Wrong About the Right | The Nation


Wrong About the Right

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(2) Ideas, Not Messages. To the extent that conservatives were serious about ideas--and to be sure they were and are--they started not with "messaging" or "framing," two strategies currently in vogue among progressives, but rather with inquiry into core beliefs about race, government, family, markets and global economic and military domination. These core beliefs were at first far outside the mainstream of accepted political discourse. But by carefully constructing an ideological blueprint for their movement (despite lack of complete buy-in from every sector), the right has been working for more than twenty-five years with a set of unifying ideological principles to which their strategists and activists return time and again. Support for "family values," limited government, a strong military, white domination and the primacy of Christianity over other religions, when combined with a will to power, have served the right well.

About the Author

Deepak Bhargava
Deepak Bhargava is Director of the Campaign for Community Change.
Jean Hardisty
Jean Hardisty is the founder and president emerita of Political Research Associates, a Boston-based research center.

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To build on the gains of Obama's presidency, progressive activists must focus on recruitment.

On the left many intellectual projects are more tactical in nature and avoid asking fundamental questions--not about how we talk but about what we actually believe. For instance, we are at our best when fighting a reactionary policy or program, such as tax cuts for the wealthy or attacks on voting rights. But progressives are not unified, or even clear, about what we affirmatively want in terms of a role for government, a just economy or rights for individuals and groups.

(3) Active Listening. It is often noted that the structure of the conservative movement is hierarchical and that because the leadership has such a high level of control, conservative campaigns have always been well coordinated and executed with great precision. Less often noted is that their masterstroke was not that they went off in a room and decided on a few cornerstone values and then aligned their work and campaigns to speak to those values. Their genius was that they first engaged in a practice of active listening and found a core of resentment among large numbers of Americans--about race, class, gender and sexuality--that could provide the emotional base for a new intellectual paradigm. They did this in the 1970s, at precisely the time when liberals stopped listening, presuming that the reactionary ideas of the old right were so far out of favor that only the most uninformed and backward voters supported them. Today, liberals rely heavily on polling--a shallow kind of listening--or push ideas at the country without deeply engaging with people first.

(4) The Importance of Recruitment. Think tanks and their output of ideas, analysis and information are a necessary but not sufficient component of any effective social movement. Conservatives focused on building powerful mass-based institutions that could provide muscle for a conservative agenda, such as the National Rifle Association, the Moral Majority, the American Family Association and, later, Focus on the Family, Concerned Women for America and the Christian Coalition of America. Many of these mass-based organizations were explicitly Christian and played a vital role in recruiting evangelical and fundamentalist Christians to the New Right of the 1980s.

Further, the right's core leadership showed extraordinary creativity in exploiting new technologies. For example, Richard Viguerie pioneered the use of direct mail; Ralph Reed Jr. of the Christian Coalition developed "stealth" methods of campaigning for political office without revealing the candidates' actual right-wing agenda and used churches to mobilize voters. The right's strategists focused not only on ideas and policies but also on organizing a base and developing recruitment techniques to build the base. The contemporary right has always been clear about the importance of recruiting greater numbers to its movement. An examination of right-wing campaigns reveals that, in nearly every case, the opportunity for recruitment plays a central role in their conceptualization and execution. Progressives would make a tragic mistake by neglecting base-building in the current period.

(5) Electoral Politics as Means, Not End. The architects of the right's rise to power did not view their project as the election of Republicans to state and federal office. They perceived the Republican Party as a tool to achieve certain ends, rather than as the end in itself; the takeover of the party was important because it would turn the country toward a reactionary agenda. That the takeover occurred is a reflection of the potency of the strategy. This is crucially important because some progressives tend to conflate the project of building a just world with the project of electing Democrats to office. Winning people over is our central task. After all, progressive advances do not always come under Democratic administrations. It was Richard Nixon, after all, who proposed a guaranteed annual income for the poor, while Bill Clinton approved time limits on welfare benefits.

It's also important to remember that the right worked at the federal, state and local levels and used both "inside" and "outside" strategies to influence the realm of political office-holding and the terrain of public opinion. No one aspect of movement-building was emphasized at the expense of others. It is that strength--approaching movement-building as a whole package--that explains much of the right's growth and effectiveness.

(6) Fearless Politics. The right has not been afraid to propose extreme positions, knowing they will be pushed back to more moderate ones still well to the right of the status quo. We've seen this in almost every policy fight since 1980. By boldly taking stands that are far outside the mainstream, the right has managed to pull the mainstream to the right, which is why it is now perceived as speaking for the majority. For progressives, meanwhile, timidity, ambiguity and constant compromise have not proved successful strategies; projecting a clear, principled and uncompromising voice of progressive values and policies is not only morally compelling but strategically smart.

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