“Ideas don’t happen on their own. Throughout history ideas need patrons.” —Matt Kibbe, president of Freedom-Works, a tea party advocacy group, quoted in Jane Mayer’s piece on the Koch brothers in The New Yorker.
Almost half of the public is either misinformed or subject to unanswered right wing narratives. If I believed that there was a chance of Sharia law being imposed in the United States I too would be gravely concerned. If I believed that most Europeans and Canadians had inferior health care to that of average Americans, I too would be against health care reform. If I believed that man-made global warning did not exist or that there were nothing we could do about it and that environmental efforts were responsible for unemployment I’d be against cap and trade. If I believed that prisoner abuse would make my family significantly less likely to be killed by terrorists, my thinking about torture would be different. And if I believed that the problems with the economy had been caused by too much government instead of too little, that my personal freedom was threatened by the government instead of large corporations, I’d probably be in a tea party supporter and a Republican.
Unless and until progressives change the mind sets of the tens of millions of people who believe right-wing mythology, who never read the New York Times or listen to NPR, who never watch any TV news other than Fox, future elections will have disappointing results for progressives regardless of who is in the White House.
Even Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert have limits to their ability to de-program those who have been indoctrinated by conservative orthodoxy. As David Bromwich recently wrote in New York Review of Books, “You can learn from them why the wrong ideas are funny, but you cannot learn why the wrong ideas are wrong.”
Changing minds is more of an art than a science. Polling and focus groups are reasonably accurate at determining how people already feel, but the idea that every message to educate or convert can be mathematically tested is illusory. Even more dangerous is the notion that public opinion somehow comes from the sky and is thus impossible to influence. The right wing knows better.
The impulse to reconnect with American identity through the Constitution is not inherently right wing. Yet progressives have largely ceded the language and majesty of the founding fathers to the likes of Glenn Beck, who regularly expiates on his own bizarre version of them on Fox News and to the far larger audience for his talk-radio show. Progressive Christians like Jim Wallis helped remind American Christians that their faith did not mandate conservative politics. Progressive civil libertarians need to recapture the constitutional flag. There ought to be dozens of books, films, speeches, op-eds, and conferences about the liberal values Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Paine, and Thomas Jefferson.
The gay rights movement stands as a contemporary role model on how to change public opinion. Gays could not afford to operate solely within the confines of existing opinion and thus were compelled to find ways to change it. The growth from minority to majority of support for gay service in the military and other issues is due to a morally driven effort across many forms of communication to make sure that gays were perceived as full human beings.