The now dominant narrative about the right’s rise to power holds that conservatives invested huge amounts of money in a number of think tanks over the past thirty years and brilliantly framed their messages in ways that were simple and resonated deeply with much of the American public. By embracing a top-down, hierarchical movement structure and relentless message discipline, the right was able not only to triumph at the ballot box but also to change the very terms of political discussion–demonizing “big government” and celebrating “tax relief,” “personal responsibility” and “free-market capitalism.”
This account of conservative strategy has piqued the interest of a growing number of progressive groups, who argue that the left should adopt a similar strategy. And it is currently driving the activities of many major progressive donors.
The difficulty here is that, as an explanation of the right’s ascendancy, it is at best incomplete and at worst misleading. What’s more, it is not clear that progressives should emulate all of the right’s tactics, or that we will succeed by doing so. There are certainly lessons to be learned from the right–but for the most part they are different from those commonly assumed. Here is an alternative view of the insights progressives should take away from three decades of conservative domination.
Secrets of Their Success
(1) Ideological Diversity. There is no monolithic “conservative” movement but rather a plethora of ideologies successfully harnessed together in a grand coalition. In the 1970s, as the New Right emerged from the discredited old right, a fragile truce was drawn among libertarians, economic conservatives, social conservatives and neoconservatives. Under the leadership of William F. Buckley Jr., editor of the influential National Review magazine and host of TV’s Firing Line, tensions were negotiated and a “fusion politics” emerged that allowed for cooperation across differences. Such a truce is more easily maintained when a movement is winning, as the New Right was under President Ronald Reagan. Now, in George W. Bush’s second term, the fault lines are reappearing.
The implication for progressives is that we ought to tolerate a diversity of views and think strategically about how to align them to common purpose rather than seek a homogeneity we falsely ascribe to conservatives. Conservatives also found that it’s not always the most mainstream or moderate voices who win. Likewise, progressives with a more radical vision, while working collaboratively in the larger movement, must not let themselves be sidelined.
(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.