John McCain will be spending the week promoting his health care scheme. The crux of the plan is to abolish employer-based health insurance and throw middle class working Americans to the wolves. It is market fundamentalism at its worst.
But I'm not here to talk about the policy details. I want to discuss message framing. During an election campaign, when our ultimate audience is persuadable voters, how do we talk about health care?
Let's first understand McCain's frame. His campaign understands one crucial fact (if nothing else): About 95 percent of the voters in the 2008 general election will be insured -- the uninsured don't tend to vote. Extensive polling and focus group research has shown, without a doubt, that people who are insured are more interested in preserving and improving their own coverage than in covering the uninsured. Americans want "quality, affordable health care." But of the two concepts, they are more focused on affordability than on quality.
McCain is trying to convince voters that Democrats are all about covering the uninsured while he, on the other hand, is all about lowering health care costs. Understand that this is a good strategy because it fits voters' stereotypes of Democrats (and is fairly true). To our credit, we focus on "universal" or "single-payer" coverage, "Medicare for all," "Canadian-style" health, and the like. But this is not good message framing for the 2008 election.
"Single-payer" makes persuadable voters -- the swing voters who will decide this election -- think of bureaucracy, inefficiency, and bad service (like the "typical" department of motor vehicles). You'd think that one way to sell health coverage would be to refer to one of our nation's great success stories -- Medicare. Unfortunately, Americans have become wary of Medicare, in large part because the Bush administration botched Medicare Part D, the prescription drug benefit.
And unfortunately, many Americans have a negative impression of the Canadian health care system. More important -- because it applies to more than just health care -- Americans are not persuaded by comparisons to other nations. If they were, we'd already have single-payer health care, strict gun control, and voting rights for ex-offenders, and we would have abolished the death penalty and signed the Kyoto treaty on global warming years ago. Americans want an American solution. (You're going to hurt your eyes if you roll them like that.) This is politics; just go with the flow. Evoking national pride helps us enact programs that benefit our fellow citizens -- so just do it.
But, you respond, these voters are wrong! We need to educate them about the merits of single-payer, Medicare, and the Canadian system, you say. I'm sorry, but politics doesn't work that way. You can't change people's minds in the course of a campaign -- that takes years and there's not enough time. No, our goal is not to change minds, it is to convince voters that they agree with us already.
We do that by starting from a point of agreement -- where polls show that persuadable voters are on our side -- and lead them to see that our solution fits their preconceptions.
In the case of McCain's proposal, the key fact is that the tax provisions will encourage companies to drop health insurance as an employer-provided benefit. Fortune Magazine points this out by quoting an expert in the field: "I predict that most companies would stop paying for health care in three to four years," says Robert Laszewski, a consultant who works with corporate benefits managers.
Put another way, the McCain plan will cause businesses to drop health care benefits like a rotten egg from a picnic basket. The argument for McCain depends on the idea that once they cut health care benefits, corporations will increase our salaries to offset our loss! And no persuadable voter in America will believe this. So if you're middle-class in America, this plan should scare the sox off of you. This is Bush economics on steroids!
But also, look at it this way. There may be no more important ammunition in the fight against McCain than his health care scheme. If on Election Day voters truly understand this proposal, McCain will be defeated in a landslide.
So let's reframe the health care debate. It's not about Democratic coverage versus Republican cost-cutting. It's about McCain's radical scheme to dump our employer-provided health insurance coverage into a ditch.
John McCain, who from the early 1980s worked hard to establish himself as one of the Senate's shining champions of Vietnam veterans' issues, completed his betrayal of the Iraq-era troops today. Brandon Friedman of vetvoice.com has the details:
Friedman observes that McCain's no-college-for-grunts position essentially says to the troops: "Thanks for your service and your three combat tours in five years. Now get back to work."
Yesterday VoteVets.org delivered a petition with 30,000 signatures to the office of Sen. John McCain. Through that petition, we asked him to support Sen. Jim Webb's new GI Bill. And less than 24 hours later, we have an answer:
"Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, seemed to give a thumbs down to bipartisan legislation that would greatly expand educational benefits for members of the military returning from Iraq and Afghanistan under the GI Bill ..."
The reason for McCain's refusal to support the bill is about the most disturbing rationale one could imagine. ... Officials in charge of Pentagon personnel worry that a more generous and expansive GI Bill would create an incentive for troops to get out of the military and go to college.
Jim Webb has been trying to update the GI Bill to restore its original intention -- which was to reward returning vets for their service by giving them a full education, lifetime healthcare, and the foundations on which to build a comfortable and successful civilian life. But, says Friedman, the Cons have apparently abandoned that noble goal. And in doing so, they're unveiling an entirely different vision of our troops' future relationship to the rest of America.
McCain makes it clear that he wants to make the GI Bill so weak and useless that troops will have no choice but to stay in the military for life. Friedman argues persuasively that this is not only a breach of a sacred trust Americans have upheld with their troops for over 60 years; it's also a slap in the face to military recruiters, who ask families to give up their children to the war machine -- and now have nothing compelling to offer them in return. And in the long run, it ensures that the military will become the career of last resort for those who have no other options. Reading this, it strikes me that, as usual, the conservatives aren't being nearly careful enough about what they wish for. In fact, it's not hard at all to imagine a scenario in which this new relationship to our military -- which forsakes the last vestiges of America's traditional civilian militias and creates a new class of involuntarily indentured permanent soldiers -- creates far-flung changes that may undermine the stability of our democracy.
How we got here
The GI Bill is recent -- but the deal it represents is as old as history. It's one of the great recurring patterns: in most times and places, the best way for a young man full of brains and ambition but short on money and connections to move up in the world was to join the military and distinguish himself. (The other typical mobility paths were to become a teacher, scholar, or priest.) It was a huge risk: the odds of becoming a combat hero and rising to the officers' ranks were slim compared to those of coming home crippled -- or not coming home at all. But the potential upside was equally enormous. If you wanted to get off the farm, marry well and launch yourself into the ownership class, becoming a war hero has usually been your best way out.
With the GI Bill, America democratized this ancient deal. It guaranteed that same shot at a solid middle-class life to everyone who signed up and did their tour, regardless of what their service entailed (and, in doing so, also somewhat reduced the incentive for ambitious soldiers to secure their civilian futures by instigating unnecessary battles. Combat hero or clerk typist, you were part of the effort, and you'd still get yours.). In a country that had usually resisted the very idea of raising a standing army, the GI Bill fostered the new post-war military industrial complex by normalizing military service. It was the deal that allowed families to send their sons (and later, their daughters) off in the belief that the military would open the doors to a better life. It was also the sugar that -- for a while, anyway -- took some of the bitterness from universal conscription.
Generous GI benefits became even more important in the aftermath of Vietnam, as the country abandoned the draft in favor of an all-volunteer army. The country's war hawks approved of this move: The Vietnam-era draft had touched every family in America regardless of class; and it was the middle and upper-middle classes' unwillingness to consent to that sacrifice that had so forcefully politicized the war. A military comprising troops who'd voluntarily agreed to be there would not only be easier to discipline and manage; they'd be much easier to deploy without creating major political upheavals.
The brass also knew from the start that going all-volunteer would increase the class divisions in the military. The bulk of those new recruits -- both noncoms and officers -- would be kids from working-class families looking for a shot at college. As the conservatives cut back on government-backed college grants and loans, the GI Bill and ROTC would step up to become the country's new college-aid programs. Given that this realignment happened alongside the retooling of a new high-tech military that required an extremely skilled and disciplined corps to function, this new model wouldn't work -- couldn't work -- unless the benefits and working conditions were good enough to attract a huge flow of smart, stable, high-quality volunteers.
Predictably, the number of volunteers has fallen off markedly in the Bush era, as the war has dramatically raised the risks associated with service, and the promised benefits have vanished. Working-class kids may not have many prospects left; but they can do the math, and they're staying away in droves. To keep the warm bodies coming, the military has begun to compromise on quality. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, the number of new recruits coming in on conduct waivers is up. So is the number of convicted felons, gang members, avowed racists and people with substance abuse problems. The military is increasingly turning a blind eye to soldier misconduct, because it can't afford to lose the boots -- so racist activity, rape, and other criminal acts are going largely unpunished.
Maybe McCain figures that this new crop of kids isn't all that interested in college anyway. Maybe he's decided that down here, with the bottom of the barrel coming into sight, we're getting the kids for whom the military isn't a ticket to college, or a way out of anything. It's just a better alternative than a lifetime of unemployment -- or worse, cycling in and out of jail. And maybe he's being a realist about that. It's certainly where we seem to be headed.
But we don't have to go there. And if we think this all the way through, we'll do whatever it takes not to go there. Because if McCain is serious about stripping away the barest promise of benefits and turning America's high-tech army into a dumping ground for the country's undereducated, precriminal, behaviorally unstable and economically desperate -- then there's another possible future looming, and it's the stuff of our worst nightmares.
What lies ahead
What follows is a scenario -- a little concatenation of what-if stories about what could happen if America breaks its historical pact of guaranteeing education, healthcare, and a middle-class future to its service men and women. It's not a prediction. It's just a look at some of the ways McCain's new view of what we owe our troops could play out if we don't change course.
Inside the military
As kids with any kind of prospects at all flee from recruiters who have nothing left to offer them, the sliding standards of the past few years become a fast tumble to the bottom. Soon, America's military is nothing more than the employer of last resort. It's society's dumping ground for people with inadequate education, drug problems, criminal records, and unaddressed behavior issues -- people who can't even hold down McJobs and for whom going to war and getting shot at is a marginally better choice to going to jail and getting knifed.
What happens from here is a scene from The Dirty Dozen -- or the last years of Vietnam -- writ large. Faced with battalions of armed misfits -- including a large number of sociopaths for whom punishment is meaningless -- officers can't hold down the fort. The result is anarchy, followed by the rise of internal drug-running gangs, racist militias, God squads of fundamentalist holy warriors, and other assorted warlords. (Some of these have close ties to existing civilian organizations such as prison gangs, white supremacist militias and far-right dominionist groups -- as if any of these groups need to have their own government-trained army units.) Unit cohesion fails as these groups go freelance and compete for control of military resources. Fragging becomes common; and good officers become much harder to find. (Anybody with a college education will find something better and safer to do.) The goal of teaching them useful civilian life skills is quickly abandoned.
In the name of American foreign policy, these troops are exported to other countries, where they set up operations abroad -- thus bringing America's worst authoritarians to the the world's least stable corners, and giving them a prime government-subsidized opportunity to go global.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch:
Of course, the intended goal of this system is to keep recruits inside it until they're too old to do much damage. Once they do get out, though, the results look like another movie -- and this time, it's The Godfather.
Since these veterans have no connection to the larger culture -- and no way of getting the education that will outfit them for anything else besides war -- they have every incentive to organize themselves into civilian subsidiaries of the military gangs that sustained them. They get jobs as mercenaries working abroad for private armies and cartels. Or they come home and set up local outposts of this emerging global Mafia. Soon, city and state governments are dealing with a far bigger gang problem than they've ever seen before and are completely unprepared to confront. Turf battles -- or holy wars -- erupt between the race- and religion-based gangs. In some towns, the gangs muscle out small businesses, start up extortion rackets, run their own candidates and seize control of local politics. They also infiltrate whatever legitimate institutions will have them -- just as the Mafia took over unions and the construction trades on the East Coast so long ago. Modern prison gangs are small mom-and-pop operations compared to the vast global criminal network that could arise in time.
This sounds far-fetched, but it's the historical way of armies gone bad. When you have combat-hardened warriors who have no place in the civilian world -- and governments that feel no further responsibility to the troops that risked their lives to defend them -- they will make a place for themselves. And that place will usually be well beyond the reach of government.
The citizens respond:
There are several ways Americans might respond to the broken-down military that results from the boneheaded decision to abandon the covenant represented by the GI Bill. Let's look at the best case, the worst case, and the most likely case.
The best case is that Americans quickly realize that the military culture is fusing with the prison-based gang culture and that the combined forces are threatening the foundations of the country. Driving this case is the fact is that we don't generally fund government programs that only benefit people without political power. (That's why it's so important that even the rich get Social Security, and why the upper classes need to keep their kids in public schools.) As long as the most politically influential people see that these things benefit them, they'll support them. As soon as these programs look like they're just for the lower classes, the political will to sustain them vanishes.
Turning the military into a dumping ground for the unwanted underclass (not to mention a vast channel through which taxpayer dollars are funneled to organized crime) devalues it socially and politically. Nice people won't send their kids there, any more than they'd voluntarily send them to prison for three or four years. Nobody with any brains will want to become an officer, either. And when the blowback from this long-term neglect begins washing up on the tree-lined streets of America's suburbs, there could be strong political pressure to defund the military, reform it, or abolish a standing army entirely.
The worst case is that we don't act in time, and the gangs simply take over. The government is overwhelmed or corrupted. Democracy fails, along with domestic order. Security is in the hands of local strongmen. If that's the way it goes, the story begins to look like something out of Mad Max, and it will take nothing short of a violent patriot uprising to eliminate the gangs and take back the country. (And the bad news is: They have all the weapons and know how to use them.)
This scenario is scary. And it should be. Worst-case scenarios aren't fun for me to write, not least because they can so easily become grim and over the top. What I find most frightening about this one is that you don't have to be a futurist to see its plausibility; you just have to have read some history. Broken-down armies that come home and take it out on the home folks are as common as dirt. They're stock characters in the stories where revolutions begin and empires end. But we need to be aware that this could very easily happen to us -- and blowing off our commitment to the troops could be the first tangible step down that road.
The most likely case is that we come to our senses in time and realize that the GI Bill is not entitlement, not a privilege, and not a handout. It's what we owe our troops for their service. It's fulfilling our basic obligation to return them safely and sanely to civilian life, and to give them a fair stake in the country's free and democratic future. And as long as we choose to maintain a standing army and act as an empire, it's an essential investment in our own domestic peace, security, and political stability that we cannot afford to scrimp on. If we think the price is too high, then we should reconsider whether we want to be an empire. But as long as we commission soldiers, defaulting on this debt is not an option.
No one who is willing to tear up that ancient contract between a nation and its veterans, and thus consign our nation's defense to people so dangerously incompetent that Wal-Mart won't even hire them, should ever be this country's commander in chief. And McCain, of all people, should understand that better than anyone. It's a shame that, after all these years building his career on the backs of veterans, he still doesn't understand what's at stake.
Make no mistake: When the conservatives set out to take over America 30 years ago, they were working off of a well-thought-out plan.
The plan was put in place by a wide variety of thinkers -- but three of the main strategists were Howard Phillips, Richard Viguerie, and Paul Weyrich, each of whom wrote important books and papers laying out the goal of creating a conservative America, and showing specifically how the movement could make that happen.
The ideas in these plans went through various iterations through the decades; but their essential goals and intentions never changed much. And, as it turned out, they didn't have to: the plan worked so well and kept the conservative base so focused and engaged over the long term that it didn't need much more than an occasional refresher, or the odd subplan elaborating on how the main ideas should be applied in some specific domain.
Reading these plans now, as a progressive, it strikes me: We're now living in an America in which every institution is dominated by these guys. Every facet of our looming disaster was dictated by bankrupt conservative ideas; yet our very ability to visualize fresh alternatives has been constricted by the frames they deliberately laid around our language and discourse. Most of the country finds it hard to even contemplate or discuss our predicaments in anything but conservative terms. It's clear they've done more than merely mess up our country; they've also, quite intentionally, messed with our minds.
As it turns out, messing with our minds wasn't just one part of the plan; it was the essential goal of the entire plan of conquest. They used sociology, social psychology, linguistics, and a subtle understanding of human motivation to get into our heads and change the way we processed reality itself, in ways that made it impossible to question all the other things they were up to.
Ending conservative dominance will require us to undo the vast memetic and ontological damage they've wrought on two entire generations of Americans. We have no choice but to fight this fire with fire of our own. And the first thing we need to do is understand, very specifically, how they did it. Fortunately, this isn't hard: the basics are all laid out in their original written plans.
Last year, over at Talk2Action, Bruce Wilson dug up one of the most recent rewrites of Weyrich's version of the plan -- a 2001 manifesto published by the Free Congress Foundation, written by Eric Heubeck that concisely summarized and updated the essentials of the plan Weyrich had been promoting since the early 80s. Wilson rewrote the document -- mostly by replacing the word "conservative" with "progressive" and sprinkling in a few liberal philosophical points. The results are worth a careful reading, because in Heubeck and Weyrich's complaints and solutions, Wilson found a great deal of wisdom we can use about how to build a lasting progressive majority.
Over this and the next two posts, I'm going to revisit Weyrich and Heubeck's Free Congress manifesto, and lay out the specific lessons progressives can draw from the plans and strategies that drove 30 years of conservative movement-building. We'll get the map to the the battlefield they're really fighting on; and what it will take for progressives to engage them there and win. The same strategies that allowed them to take control of the country and change the shape of American history may, with some adaptations to our own liberal values, allow us to undo the damage as well.
The first post addresses the role ideas -- which ones they specifically chose to promote, and why -- played in the conservative renaissance, and should play in the coming progressive era as well. The second one will discuss the details of how these ideas are presented to the public. The last one discusses specific tactics that the conservatives used -- and we might consider emulating -- to embed their desired memes in the mass culture, ensuring their continued dominance of the discourse.
Many Tactics, One Goal: Promoting the Progressive Worldview
"The conservative movement is defensive, defeatist, depressed, and apologetic. It lacks self-confidence, virility, energy, intensity, vigor, aggressiveness, vitality, and a firm belief in the rightness of its cause ... This is because it has relied solely on activism and politicking, without reaching out to change the underlying assumptions of the culture ... The result of this misplaced focus is a society that does not recognize culturally conservative views, and is gradually coming to despise them ... imaginations are seldom captured by policy wonks on C-SPAN."Heubeck and Weyrich argued over the years that their movement's single core task -- the one that every other activity must align with and ultimately support, because it's the one that justifies the entire movement's existence -- is the transmission and dissemination of the conservative worldview. Most of the foundational thinking on conservatism already existed, they argued, so there was no need to waste time re-inventing philosophical wheels. The movement's main job was to get those wheels rolling back out into every corner of the American countryside.
In other words: It's not a movement; it's a sales job. And the product we're selling isn't economics or policy or morality. It's much deeper than that: it's a worldview that determines the way you look at everything. Conservatives set out to give Americans a radical new way to analyze the essential questions of human existence. As Heubeck put it: "We must win the people over culturally -- by defining how man ought to act, how he ought to perceive the world around him, and what it means to live the good life. Political arrangements can only be formed after these fundamental questions have been answered." (Italics mine.)
What is the meaning of life? How should we relate to each other? Our families and communities? Other nations? God? The planet? What is good, and how do we recognize it? What is evil, and how should we respond?
These are the basic ontological questions on which our ability to parse the rest of reality depends -- the foundations of every human's cognitive model of the world. Change these underlying assumptions, and the way we prioritize and evaluate everything else in the world necessarily changes, too. The conservatives recognized this -- and that's why they made selling the conservative worldview, via every possible channel, the central focus of their movement. Once they'd gotten us to accept their basic assumptions about reality, they knew, the rest of their agenda would follow naturally.
The conservative critique of the dominant liberal worldview was sharp and pointed; and they aggressively promoted it at every opportunity. (And if no opportunity presented itself, they weren't abashed about going out and creating one.) They set themselves up as a daring and controversial counterculture that offered an original and rebellious alternative to the prevailing set of cultural assumptions.
As Heubeck complains in the paragraph above, politics and activism are bloodless (and bloody temporary) unless they're rooted in this kind of deeper ontological shift. That's the real battlefield conservatives are fighting this war on; and we will not beat them until we can get down to that level and challenge them there directly. If their movement exists to sell a conservative worldview, then our movement must also zero its focus on the only goal that matters in the end: to proclaim and promote Enlightenment values throughout the land (and to all the inhabitants thereof). Our status as a mass movement begins and ends with our ability to inspire the masses to share our worldview. Promoting that worldview is the only goal that matters; and every action we take should be aimed at moving us toward that outcome. When that epistemology is widely accepted, implementing our policies will proceed easily and naturally, with minimal opposition.
Fortunately, we're starting from a place of strength here. Progressive ideals are far more compelling -- and far more true to America's historical, political, and cultural legacies -- than conservative ones ever have been or will ever be. Bruce Wilson, in his re-casting of Heubeck's 2001 article, produced a sharp summary of the progressive worldview we stand for -- the product that our movement must exist to sell:
"Enlightenment values mean, in part, a tradition of respect for societal diversity and political pluralism and a spirit of self-restraint rooted in an altruistic commitment to the common good, an ethic of civic and political engagement, and a belief in free inquiry and the scientific method, and a belief that while we can never achieve absolute objective truth we must nonetheless distinguish opinion, ideology, and religious belief from that which science can tell us.
"Further, Enlightenment values hold that our society must be sustainable and in harmony with our essential human nature, and that we must learn what science can tell us of what our human nature actually is. Enlightenment values must, if they are truly held, include mechanisms by which they can be sustained and perpetuated in human culture lest they be overwhelmed by forces of ignorance, bigotry, religious and ideological zealotry, and barbarism. Enlightenment values are the opposite of those tendencies, which appeal to the lowest human instincts and drives; barbarism means fidelity solely to oneself, not to an enlightened social code worked out over centuries, representing the accumulated wisdom of generations of men and women ... Enlightenment culture at its best as "lucidity of mind, intellectual curiosity and hospitality, largeness of temper, objectivity, the finest sense of social life, of manners, of beauty." And this view of culture is clearly incompatible with abstracted ideology and zealotry of all kinds, and with mere egoism."Everything Americans do -- the institutions and physical infrastructure we build, the investments and decisions we make, the goals we set and the ideals we cherish -- emerges from and is evaluated according to our essential assumptions about how the world works. Getting people to understand and embrace the basic premises of the liberal worldview is the first and most critical step to creating a lasting progressive era in the United States. When that's accomplished, we can set about reforming every one of society's institutions so that it reflects those values -- much as the conservatives hoped to do before they blew it all up so badly.
Even with the recent setbacks, though, we need to face the fact that the conservatives still control much of the ontological field. Their singular worldview has dominated and defined our national decision-making for nearly 30 years. People may be desperate for change and some new ideas -- but even so, we'd be wise not to underestimate how much time it's going to take to remove all the constraints they've put on people's thinking. We'd be even wiser to become very energetic about promoting ourselves as a new, fresh alternative counterculture that's not afraid to confront a crufty and crumbling status quo.
Convince Americans We're Trustworthy to Lead
In the early years of their revolution, the biggest problem conservatives faced was that the public simply didn't trust them to lead. Goldwater's defeat, Reagan's turbulent governorship, and Nixon's disgrace defined the narrative about their trustworthiness -- and it wasn't a pretty tale.
So, through the 1970s, they focused on fixing that perception. Reagan was their main asset here: he had a gift for communicating conservative values to Americans in ways that made them sound almost reasonable if you didn't think too hard. He convinced them that he and his party were worthy stewards of our tax dollars and the public trust; and, by coining phrases like "tax-and-spend liberal" and invoking non-existent welfare queens in Cadillacs, he also persuaded the country that the Democrats -- and government in general -- were venal, corrupt, inept and completely unworthy of trust.
(This core imperative also explains why they were so rabidly driven to tear down Bill Clinton. By the early 1990s, movement conservatives -- and a good share of the country -- had thoroughly bought into the idea that Democrats were inherently untrustworthy and hence illegitimate stewards of the public trust. In many parts of the country, progressives are still working upstream against that "don't trust liberals" meme -- and we will yet be for a long time to come.)
The Great Democratic Moment of 2008 came about partly because we've gotten so much smarter about organizing ourselves -- but we also owe much of it to the conservatives' spectacular bull-elephant blundering that carelessly shattered the precious trust that Reagan had so carefully cultivated. It's not enough for people to vote for Democrats because they hope for change this cycle. If we want a permanent progressive majority, we have to reach out to inspire and keep the country's deep trust in our ideas and our leadership. We need their loyalty for the long run.
Align Strategy with Tactics ...
Heubeck bemoans the fact that, among conservatives, "those who think do not act, and those who act do not think." Their movement has struggled with a disconnect between strategists like Phillips and Weyrich and the activist base -- though, evidently, they did eventually find a way to resolve it, because the path they ultimately followed to dominance was in fact the one their strategists originally laid out for them.
I've heard (and had) the same conversation with any number of strategically-minded progressives. We have a growing army of wonderful, energetic, skilled activists out there doing the organizing and moving the message. We also have a smaller and very much neglected cadre of strategic big-picture thinkers who are looking way out ahead, figuring out where we want to go and how best to get there. And not only do the two factions seldom talk -- when they do talk, they often find they're not even speaking the same language. Activists dismiss strategists as thinking too big-picture, and not understanding the realities on the ground. Strategists see the activists running off in all kinds of directions, instead of aligning their energies and focusing them on well-chosen small battles that will pay off in much bigger victories down the road.
(This disconnect may explain some of the criticisms making the rounds about Barack Obama. Obama speaks in large generalizations about principles, values, and large-scale visions of what the world should be. This is energizing to strategic thinkers, who see the same big picture he does and who understand that you have to create that kind of overarching vision of the change you want to create before you can fill in the details. However, that same style drives wonkier folks crazy: they're very uncomfortable with that lack of detail. They don't want the big-picture stuff; they want to know exactly what they're hiring him to do. Neither side is wrong; but Obama's much better at speaking to the former than the latter.)
It's cheering to realize that conservatives have had ongoing issues with this exact same problem. But it also points up the sobering truth that we won't beat them unless we also learn how to bridge that gap so we can maximize the skills of both groups. We need to get the people who are capable of plotting long-range strategy linked up closely with the people who have the tactical skills to execute it -- and both sides need to have the wisdom to know and respect that they're bringing different but important things to the same party.
... But Invest in Creating Elite Tacticians
In Weyrich and Heubeck's model, no successful movement goes anywhere without a tightly-knit, trusted, trained core of elite activist leaders who are all working for the same goal. Heubeck writes: "It is more important to have a few impassioned members than a large number of largely indifferent members." If the core is energetic, smart, and strong, all the rest will naturally fall into place around it.
We need to be equally insistent on finding and cultivating brilliant leaders and organizers -- but do it in a way that respects the progressive mindset. Conservatives have a strongly hierarchical worldview that supports the creation of an inner-circle elite that directs policy, strategy, and action for everyone else; it also attracts people who are quite happy falling into line behind these leaders. Progressives, on the other hand, tend to think in networks, systems, and matrices -- multilayered thinking that grants temporary authority to whoever's most skilled on the subject at hand, but otherwise holds everyone to be more or less equal. We value open communication, broad networks of trust, and empowering people to take charge and run their own show. Deference and status games don't come nearly as easily to us -- and we like it that way.
But we would do well to develop a tradition of valuing and respecting our most experienced leaders, extending them a little more trust, and learning how to be good followers when the occasion demands it. It's a common liberal conceit to think that any one of us could do what they do -- but the hard fact is, the skills that make a great activist aren't all that common, and we need to take better care of the ones that emerge from our midst. There's a time for big consensus-building all-in conversations; but there's also a time to stop talking, fall in line, and do what needs to be done without backbiting or second-guessing the decision. We lose a lot of good leaders simply because they get tired of trying to keep all the frogs in the wheelbarrow, which takes their focus off of the more important task of getting the wheelbarrow where it's going. It's one of the most typical ways in which we burn out our own most talented folks. More cooperative frogs would help us keep those people around -- and also allow them to save their energy and attention for the things that really matter.
Never Miss A Chance To Challenge the Dominant Ideology
We must be prepared to confront and openly reject conservative ideology wherever it appears -- and use those teachable moments to present the case for a truly progressive counter-culture based on the excellence and rigor of our own values.
Heubeck's manifesto categorically rejects "materialism, hedonism, consumerism, egoism, and the cult of self-actualization." Oddly, most progressives would agree with all of these, save the last one. But, unlike conservatives, we reject these values not only in individuals; we also resist them when they appear in private and public institutions. We reject materialism and consumerism that lead to the desecration of the planet; hedonism and egoism that lead people to deny their connections to the larger whole; and the cult of self-actualization that's been so permissive in allowing corporations to do whatever is necessary to ensure their survival and profits.
The conservatives promoted their worldview by 30 years of constant criticism of the left, attacking our very legitimacy at every turn. Heubeck declared: "We will not give them a moment's rest. We will endeavor to prove that the Left does not deserve to hold sway over the heart and mind of a single American. We will offer constant reminders that there is an alternative, a better way."
Americans have had enough of the conservatives' tired old ideas, and are ready and eager to hear about our better way. Like the conservatives, we should not pass up a single chance to present our alternative vision. And if the teachable doesn't present itself, we also need to emulate the conservative example, and be assertive about creating those moments for ourselves.
Since the goal of the conservative movement was to change the world, one person at a time, they got very organized about how they welcomed and integrated new converts to the movement. We'll look at that in more depth in the third piece of this series; but for now, it's enough to say that suspicion and recrimination have no place in the moment that a newcomer appears at our door.
We need to respect how very hard it its to leave behind your old worldview and intentionally cross over to a new one -- especially one that you've been taught to hate, and that everyone you know despises. People feel disoriented for a while. They don't know whom to trust, or where they fit in. Bumping up against progressives who reject them because of their faith or their rural roots or their funny clothes is a sure-fire way to send them back into the fold. When people have had enough of the corruption of conservative culture, we need to embrace them and make them feel at home among us.
However, Heubeck also makes it clear that they need to come to us voluntarily. Yes, building a movement is a sales job -- but the sale is closed when they accept our terms, not when we bend to meet theirs. The conservatives understood that their worldview and principles were absolutely central to the entire enterprise, and should never be compromised for anyone. If someone didn't agree, fine. Take it or leave it. We will not fudge our own convictions in the hopes of drawing off a few more votes from off some sub-group or another. In time, the conservatives knew, those little compromises form the cracks that undermine the entire movement.
Keep Your White Hats On
Weyrich thought it was vital that the rising conservatives be seen as a purely defensive movement. The public needed to understand that they didn't start this fight (though, of course, they did) and weren't imposing their views on anyone (though, in fact, they were); they were simply doing what was necessary to protect American traditional culture, resolutely standing guard against terrifying incursions by a barbarian horde from beyond the gates of civilized society. (Yes, most of them really do see themselves this way.) When they go forth to do battle with evil and corrupting forces of liberalism, "Defender of Civilization" is the motto emblazoned across their shining white helmets.
Furthermore, that Good Guys In White Hats position is a perfect set-up for creating martyrs for the cause. Heubeck and Weyrich anticipated this prospect eagerly. "As our movement grows, the Left will become increasingly likely to try to use the powers of the state to squelch our movement, using whatever pretext they are able to invent." (As we all understand now, the conservative capacity for projection has no known limits.) This persecution would create sympathy, they noted, and lend further credence to their social critique.
Yeah, it's obvious they've watched just wa-a-a-y too many Charlton Heston movies. But that righteous sense of defending everything we hold sacred against the incursions of a profane enemy is a powerful way to animate a movement. And we have a story of our own to tell: We are defending the Constitution, the Enlightenment traditions of the country's Founders, and the animating ideals of America Itself against a cabal of the very same kind of economic royalists and religious zealots who forced our nation into the last Revolution. The battle we face is the same one they fought; and we owe it to their memories to fight it hard and well.
It should also be noted -- as Valerie Plame, Don Seligman, and Siebel Edmonds would be the first to testify -- the Right hasn't hesitated to use the powers of the state to crush our movement, and persecute progressive martyrs. They've apparently forgotten Heubeck's warning that every one of these they create only adds to the public sympathy for our cause.
Don't Underestimate the Resistance
Heubeck and Weyrich advise conservatives to be ready for trouble from any direction at any time. They declare: "There is no excuse for ever being surprised by the ferocity or ingenuity of [liberal] attacks."
Conservative paranoia -- rooted in the fundamental belief that humans are essentially evil and untrustworthy -- lends itself nicely to this ever-ready, always-sleep-with-your-eyes-open posture. Liberals, who start from the premise that humans are usually good and trustworthy at heart, find it much harder to think defensively; and most of us have strong ethical lines beyond which we simply will not go.
But if we're in this fight to win, we need to get serious about being prepared for the worst. After all, we have far more to fear from them than they do from us. Those people are not our friends; and they've proven over and over that they will stick it to us any way they can, any time they can -- without regard to manners, friendship, ethics, or the limits of the law. The ends will, in all times and places, justify whatever means are at hand. We underestimate their capacity for mischief at our own peril.
Heubeck and Weyrich were deeply worried about the insularity that too often sets into activist communities. "An excessive amount of intellectualization divorced from application in the real work is a kind of escape from reality, or the creation of a virtual reality. Thinking becomes tired, static, and inward-looking. People become more interested in creating mental utopias than having a real impact on society. Scholars become mere pedants; ideas are no longer creative and vital. Ideas interest us only insofar as they offer a guide to action. There is a place in society for abstract, academic discussion. This is not that place."
Discussion lists, warns Heubeck, are too often traps for the unwary. (Blogs didn't exist yet, but I'm sure that that if they had, he'd have included them, too.) We spend so much time sharing our esoteric enthusiasms, complaining about stuff nobody else cares about, and reaffirming each others' worldview that we fail to do the real work of the movement, which is getting out there and winning new hearts and minds to the cause. We become hypersensitive (and sometimes downright surly) in the face of earnest questions from outsiders who don't understand the secret language of our groupthink. We build up walls that keep new members out, and harden into a cloistered elite that has no room for newcomers.
If the goal is to build a mass movement, those developments are absolutely fatal. And the only way to avoid it is to insist that our groups stay open to new members and ideas, and actively engaged with work that promotes our ideas in the larger non-progressive world.
Even when we lose, we win
Americans, more than anything, want to know what their political leaders stand for. They don't even have to like it -- they just want to know where your moral center is, and whether or not you know what The Right Thing looks like so you can do it when the job demands it. Invariably, we think more highly of conservative politicians known for standing their ground (a reputation John McCain worked to his advantage for decades, and Ronald Reagan rode all the way to the White House) than we do of liberal ones who are seen to be twisting in the latest breeze. (This is where the flip-flopper libel was born, and why it will not die until Democrats grow a spine.)
Weyrich, Phillips, and the other conservative strategists understood from the very beginning that, as long as they stood on principle, they would win the war even if they lost every battle. In their own minds, conservatives never lose; even when they're knocked flat on their butts, they figure it was just another small step toward the inevitable day that they win. The lesson they learn isn't "don't try that again." It's "come back and do it better next time."
That's why the best thing Democrats can do is push their agenda hard, taking boldly progressive stands that openly challenge the Republican status quo. Yes, they'll lose a great many of those challenges. But every loss can be turned into a bit of political theater, a morality play that proves a larger point: There are enduring principles that are worth more to us than a mere political loss or a little public embarrassment. We will stand for these things through whatever comes, because they are the very reason for our political existence. We, too, will keep coming back for as long as it takes.
In the next post, I'll look at some of the specific communications strategies conservatives adopted to increase the appeal of their ideas, and embed them deeply in American mass culture.
A small and beaten man spoke to Congress and the nation last night, convinced in his own mind he's a hero. Snoopy battling the Red Baron. Walter Mitty, imagining himself dying bravely before a firing squad.
For those who missed it, here's the Big Con run-down. Let me start with the facial expressions. Because, more than any of the words, they told the sad story.
The entrance: He raises both eyebrows puckishly, like the frat boy he is. Introduced by Speaker Pelosi, he reacts curiously to the wave of applause: he blushes. He actually thinks this applause is for him--they love me!!--and not a perfunctory gesture of respect for the office. He still thinks he is a great man, and that others think he is a great man. He looks about a thousand years old. He begins: "Seven years have passed since I first stood before you at this rostrum." Or that's what the transcript says he said. If you missed it live, what he actually said was, "...stood before yuh at this rostr'm...."
John Wayne taking on the desperadoes.
Then, the arrogant bastard, he makes a joke: "These issues"--he's named "peace and war, rising competition in the world economy, and the health and welfare of our citizens"--"deserve vigorous debate. And I think history will show we've answered the call." He gives the chamber that famous smirk, to let them know it's OK to laugh, even amid all the pomp: get it? These people keep insisting on debatin' with me. Washington! Bicker, bicker, bicker.
Then, he obliquely announces the speech's theme, also with a smirk: Bush's greatest hits. A golden trip down memory lane. He says, of public servants' job to "carry out the people's business," that "it remains our charge to keep." Dog whistle: this is the Methodist hymn that by which entitled his campaign book. Because remember: George Bush is a Christian Unleashing the "armies of compassion." Or it it this "army of compassion"?
Which brings up one of the creepiest features of the speech: "more than 2,600 of the poorest children in our Nation's Capital have found new hope at a faith-based or other non-public school. Sadly, these schools are disappearing at an alarming rate in many of America's inner cities." I didn't know--and perhaps the Constitution has something to say on this--it was the job of the U.S. government to fret over the disappearance of "faith-based" institutions. Well, our president now proposes we shore them up with "Pell Grants for Kids." Senator Clayborn Pell, a great man, now unfortunately suffers from Parkinson's disease, and probably lacks the wherewithal to slap the president in the face for the insult to his great progressive legacy.
I suppose we should also attend to the words, because this pathetic washout happens to be the most powerful man in the world, so the words he uses are important.
He repeated the Great Republican Lie of 2007, implying that the Democrats in the 110th Congress is obstructionist--"Let us show them that Republicans and Democrats can compete for votes and cooperate for results at the same time," he piously intoned.--when it's really himself and the Republican minority who are willfully obstructing, with an aggressiveness unmatched in modern history. He still trumpets his own disastrous Ownership Society rhetoric (How disastrous? See here) and barely acknowledges the massive economic pain Americans are feeling and our about to feel -- and only then to issue one more obstructionist threat, on the stimulus package: "The temptation will be to load up the bill. That would delay it or derail it." Mafia words: my way, or else.
But back, again, to the facial expressions. The most fulsome smirk came, I think, winding up to his promise, "If any bill raising taxes reaches my desk, I will veto it." He said something interesting, perhaps referring to the remarkable poll results consistently showing a majority of Americans believe Bush's tax cuts were not worth it, or that they would be glad to pay higher taxes if it meant healthcare for all Americans. Such national maturity--indeed any occasion to call Americans to some higher sacrifice--can only but be mocked by the smug bastard running our country. He said this: "Others have said they'd be happier to pay higher taxes. I welcome their enthusiasm. The IRS accepts both checks and money owners."
Cheney joins his smirk.
What else? There was his promise of an executive order canceling earmarks not voted out in the open--because, of course, now that the Democrats run Congress, procedural irregularity and pork-barrel spending has suddenly become a national crisis.
There was some fairy dust about making "health care more affordable and accessible for all Americans. The best way to achieve that goal is by expanding consumer choice, not government control." The Republicans' barks of approval at that one are guttural. He add that medical decisions must be "made in the privacy of your doctor's office, not in the halls of Congress."
About medical decisions made in callous insurance company cubicles, of course--which is to say, most medical decisions--he has nothing to say.
"Six years ago, we came together to pass the No Child Left Behind Act, and today no one can deny its results." No one can deny they suck. Read this.
"To keep America competitive into the future, we must trust in the skill of our scientists and engineers and empower them to pursue the breakthroughs of tomorrow"? Only if those breakthroughs accord with conservative dogma. Read this.
Perhaps later, I'll give you more on the fairy tales he's propounding our nation on its place in the world. I'll leave you with this one peace of jargon: "protective overwatch mission." That's the new Bushism for "We're staying in Iraq for ever." You'll be hearing it much more in the days ahead.
The recent holiday season is a reminder that among the most vile of creatures is the religious hypocrite on the taxpayer dole.
There are no doubt numerous examples that could be cited within the Bush administration, but top of mind this week would be Steve Johnson, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency.
Ignoring all legal and technical evidence -- and the advice of his career experts -- Johnson sided with the car industry and rejected the request of California to enforce the state's landmark greenhouse gas standards for motor vehicles. (No fewer than 19 other states have already adopted these standards or are considering them, representing about half the U.S. population.) In fact, Johnson took action that his own legal team said was probably illegal.
To top things off, when it appeared that the story was about to leak (thanks to excellent reporting by The Washington Post), Johnson abruptly called an evening news conference by telephone to put his "spin" on the situation.
In the process, Johnson lied through his teeth to the media. Among other lies, Johnson claimed approving California's request would create a "confusing patchwork of state rules" (No, this is just auto industry propaganda. There would only be one standard that other states could adopt. So many had either done so or contemplating adoption, that it could have become a de facto national standard.). Johnson claimed that the standard would save less gasoline than the new fuel economy standards in the energy bill. (Another lie. The car companies opposed the California standards because they would require them to do more.) And the EPA chief gushed over his "world-class professional staff" at the same time that he froze them out of the decision-making process.
Instead, Johnson did what the White House wanted him to do, which was give a giant Christmas gift to the car industry, which had lobbied various White House agencies and even Vice President Cheney in an effort to kill the California request.
This compulsion to lie might be considered normal in a standard politician, but Johnson has postured that he is a devoutly religious man -- in fact, he even taped a promotional spot for an evangelical proselytizing organization known as Christian Embassy.
In that video tape, Johnson states that "I can't imagine doing this [job] without the Lord."
He also claims he meets with the group at his office early in the morning to "have a Bible study." (It's worth noting that Johnson claimed he was "too busy" to meet with Senator Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., before announcing the California decision.)
Ultimately, Johnson will be exposed for his mendacity in this matter. Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., is demanding all the internal documents and other relevant material -- and has warned EPA to "preserve all documents" related to the issue. And California and 15 other states are suing and likely will eventually win in court.
But it's worth pointing out that it's not the first time this EPA head has blatantly lied about a critical decision that helped polluting industry. In order to save industry money, last year Johnson set weak national standards for airborne soot -- a decision that will lead to many thousands of premature deaths. Even the mild-mannered head of EPA's science advisory board noted Johnson was "a little disingenuous" in claiming there was scientific doubt about what to do.
And soon Johnson will make yet another decision that could either save -- or take -- lives, since he is under a court order to announce a decision by March on new national air quality standards for ozone, or smog.
Last year, Johnson proposed a slight tightening of the standard -- though not as tight as unanimously recommended by his science advisers -- because scientific evidence is overwhelming that the current standards don't adequately protect the health of kids with asthma and many millions of other Americans.
But with a final decision looming, polluting industries have ramped up their lobbying activities. Prompted by the National Association of Manufacturers, 11 governors wrote to the EPA head, urging him to make no change in the current standards.
The lobbying blitz so alarmed Senator Tom Carper, D-Del., head of the Senate clean air subcommittee, that he sent Johnson a handwritten note urging him not to cave under political pressure.
Maybe Carper should have sent a Bible along.
Democratic Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote a groundbreaking paper back in the 1960s about the alleged weaknesses of often female-headed African-American families. He described a culture of loose morals and indulgent self-destructive behavior which the right successfully demagogued into a decades long, thinly veiled racist attack on government welfare programs. The common wisdom was that welfare institutionalized and rewarded failure leading to an immoral social order. Throughout the period there were sustained conservative attacks on those who defended such programs and participated in the vast cultural transformation of the era, characterizing these behaviors as "moral depravity."
As recently as the early '90s, Moynihan himself was busily coining snappy slogans to illustrate liberalism's essential immorality, the most memorable being "defining deviancy down":
It appears to me that this is in fact what we in the United States have been doing of late. I proffer the thesis that, over the past generation, since the time Erikson wrote, the amount of deviant behavior in American society has increased beyond the levels the community can "afford to recognize" and that, accordingly, we have been re-defining deviancy so as to exempt much conduct previously stigmatized, and also quietly raising the "normal" level in categories where behavior is now abnormal by any earlier standard. This redefining has evoked fierce resistance from defenders of "old" standards, and accounts for much of the present "cultural war" such as proclaimed by many at the 1992 Republican National Convention.
Let me, then, offer three categories of redefinition in these the altruistic, the opportunistic, and the normalizing.
The first category, the altruistic, may be illustrated by the deinstitutionalization movement within the mental health profession that appeared in the 1950s. The second category, the opportunistic, is seen in the interest group rewards derived from the acceptance of "alternative" family structures. The third category, the normalizing, is to be observed in the growing acceptance of unprecedented levels of violent crime.Moynihan and others had been convinced that the biggest problems in American society stemmed from destructive behaviors among common folk. He, and many of those culture warriors he describes so benignly, were particularly concerned with the personal and sexual habits of the underclass, believing that America had normalized certain "animalistic" behaviors which led inevitably to poverty and social unrest.
Moynihan wrote that paper on the heels of the L.A. riots, and being considered something of an expert in race relations because of his earlier work on urban problems (and that famous paper) people listened avidly. But it was also on the heels of the greatest taxpayer bailout of private business in history -- the savings and loan crisis. Somehow that didn't factor into the descriptions of a decline of morality or the redefining of deviant behavior in American society.
So, while marriage and kids are still popular enough that the allegedly decadent gay community clamors for the right to have a normal bourgeois family (and ironically are being fought every step of the way by those who claim to be concerned about family's demise!), we hear nothing from the culture warriors about this particular kind of moral depravity:
One of the state's largest health insurers set goals and paid bonuses based in part on how many individual policyholders were dropped and how much money was saved.
Woodland Hills-based Health Net Inc. avoided paying $35.5 million in medical expenses by rescinding about 1,600 policies between 2000 and 2006. During that period, it paid its senior analyst in charge of cancellations more than $20,000 in bonuses based in part on her meeting or exceeding annual targets for revoking policies, documents disclosed Thursday showed ...
The bonuses were disclosed at an arbitration hearing in a lawsuit brought by Patsy Bates, a Gardena hairdresser whose coverage was rescinded by Health Net in the middle of chemotherapy treatments for breast cancer.Every day in the news we have horror stories about average Americans who happen to get sick and are forced to deal with a byzantine health care system designed to prevent them, if at all possible, from getting the care they need, while conservative presidential candidates declare:
"I don't like mandating health care. I don't like it because it erodes what makes health care work in this country -- the free market, the profit motive. A mandate takes choice away from people. We've got to let people make choices. We've got to let them take the risk-do they want to be covered? Do they want health insurance? Because ultimately, if they don't, well, then, they may not be taken care of."Unsurprisingly, we also have the decadent business elite, awash in cash and privilege during this second gilded age, being lavishly rewarded time after time for risky behavior. People like Merril Lynch's Stanley O'Neill who, after being fired for overseeing the loss of 8 billion dollars the company invested in sub-prime loans, was forced to settle for a mere 160 million dollar golden parachute -- on top of his 48 million dollar salary.
And let's not forget the decadent elites in Washington, who having passed punitive bankruptcy reform that makes it extremely difficult for people to even get a clean slate when things don't turn out well for them financially being asked to bear the burden for Stanley O'Neill's risky ventures. They are now expected to tepidly try to pass some mitigating legislation which the Bush administration will likely veto.
Meanwhile, you have the e. coli conservatives making huge profits selling lead toys to your kids (when they're not accidentally dosing them with date rape drugs), enabling mine-owners to take shortcuts that end up killing their workers, and simply pretending that threats such a global warming don't exist. The stories of war profiteering in Iraq are so appalling and grotesque that it's almost impossible to absorb. And then, of course, there's is torture.
So, here we find ourselves more than 40 years after the conservatives began decrying the moral depravity of the left and 15 years after Patrick Moynihan told us that our liberal culture was defining deviancy down and we find that they were right all along. They just got one little detail wrong. It wasn't the liberal left who were morally depraved. It was them.
While the culture at large was adjusting to the idea that families don't all look the same and that private sexual morality was not the business of the state, the decadent economic elite and right wing ideologues had systematically defined deviancy down to the point where Moynihan's deviant "altruism" can be illustrated as giving bonuses to workers who denied cancer patients their medicine; his deviant "opportunism" is seen as giving hundreds of millions of dollars to failed business leaders who lost their companies billions; and his deviant "normalizing" can be observed as society tossing aside its taboo against government-sanctioned torture.
If those are the "old" standards the culture warriors of the right have been trying to defend, they're killing us. Literally.
I first noticed the right's successful use of phony sanctimony and faux outrage back in the 90's when well-known conservative players like Gingrich and Livingston pretended to be offended at the president's extramarital affair and were repeatedly and tiresomely "upset" about fund-raising practices they all practiced themselves. The idea of these powerful and corrupt adulterers being personally upset by White House coffees and naughty sexual behavior was laughable.
But they did it, oh how they did it, and it often succeeded in changing the dialogue and titillating the media into a frenzy of breathless tabloid coverage.
In fact, they became so good at the tactic that they now rely on it as their first choice to control the political dialogue when it becomes uncomfortable and put the Democrats on the defensive whenever they are winning the day. Perhaps the best example during the Bush years would be the completely cynical and over-the-top reaction to Senator Paul Wellstone's memorial rally in 2002 in the last couple of weeks leading up to the election.
With the exception of the bizarre Jesse Ventura, those in attendance, including the Republicans, were non-plussed by the nature of the event at the time. It was not, as the chatterers insisted, a funeral, but rather more like an Irish wake for Wellstone supporters -- a celebration of Wellstone's life, which included, naturally, politics. (He died campaigning, after all.) But Vin Weber, one of the Republican party's most sophisticated operatives, immediately saw the opportunity for a faux outrage fest that was more successful than even he could have ever dreamed.
By the time they were through, the Democrats were prostrating themselves at the feet of anyone who would listen, begging for forgiveness for something they didn't do, just to stop the shrieking. The Republicans could barely keep the smirks off their faces as they sternly lectured the Democrats on how to properly honor the dead -- the same Republicans who had relentlessly tortured poor Vince Foster's family for years.
It's an excellent technique and one they continue to employ with great success, most recently with the entirely fake Move-On and Pete Stark "controversies." (The Democrats try their own versions but rarely achieve the kind of full blown hissy fit the Republicans can conjure with a mere blast fax to Drudge and their talk radio minions.)
But it's about more than simple political distraction or savvy public relations. It's actually a very well developed form of social control called Ritual Defamation (or Ritual Humiliation) as this well trafficked internet article defines it:
Defamation is the destruction or attempted destruction of the reputation, status, character or standing in the community of a person or group of persons by unfair, wrongful, or malicious speech or publication. For the purposes of this essay, the central element is defamation in retaliation for the real or imagined attitudes, opinions or beliefs of the victim, with the intention of silencing or neutralizing his or her influence, and/or making an example of them so as to discourage similar independence and "insensitivity" or non-observance of taboos. It is different in nature and degree from simple criticism or disagreement in that it is aggressive, organized and skillfully applied, often by an organization or representative of a special interest group, and in that it consists of several characteristic elements.The article goes on to lay out several defining characteristics of ritual defamation such as "the method of attack in a ritual defamation is to assail the character of the victim, and never to offer more than a perfunctory challenge to the particular attitudes, opinions or beliefs expressed or implied. Character assassination is its primary tool." Perhaps its most intriguing insight is this:
The power of ritual defamation lies entirely in its capacity to intimidate and terrorize. It embraces some elements of primitive superstitious belief, as in a "curse" or "hex." It plays into the subconscious fear most people have of being abandoned or rejected by the tribe or by society and being cut off from social and psychological support systems.In a political context this translates to a fear by liberal politicians that they will be rejected by the American people -- and a subconscious dulling of passion and inspiration in the mistaken belief that they can spare themselves further humiliation if only they control their rhetoric. The social order these fearsome conservative rituals pretend to "protect," however, are not those of the nation at large, but rather the conservative political establishment which is perhaps best exemplified by this famous article about how Washington perceived the Lewinsky scandal. The "scandal" is moved into the national conversation through the political media which has its own uses for such entertaining spectacles and expends a great deal of energy promoting these shaming exercises for commercial purposes.
The political cost to progressives and liberals for their inability to properly deal with this tactic is greater than they realize. Just as Newt Gingrich was not truly offended by Bill Clinton's behavior (which mirrored his own) neither were conservative congressmen and Rush Limbaugh truly upset by the Move On ad -- and everyone knew it, which was the point. It is a potent demonstration of pure power to force others to insincerely condemn or apologize for something, particularly when the person who is forcing it is also insincerely outraged. For a political party that suffers from a reputation for weakness, it is extremely damaging to be so publicly cowed over and over again. It separates them from their most ardent supporters and makes them appear guilty and unprincipled to the public at large.
Ritual defamation and humiliation are designed to make the group feel contempt for the victim and over time it's extremely hard to resist feeling it when the victims fail to stand up for themselves.
There is the possibility that the Republicans will overplay this particular gambit. Their exposure over the past few years for incompetence, immorality and corruption, both personal and institutional, makes them extremely imperfect messengers for sanctimony, faux or otherwise. But they are still effectively wielding the flag, (or at least the Democratic congress is allowing them to) and until liberals and progressives find a way to thwart this successful tactic, it will continue. At this point the conservatives have little else.
What do you suppose today's enforcers of proper decorum would say to this?
Americans too often teach their children to despise those who hold unpopular opinions. We teach them to regard as traitors, and hold in aversion and contempt, such as do not shout with the crowd, and so here in our democracy we are cheering a thing which of all things is most foreign to it and out of place - the delivery of our political conscience into somebody else's keeping. This is patriotism on the Russian plan. -- Mark Twain
During the week of October 22-26, an official announcement effuses, "The nation will be rocked by the biggest conservative campus protest ever - Islamo-Fascism Awareness Week, a wake-up call for Americans on 200 university and college campuses." Ringmastered by David Horowitz, this circus will be performing under the tent of something called the "Terrorism Awareness Project."
The purpose of this ballyhoolooza, we are told, is to confront the "Big Lies" of the Left regarding terrorism and militant Islam. Worthy subjects, to be sure. Indeed I would like to help the sponsors of the "wake-up call" promote awareness of them. Toward this end, let's consider the American Right's "special relationship" with one group of terrorists.
The U.S. State Department officially considers the Mujahedeen-e Khalq (MEK) a Foreign Terrorist Organization. While those honors date back to 1994, they've been renewed during the Bush years. Indeed in 2003 Foggy Bottom went further, including the National Council of Resistance of Iran -- an MEK alias -- under the terrorist designation. (The MEK is also known as the People's Mujahedeen.)
To make a long and bizarre story short, the MEK got its start in early 1960s Iran, helped overthrow the Shah in 1979, but quickly turned on the revolutionary government it helped bring to power. Employing an ideological blend of Stalinism and Islamism, the tactics of a paramilitary guerilla faction, and the organizational structure of a cult, the group went into exile, eventually making their home in Iraq in the mid-1980s. Not only did Saddam give the organization cover: he armed, funded, and utilized them for a variety of ends over two decades.
The group's wicked political brew was on spectacular display on the old MEK flag (since abandoned), with its sickle and Kalashnikov positioned beneath a Koranic verse. (Not -- to state the obvious -- that the mere presence of a Koranic verse in and of itself implies Islamist political commitments, but in this case the shoe very much fits.)
Here you have virtually everything the Right claims to oppose all rolled into one: Islamism, Marxism, terrorism, and Saddam. Naturally, then, neoconservatives would utterly deplore the MEK and everything it stands for, right? The MEK would in fact make an ideal target for Islamo-Fascism Awareness Week and Terrorism Awareness efforts, no?
Well, no. At least one of the carnival's acts, it turns out, is rather fond of the Islamo-Stalinist-terrorist cult group, and has repeatedly argued for the removal of the MEK from the State Department's list of terrorist groups and indeed urged the U.S. government to embrace it. Daniel Pipes, who will be speaking at Tufts on October 24th as part of the Horowitz high jinks, has made the MEK a recurring theme in his writings going back several years: here, here, and here.
Pipes has also gone to bat for the MEK right in the pages of Horowitz's house organ.
But Pipes is far from alone on the Right in championing the MEK. He co-authored the first piece linked to above with Patrick Clawson of the right-wing Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Right-wing commentator Max Boot has argued not merely for the removal of the MEK from the terrorist list but for funding and unleashing it to do battle with Iranian forces -- this while casually acknowledging that it is a "political cult." (More on Boot's disfigured views here.)
In some cases the MEK plays a stealth role in the media machinery of the American Right. What the FOX News Channel tells viewers about Alireza Jafarzadeh when he appears on its airwaves is that he is an "FNC Foreign Affairs Analyst." What you have to go to the FOX News website to discover, however, is that Jafarzadeh served "for a dozen years as the chief congressional liaison and media spokesman for the U.S. representative office of Iran's parliament in exile, the National Council of Resistance of Iran." But it is scarcely known that the sonorous-sounding National Council of Resistance of Iran is in fact a front name for the MEK.
Now, it's true that Jafarzadeh discontinued his post with the National Council of Resistance of Iran--but only when (and only because) its Washington office was forced to close in 2003 as a result of the State Department decision about it being a front for the MEK. It's not like he had a change of heart.
If you attend an "Islamo-Fascism Awareness Week" event, you might want to ask the speakers about this terrorist cult and whether they condemn it. Some of them might -- not all neoconservatives agree on the MEK. (See here and here for examples of right-wing criticism of the outfit -- though the lines of argumentation are sometimes bizarrely convoluted.)
But the fact that several prominent American conservatives have cozied up to an Islamist-Stalinist cult that was on Saddam's payroll and the State Department considers a terrorist organization -- this raises serious questions (to put it mildly) about the Right's bedfellows and the calculus that determines them.
It suggests the need for a little more terrorism awareness.
So Republican candidates were busy finding better things to do this week than appear at a forum where they could debate minority issues. Rudy's excuse was the best: he had to go off and hobnob with Bo Derek.
Digby's right, as usual: It's not just that the no-show reveals the undercurrent of racism that runs through the conservative movement like an ancient underground sewer -- the snub also played an important role in sending a signal to the conservative base.
We've known for some time that the GOP's fake inclusiveness -- hosting black children onstage at campaign events, trotting out big-name minorities in key public positions -- isn't actual minority outreach. It's part of its strategic appeal to fence-sitting white voters as somehow racially sensitive, while continuing to empower and indulge in wink-and-nudge racial politics that sends coded messages to the more naked racists in their base. It also gives them cover even as they pursue policies that reduce civil-rights enforcement on a broad scale.
A big part of playing that game is to keep the signals going to the base. Sometimes it's plain old race- and gay-baiting, couched in ways that let them erect flimsy facades of deniability. At others, it's making subtle snubs like this week's to make sure no one's deluded into thinking that defending white privilege isn't the first and most important job on the right's agenda.
So in the meantime you get a broad range of right-wingers, from Rush Limbaugh to Glenn Beck to Bill O'Reilly,, and all points in between, finding themselves increasingly comfortable coming out and saying things that no one in their right mind would have found acceptable or reasonable as recent as a decade ago. And the troops are taking note; they're even openly frothing along with their icons at the very thought of an African American running for the presidency.
The big opening for this shift in the dialogue towards near-open acceptance of old-fashioned bigotry is the immigration debate:
Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of all this is the big picture: the anti-immigrant push really represents a significant incursion of right-wing extremism into mainstream conservatism. Each is busy empowering the other, with the end result being an American right pushed even farther to the right.The nativist right has effectively captured a significant segment of the Republican right, and it's playing out nationally in the immigration debate, most often on the local level. There was, for instance, the immigration forum held in Colorado a couple of weeks ago that was nothing more than an exercise in Latino-bashing:
Tuesday's immigration forum arranged by Weld County District Attorney Ken Buck was orchestrated to play on the worst fears of residents anxious about changes to their community.
Ã¢â‚¬Â¦ On the one hand, Buck has repeatedly acknowledged publicly that only a small fraction of illegal immigrants commit crimes -- beyond their unauthorized entry into this country. On the other, he attempted to whip up a crowd of 600 that gathered at an auditorium Tuesday night by flashing a slide show of photos of Hispanic men and the crimes they've committed. It was accompanied by an "ominous soundtrack," according to a Rocky Mountain News story.
Coupled with a Weld County Sheriff's Color Guard presentation and a recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance, the mood was cast for an us-versus-them event.
Ã¢â‚¬Â¦ There is no doubt Weld County has undergone significant demographic change over the last decade. The foreign-born population of Greeley went from 7,421 people in 2000 to 11,907 in 2006, a 60 percent increase in a city of 76,000.
When a place begins to undergo that kind of change, there is sure to be anxiety. The newcomers may look different. They may practice a different religion or speak a different language. Historically, this country has suffered waves of tension as groups of immigrants have brought with them their own traditions.
Rather than point out how much different "they" are, as Assistant U.S. Attorney Cliff Stricklin coyly did when he said he was glad to see so many "cowboy hats, boots and American flags" in the largely white audience, it would be far more productive to highlight the things we have in common. We want safe neighborhoods. We want our children to be well-educated. We want friendly communities.And if you watch the leaders of this charge, you'll see that increasingly they're dropping all pretense of being rational. Presidential candidate Tom Tancredo, for instance, recently came out and said plainly what has been an innate -- but oft-denied -- part of his message, namely, that it isn't just illegal immigration he opposes:
Tancredo contends that illegal, and legal, immigrants are harming the nation because many of the newcomers "refuse to assimilate."
Even many legal immigrants fail to learn English or embrace American culture, choosing instead to keep their old customs and religion, he said. "The American melting pot is broken."
He asserted that such practices are destroying the cultural ties that long bound Americans together. The crowd roared in agreement when Tancredo shouted, "I'm tired of pressing '1' for English, and '2' for Spanish!"
He also linked illegal immigration to the nation's fight against terrorism and Islamic extremists. Tancredo asserted that some Iraqis were paying $50,000 to be smuggled across U.S. borders.Rhetoric like Tancredo's (which comes from a variety of anti-immigrant quarters, including many white supremacists) is then picked up and broadcast by right-wing media figures like Lou Dobbs and Michael Savage and their dozens of imitators.
Of course, we know the immediate effects of this on the ground as well -- namely, the formation of vigilante action groups like the Minutemen, who reportedly are gearing up this week for another border watch. No doubt we can look forward to a concomitant rise in border deaths, while the yahoos in their lawn chairs concoct more video fantasies about shooting Latinos.
There are broader effects as well. We're seeing a number of cities attempting to create modern 'sundown' towns by driving out their Latino populations. And to no one's surprise, we've seen a marked upsurge in violent bias crimes targeting Latinos and other immigrants in the past couple of years.
This kind of hate never contains itself, though. It's like a bad virus that starts affecting every other walk of American life too. The desire to inflict violence on your scapegoat du jour always shifts along with the scapegoat. Pretty soon it isn't just "illegals" being targeted but any colored people, or whoever they decide to hate next: gays, liberals, whatever.
We've been seeing more ugly hate crimes in the Seattle area. There's been a spate of gay-bashings this summer. A Jewish family in the suburbs recently had their home vandalized, after someone wrote "I eat Jews" and drew a large backwards swastika on the hood of the family's work truck parked in the driveway. Another suburban family's home was vandalized because the contractor working on it was of mixed race.
We've been seeing it regionally too. Over in Lewiston, Idaho, a local white woman and her daughter were jailed for assaulting a 13-year-old Indian girl. Down in Butte Falls, Oregon, the swastikas have been coming out at the local high schools, and they've been directed, predictably, at Latinos:
The quiet Jackson County town of Butte Falls is combating outbreaks of racism by white supremacists and others, evident by swastikas carved in benches and fights between whites and Hispanics.
By June it had reached the high school. Someone burned a swastika symbol in the carpet of a history classroom.
Ã¢â‚¬Â¦ Last year 10th-graders Derrick Cisneros and Harley Casillas heard about classmates using slurs referring to their Hispanic heritage behind their backs.
Some of the racist remarks came from football teammates, Casillas said. They saw swastikas on bathroom walls.It's even spreading in Canada:
"When there's an incident where there's the potential for people of colour or racialized minorities to be targeted, you find the white supremacist groups or individuals use it as an excuse to perpetrate even more hatred," says Mock.
It used to be that those involved in neo-Naziism could be typecast as young, white men in their teens and 20s. In order to reach out to a wider demographic, white supremacist web sites have changed tactics in recent years.
"(They're) transforming their views from the poisonous 'We want to expel minorities and imprison or exterminate Jews,' to something like 'We're just concerned about non-traditional immigration sources,' which usually means non-white," says Richard Warman, an Ottawa-based human rights lawyer. "They try to throw sugar in with their poison just to give it a more palatable taste."And sometimes, as they have in Jena, Louisiana, they simply move in and try to exploit racially sensitive situations by inflaming them.
This two-step dance -- putting on a mainstream face while privately coddling the real fanaticism that underlies the agenda -- matches the dance of the mainstream right as it indulges the theater of scapegoating that fuels not just the anti-immigrant right but so much of what passes for "conservatism" these days: anti-gay, anti-black, anti-Muslim, anti-liberal.
The real question is where they're going to end up at the end of the dance, which will depend on who's calling the shots. Movement conservatives like to kid themselves that the fringe fanatics they're dancing with are fully under their control; but the nutcases have the crazy notion that it's the other way around. Judging from the way their presidential candidates are behaving, they look to be right.
One, of course, is the children themselves: 6 million currently covered under SCHIP (less if conservatives get their way) and 9 million still uninsured.
Without more health insurance, more kids will get sick and die. Period.
Conservatives, being compassionate and all, will swear up and down they don't want more sick kids. They just don't want "big government" to deal with them.
Now, I could give you some defensive arguments to insist SCHIP really isn't "big government." States take the lead in implementing the program. Private insurers generally deliver the coverage.
Which would be true. But that would leave out a critical part of the program's success: our federal government.
We all chip in and fund children's health insurance through our federal government. And we make sure the coverage is decent by regulating the private companies involved.
In return, we all save money and strengthen our economy as kids get more preventative care, instead of waiting for grievous illness to take them to the ER.
This is not theory. While more and more adults have had to go without health insurance, SCHIP has increased the percentage of kids with health insurance.
It is simply a proven success.
And local media has begun introducing their readers to kids who are alive and well thanks to that success.
None of this was happening, or would happen, without government -- without us citizens calling on our federal government to invest our taxes and set ground rules to solve this problem.
Having said that, this is not really a debate of government versus no government.
This is a debate between good government and bad government.
As I wrote in an earlier post:
Bush and fellow conservatives are just fine with government subsidies to prop up Medicare Advantage private plans, even though they cost taxpayers more than the traditional Medicare public plan.
They are just fine keeping the children's insurance program, so long as we underfund it and millions remain uninsured.
As Robert Borosage commented earlier: "faced with a choice of providing children with health care or protecting the profits of private insurance companies, the president chooses the latter."Conservatives fear losing the SCHIP debate because they fear losing the entire health care debate. This fear is unchanged from 1993, when they decided they had to kill universal health care, because "[i]ts passage will give the Democrats a lock on the crucial middle-class vote and revive the reputation of the party."
Politics over policy. Party over people. Bad government over good government.
SCHIP is not health insurance for all. It's just a rare bright spot in our overall inefficient, convoluted, patchwork, private-sector dominated health care system.
Expanding SCHIP does not automatically get us to quality, affordable health insurance for all.
Nor does defeating SCHIP -- and further upsetting the public by worsening our health care system -- ensure conservatives (despite their delusions) that they can stop the momentum for universal health insurance. Perhaps the opposite.
And that bigger debate is rapidly coming, as Sen. Hillary Clinton's new health care proposal joins plans from Sen. Barack Obama and former Sen. John Edwards.
To address the myriad of domestic problems that Americans want solved, including our shoddy health care system, we need effective government.
To win these debates with the public, we need to be able to propose solutions that involve our government.
That means when we have a program where our government has shined, we must praise it for that very reason.
The fundamental question that is always before the public is: whose people and which philosophy knows the difference between good government and bad government?
We must make it clear: if you're against SCHIP, you don't know good government. And you can't be trusted to lead on the challenges we all face.
More information on the State Children's Health Insurance Program Ã‚Â»