Winning the War of Ideas

Believe it or not, the substance of this site – the particular criticisms I make of corporate capitalism, and the conservative ideology that supports it, and the particular proposals for change that I make – isn’t the ultimate point of this site. When it comes to achieving the broad goal of freedom, equality, and social justice, I agree with what Huckleberry Finn said about stealing a watermelon. “I’m no ways particular how it’s done, so it’s done.” My strident opposition to conservatives is born of a simple observation. They don’t want it done at all. They don’t want to reduce poverty. They don’t want environment-friendly development. The only oppression they are interested in ending, is any restriction placed on their absolute right to exploit resources and other human beings for economic gain.

If conservatives amounted to a collection of isolated gadflies writing letters to the editor to complain about the smallest incremental improvement in social conditions, I wouldn’t care. Gadflies will always be with us. There are still lingering Luddites out there who think the world is flat. But whether they are gadflies or not, the conservatives are not isolated. In fact, they are extraordinarily well organized. More to the point, their organization is fifty years in the making. How else do you account for their success in advancing a social and political agenda that is just simply not very popular.

Take Rush Limbaugh – please. I have heard him describe Social Security as “socialism” – and you know what he thinks about socialism. Here’s a question, if Social Security is “socialism” and you don’t like socialism, do you like Social Security? Of course he doesn’t. He would abolish it in a New York minute, if he could. He can’t of course, because Social Security is perhaps the most popular social program of the New Deal. His opposition to it is a political loser. In fact, conservatives regular bellyache in public about their unpopularity. When Newt Gingrich proposes orphanages as his solution to children growing up in ghettos, sensible people react with disbelief. Conservative ideologues take this as proof that the rest of us are just too stupid to appreciate the joys of Dickensian work houses and child labor. That’s why conservatives abandoned a frontal assault on Social Security twenty years ago. Now they advocate “privatization” as a back door way to get rid of it. They advocate “vouchers”, figuring that they will never abolish public education entirely, but at least they can make public schools suitably inferior.

And they achieve their objectives. Instead of focusing on the nuts and bolts of their social and economic ideas – which would lose them elections – they focus on “values”, and dress up their reactionary agenda in seemingly “innovative new approaches”. But the real way they succeed is how they communicate their propaganda. That’s what they’re really good at. That’s where their organization comes in. If you know what you are looking for, you can see the mechanics of their agit-prop apparatus in action – on a daily basis.

The key to it is repetition. Behind it all is a social and political vision straight out of the age of the robber-barons. It is social-Darwinism – a concept invented by John D. Rockefeller to justify his predatory business practices. This social and political vision is understood, studied and explained by a small group of conservative intellectuals. Their philosophical work is translated into specific policy initiatives by a slightly larger group of conservative policy wonks, working through a number of conservative think tanks like the American Enterprise Institute, the Hoover Institution, the Cato Institute and several others. That is the anchor to the organization. It provides the intellectual ballast – such as it is. But it isn’t the real key to the organization.

That is where the Republican Party comes in. William F. Buckley established the intellectual infrastructure to the conservative movement way back in the 1950’s when he started “The National Review”. Ten years later – beginning with the election of 1964 – the Republican party began to organize itself as a highly sophisticated organization designed to communicate the substance of that intellectual infrastructure. There was one simple problem. Your average voter is not the least bit interested in studying – even in a cursory manner – esoteric thinking about political, economic and social policy. Your average voter cares about his own problems. The task is to get his attention, long enough to get his vote.

However imperfect, we live in a democracy. No less than Lyndon Johnson observed that it doesn’t matter how good your policy proposals are. The guy who makes policy is the guy who wins the election. The Republican Party figured that out, and started organizing to win elections. In order to translate a political philosophy into actual policies, you have to translate that philosophy, and those policies into a form digestible by a public whose attention span is very very short. While you are at it, you need to translate that philosophy and those policies into a form that is acceptable to the broad public. For conservatives that is a problem.

The example of Social Security illustrates this. Conservative Republicans think Social Security is “socialism”. Remember, they are social darwinians. They want a society of “winners” and “losers”. They want a society where a handful of successful economic competitors are in absolute control of the social and economic environment. They don’t want any government – or any other – mechanism that works against the power and privilege of those economic competitors. The number of people in the United States who view that social-Darwinian vision favorably is a distinct minority – though regrettably it is a sizable minority.

So they do two things. Essentially, they have built a hierarchy of the complexity of their ideology. At the bottom is a series of very easy to remember slogans, with a slightly longer “explanation” to go with the slogan. All of their more complicated ideology is ultimately boiled down into these slogans.. Those slogans do not reflect the true core of the conservative social-Darwinian philosophy. That philosophy is unpopular. Instead, those slogans are carefully selected to attach the core philosophy to a set of ideas that are actually quite popular.

You’ve heard these slogans and catch phrases. “Less government” is the leading example that comes to my mind. Rather than abolishing social security, they suggest that we “privatize” it. After all, everybody knows how “wasteful and inefficient” governmental bureaucracies are. In fact, the administrative costs of Social Security are just four percent of its annual budget – a record unmatched anywhere in the private sector – but you won’t hear conservatives repeating that statistic. Instead, they want to translate the experience of anyone who ever a spent a half a day at the DMV getting his annual twenty dollar piece of tape into support for changing a very popular program that nobody really wants to change.

To help achieve this and many other initiatives, the Republican has at its base is huge number of local activist conservatives, who have one central job. They “show up”. They show up everywhere. City Council meetings. Letters to the Editor. There appears to be a cadre of them who cruise the chat rooms and bulletin boards of the internet. Whenever they hear an opportunity to inject a slogan or recite some conservative rhetoric, they take it. That’s why they all say the same thing in response to any given stimulus from the left. Address the insovlency of Social Security? Privatize it. Improve the schools? Vouchers. Balance the federal budget by reducing “wasteful” spending and “inefficient bureaucracy”. Never raise taxes on anything, for any reason, under any circumstances, forever and ever, amen. Oh, and never ever under any circumstances give one single cent, provide any government service or provide any infrastructure that might be useful to someone who isn’t a “winner”. That would be “redistribution” – which is “stealing”.

You see, the rich “earned” their wealth – all by themselves. Apparently, none of them inherited any. Nobody helped them. Their employees didn’t help them. They never took advantage of infrastructure built by somebody else. Nobody – be it their own parents or the public – provided them with an education. They were living on a desert island, and built their factories, skyscapers, investment houses and other businesses, all by themselves out of sand.

This nationwide army of local conservative ideologues is the source of manpower for the entire organization. This is where all of the candidates for local office come from. Which in turn supplies the pool of candidates for statewide and federal office. This group supplies the army of campaign volunteers, political professionals activists and spokesmen. These are the people who show up on Tim Russert, Hardball, This Week with Sam Donaldson, and every other “talking head” show. They all say the same things. There is always an “issue of the week”, and these people all have the very same take on whatever it is – frequently repeated in exactly the same language. That doesn’t just happen. They are told the “party line”, and they are disciplined enough to repeat it, as instructed.

That is because, the Republican Party has an extensive infrastructure for indoctrination and training. They have organizations to turn teenagers into young political activists. They’ve operated them for at least a quarter century. I know this because a good friend of mine in high school had manuals from this training in his bedroom. He was fifteen years old at that time – which was in 1976. More well-known is Newt Gingrich’s GOPAC – a training program out of the same mold. Not only do you get training in the ideology, you get training in specific tactics. One of these – painfully obvious if you’ve ever watched a television talk show – is to hog the microphone. The non-conservative – every non-conservative is a “liberal” or a “leftist” according to conservative Republicans – will typically get about three words out of his mouth when the conservative Republican will break in. The non-conservative might have said nothing more substantive than “pleasure to be here.” “That’s not true, Sam.”

This isn’t just a general lack of manners. It is a tactical – and therefore a studied and deliberate lack of manners. The conservative spokesperson is there to repeat the “party line”. They never answer detailed questions other than to repeat the party line. “Well, we just think the answer is less government and more personal responsibility, Ted.” They won’t let anyone who disagrees talk long enough to articulate any meaningful opposition to the “party line”. As for the various outlets where they appear – they all have a “liberal bias”. Never mind that NBC is owned by General Electric, ABC is owned by Disney, and CNN is owned by Time Warner. They’re all biased against the conservative world-view – which conservatives take to be self evident. This is not merely propaganda – though it is propaganda. Conservatives actually believe this. They think that a social-Darwinian hierarchy of winners and losers is the self-evident natural order, and that the only legitimate function of government is reinforce that natural order.

What you have is a self-contained and self perpetuating organization to define, articulate, simplify and disseminate a coherent – not necessarily consistent, and certainly not self-evident, but it is coherent – social, political and economic vision, complete with policy applications to virtually every area of public concern. The effectiveness of this organization is clear to anyone paying attention. America is a nation of businessmen. We are also a nation of natural born engineers. We are the proof of what people can do when they are freed from an oppressive social hierarchy. We are not a nation of social darwinians, engaged in the business of building a new social hierarchy to replace the one we all came here to get away from. Yet, for the second time in our history, a committed core of dedicated reactionaries has stymied every effort at progress. They have undercut public education. They oppose any research and development into alternative energy. They have reduced assistance to the poor, resisted improvements in the minimum wage so that it has fallen way below a minimum living wage, opposed organized labor, encouraged the export of American jobs to third world cesspools, and saddled the Federal government with a monstrous public debt – the better to hamstring any government action they disapprove of. The result is the widest gap between the richest and poorest Americans in history. The result is a consolidation of control over resources into the hands of a small corporate elite. The result is the emergence of a corporate elite noteworthy for its ruthlessness, greed and corruption. Ultimately, the result is government at every level stymied – where it isn’t actually dominated – by a reactionary social philosophy shared by a distinct of minority of Americans.

Behold the power of organization.

What sort of organization exists on the left? In fact, there is an ocean of people concerned about poverty, ignorance, environmental destruction, racism, gender inequality and any number of other progressive causes. How well are they organized? Not very. Consider the battle of the “talking heads”. Talk shows like to be “fair” and “even handed”. At least they like to appear that way. That’s why whatever the issue, they always want two sides. The liberal side is always represented by a spokesman for one group or another – usually concerned with whatever the particular “issue du jour” might be. If the issue is the environment, there might be spokesman from the Sierra Club, Friends of the Earth, maybe even Greenpeace. If the issue is a racial issue, any number of African-American activists are available. For straight political or policy debates, there will be a Republican and a Democrat – typically a Congressman or Senator from both sides. But there is a difference.

The conservative is connected with a defined ideological core, and its application to whatever is up for discussion. That ideological core unifies and unites the conservative with conservatives concerned about any number of different particular issues. Every conservative – no matter what his particular interest is – knows the whole ideology. The people on the left are not nearly as well connected. There is no central message with a tie-in to any particular topic for discussion. Neither is there much coordination among the various left of center organizations and causes. Organized labor doesn’t cooperate with environmental groups. Environmental groups don’t cooperate with women’s groups. Even as small a society as Democratic members of Congress show very little coordination among themselves in communicating a coherent vision.

Imagine the political contest in the United States as a contest between two church choirs. Imagine 250 people standing on a stage singing 250 different songs – all at once. That’s the left’s choir. Now imagine them competing with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Who do you think will win? . Even if every single one of the 250 members of “the Leftist singers” has a superior voice and is a better singer, they will lose to a chorus of “tin ears” who do nothing more complicated than sing together in unison.

Should we on the left all sing together in unison? I’m a leftist, and I don’t like the idea. I like the notion of “strength through diversity”. The fact is that democracy – and the people who really believe in it – is inherently less regimented than hierarchy, and the people who believe in that. But we don’t have to sing in unison. Not only will a good three part harmony do the job, it actually sounds better.

The fact is that the right-wing is successful in the United States – with a vastly unpopular social and economic vision – because they have committed themselves through their organization to foist that vision onto the rest of us, whether we want it or not. Every one of us on the left knows what is going on. What some of us may not appreciate is just how long the right has been at it, and just how determined they are to win.

Which probably accounts for why those of us on the left have largely failed to build an organization up to the task of beating the right.

The situation facing not only the left, but society at large is stark. The world has faced massive and worsening problems for a generation. Now the United States is facing worsening problems. Our educational system has all but disintegrated. We have two million people in prison – a larger percentage of our population that any other nation on earth. If crime has leveled off, temporarily, the ghettoes where it festers are as bad as ever. The American manufacturing base is deteriorating as American corporations rob workers pension funds, cheat middle income investors, and ship manufacturing jobs to Indonesia. Forty million Americans are without health insurance. Notwithstanding clean air and water regulations, dozens of American cities suffer “unhealthy” air alerts every summer. Air pollution in third world metropolises is unimaginably bad. The conservatives are standing in the way of progress in dealing with every one of these problems, and dozens more besides.

So, you have to ask yourself. Do I want to see major problems solved – or at least improved upon. Or do I want to see the nation – and the world – continue its drift toward becoming a polluted, clear cut, social darwinian cesspool? What are you going to do to oppose an organization of people motivated by a reactionary social philosophy – that they are absolutely committed to? Are you going to continue your isolated, individual, largely part time efforts to oppose the right-wing monolith on a piecemeal basis. Or are you going to become as committed to social progress as they are to social-Darwinism? I say that it is long past time to stop messing around, and get serious about beating them.

The content of this web site is not arbitrary. It is not simply a collection of my “pet issues”. It is a collection of strategically selected issues – that are tied together with a coherent understanding of history as well as political and economic theory. For example, renewable energy is all over this site for the simple reason that it is an extremely powerful issue for those of us on the left. Renewable energy single handedly deals with a broad spectrum of environmental, economic, military and geo-political concerns. Furthermore, it promises to move society toward a more democratic and egalitarian culture. It could conceivably lead to a system of privatized naturally socialized electric power. And it is achievable in the near term. Renewable energy is a path open before us – right now. All we have to do is walk down it. The conservatives don’t want us to – and their resistance is beyond reactionary. It is crazy. It puts them in the absurd position of denying the very existence of air pollution and insisting that oil supplies are unlimited. Which makes this issue a golden opportunity to make absolute fools out of them. As such, I offer it as an example of the kind of strategic positioning that the right is very good at, and that we have not even begun to understand.

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