These are dog days for Democrats. The top-gun President continues to ride high in the polls, despite the chaos in Iraq. The Rolls-Royce reactionaries who control Washington lavish tax breaks and no-bid contracts on those who pay for their party. The Democratic presidential candidates spend energy debating who is “electable” rather than where they want to take the country. And, inevitably, the poisonous sectarians of the Democratic Leadership Council have launched their annual corporate fundraising drive by trashing “elitist, interest-group liberalism.” At least they provide unwitting comic relief by asserting that the only electable Democrats are Bush-lite politicians like their own unlikely Joe Lieberman, tireless tribune of the CEO stock option, censorious scold of the Lynne Cheney-William Bennett school of moral indignation and hairshirt preacher of fiscal austerity in the face of global deflation. “Real Democrats,” DLC’s leaders Al From and Bruce Reed helpfully inform us in their most recent memo, “are real people.” Thanks for that.
Progressives would profit more by studying the way the New Right responded to life in the political wilderness. In the mid-1970s, Richard Nixon was exiled in disgrace and Democrats controlled everything–the presidency, both houses of Congress and the judiciary. The liberal era that conservatives had hoped to end seemed to have new life. At that moment, New Right strategists made two major decisions: to build an independent capacity to drive their message, their values and their movement into the political debate and to take over the Republican Party from green-eyeshade moderates and make it their vehicle. The New Right scorned the Republican DLCs of the time and instead built an independent, cause-based political movement.
New Right donors–Coors, Mellon Scaife, Richardson and others–didn’t pour their money into places like the American Enterprise Institute, the established voice of corporate America. Instead they funded the openly right-wing Heritage Foundation, which redbaited liberal leaders; championed Star Wars, supply-side economics and school vouchers; and assailed welfare, abortion rights and affirmative action. Heritage minted not new policy ideas but timely political ammunition–message, propaganda lines, factoids–to arm New Right legislators and activists, and it aggressively promoted its advocates on op-ed pages and talk shows.
Rather than invest primarily in the Republican Party, the New Right backed the Moral Majority, galvanizing the emerging right-wing evangelical movement under the leadership of Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson and others to preach family values and opposition to abortion. It built its own network of independent PACs, led by the National Conservative Political Action Committee. Aided by Richard Viguerie’s innovative direct-mail operation, it forged an independent capacity to recruit and train candidates who shared its values. For the most part, New Right adherents rejected third-party politics as likely to prolong liberal dominance and made the GOP their vehicle, with Ronald Reagan as their champion.
The result not only transformed the Republican Party, it helped produce a sea change in American politics, driving the debate to the right and creating the basis for the conservative era that has defined the past twenty years of American politics. And trimmers like the DLC drifted further and further to the right in an elusive search for the “center” of American politics.
The rise of the New Right wasn’t solely due to its own organizing. Liberalism failed to meet the challenges facing the country in the 1970s–stagflation, growing pressures on families, America held hostage. And the successes–and excesses–of the triumphant movements of the 1960s generated a furious reaction that fueled New Right organizing. But it was only by organizing independently that the right was able to grab the opportunity created by these dynamics.
Today, conservatism is failing to meet the challenges facing the country: global stagnation and instability, inequality, corporate corruption, pressures on families, America terrorized. And the excesses of the self-described “movement conservatives” who dominate this Administration are generating an impassioned response from the besieged–the women’s, civil rights, antiwar, environmental and union movements.
Progressives have only begun to build the independent capacity to drive this energy into the political debate. Democrats are creating a well-funded center to promote an aggressive Democratic message against Bush that will be headed by John Podesta, Bill Clinton’s skilled former Chief of Staff. But progressives should focus on building up independent institutions like the Economic Policy Institute, the Institute for Policy Studies and the Institute for America’s Future (of which I am co-director) that will challenge conservative ideology frontally while providing ideas and ammunition for progressives. Just as Viguerie pioneered direct-mail building and funding the New Right, MoveOn.org, Working Assets and other groups are pioneering new web-based communications and fundraising to help build the new progressive activism. And just as the New Right created the Moral Majority and the Christian Coalition to mobilize new activists and voters, unions are building independent vehicles to reach beyond union members, including the Partnership for America’s Families, headed by former AFL-CIO political director Steve Rosenthal, which will focus on registering and engaging African-Americans, Latinos and working women in contested presidential states.
Progressive political action groups include, notably, the powerhouse EMILY’s List, which is responding to the threat posed to choice and women’s rights by working with the progressive community to build women’s political clout at the state and federal level. Progressive Majority, headed by Gloria Totten, is launching a sophisticated plan to recruit, train and support the next generation of Paul Wellstones while extending its network of web-based small donors who can provide seed funds for progressive challengers. And the new Wellstone Action, a new center formed by his family and friends, will train organizers for grassroots issue campaigns and organizing drives.
In Congress, progressive leaders, including Dick Durbin and Jon Corzine in the Senate and Jan Schakowsky and George Miller in the House, have launched independent efforts to take off the gloves and challenge the extremism and the corruption of this Administration. Backed by a coordinated message, aggressive communications strategies and targeted issue campaigns, they will help generate the “echo effect” so vital to driving an argument through the noise of the media.
“Real issues” about “real people” are at stake, as the DLC’s memo so helpfully informs us. But movement conservatives won’t be dislodged by the DLC’s politics of pander and positioning. Instead we need to return to a politics of passion and principle that asserts our values, our ideas and our energy, and develop the independent capacity to drive our causes into the political debate and the electoral arena.