyllis Schlafly, Bay Buchanan, Ann Coulter, Michelle Malkin, all shot specifically for that calendar in a kind of uniform of white shirt and jeans (except for Phyllis, who wore a skirt).

From Let Freedom Ring, I picked up a high-quality black bumper sticker with the word "ARROGANT" printed in white, except for the "O", which was replaced by the logo of the Obama for President campaign.

It's not the goodies on offer in the hall that are the right's treasure, but rather the financial backing the easy dispensing of tchotchkes and nachas represents.

Also prominent in the hall were a number of for-profit companies there seeking new business from conservative groups, whether for Web site design and hosting, campaign organizing or data mining.

Near the front of the hall was Eagle Publishing, the parent company of Regnery Publishing and Human Events magazine. Regnery's authors include Michelle Malkin, Newt Gingrich, Laura Ingraham, and a host of right-wing notables. They have a knack for creating bestsellers, which is not as hard as it looks when you've got a hall that big full of groups willing to buy these books in bulk to give away as premiums for membership and or other purposes.

The man at the booth explained that Tom Phillips, Eagle's owner, had been the publisher of highly successful business newsletters. After making his killing, he sold off that business to focus on the conservative movement by buying up Regnery and Human Events, and several other right-wing publishing properties.

The left has no comparable model -- at least not one on a comparable scale -- for the popularization of progressive publications.

As I strolled on through the hall, my chocolate jones was continually sated by the contents of ubiquitous candy dishes.

And then there was the fun and games, like the opportunity to "sumo wrestle" offered by the Young Americans for Liberty. Had I wanted to, I could have stepped into a kind of air-filled fat suit, donned a helmet, and had at it with the wrestling partner of my choice. (Ann Coulter? You out there?) Outside the exhibit hall, Stephen Baldwin's XPAC offered a lounge with Wii, treats, and the only high-speed internet in the Marriott Wardman Park Hotel, where even Tweeting from the media room was a challenge.

Apparent throughout the conference was a concerted push by right-wing groups to bring in young people, and they're doing a pretty good job at it. There were a lot of young people at CPAC; nearly half of the 2,400 who voted in the conference's straw poll were college students, which accounts for the success of Ron Paul, the libertarian congressman from Texas, in the poll's ranking of potential presidential candidates. (Conference officials estimate that some 10,000 people attended some portion of CPAC.)

At the panel, "Saving Freedom from the Hoax of Global Warming," a special pitch was made to college students to "confront" the leadership of their schools for perpetrating the "hoax." Then, hockey sticks provided by the Commonwealth Foundation were offered the students to take back to the campus, presumably for the confrontation. The sticks are inscribed with the slogan, "MANN-MADE GLOBAL WARNING: WHY WE SHOULD BE MORE WORRIED ABOUT THE INTELLECTUAL CLIMATE." (The "Mann" in the inscription is Michael Mann, the scientist of climate-gate fame.)

Throughout the conference, there were special youth-targeted events. In the exhibit hall, a quick pass yielded a treasure trove of college-focused literature from the likes of the Alliance Defense Fund, Students for Liberty, Young Americans for Liberty, the Young Americans for Freedom, and a very jazzy-looking booklet, complete with CD-ROM, for elders called, "Reaching Millennials" from Focus on the Family Action.

If there's anything I've learned from my years of reporting on the right is that they're in it for the long haul. They're never simply looking for the next big win; they're looking for ways to secure power over time. That's why they appear so undaunted by momentary failure. They always know that they'll be back.

On the progressive side, we tend to play for the next victory, not on a generational time scale. The difference is reflected in the very structure of the institutions we build.

We need to think differently -- to plan for progressive victories that we ourselves may not live to see. And we need somebody to buy us a television network -- and a commercial publishing house.

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