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Gapers Block published from April 22, 2003 to Jan. 1, 2016. The site will remain up in archive form. Please visit Third Coast Review, a new site by several GB alumni.
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Saturday, July 20

Gapers Block

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It is election season, so I'm asking you to indulge all the partisan talk. But we have reached an important crossroads in our nation's political history.

The forces of conservatism that gained strength after Senator Barry Goldwater's nomination for the presidency in 1964, and transformed into a thinly-veiled crony-capitalist social Darwinist movement under Ronald Reagan, have reached the apogee of political success. Funded primarily by a handful of families -- the Scaifes, the Bradleys, the Olins, the Coors, the Waltons and others -- a conservative juggernaut that masks its plutocratic aims with fundamentalist grassroots Christian morality that has successfully fused pseudo-academic institutions, top-heavy "grassroots" advocacy groups and media outlets and has taken hold of the Republican Party and subverted democratic discourse. Their base of operations is in the socially conservative West and especially the South, a region that under conservative policies has seen a steady decline in median income and a spike in poverty levels.

Partly, we are to blame. As progressives, we resent the caricature of us as latte-sipping, effete (or butch, for the ladies) elitists. But we are often all too ready to typify the Southern conservative as a toothless, ignorant bigot who is too dumb to vote in their own interest. This is exactly what conservatives want: they want the Southerner to feel alienated by their natural party. But there is a way to crack the conservative stranglehold on the political process in the South and West, and when that happens the conservative movement will sputter. And it will begin in the South.

The Democrats are an old-fashioned party, one that relies on class identification and localized vote-generating, community-based "machines" for its success. This in itself is not the problem; the Democrats' tactical deftness is important. Organizationally-based campaigns will always have an advantage over top-down "soft" campaigns that are based on public relations and marketing. What needs to take place is a rethinking of national strategy.

Following Lyndon B. Johnson's "Great Society," the conservative movement successfully cracked the Democrats' position as the populist party by appealing to people's worst instincts on social issues. They degraded Democrats' local efficacy by "nationalizing" the parties. This nationalization entailed branding of the opposition party on a macro level and enforcing a do-or-die national discipline. By successfully nationalizing the parties, they forced what was a de-centralized, localized organization to become uniform and therefore cause entire wings to break away. The Republicans are a top-heavy organization that relies on huge influxes of money to finance these "soft" campaigns to sway public opinion; when they built these pseudo-academic institutes and media outlets, such as the Heritage Foundation and Fox News Channel, their ability to dominate discourse on the issues was amplified. The Democrats were forced on their heels because they are a very local, non-ideological organization that draws strength from strong, small-scale operations. They cannot survive in a climate where they are forced to agree on a national scale, because they lack not only macro level cohesiveness, but also the multi-faceted targeted fundraising capabilities the opposition enjoys. Conservatives by definition need only spread misinformation about social change, hunker down and use that political capital to force through plutocratic economic measures.

There needs to be a reallocation of political capital. Southern Democrats have been forced to renounce the national party line because Republicans dominate discourse on social issues and have forced all Democrats to be accountable, so local Democrats in, say, Alabama must expend much of their political capital simply defending their party affiliation. As a result, they are unable to implement the core economic policies that unite all Democrats. Without that, they cannot hope to increase their expendable political capital.

This is why Bill Clinton and Clintonism was such a blow to the Republican Party. If Clinton had been allowed to serve his terms with the same vigor as Ronald Reagan, the Republicans would have lost the South for a generation. Clintonism represented the truth that with sound, truly fair economic policies (or something approaching it) personal freedom flourishes, socially, religiously, and otherwise. So the Republicans and the conservative establishment effectively pre-empted this by nationalizing the parties quite explicitly: thus the so-called "Contract With America" in 1994. The Republicans drafted "localized" Democrats into a national fight they cannot win exactly because they are naturally more responsive, and closely identify with their constituency primarily on economic policy. A Democrat in Montana forced to campaign with issues like gay marriage, the National Endowment for the Arts and what-all else is doomed to failure. Add into this "advocacy groups" that redefine issues like tort reform, and that politician is sunk.

So what is to be done if progressivism is to survive?

A rethinking of macro level strategy and its relationship to micro level tactics.

First, the vast sums of money that have traditionally gone to candidates and more recently flowed into so-called 527 groups and true grassroots organizations needs to be more effectively allocated. That money needs to be targeted efficiently into creating genuine advocacy groups that can easily build true (as opposed to merely implied) grassroots support. Groups like the Center for Consumer Freedom and Americans for Tax Reform, merely fronts for titanic special interests and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, give a grassroots feel to conservative causes. Progressives also need to establish a network of focused think-tanks -- the money thrown at groups like the Heritage Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute, the National Right To Work Foundation and others needs to be matched to fund true think-tanks that can properly train and educate local Democratic and progressive politicians. This will better equip Democrats to handle the ruthless and shameless wedge-issue campaigning of the nationalized Republican party.

Media outlets will naturally flow from these: first on the internet, but as their influence grows, they will become hard-wired to the political media. The establishment of Air America Radio was a positive baby step, but it was only a first step. Currently, the conservative movement has effectively created a bullhorn that can shout down opposition to the incumbent administration, or in the case of the Clinton years can create an echo chamber that bullies fabricated and baseless stories into the mainstream press, thus engineering a narrative that puts progressives and Democrats into a defensive posture which keeps them from getting their message out to the public. It has been estimated that annually, the expenditures from various conservative donors to fund these projects is $300 million. The true popular appeal of progressive policies means they need only a fraction of that cost before the average American gets wind of it and the population at large begins dedicating their time and resources to these causes. That sort of organizational strength will always defeat top-down, "soft" sloganeering that is not supported in any real sense on the ground.

It is important that progressives begin seeing this movement for what it is: this conservative juggernaut is not meant to prop up the Republican Party. The Republican Party, which was once a fluid and diverse organization, is merely the political arm of that movement.

Second, Democrats and progressives need to retool how they frame debates. Economic policy cannot be pigeonholed into nonsensical arguments about "redistribution of wealth." Education funding, welfare reform, the estate tax, job training, infrastructure investment -- these are not a "handout" or even a "hand up." They are merely ensuring a free, competitive marketplace. They are making sure the very wealthiest Americans or corporations are never allowed to manipulate the market and make mobility difficult for working families. Because when the wealthy can manipulate the paths to fortune and success, that is not truly free competition, is it? That is not a free market. Such a tack would provide a solid ideological footing for Democrats and progressives and beat back disingenuous, self-serving conservative cries of "class warfare." Issues like tort reform, universal health care, well-funded public education, and the freedom of workers to associate must be couched in terms of efficiency rather than ideas of "fairness" or "help."

Currently, Democrats in hostile territory simply do not have the political capital to spread this message or preempt Republican misdirection. The beauty of this "removal-of-obstacles" message is that it is so easily characterized by first pointing out the misdirection one's opponent will surely employ -- it's the old trick of telling them what they're going to tell them, then telling them what you're going to tell them: "She will call this a handout. I call it just another way for people who work hard to be rewarded." Progressives need to begin to brand who, exactly, the conservative movement seeks to reward by turning their own characterizations against them. It is they, after all, who are "soft" and "weak": progressives are champions of working people, small businessmen and –women, and the underdog. Conservatives are always looking out for the delicate, gentleman millionaire who lifts a finger only to order another foie gras.

Third, progressives and Democrats have need to break this trend of party nationalization and focus their efforts on building old-style, community-based Democratic organizations that strengthen state parties. This is of especial importance in the South -- and this is why the revolution will be southern fried. When powerful state organizations can get a sort of "home rule," with the proper ideological training and backing from progressive think tanks and media outlets, they will break the conservative hold on the rural south and west, and thus neutralize the only area of the nation where the conservatives have anything resembling grassroots support.

By building powerful state organizations with "home rule" on most social issues, local Democrats could aggregate the political capital necessary to beat back attacks on social issues and simultaneously build a farm team capable of exciting their base and identifying more closely with their communities.

Take as a quick example our own Governor Blagojevich. His early popularity allowed him to make a largely symbolic concession on the Firearms Owners Identification Card, or FOID. This upset many Cook County Democrats, but he had the political capital to expend: he could afford to take this small step back because he was so far ahead. Now imagine a disciplined, well-funded and academically and popularly backed state organization which can afford to make the same concessions that take the momentum away from these shell "advocacy" groups fabricated by the conservative movement.

Nationally, this is a thorny issue. Many progressives resent having to water down a strong national platform on social issues. However, it is important to understand that the majority of social issues are decided on the community level as it is, not nationally. The nationalization of such issues is largely an invention of the conservative movement. Take gay marriage, for example. States have not been required to recognize any marriages from other states for a long time. So why the ridiculous and clearly unconstitutional "same-sex marriage amendment?" In order to nationalize the issue and force every Democrat to be accountable for it -- so that any Republican could use it as a wedge issue. Many of the social issues that so concern us as progressives are really just refinements of the great civil rights victories of decades ago, and so state parties strengthened by strong records on economic policy and entrenched organizations can expend the political capital to ease in social reforms. The Democrats and progressives need to understand that if social conservatism is indeed a community's greatest priority, they cannot be swayed to vote on their economic interests. Our base assumption has to be that people will accept social change if their family's socioeconomic status is acceptable -- but even then, only in increments. We cannot allow this fact to force us to view people as small-minded, bigots, or ignorant.

Democrats will always win a street fight, so tactically their interest is to use the resources of the party to build state parties and allow them to define their own particular wing. Their core economic principles will always remain fungible across state lines -- but they need the flexibility to adapt to issues as they come. Conservatives are top-heavy; with the exception of the Christian Coalition and Moral Majority movements, they have a terrible track record in building grassroots movements or traditional political machines. They rely on soft campaigns that can effectively brand an opponent through repetition and innuendo.

Having strong, self-identifying state organizations will blunt the effectiveness of nationalization, while also protecting broader social changes by giving state parties the ability to adapt slowly-this will make interstate cooperation more likely, as opposed to forcing Democrats to turn on each other, as they often have in the last 20 years.

These three initiatives can go far in developing a new generation of progressives and quickly expose the public-relations, marketing-based structure that supports conservative policies as simply a house of cards.

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About the Author(s)

Ramsin Canon covers and works in politics in Chicago. If you have a tip, a borderline illegal leak, or a story that needs to be told, contact him at .

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