“Middle class America wants to feel better about itself and listening to progressives does not leave them feeling good or inspired at all.”
“Everyday like the last one, Everyday like a rerun” – Patti Smith, Piss Factory
What was striking about the Glenn Beck rally was its familiarity, not its strangeness. Everything about it was a repetition of messages and ideas reinforcing the version of American tradition that ‘imagineers’ on the right have promoted for decades. A national identity erased of color or class or gender or religious plurality. A restoration fantasy of “taking this country back” (to the pre-civil war 1850’s at least, if not the 1760’s). The banal invocation to “do good” while acting really badly against anyone defined outside of the Christian nation.
In a similar vein, Jane Mayer’s expose of the Koch brothers in the New Yorker was also eerily familiar — another excellent analysis of the strategic funding and ideological commitment of right wing donors. How many times have we read this story? Yet, each decade it seems that mainstream and even progressive minded people newly “discover” the Right. We are reminded (again) that they have built a comprehensive totalitarian infrastructure (from ideas to action to communication). Liberals are shocked to realize how much money the ideological Right commits to consolidating its political power. People bemoan the collapse of a moderate wing of the Republican party. Alarms are sounded and everyone goes on as usual.
Sadly, there is a shortage of ideas about how to respond to and how to defeat the Right wing culturally and politically. This column is an effort to think about progressive strategy and invites others to offer their experiences.
Let’s leave aside the liberal denialist response of those – including our President — who think it possible to work “rationally” with an opposition that is arming itself to destroy them. (Remember the heady delusion of “there are no red states or blue states, only the United States of America”)? Progressives have tried at least three approaches to defeat the Right over the last four decades: 1) research and document the enemy, 2) build infrastructure to challenge their influence on a wide range of fronts, and 3) play hard-ball politics. Each of these approaches remains necessary, but must go deeper and be supplemented with new ideas.
Research and documentation
One certainly has to know whom one is up against. Research and analysis is critical. Research on the right has shown how religious conservatives married cultural conservatism to economic conservatism; links between the intelligence communities and the right; links among hard right militias and racist elements in this country; funding trails between mainstream donors and fanatic shock jocks; links between US religious groups and global missionaries whose actions result in terror and violence against LGBT people. The research shows us an ideologically broad coalition that effectively unites across class through its nationalism, racism and misogyny.(1)
But our research is not sophisticated enough to help us develop our vision of the future and put it out to America. Our think tanks fail in developing ways to communicate beyond a narrow elite base. We need to think how we can address the worries and anxieties of the rank and file followers of the Right – even the ones who are falling for racist and misogynist appeals with our very different message. To defeat the right, we are going to have to offer a coherent and inviting vision, a different kind of nationalism.
The ordinary person today is not my mommy or daddy’s generation of racist or sexist or even homophobe. S/he believes that women and racial minorities have made progress, that opportunity can be theirs too if they work hard for it, that the system is not as rigged as we on the elite left believe it is. How do we respond to this world view?
I think middle class America wants to feel better about itself and listening to progressives does leave them feeling good or inspired at all. The white working class feels blamed and burdened. It is resentful of the elites because it feels looked down upon by them. It longs to be rich and buys up lots of lottery tickets to gain entry to the land of Oz that capitalism promises. People of color in the middle class are also not immune from racism or bias – they are bought into the system and they fear the loss of their hard-earned status. And gay people have proved that we are just as bland and defensive in our dreams and desires as straight people – the experience of outsiderness does not necessarily make us understanding of other outsiders.
Instead of a sneering condescension towards the middle class attitudes we face in each community (white, black, gay, immigrant), instead of hiding behind the inaccessible analytic of “intersectionality”, we need to embody the embracing pluralism we represent and communicate widely. Bring back a feminist power analysis of how patriarchal systems deform men and harm women. Bring forward a social democratic economic platform that clearly outlines the tax and revenue generation policies that will actually turn this country around. Have the guts to stand up and say we are for liberty, the Bill of Rights (including the 2nd Amendment), and for a lessened role for the police state. Practical and aggressive solutions are needed to address the pervasive violence in our world – violence against women, child abuse, physical violence, imagery of violence and atrocity of war. None of it can be accepted as “the way things are.” I am not talking about winning a campaign here, but winning future generations, of winning understanding of our world-view.
This kind of research is in short supply. Only a handful of think tanks monitor and study the Right (e.g. Political Research Associates, People For the American Way, Southern Poverty Law Center to name three). Liberal and progressive philanthropy has desperately underfunded the study of how to respond to the Right because it correctly fears that Right wing Congress-men will turn their regulatory ire on the Right’s enemies. The fear is warranted but cannot excuse cowardice. A lot more funding needs to be directed immediately to stem the neo-fascist movements growing in the United States.
Build a competing infrastructure
A second tool that progressives have (belatedly) deployed to fight the right is to build a competing infrastructure to generate new ideas and promote them politically. As a result there has been great growth in the size and growth of mainstream and liberal think tanks (as well as growth in the libertarian and conservative ones). (2) In addition, a wide range of projects have been built from media watchdogs (Media Matters) to legal (American Constitution Society). Unfortunately, this progressive infrastructure remains limited to Washington DC and only a handful of other states. Until there is a progressive anti-right wing infrastructure accessible to organizers across the country at the state level, we will not reach down to where the Right is gaining strength. The local reality for progressives is that we lack visibility, coherence, a local public presence, we lack champions who articulate a dissenting and inclusive voice in our local communities, and we are dispersed because we organize by issue, instead of by ideology. What resources would we need to help us turn the tide locally? What structures should we create? This is the question that needs to asked regionally and at the state level in key regions where the Right is strong. It’s not enough to work in New England. We have to invest in the South and Southwest.
In addition, the progressive infrastructures being built do not incorporate the valence of race, gender, sexuality, or religiosity in public opinion formation, in public policy making and in political practice, thus ignoring what one could argue is the key reason for the Left’s weakness over the last forty years – its failure to take on issues of identity and knit them into a politics of pluralism. Instead, the Left has carped about identity, splintered around it, and resisted the leadership of women, people of color and gay people. As a result, there is actually a bifurcated progressive infrastructure. The mainstream corporate/civil rights/DC based one (visible at gatherings like the Congressional Black Caucus weekend) and the more inclusive and diverse, grassroots one (visible at gatherings like the US Social Forum). How can a progressive movement win if it is so fundamentally divided?
The third way we have worked against the Right is surprisingly the newest, and that is to play hard-ball politics. Progressives have waged successful campaigns to knock-out reactionary candidates and support progressives (in CO, MI, IA, for example), to defeat ballot measures and to recruit great new candidates at the local and state level (the Center for Progressive Leadership, Progressive Majority et al). These efforts need to be put on steroids. Every social movement that considers itself progressive has to play hard-ball politics to defeat the right at the ballot box, in every election, at every opportunity, not just at the national sexy presidential moment.
An unsolved problem for progressives around electoral work remains the obstacle of the Democratic Party. Despite every incentive to change, the party remains flaccid and ineffectual because it has no energized base. It is so weak at the state level that it loses races it should win (eg, Scott Brown) – in Massachusetts of all places. The Democratic Party has a demoralized and shrinking base because it keeps on ignoring the base to focus on the so called movable middle. In a campaign you need messages that will broaden your appeal, but in a Party you need a set of principles and a platform that you stand for that are non-negotiable. The President can be bipartisan. Congressional deal makers can “reach out across the aisle.” But the Democratic Party should be partisan and promote what it stands for – offering a clear and focused set of values on which it differentiates itself from the others.
These three approaches could be augmented by a greater integration of progressive media (and a much greater investment in them), and a greater focus on cultural strategies – not just political ones.
Progressive media is essential to the task of fighting the ideas of the Right. In fact, progressive media and journalism have been inspired in the past thirty years. With hardly any mainstream financing or support, we have a vigorous and active blogsphere, brilliant researchers who ferret out information on so many atrocities (Box Turtle Bulletin, Media Matters), brave outlets (Free Speech TV, Grit TV, Democracy Now, Public News Service), excellent radio and TV journalists (many of them outstanding women like Amy Goodman, Laura Flanders, Rachel Maddow), and a loosely knit set of networks among radio, TV and web based outlets. What we do not have is a satellite distributing progressive thoughts 24/7. What we lack are deep pocketed ideologically committed funder (like Murdoch) who hire a political operative (like Ailes) to create the negative and destructive consciousness that opposes progressivism.
Finally, progressives must tap into accessible cultural language and cultural formations to reach new people and to make ourselves better understood. People engage in action to find community and experience belonging, as much as they engage to vote or express a position. The right has been masterful at using pre-existing communities and turning them into ideological training grounds: Churches and the infrastructure they offer are one clear example. The use of spaces like NASCAR, patriotic moments (July 4th, Memorial Day) are less visible as ideologically organized sites for the transmission of a world view.
Cultural strategies on the left have also created communities and belonging. The most effective of these have been decentralized and self-organized strategies. These have included outreach to progressive religious denominations and individual churches committed to social and economic justice. The deployment of the consciousness raising groups in the women’s movement. The use of cultural and women’s music festivals for lesbian organizing. Direct action groups like ACT UP’s use of local chapters during the late 1980s. The hip hop and poetry revolution’s use of slams in the present decade. On line organizing communities like Move On.org or Avaaz.org are all examples of cultural organizing.
What is the new forms progressive cultural work could take to promote the alternative to the Right’s culture of negativity and division? I’m interested in these and other issues of practice. What is working on the ground to defeat the right? Should we create an antifascist party for the 21st century? How do we sustain ourselves for the long struggle ahead.
(1) Read, for example: Sara Diamond (Roads to Dominion), Jean Hardisty (Mobilizing Resentment), Rick Perlstine (Nixonland), Chip Berlet (Eyes Right or Right Wing Populism in America), Frederick Clarkson (Eternal Hostility), Chris Hedges (American Fascists), Michele Goldberg (Kingdom Coming), Max Blumenthal (Republican Gomorrah), Kevin Phillips (American Theocracy), Jennifer Burns (Goddess of the Market),Dan Gilfoff (The Jesus Machine), Amy Ansell (Unravelling the Right),Michael Kazin (The Populist Persuasion), David Niewert (In God’s Country). These are just a handful of suggestions; there are dozens more great books documenting the roots, intersections, tensions, and ideologies of Right wing movements in the US.
(2) See for example, the 2008 article by Elizabeth Bumiller, “Research Groups Boom in Washington”, http://www.nytimes.com/2008/01/30/washington/30tank.html.