Wednesday, May 25, 2005

What Can the Left Learn from the Right?

I think there are a lot of things the Left can learn from the Right -- which has been doing most of the political innovation and best organizing in the U.S. over the last quarter century.

One place the Left can look to for some lessons is The Leadership Institute. Founded by conservative movement activist Morton Blackwell, it has been teaching young conservatives how to be campus activists, journalists, and provocateurs for a generation. Progressives have never bothered to even try to match the Institute -- leaving the field of well organized campus activism largely to the Right. Its not that there are not some good organizations of the center and the left that do some training, its just that they are not so focused, funded, and effective.

Anyway, there is an excellent and important article on based on reporter Jeff Horowitz's experience attending a Leadership Institute training. The article is so full of valuable insights, I think it is one of the most important articles anyone will read or write about politics this year.

The Leadership Institute, Horowitz reports, is "a nonpartisan 501(c)(3) charity, drawing the overwhelming majority of its $9.1 million annual budget from tax-deductible donations. Despite its legally required 'neutrality,' the institute is one of the best investments the conservative movement has ever made. Its walls are plastered with framed headshots of former students -- hundreds of state and local legislators sprinkled with smiling members of the U.S. Congress, and even the perky faces of two recently crowned Miss Americas. Thirty-five years ago, Blackwell dispatched a particularly promising 17-year-old pupil named Karl Rove to run a youth campaign in Illinois; Jeff Gannon, a far less impressive student, attended the Leadership Institute's Broadcast Journalism School."

"Over the last 25 years," Horowitz continues, "more than 40,000 young conservatives have been trained at the institute's Arlington, Va., headquarters in everything from TV makeup for aspiring right-wing talking heads to prep courses for the State Department's Foreign Service exam. Classes are taught by volunteers recruited from the ranks of the conservative movement's most talented organizers, operatives and communicators."

"The Leadership Institute has succeeded," Horowitz concludes, "in part, because it's had little to no competition from the left." That has started to change. The Center for Progressive Leadership has recently been launched as an answer to The Leadership Institute. The Center's web site says it is "the first national political training institute dedicated to building the next generation of progressive political leaders. Through intensive training programs for youth, activists, and candidates, CPL provides individuals with the skills and resources needed to become effective political leaders."

Meanwhile, Horowitz raises many interesting questions about the efficacy of the Left's political and electoral organizing on many fronts, for example: "Chris Stio, an institute staffer who directed the Bush-Cheney field operations in northeast Michigan, warns his students not to buy into second-term crowing about America's irrevocable slide into conservatism. 'Enough people were yelling and screaming about the president that if they'd actually picked up the phone book and started calling, they might have won,' he says. 'They went to concerts, they bashed the president, but they didn't work. If enough people had, maybe we'd have a different president. The election was not inevitable. And too many think it was.'"

There is much to learn from The Leadership Institute -- not that other sectors of society should ape their style and their tactics. First, we should understand what their tactics are -- such as deliberate provocations intended to upset and throw liberals off balance; rigging student referenda; and so on. Second, we should be planning to create training institutes of our own, although the Center seems to be a good start. But more importantly, we need to develop a culture of learning about politics and citizenship instead of reusing the same old ineffective tactics in the same old ways year after year.

It is long past time to talk about these things. Fortunately there is a diary on The Daily Kos summarizing the article and leading to discussion. When Talk to Action's phase II goes live in a few weeks, it will be the place for exactly the kinds of focused and thoughtful conversations and debatees we need to have about tactics and strategy, the lessons we can learn from the Right, and what works and does not work in response.

[Crossposted from]


Blogger Bruce Wilson said...

The left might want to, at this point - after yesterday's close shave with Bill Frist's "Nuclear Option" - that the power of the Republican party and the religious supremacist right is based in something more than dirty tricks ( i.e. vote fraud ) and that the new American Right is now enjoying the fruits of three decades of hard and continuous work at building its poltical base.

11:33 AM  
Blogger Frederick Clarkson said...

Agreed. While issues of voter fraud are real enough, it takes hard work to combat it on the ground and at the same time, learn the electoral skills and establish the organizations needed to prevail. Demonstrations, petitiions and publicity only get one so far.

12:15 PM  
Blogger William Ramsey said...

It is true that the right has done a better job of organizing and training, but it also enjoys some natural advantages in a media age such as ours. Among faith-based communities and social conservatives, for instance, it is simply easier to "train" activists in "apologetics" (selecting information and tactics to support a preconceived opinion) than it is to teach the basic skills of open-ended inquiry (scientific method, etc.). In that sense, the failure of public education plays a big part of this dynamic.

12:53 AM  
Blogger Bruce Wilson said...

That makes me think :

There is a jarring dissonance between the intentional teaching of misinformation ( "apologetics" ) - for political gain - that happens in many faith-based communities and new forms of social arrangement that are now possible via the internet by which large numbers of distributed and largely anonymous volunteers contribute to processes such as the Wikipedia

In the creation of the Wikipedia, it is assumed that good information will inevitably replace bad ( less accurate ) information, but it is not appreciated that the Wikipedia - now the world's largest encyclopedia and published in many different languages - functions as well as it does by way of the shared understandings held by its members.

But, the destruction of shared understandings can further political ends.

In many American faith communities, ideas that are demonstrably false are being promulgated - and on a widespread scale. So, the faithful are taught that America was conceived by the founders of the nation explicitly as a Christian country - despite the pitched battles that raged at the time over the incorporation of Article 6 into the US Constitution. Article 6 prevents the establishment of religious oaths as a precondition for political office, and its inclusion in the new American Constitution was a revolutionary act : Those advocating secular government had roundly defeated the supporters of theocratic governance.

That is the historical fact, but the malevolent insight of many of the key architects of the rise of the American religious supremacist movement is this :

Facts do not matter. Facts are irrelevant to the ground level political calculus, and from that calculus springs the political strength of Robertson, Dobson, Frist, and - to an extent - George W. Bush.

Liberals and all who would oppose American theocracy have been blindsided by the strategic gambit of Morton Blackwell and his ilk - the establishment of a parallel political culture, via churches and faith groups, that in political terms has amounted to a rough analog of the Nazi blitz which bypassed the Maginot line in the summer of 1940 : The working, "modernist", mainstream assumption of elites and of liberals has traditionally held secularism to be some sort of animating spirit, a pneuma, and a law unto itself that dictates an inevitable decline in religious faith via the onslaught of modernity. But, there are some problems in that assumption involving the conflation of historical accident with historical necessity. And, even if modernity and globalization do in fact undermine traditional religious faith ( and this may well be so in the long run ), faith in the gravitational pull of secularism - or the belief that secularism is somehow necessary to or inherent in modern industrial societies - has been proven a deep and potentially fatal trap:

In the long run, the logic may hold.

But, in the long run we are all dead anyway. In the short run, so it would seem, dramatic reversals in the purported inexorable march of secularism - even to the point of recessitating prescientific beliefs that expired in the late Middle Ages or even engineering a theocratic takeover of the most powerful(and certainly most heavily armed) nation on Earth can be engineered with startlingly dismal efficacy.

Humans exhibit a fantastic behavioral and cognitive range, and the intentional manipulation and engineering of human belief systems on a mass scale has been a staple of 20th Century history. On that basis , the refusal or inability of many Americans - even leading intellectuals and political observers - to acknowledge or even notice the intention subversion of American democracy from within, the use of the democratic process to undermine democracy, is curious.

Once again back to ground level realities : in a modern and efficient industrial economy, does a majority need to know anything of science of historical fact whatsoever ? Or, to rephrase that, if a rough majority of Americans are taught - or, as it were, mistaught - that the Earth on which they live was created, as determined in the Biblically derived calculations of a certain enterprising Bishop Usher back in the 16th Century, to have been created by divine fiat on October 22, 4004 BC. Does this new volkish mythology exact any economic cost ?

Well, in the long run - argues Richard Florida - it very likely does. But Florida's "Creative Class" thesis, though substantial, concerns at base the eventual economic costs of societal intolerance. But what of a-rational and widely held cultural beliefs that do not necessarily cleave to intolerant attitudes ? Will the growing belief of Americans in the "young Earth" notion exact any economic cost in terms of the relative performance of the American economy at the Global level ?

Once again, in the long term the answer is very likely to be yes, and for a wide range of reasons. Richard Florida's argument is a subtle one which recognizes that human creativity underlies and drives all economic activity, and so to the extent that nations can foster creative intelligence which gets translated into economic activity...

Well, a line from Bob Dylan's "Highway 61" sums it up: "Country 'll grow".

Indeed. Human creativity underlies all cultural and economic activity. Of course. And, dogmatic beliefs and inflexible ideologies ( and maybe ideologies themselves ) undermine creative intelligence. Ideology, doctrinal faith, and dogmatic belief of any sort all amount to presumptions about the nature of reality which - to borrow a term from Aldous Huxley - function as filters in the "Doors of Perception". They are habits of mind which limit perception and insight.

To bring these observations down to the personal level, the divergence of American beliefs on the age of the Earth into two diametrically opposed camps - one siding with science, which holds the Earth to be several billions of years, and the other siding with the artfully constructed and sophistic writings of Christian apologists who hold the Earth to be no more than several thousands of years old - cuts right through my immediate family such that my older brother has raised his children to believe in the "Young Earth" notion ( which is not, in scientific terms, actually a theory ) and has sent them to a private Christian school where they are taught the same, and much more.

Now, that "more" is more than meets the eye. One of the prevailing assumptions of liberals and those who consider religious faith in itself to be a pernicious or malevolent societal force - and there are many such individuals in America today - conflates all religiousity, somehow, with a reactionary and even wilfully Luddistic ignorance.

In fact, American evangelicals - as a faith group - have among the highest rates of educational attainment of all the identifiable faith groups in America, closely trailing Jews. But, what curricula are those evangelicals learning, and how well do they learn it ?

I can attest,in personal terms, to the supreme and indeed exemplary dedication of my brother and his wife - at considerable personal cost - to providing a superior education for their children as they define that. They demand - in fact - excellence in all spheres of attainment from their children. In particular, there has been a heavy emphasis on math, and now that the first of my nephews, the eldest, is now off studying at an avowed "Christian" school ( there are many kinds of Christian schools, and this one holds - I am fairly certain - to the "Young Earth" credo ) I wonder what might happen should he continue to pursue his interest in math and even perhaps turn towards physics.

Should my nephew chose a vocational epression of his talents - as an engineer or statistician, say - he will not encounter substantial cognitive dissonance. But should he pursue physics, troubled waters lie before him, for professional physicists will find my nephew's faith in Bishop Usher's chronology to be at least quaint - a quiet scandal to raise many eyebrows and serve as one proxy indication as to professional competence.

To borrow from Thomas Nagel's landmark essay, What is it like to be a bat ? : not I, but I do know that my nephew's conceptual upbringing, to the extent that he remained true to that, would tend to channel his thoughts - and his ability to think - along certain lines that were worked to quite elaborate and tedious ends in the Middle Ages by industrious intellectuals of the Catholic Church .

That was a shame at the time, and it would be a shame to repeat the exercise.

But to return to the Wikipedia - the Wikipedia experiment depends, at base, on shared beliefs - and that is the underlying engine and precondition that drives the process. Contributing members who do not and never will meet one another as individuals nonetheless share key understanding about the world, linguistic conceptions, and so on.

Such processes cannot break new ground, but they certainly do seem to drive "truth" - or maximal objectivity : but only per prevailing societal beliefs.

So, a Wikipedia article on the modern industrial system written only by contributing members of the John Frum cargo cult will ( or would have, at least, in recent history ) tend to explain the creation of industrial goods as a magical process - ex-nihilo - the distribution of which is controlled by secret and probably magical incantions which, if intoned properly, bring about the arrival of planes and cargo vessels that disgorge all that modernity and modern industry has to offer.

Now, as a sort of metaphorical take on the current American habit of buying cheap Chinese industrial product and consumer good and paying for that via magic ( credit, and US government Bonds ) the Cargo Cult explanation would have a certain sardonic resonance.

But, it certainly wouldn't provide anyone with the information necessary to build a factory and commence making widgets or laptop computers.

In a similar manner, the modern tendency of elements of American Christianity to discount entire realms of established scientific thought, or to claim such massive bodies of accumulated research amount to propaganda or exercises in the expression of mere personal opinion and so are somehow equivalent to Bishop Usher's quaint dating of the age of the Earth - via Biblically derived calculation - will certainly have an immense economic impact that will erode the strength of the United States economy - if to rubble, the at least to a crumbly wreck.

In the long run.

But, in the short run, such belief systems feed the political strategies of Morton Blackwell and his ilk.

It's a short term, high risk strategy, equivalent in many ways to a leveraged buyout, that succeeds and - in that success - generates enough additional debt to destroy that company's future economic viability and de-fund its employee pension plans.

In other words, the strategy is as utterly corrupt as it is brutally effective :

Merely Machiavellian.

But - for all this writing - I'm not convinced that I have done justice to Frederick Clarkson's original question - which I took in any case to be rhetorical :

The answer is quite evident. The left has turned its gaze away from the right, and now it had better play a rapid game of catch up, to learn this :

How can the left quickly implement the sort of ground level organizing strength and acumen that brought the American supremacist religious right to - at present - within a hair's breadth of absolute power ?

1:12 PM  

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