Laurie Spivak

The Conservative Marketing Machine

The Armstrong Williams story that surfaced last week is unquestionably a juicy one: the conservative, African-American commentator was paid a sweet $240,000 (in taxpayer dollars), by the Department of Education to promote President Bush's No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation. Ketchum, a public relations firm, served as the intermediary, contracting with Williams to promote the controversial law in op/ed pieces and on his nationally syndicated television show "The Right Side," to urge other black journalists and producers to "periodically address" NCLB, and to interview Education Secretary Rod Paige for radio and television spots promoting the legislation.

Does Ketchum PR sound familiar? If it does, it's because these are the good folks who brought America Karen Ryan last year. Remember Karen? "In Washington, I'm Karen Ryan reporting." She was the PR hack who posed as a reporter back in early 2004 to tout President Bush's Medicare reform plan in fake news spots paid for by taxpayer dollars. In May, 2004, the nonpartisan General Accounting Office investigated the Medicare spots and determined that they were illegal because they violated a ban on publicly funded "covert propaganda." Lest a little thing like legality stop this administration, Karen Ryan surfaced again in October in her latest fake news story touting another of President Bush's programs just in time for the election – you guessed it – No Child Left Behind.

In looking at the Williams scandal, there is certainly no shortage of story angles to choose from. There is the classic hypocrisy angle, on full display in one of Williams' articles dated May 24, 2004, with the headline "The Big Education Sell Out" next to a grinning photo of the journalist. In the article, Williams – incidentally, a former aide to Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas – criticizes the National Education Association (NEA) for caring more about "massaging the perception" of the public than about kids because of the union's opposition to No Child Left Behind. Classically satirical stuff from a guy who was paid a cool quarter million to massage public perception on the highly contentious NCLB legislation, while his own web site promotes him as both "independent" and "a principled voice for conservatives."

Of course, pundits and journalists tend to favor the "breach of journalistic ethics" angle. Williams, who regularly appears as a commentator on CNN and CNBC failed to disclose his $240,000 payoff to either news producers or audiences when touting the failing NCLB program as a sign of President Bush's unwavering support of the black community. While a CNN spokesperson said, "we will seriously consider this before booking him again," Tribune Media Services (TMS), the syndication service that distributed Williams columns to newspapers nationwide, went a step further and terminated its contract with Williams last Friday. According to TMS, Williams wrote at least four newspaper columns on NCLB in 2004, but never disclosed that he was on the Department of Education's payroll. How did Williams explain this egregious breach of ethics? "I am a pure entrepreneur and I made a business decision. I didn't think about my dual role as media pundit and entrepreneur." Williams now plans to self-syndicate adding, "I always feel I can sell my product better than anyone else."

Still, as appealing as these angles are, it's hard to ignore the "misuse of public funds" angle. A program called "No Child Left Behind" under-funded to the tune of about $7 billion a year – in effect leaving more than four million children behind – allocates a quarter of a million dollars in program funds (read taxpayer dollars) to pay a pundit to promote the failing program. Congressman George Miller, the top Democrat on the House Education Committee and co-author of NCLB, characterized the contract with Williams as "a very questionable use of taxpayers' money" that is "probably illegal," due to that pesky ban on using public funds for propaganda. What was the official response? The administration blamed the Department of Education, whose spokesman John Gibbons said that the contract followed standard government procedures, but added there were no plans for "similar outreach." So what's the moral of the story? One man's illegal covert propaganda is another man's outreach.

While each of these angles certainly makes for a tasty scandal story, they are all pieces of a much bigger story, one that is decidedly less delicious, and one that the mainstream media has consistently missed. This isn't just a story about a self-serving pundit "entrepreneur," or the erosion of public trust in the media, or hypocrisy, or using covert propaganda to sell controversial Bush programs like Medicare reform and NCLB, or the misuse of taxpayer dollars, or the undermining of the American people's trust in the public sector.

It is the story of the conservative movement and its well-oiled marketing machine; a packaging and distribution system of ideas that has been shaping American public opinion for more than a quarter century. It is also one of the most important stories behind the 2004 election.

While Democrats are still debating whether John Kerry was likeable enough or whether the Party ought to change its position on gay marriage and gun control, they are failing to see the big picture. What they were up against wasn't a poor debater, his Machiavellian consultant, and a portfolio of privatization policies, but a well-established, conservative movement with media outlets, think tanks, foundations and advocacy organizations as well as a host of pundits, journalists, consultants, and politicians all working collaboratively to advance their right-wing agenda (and many of the latter, like Williams, working the double shift as "entrepreneurs" and getting mighty rich).

While the leaders of the conservative movement like to boast that the power of their movement lies in the power of its ideas, the ideas of today's conservative movement are the same old failed policies from years gone by, spit-shined and with user-friendly names. The power of the conservative movement is not in its ideas, rather it is in the marketing of these ideas, primarily through effective packaging, promotion and distribution.

Take for example the Heritage Foundation, the foremost conservative think tank in America today. Paul Weyrich, Heritage's founder, attributes the ascendancy of the conservative movement to what he calls "the four M's: mission, money, management and marketing." The former director of Heritage's Academic Bank, Willa Johnson, explained: "Dealing with the academic community can be frustrating ... This community lacks marketing. We do that. They have an expertise and they don't know how to get it into channels. Heritage is an institution by which they can do that." What channels? According to Heritage's president Edwin Feulner, "We stress an efficient and effective delivery system [of ideas]. Production is one side; marketing is equally important ... Our targets are the policy-makers and the opinion-making elite ... the public gets it from them."

Indeed, according to the Heritage Foundation's annual report, in the first quarter of 2002, Heritage Foundation "policy experts" briefed three Cabinet secretaries, 33 senators, 48 members of Congress and 164 senior administration officials. That's almost 250 senior policymakers in just three months time. In terms of reaching the "opinion-making elite," as many of Heritage's spokespersons were seen on television in 2002 alone as during the entire 1990s. They appeared on more than 600 television broadcasts, more than 1,000 radio broadcasts, and in approximately 8,000 articles and editorials.

But it's not just the Heritage Foundation that markets conservative policies. William Baroody of the American Enterprise Institute, the first conservative think tank and the second most prominent in the nation, said, "I make no bones about marketing. We pay as much attention to the dissemination of product as to the content." What's more, today with distribution channels like Fox News, Sinclair Broadcast Group, and Clear Channel, conservatives are increasingly marketing their ideas directly to the public.

Armstrong Williams, Karen Ryan and Ketchum PR are all bit players in what is a big budget, major studio production. Even George W. Bush is just one of the actors in this production. The real story here is about the conservative movement and the ways that that movement – primarily through the marketing of conservative ideas – has molded and continues to mold public opinion in America. Conservatives are beating progressives with an effective marketing machine. However, no such infrastructure exists on the left.

While clearly conservatives' tactics (i.e., bribing pundit entrepreneurs and faking news spots) are deplorable, progressives can learn from their overarching marketing strategy. Progressives must frame their ideas in ways that resonate with the American public and disseminate those ideas through a variety of diverse channels in a coordinated effort.

The hopes of the Democratic Party in 2008 rest on one key question: will progressives spend the next four years viewing the world through the same narrow scope of the past, or will they embrace the big picture and see that in order to change the direction of the country, they must effectively counter the conservative movement?

Not On Our Side

"What if the same men who profited from the war had to fight it?" That's the question viewers are asked to imagine as a pudgy corporate executive parachutes from a jet into Iraq, hiding behind his briefcase in the middle of the war zone. A voiceover by Kevin Bacon informs viewers, "Since declaring war in Iraq, companies with close ties to the Bush government have made billions. They're getting rich, our soldiers are putting their lives on the line."

The edgy animated ad, "Who Profits," directed by Wildbrain Animation, appeared on week 8 of MoveOn PAC's 10 Weeks: Don't Get Mad Get Even campaign.

While the GOP is digging deep into its trusty, old bag of dirty tricks this year, progressive organizations are tapping into the artistic community to chart new territory. The ten-week countdown to the election, which started at the end of August, offers a new 30-second ad each week, giving creative license to well-known filmmakers, writers, actors, comedians and artists. The challenge: to reinvent the political commercial.

"There needed to be something fresh in the political ad world," said director and screenwriter Clay Tarver, who along with Jesse Peretz directed a series of "Jimmy the Cab Driver" spots for the MoveOn PAC campaign. The ads, featuring actor Donal Logue as Jimmy, are being unveiled each week alongside the ten 30-second spots in the countdown. "We were very careful about not making them preachy," Tarver said. "There's an art to making a 30-second ad that says something. To be effective, you have to be smart about your comedy."

One of the sharp-witted spots has Jimmy, best known for his musings on pop culture on MTV, saying to his captive taxi passenger, "Hey. September 11. You know, 15 of these characters are from Saudi Arabia. You know, Saudi Arabia. You know a lot of people are saying 'Hey look, al Qaeda, they're in Indonesia. They're in Pakistan. They're in Yemen.' And George Bush is like, 'That's exactly what the enemy is expecting us to do. We're going to Iraq!' You know, they're using their noodle. I would never have anticipated that."

As with other 10 Weeks participants, Tarver and his crew volunteered their time. "I think it was pretty easy for Jesse to crew this project up," says Tarver. "Everyone was willing to volunteer; people are really motivated this year. The choice seems like, for anyone who has access to any of these [media] portals, do you just take what Karl Rove has to say, or do you do something about it?"

Among those in the creative community who like Tarver, Peretz and Logue enthusiastically joined the MoveOn campaign were Matt Damon, Scarlett Johanssen, Kevin Bacon, Rebecca Romijn, Margaret Cho, Woody Harelson, Illeana Douglas and Ione Skye. Directors included Rob Reiner, Benny Boom, John Sayles, Allison Anders, Doug Limon and Richard Linklater. Effectively using their wits and their wit for political advocacy, they wrote, directed, acted in, or did voiceovers for the 10 Weeks spots.

The commercials run the gamut: some speak to issues while others appeal to principles; some use humor and irony to get their message across while others play it straight; some highlight everyday folks while others feature well-known celebrities. The topics range from the war in Iraq to tax cuts to the environment to voter registration. Most of the ads end with the simple message: "George Bush. He's not on our side."

"We chose that tagline because this administration is not on the side of the American people," explained Laura Dawn, MoveOn's Event and Cultural Director. "The idea behind the campaign was that creative commercials could cut through the bad information that people were getting."

The 10 Weeks campaign was announced at the Sundance Film Festival after MoveOn's Voter Fund screened the winning ads from its Bush in 30 Seconds contest. This initial competition, held last fall, invited the general public to develop 30-second spots on President Bush's policies, with the MoveOn Voter Fund airing the best ad on national television to coincide with the President's State of the Union Address. The winner of the nationwide search was Charlie Fisher, an advertising executive from Denver, whose memorable and emotive commercial "Child's Pay" taps into American values by questioning the legacy of debt that we are leaving our children.

Dawn considers this first campaign an enormous success: "We were hoping to get 300 ads, but the response was massive." The contest garnered over 1,500 submissions. Bush in 30 Seconds also provided an avenue for the MoveOn Voter Fund to bring celebrities on board by inviting them to judge the ads, and ultimately helped in the recruitment of artists for the 10 Weeks campaign.

The first of the 10 Weeks ads to be unveiled, "Everybody," was directed by music video and commercial director Benny Boom, and has a strong "get out the vote" message aimed at youth voters and African American voters. Boom says of the ad's voter registration message, "there is power in numbers and in this election everybody needs to get out and do their part." Although "Everybody" was aired on MTV and BET, among others, 10 Weeks is primarily an internet campaign, although MoveOn PAC has been testing the ads and plans to run several in swing states in the coming weeks.

One of the most compelling upcoming ads, "Mistake," directed by Rob Reiner, features George Bush in a press conference in April of this year, when he was asked by a reporter if he had made any mistakes in his presidency. In the infamous footage, Bush stammers, unable to identify a single mistake, but Reiner reminds us that under the President 3.8 million Americans have lost their health insurance, 1.4 million Americans have lost their jobs, and 6,000 Americans have been killed or wounded in Iraq.

Other spots include the earnest, documentary-style ads of director Richard Linklater entitled "A Real West Texan," and of John Sayles who directed "American Opinions." Allison Anders adapts an excerpt from Al Franken's book, "Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them" in a piece called, "The Pie." Charlie Fisher, winner of the Bush in 30 Seconds contest, packs a punch with his new ad on the environment, which features music by Moby. Doug Limon's spot, "The Disappeared," focuses on the disappearance of jobs in America since Bush took office. And the clever "Stranded Republicans" featuring Rebecca Romijn suggests that President Bush has left Republicans behind.

Yet potentially far more significant than the impact of any one of these ads on its own, the 10 Weeks campaign is important as part of a larger trend: helping to make politics and political activism hip. Today artists, directors, writers, actors, comedians, animators, musicians, and designers are involved in the political process in more innovative and far-reaching ways than ever before. Sure there have always been celebrities stumping for politicians, as well as athletes and actors running for office, but the scale and scope of involvement in 2004 is unprecedented.

"Just a year ago, the artists and celebrities who spoke out were getting attacked and condemned. We've helped to move the conversation to a much higher level," said Dawn. "There was also a lot of apathy out there. Our goal was to find new and creative ways to raise awareness and to get the truth to people and we feel like we accomplished what we set out to do. But we still have a lot of work ahead of us."

Dawn reflected, "We are still learning what people respond to and we're beginning to recognize how important cultural and visual signifiers are in elections." She added, "What we were absolutely right about was that people get their information primarily from television and that political ads can have an enormous impact on voters."

While the jury is out as to whether celebrity endorsements have any impact on campaigns, what MoveOn PAC has done, by tapping into the creativity of the artistic community rather than simply trading on celebrity, is clearly groundbreaking. In unleashing the power of the creative sector, which is predominantly made up of progressives, the innovative 10 Weeks campaign begins to draw upon one of Democrats' unique, competitive advantages.

In the long run, the real potential may be to use television and this creative energy, which MoveOn has so successfully harnessed, to speak directly to the American public with a resonance that political ads have never before achieved. The challenge is not only to raise awareness and to speak the truth, but moreover to articulate, promote and bring to life the progressive values that unite us as a nation.

Republican Reality Check

On the day that the Republican National Convention kicked off in NYC, David Brooks, Senior Editor at the conservative Weekly Standard confessed an astonishing thing. In the New York Times Magazine cover article entitled, "The Era of Small Government is Over," Brooks wrote that conservatism's great cause for the past quarter century – small government – is dead and that "American conservatism is undergoing an identity crisis."

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Harnessing Hollywood

Hands down, no one feigns moral indignity better than Republicans. No one. Take for example the recent over-the-top theatrics by the GOP in response to Whoopi Goldberg's comedy routine at a Kerry-Edwards fundraiser, joking that the President's last name happens to be a double entendre.

Fox News, the sister channel of the network that brought America "My Big Fat Obnoxious Fiancé" described the incident as "unseemly," Goldberg's routine as "blue material," and even offered "it was an evening al Qaeda could love." Bush's campaign manager Ken Mehlman called the evening a "star-studded hate fest."

While, as Fox News put it, "Whoopi Goldberg making vulgar puns about her anatomy" is out of bounds, it is apparently perfectly acceptable to have someone accused of groping the anatomy of 16 women, Arnold Schwarzenegger, as the primetime speaker at the Republican convention.

Recall Governor Schwarzenegger's response to the groping charges last year: "I have to tell you that I always say, that wherever there is smoke, there is fire. That is true. So I want to say to you, yes, that I have behaved badly sometimes. Yes, it is true that I was on rowdy movie sets and I have done things that were not right which I thought then was playful but now I recognize that I have offended people."

Take note – in the world of unwavering GOP moral certitude, a world in which things are black or white, right or wrong, and you're either with us or against us – crotch jokes are unacceptable; crotch groping is acceptable.

Is this a case of moral relativism? Cognitive dissonance? Plain old-fashioned hypocrisy? Or perhaps something else is at hand?

Could it be that, when it comes to celebrities, Republicans have to take what they can get? After all, the featured "stars" at the 2000 GOP convention were Charlton Heston, Ben Stein, Ricky Schroeder, Steve Young, Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, one-time Miss Americas Heather Whitestone and Nicole Johnson, and Bo Derek, who was tragically described in the convention's press release as "a film icon." The GOP's celebrity line-up brings to mind that movie "Weekend at Bernie's."

With incredible, if unintended, irony, in the days after the Whoopi whoop-di-do, Republican strategist Leslie Sanchez said, "We know the truth is that every four years a cavalcade of washed-up Hollywood starlets come out of the woodwork to perform and raise money for the Democratic Party." Who is washed up?

A recent Kerry fundraiser in LA was hosted by Scarlett Johansson, Kirsten Dunst, Ben Affleck, and Leonardo DiCaprio, among other hip Hollywood A-listers, and featured performances by Jack Black's band Tenacious D and Dave Grohl of Nirvana and Foo Fighters fame. The Radio City Music Hall fundraiser in question drew Academy Award winners including Paul Newman, Meryl Streep, and Jessica Lange, musicians such as Mary J. Blige and Dave Matthews, and trendmakers like Sarah Jessica Parker.

Don't take my word for it. Back in August 2000 Bill O'Reilly, in an interview with Schwarzenegger, bemoaned the GOP's dearth of star power: "Now, you are one of the few in Hollywood who actively campaigns for the Republican cause. Bruce Willis has retreated. Tom Selleck is now an independent. It's you and Heston, Charlton Heston. You're alone out there."

Perhaps no one understands the power of celebrity more than the GOP, whose modern-day ideological father was an actor, after all. In 1964, Republican George Murphy, of Broadway and Hollywood fame, was elected to serve as Senator, and that same year, actor Ronald Reagan delivered a nationally televised speech on behalf of the GOP's presidential candidate Barry Goldwater. Goldwater lost in a landslide, but the great conservative communicator was born, Republicans saw the power of celebrity, and two years later Ronald Reagan became Governor of California. The rest, of course, is conservative history.

Is caring about celebrities silly and shallow? Does celebrity have a place in the political arena? Ask Bush advisor Vin Weber, who gushed after Schwarzenegger's victory, "People will think, 'If the Republican Party is good enough for Arnold Schwarzenegger, it is good enough for me.'" Or go to the Wall Street Journal's editorial page which squealed about newly elected Governor Schwarzenegger, "He's cool!" praised the GOP for getting "totally wired-in to mega-celebrity," commented on the "sea of young attractive faces" at the Schwarzenegger victory celebration and concluded that "in terms of mass market politics it was as hip as any politician could ever hope for."

What is more, a CBS News Poll in August 2003 found that the majority of Americans believe that "Hollywood celebrities can offer a new perspective on political issues and should get involved in politics if they choose."

Republicans clearly know that celebrity sells. Despite the fact that the vast majority of celebrities are Democrats, the vast majority of those who run for office are Republicans: Ronald Reagan, George Murphy, Sonny Bono, Fred Grandy, Steve Largent, Fred Thompson, JC Watts, Jack Kemp, Clint Eastwood, and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Republicans Kelsey Grammer and Dennis Miller have both openly expressed their interest in running for the U.S. Senate. Former Chicago Bears coach Mike Ditka recently toyed with taking on Barack Obama in the Senate race in Illinois. And did you happen to notice the prominent positioning of quarterback Tom Brady, a Republican with political ambitions, at President Bush's 2004 State of the Union Address?

While publicly railing against Hollywood, the "cultural elite," and celebrity involvement in politics, behind the scenes GOP leaders are working overtime to recruit and promote Republican entertainers, because they understand the power of celebrity. According to this GOP double standard, Republican actors and athletes make great ideological leaders and topnotch candidates, but Democratic celebrities are Hollywood's "cultural elite" and should, as conservative author Laura Ingraham put it, "shut up and sing."

Of course, celebrity doesn't appeal to everyone, especially many older voters, but let's take a look at some facts and figures. The average American adult spends 4 hours watching television each day. 98.7% of all American households have at least one television set and 41% have three or more televisions. In 1989 Coke employed 59 different celebrities, and by 1999 nearly 20% of television commercials featured celebrity spokespeople. Tiger Woods is on track to earn $1 billion in endorsements alone before he turns 40 years old. And George Foreman has sold more than 50 million Salton grills, which means that one in every two households in America has a Foreman Grill. Every year, corporations spend billions of dollars on endorsement deals because celebrity sells.

It's no wonder conservatives like Laura Ingraham want celebrities, the vast majority of whom are Democrats, to shut-up and sing. The whole "Hollywood cultural elite" slag is an intimidation tactic, intended to keep the power of celebrity, which is squarely in the corner of the Democratic Party, out of politics. In an increasingly media-saturated culture, star power may prove the GOP's Achilles' heel.

Yet, in enthusiastically endorsing political novice Arnold Schwarzenegger for Governor of California and in featuring him as the primetime speaker at the Republican convention this year, the GOP is, in effect, legitimizing the role and voice of entertainers in the political arena. With Arnold's admitted "rowdy" behavior with women, his various comments on bodily fluids in "Pumping Iron," and his latest "girlie men" comment (this from a guy who said announcing his candidacy for governor was "the most difficult decision I have made since I got a bikini wax") they are also undermining their position as the defenders of values. Choosing between the traditional values of their base and the mainstream appeal of celebrity, the GOP chose celebrity.

It's dangerous terrain for Republicans, because in terms of star power, as Bill O'Reilly whined, Schwarzenegger's out there alone. He's pretty much their one and only "mega-celebrity," as the Wall Street Journal put it.

If GOP strategist Vin Weber is right, and Americans see Arnold at the convention and think to themselves, "if the Republican Party is good enough for him it's good enough for me," then the GOP may find itself in a world of trouble down the line. After all, if the Democratic Party is good enough for Brad Pitt, Jennifer Aniston, George Clooney, Ben Affleck, Julia Roberts, Paul Newman, Michael Douglas, J.Lo, Robert Redford, Tom Hanks, Gwyneth Paltrow, Leonardo DiCaprio, Kirsten Dunst, et al, then it just might be good enough for a whole lot of Americans too.

The Elephant in the Room

Americans have been ignoring the elephant in the room. It's that huge thing that's in front of everyone, but that no one mentions by name. Most people can't see it, while others intentionally disregard it, but many people just have a hard time articulating what it is.

Even its opponents direct little attention to the elephant itself; at best they tend to describe its various parts. Its ears are deregulation, its trunk trickle-down economics, its mouth media consolidation, its tail a pre-emptive war in Iraq, its legs record deficits, and its feet cutbacks in education, social security, America's safety net, even veterans' benefits.

Yet, by only describing its individual parts, Americans fail to grasp the massive weight and dimension of the elephant. The big picture is obscured. We can't see that what's in front of us is all part of the same beast: failed conservative policies.

Search on Lexis-Nexis for the phrase "failed conservative policies," and you'll turn up a grand total of three articles: two in British newspapers and one magazine article, all referring to the conservative Tories in England.

Now try the same search but replace the word "conservative" with "liberal." You'll find that the phrase "failed liberal policies" has been echoed by a slew of conservative commentators and politicians including Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Newt Gingrich, Bob Dole, Dan Quayle, George Pataki, Rudy Guiliani, Ralph Reed, and Tom DeLay. For more than a decade, "failed liberal policies" has been the conservative revolution's official unofficial mantra.

In 1988 at a rally for George H.W. Bush and Dan Quayle, Ronald Reagan asked his audience, "Do we want to risk going back to the old, failed liberal policies of the past?" to which the crowd in unison responded, "No!" Throughout the rest of the Bush campaign, the phrase made regular appearances on the stump. Then, in the final days before the 1988 election, Bush delivered the wholesale indictment and definitive declaration, "If I win this election, it will be a rejection of the failed liberal policies of the past."

George H.W. Bush did win, but just four years later, after only one term, voters elected to reject Mr. Bush and arguably his failed conservative policies as well. Today, little more than a decade later, voters are being asked to weigh in on the performance of Mr. Bush's son, who according to George Will is the most conservative president in living memory next to Ronald Reagan, "and not second by much." Yet critics of the 43rd President, the second most conservative president in living memory, rarely, if ever, criticize failed conservative policies.

With Republicans in control of the White House and both houses of Congress for the first time since 1952, more than ever, this election is a referendum on not only George W. Bush but on conservative policies. Without any meddling from pesky Democrats, Americans have finally gotten an opportunity to really take conservative policies for a test drive. No sharing of the spotlight, no diffusion of responsibility; at last, conservatives can finally take credit where credit is due.

So how have Americans been faring under conservative policies these last couple of years?

Let's start with the basics. Conservatives turned a $127 billion budget surplus into record-shattering deficits with reckless tax cuts; in 2004 alone, the deficit is expected to reach $500 billion. Poverty is on the rise with more than 34 million Americans living below the poverty line, including 12 million children. As for the first job-loss recovery since the Great Depression, it's an "upside down recovery" according to the Center for American Progress, meaning that corporate profits have risen at the expense of wages and employment. At the same time the costs of housing, gas, and medical care have all surged by double digits, not to mention that 20 million working Americans have no health insurance. Conservatives' answer? Not surprisingly, Washington's one-trick ponies call for more tax cuts for the rich. More of the same failed conservative policies.

The WMD-less war in Iraq has become a seemingly inextricable quagmire with taxpayers spending about three dollars on Iraq to every one dollar spent on our own homeland security. Now over a year out from the start of the war, the Pew Research Center's Global Attitudes Project finds that America's image has plummeted across the world. But the icing on the cake? Former General Anthony Zinni recently said that the war in Iraq has not only undermined the war on terror, it has actually made us "far less safe." Despite these concerns, a White House memo leaked to the Washington Post last month reveals plans for $1 billion in cutbacks to Homeland Security in 2006 – cuts needed to pay for those tax cuts. Sure enough, more of the same failed conservative policies.

A Pentagon report states that global warming "should be elevated beyond a scientific debate to a U.S. national security concern." Salmon is loaded with cancer-causing PCBs and chickens are rife with arsenic, both from feed approved by the FDA. Earlier this year, the EPA warned children and women of child-bearing age to avoid eating tuna because it contains dangerously high levels of mercury from industrial pollution from coal-fired power plants; mercury is known to cause brain damage in infants and children. All the while conservatives are chanting the tired old mantra of "more deregulation," gutting the Clean Air Act, and promoting "voluntary compliance" by industry, not only doing away with regulations but also decreasing the number of public guardians who enforce compliance. Predictably, we see the results of more of the same failed conservative policies.

In 2005, states' deficits are expected to exceed $35 billion, in part the result of two decades of "devolution," forcing almost every state in the nation to make drastic cutbacks. Last January in Alabama, public schools ran out of money for textbooks, state troopers were cut back to a four-day work week, and plans were made to release 5,000 nonviolent felons from prison in the coming year. In Oregon, some schools shut their doors a month early, courthouses went to a four-day week, and thousands lost prescription drug coverage. Conservatives responded with multi-million dollar anti-tax campaigns against commonsense revenue reforms that could have saved these fundamental services. Just more of the same failed conservative policies.

If the '60s and '70s were the decades of failed liberal policies, then the '80s, '90s, and the beginning of the 21st century will be remembered as the era of failed conservative policies. What America is experiencing today is far more than policy failures under the leadership of George W. Bush. It is the impact of more than two decades of ascendant conservative ideology – a legacy of extreme individualism, deregulation, and anti-tax zealotry. It is this wholesale failure of these conservative policies that has led to today's record deficits, state budget crises, collapsing public schools, cuts in funding for domestic security, a besieged environment, and crony capitalism.

The trouble is that Americans haven't started connecting the dots between these failed conservative polices. Too often critics either portray these failures in isolation or as some aberration of the Bush Administration. They are neither.

These are the policies of the broader ascendant conservative movement espoused by the multitude of conservative think tanks, commentators, intellectuals, and politicians across America who have been hard at work for more than two decades designing and implementing the conservative agenda. These are not the policies exclusively of the neocons, or the radcons, or the tradcons, or the paleocons: they are the prevailing policies of today's conservative movement.

If progressives want to stem the conservative tide, then it is essential that they begin to make these connections. The breakdowns in our communities, states and nation are all linked – they are the result of more than two decades of failed conservative policies. Progressives need to start painting this big picture in broad brush-strokes for Americans to see, as only then will they create the necessary opening for a new political paradigm – a modern, progressive movement – to emerge.

Building the Countermovement

"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 Moveon.org, 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."

How the Democrats Were Betamaxed

According to Robert McNamara in the "Fog of War," the first lesson of life is, "empathize with your enemy." In order to understand the conservative movement's ascendancy in American politics, progressives should take McNamara's advice and try to view the world through the business lens of conservatives.

Think of a "marketplace of ideas" where the products are policies, positions, and issues all competing for dominance. On the surface, this may seem like the stuff of dreams for "free market" conservatives, but it turns out it's a nightmare. You see, what we find is that in this marketplace, Democrats actually have the better product and Americans prefer the policies of Democrats by a wide margin to those of the GOP. In the realm of ideas, just as in any marketplace, the superior or preferred product usually wins out, but not always. An inferior product can dominate in the market when it has superior marketing, and this is precisely what we have seen come to pass in U.S. politics over the past two decades.

In 1982, 45% of Americans identified themselves as Democrats; by 2003, that number was down to 31%. During the same period, the Republican Party made gains in party allegiance from about 26% up to 30%. What is more, nearly twice as many Americans now identify themselves as conservatives than as liberals. At first blush, these statistics would seem to point to an electorate that is moving ideologically to the right. However, public opinion 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.

Returning to the notion of a marketplace, let's consider these public opinion polls as indicators of consumer preferences. What we find is that a whopping 86% of Americans believe that there need to be stricter laws and regulations to protect the environment; 77% think it is more important to maintain government services such as Medicare, Social Security and Medicaid than to cut taxes; 72% of Americans favor stricter laws related to the control of handguns; 63% of Americans favor affirmative action programs designed to help blacks, women and other minorities get better jobs and education; 62% don't think Roe v. Wade should be overturned by the Supreme Court; and 62% would prefer a universal health insurance program run by the government and financed by taxpayers.

On virtually every issue, public opinion polls show that consumer preferences are for the policies of the Democrats, and not for those of the GOP. Republicans offer inferior, less desirable policy solutions, while Democrats offer superior policies that are preferred by the majority of Americans.

When an inferior product wins out in the marketplace with superior marketing it is called getting "betamaxed." Remember Betamax? In the 1970s, before there was VHS, there was the Sony Betamax, but, as the story goes, VHS beat Betamax through its superior marketing even though Betamax was the superior video recording technology. If we consider policies as the products in the marketplace of ideas and public opinion polls as indicators of consumer preference, then we can only come to one conclusion: the Democrats have been betamaxed by the Republicans. Conservatives offer inferior policies, but dominate through superior marketing.

You really have to give it to them -- the Republicans are truly marketing geniuses. Let's consider some of the core components of marketing that the GOP has managed to dominate over the years. There's branding and negative branding. We have strategic communications, which in the policy world includes what's called "naming and framing," or how you sell your policies, as well as public relations and promotion. And finally, there is placement, or the distribution channels used to reach the consumer.

When it comes to branding, conservatives have succeeded in tarnishing the "liberal" brand to the point where liberals themselves, like Michael Moore, deride liberals as wimps. The GOP's negative branding campaign against liberals is why so many people are loath to use the "L word."

At the same time, Republicans have successfully built the conservative brand around powerful connotations of patriotism, strength, down-home values and righteousness. They have been so successful at building their brand that people still think of Republicans as "fiscally conservative," even though the last three "conservative" Republican administrations have all run record deficits.

The same goes for the branding of the GOP as the party of "small government." This despite the fact that the current Republican-controlled Congress, the first since 1954, has increased Congressional pork by more than 40%; the Patriot Act gives massive new powers to the federal government; and even non-defense domestic spending is up 11% according to an analysis by the conservative Heritage Foundation.

Now that's a brand with staying power.

Republicans also understand the value of strategic communications and the importance of "naming and framing" legislation and policies. Naming and framing can turn the "estate tax" ("estate" sounds like it only applies to rich folks) into a "death tax" -- we all die and it just doesn't seem right taxing the dead. When the GOP renamed the estate tax the death tax, they were able to frame it as a mainstream concern with 75% of Americans supporting its repeal, even though the estate tax does only apply to the rich, and it's paid by less than 2% of Americans.

They name legislation "No Child Left Behind," "Healthy Forests," "Clear Skies" and "Patriot Act," essentially forcing legislators to support their bills, lest they be accused of leaving children behind, favoring polluted forests and skies, or being branded as unpatriotic. It's sheer genius. It makes Microsoft's tactics for marketplace dominance look like child's play.

Another vital aspect of marketing is placement, or controlling the distribution channels. Republicans took this a step further by largely replicating Ted Turner's strategy of vertical integration of content and distribution. Cable maverick Turner recognized that he could become a formidable media force by owing both the channels of distribution -- his TBS cable network -- and content. So, he bought sports teams, acquired the MGM classic movie library and invented the 24-hour news network CNN to fill his cable channels.

Using this same vertical integration model, conservative think tanks and foundations, like the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute, have been laboring intensively on the research and development of conservative policies, as well as their packaging in media-friendly ways. These policies provide the "content" to feed to three primary distribution channels: legislative distribution channels including elected officials, candidates, senior staff, and political appointees; judicial distribution channels; and various mainstream and dedicated media distribution channels, such as Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, the Washington Times, et al.

In the first quarter of 2002 alone, Heritage Foundation policy experts briefed three Cabinet secretaries, 33 senators, 48 members of Congress and 164 senior administration officials. Increasingly these policy experts are being groomed to push their ideas in the media directly. In 2002, according to the Heritage Foundation's annual report, as many of their policy experts were seen on television in a single year as during the entire 1990s. They appeared on more than 600 television broadcasts, more than 1,000 radio broadcasts, and in approximately 8,000 articles and editorials.

With dedicated channels, sound-bite content and expert spokespeople in the mainstream media, conservatives are retailing their ideas directly to the public or in marketing terms, the "end user." At the same time, in terms of direct marketing through the media, Republicans have managed to intimidate Democrats from competing with them by creating the "liberal media" myth, effectively forcing Democrats into a defensive position.

When we fail to view the world through the conservative business lens, we can easily see all of this as a vast rightwing conspiracy. However if we recall the frame of the marketplace of ideas, then we see it for it is: a well-run operation that recognized its weakness -- a less desirable product -- and figured out a way to dominate in the marketplace through an incredibly successful, integrated marketing strategy. Branded by the right and blind-sided by the conservative marketing machine, for more than a decade Democrats have been running to the right and abandoning core progressive issues and values in an attempt to keep pace with conservatives. This has been completely the wrong response.

Conservatives, after all, are dominating through superior marketing, not with better ideas or policies. However, because Democrats have failed to grasp the root of the problem, they have reacted to the growing conservative dominance by trying to fit into a more conservative mold. This wrong-headed response has played into the hands of conservatives. Democrats have lost ground in the marketplace of ideas, and have helped to tarnish their brand, as the right and left alike branded them as "wafflers," "Republican-lite" and "spineless liberals."

What Democrats should have done was stick to their principles and progressive policies and develop an equally formidable marketing strategy. It's not too late.

For many progressives, thinking about marketing when it comes to policy is an anathema. Progressives like to believe that "the truth alone will set you free," and that facts and figures on the issues and persuasive arguments win elections. They confuse framing issues with spin. There's endless talk about "elevating the policy dialogue," when what they really need to do is to use plainspeak and frame issues in ways that resonate with Americans. Progressives hear branding and they outright cringe. It all seems so disingenuous. But do Americans wear Nikes? Eat at McDonalds? Drink Coke?

Conservatives don't make a move without considering marketing. Remember when White House chief of staff Andrew Card told the New York Times that the reason the administration waited until September to make its case for the war in Iraq was because, "from a marketing point of view, you don't introduce new products in August"? Know how the founder of the Heritage Foundation explains how the conservative movement was built? He attributes its ascendancy to what he calls, "The four M's: mission, money, management and marketing."

It is time for the Democratic Party to recognize that they cannot stem the conservative tide by moving further to the right, by going about business as usual, or by denying the importance of marketing. Progressives have been betamaxed by conservatives, and the first step to recovery is recognizing the problem. If we want progressive ideas and policies to dominate in the marketplace of ideas then we have to start fighting fire with fire and thinking strategically like conservatives in terms of marketing.

Progressives have an enormous uphill battle before them. Conservatives have what is known in business as a "first-mover advantage;" they've been at this for more than 20 years. What it will take to counter the conservative movement is an aggressive, hard-hitting counterstrategy with a quick ramp-up, long-term resolve and sufficient resources.

The good news is that conservatives have kindly provided us with the roadmap to build a successful counter-movement. A progressive movement should be built upon the four M's: mission, money, management and marketing; plus one more, mobilization. Progressives need to compete on the same grounds as conservatives but draw upon the Democrat's unique advantages.

With a solid foundation already in place, as well as numerous competitive advantages and untapped resources, progressives can build a movement that genuinely reflects the preferences of the majority of Americans, while drawing upon the traditions of the great progressive reformers of the past. By seeing the conservative movement for what it is, a well-executed, successful strategy dominating through superior marketing, a clear path to build a progressive counter-movement emerges.

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."

Culture War May Find WMD

It seems that President Bush's "culture war" may finally succeed where Operation Iraqi Freedom did not. Namely, W and Rove's latest foray seems sure to find those long-sought-after WMDs. Weapons of Mass Destruction? No, not them. I'm talking about White Male Defectors, voters who four years ago responded favorably to Bush's no-nonsense, common man veneer, but now find themselves alienated by his increasingly expansive religious agenda and his assaults on the Bill of Rights.

The march to the culture war began last summer when the Supreme Court overturned state laws that criminalize consenting sexual relationships between same sex couples. Within months, the Fab Five of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy sashayed onto the scene, Britney kissed Madonna, followed by the last straw, one of Janet Jackson's bejeweled breasts appearing at the Super Bowl.

Ex post haste and as predicted by Newton's third law of the universe -- for every force there is an equal and opposite force -- the culture war offensive began. The FCC called for a "thorough and swift" probe of Janet's breast. A five-second delay for censors was instituted at the Grammys and the Oscars. President Bush made an official declaration of war by calling for a constitutional amendment to ban marriage between same sex couples. "The Passion of the Christ," one of the most violent films ever made, stormed box offices with thousands of tickets pre-sold to church congregations. And Clear Channel pulled the plug on Howard Stern.

Off the radar of all of those political pundits who listen to NPR on their morning commutes, this last strike in the culture war may prove to be the fatal misstep.

Since his ouster, Howard Stern has been on the attack, taking no prisoners, and connecting the dots between the Bush administration's far-right social agenda, the religious right, the Patriot Act, media consolidation, campaign finance, cronyism, and freedom of speech. Stern has been making a powerful case that the mainstream media is missing the big picture, that Clear Channel cut him loose not because of vulgarity, but because of a shift in his political views. Far more than a question about decency standards, Stern argues, this is a question about the censorship of political speech. And if Stern is right, then nothing short of the First Amendment is at stake, and arguments about the dangers of media consolidation are no longer hypothetical.

Love Howard Stern or hate him, the show that supposedly caused Clear Channel to pull the plug was no more outrageous or offensive than any other Stern show, and no different from the Howard Stern show that Clear Channel had aired for years. Further, if the issue is truly one of decency, then why would Clear Channel have recently signed a contract with Michael Savage, whom MSNBC fired for calling a viewer a "sodomite" and telling him to "get AIDS and die?"

What changed about Howard Stern's show? In Stern's own words, "There's a lot of people saying that the second that I started saying, 'I think we gotta get Bush out of the presidency,' that's when Clear Channel banged my ass out of here." Stern, previously cited by Fox News as a "pro-Bush celeb," had experienced a political change of heart. On February 23, Stern returned from a week's vacation and spoke about how Al Franken's book had changed his views, saying, "I'm one of those 'Anybody but Bush' guys now." On February 25, just two days after Stern became critical of President Bush, Clear Channel suspended him.

This isn't the first time Clear Channel, the world's biggest radio empire, has been accused of censoring or censuring entertainers for expressing views that conflicted with those of the Bush Administration. Conservative radio host Charles Goyette, who criticized President Bush on his show, claims he was punitively moved to a graveyard shift by the radio megalith. Disc jockey Roxanne Walker is suing Clear Channel for allegedly firing her for disagreeing with the President's policies in Iraq.

Clear Channel now controls more than 1,200 radio stations across America and 70% of live music venues in the country. Lowry Mays, Clear Channel's founder, has been a generous and longtime supporter of the GOP and President Bush, donating tens of thousands of dollars. The media giant's vice-chair Thomas Hicks bought the Texas Rangers from President Bush and his partners for $250 million, three times the original price paid. Bush's cut was $14.9 million, almost 25 times his original investment. Hicks' law firm has contributed nearly $250,000 to Bush's political campaigns.

Stern was the ideal sacrificial lamb for Clear Channel. In one fell swoop they could give the appearance to the FCC, investors and the public that they were cleaning up their act, while demonstrating their loyalty to the Bush Administration. However, at the same time they may have also inadvertently given rise to the opposition radio network that the left has for so long coveted, albeit of a shape and scale that the left never imagined. In contrast to a "liberal radio network" that would most likely preach to the already converted, the Howard Stern network is massive, loyal and composed of exactly those swing voters that both parties woo. What's more, Stern reaches millions of these voters in key election states including Arizona, Nevada, Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Tennessee.

For his part, Stern isn't going down without a fight. He remains the most popular radio host in the nation and the week after the Clear Channel incident "Howard Stern" was the most frequently searched term on Google. With an estimated 15 - 20 million devoted listeners, Stern knows that his audience can make the difference in a tight election, as they did in the elections of both former Governor Christie Todd Whitman and Governor George Pataki.

Ever since the Clear Channel incident, Howard has been blasting Bush and urging his listeners to, "take back the country," to "remember this show when you are in the voting booth," and to "vote George W. Bush out of office." While his sideshow act of strippers and dwarves still gets airtime, in the course of a week, Howard Stern has become the number one voice of political dissent in America. With Stern's daily political commentary and his influence over swing voters -- those critical white male defectors -- President Bush may find that his undoing in the culture war, just as in the war in Iraq, may be WMDs.

Laurie P. Spivak manages a UCLA research center, is a Fulbright scholar, and is writing the forthcoming book 'Counter-movement.'

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