The Obama Majority's Boulevard of Broken Dreams

05/25/2011 02:38 pm ET | Updated Jul 25, 2011

I walk this empty street

On the Boulevard of Broken Dreams

Where the city sleeps

and I'm the only one and I walk alone

--Green Day

Add Matt Damon to the list. The political activist-actor was a prominent supporter of candidate Barack Obama in 2008; in February, 2011 he lost hope and joined swelling ranks of those who seemed to have lost faith President Obama. Referring to the administration, Damon said, "They had a chance that they don't have any more to stand up for things. They've probably squandered that at this point." Already on the list were young people ("Young Voters Say They Feel Abandoned" read the the New York Times headline); the working class (in a Washington Post op-ed, Joan Williams urged Obama to "reconnect with working-class voters"); older adults (U.S. News reported Obama's' "Senior Citizen Problem") and immigration reformers, who worried aloud about Latinos showing up on Election Day. In the months since the 2010 election it seems the Obama majority is suffering en masse abandonment by those who aren't receiving the emotional support or guidance they desire from their leader.

But blaming the Administration alone -- or even primarily -- for progressives' woes misses the point and risks masking a far greater problem for the left: we put too much hope in one person, the president, because we don't yet have a strong and substantive movement. Supporters may be leaving en masse, but they needn't walk alone. Lasting change, the likes of which conservatives set in motion in the 1960s and took hold in the Reagan era and since, requires not just a president, but a meaningful movement based in culture, history and ideas with the power to shape public sentiment in a modern media age.

Today's progressives, which as the Obama electoral coalition indicates are mostly younger, have been sold on the idea of winning elections. As a consequence, they are rightfully, and perhaps inevitably, disillusioned -- and disengaged -- when "the win" doesn't produce their desired results. But elections are only a small part of political change; real change comes at the end of a process that depends on bold ideas that are borne outside of government and promulgated through crucially important cultural strategies.

The conservative movement has successfully followed this model of change for decades: cultural strategies are what reach people through their most basic values -- the things they think about when they're not thinking about politics or policy; the things that inform their interactions with each other, whether across a backyard fence or an internet community. And yet progressives have largely neglected the development of cultural strategies -- sacrificing a successful political movement as a result.

There is no question that information methods--how people interact, receive information and are influenced - have radically changed in just a decade. New and social media have displaced much of the old "bricks and mortar" gatekeeper communications strategies, and progressives as an organized movement have been slower to catch up to the changes beyond fundraising -- not just in media but in the full range of cultural strategies -- than conservatives.


For many, modern conservatism began as a movement four decades ago to stem the tide of communism. Convinced they would never get a fair shake in the "mainstream liberal media," conservatives began taking matters into their own hands by implementing cultural strategies to shape public sentiment. They focused on efforts and institutions that would advance their ideas, values and narratives across the population.

With a set of messages in hand, conservatives built the audience for their ideas by creating an alternative media industry. Conservatives understood that in a war of ideas, ideas need machinery -- an artillery -- to promote and disseminate them from every angle possible.

Talk radio anchored their efforts: today, of the top ten AM talk radio shows, all are hosted by right-wing conservatives. The top five alone give conservatives an audience of around 40 million listeners a week. Television outlets expanded the audience even further. The recent trinity of Beck, Hannity and Limbaugh attract approximately seven times the combined audiences of Fox News, CNN and MSNBC.

Integrated and interactive mass media were central to the activities of fast growing conservative institutions. They further tied these efforts to the cultural institutions where many Americans spent much of their time: churches and business associations. These institutions also created their own media to speak directly to their supporters. Everything from Focus on the Family and National Rifle Association to the National Federation of Independent Business and National Association of Realtors began to broadcast on a variety of media outlets, from podcasts to cable channels.

Essentially, what began as "talking points" morphed quickly into a cultural identity defined by small government, low taxes, traditional family values, and aggressive national security -- what Michael Tomasky has referred to as the "four pillars of conservatism." And these pillars have effectively translated into innumerable public policies -- but they began as cultural reference points: ideas and values tied to the nation's history. Americans could identify with these issues in their daily lives, and through them, conservatives gained both public and political strength.


The story of conservative movement building efforts is nothing new for those who have been active in progressive politics in the past decade. But progressive movement building efforts appear to reflect far too few lessons from it. Progressives have instead -- and by design -- erected an insular conversation by and for elites. Invitation-only meetings where PowerPoint presentations map out what conservatives have been doing for the past forty years have become the currency by which elites trade access to power. Yet they do not guide progressives away from a short-sited electoral strategy and toward true movement building -- an effort that should start by distinguishing progressives from Democrats. And these narrow elite-focused efforts do not engage the actual "people" needed to help advance and support a meaningful cultural movement of progressive values and ideas.

A strategy by conservatives that is focused on ideas, history and values is not easily countered by progressives who remain overly consumed by winning elections and policy fights organized around ethnic and sexual identities or siloed interests. Moreover, a movement to counter conservatives in a "war of ideas" must involve more than policy research, issue and identity-based organizing, and D.C.-focused advocacy. We must strike back with our own ideas (different from just producing more expertise), our own emphasis on the country's history (which conservatives all-too-often distort for their right-wing purposes) and our own core and uncompromising values about the kind of society we desire for our children.

This is a substantive project not for the wonks and advocates among us, despite their continued important role in policy change. Rather, it is for those with deeper intellectual ambitions as well as public relations expertise who can speak in authentic and integrated ways about the daily experiences of the broad range of American families. In short, we need a little more heart and a lot more soul.

We need to move beyond our instincts to be pragmatic problem-solvers and embrace (and fight about) the core values and vehicles that might point the way to a stronger future for this country.

We need new messengers in our movement and an investment in marketing and promoting ideas, values and history -- in ways not done by progressives in at least half a century.

We need vehicles for engaging the debate around the future of American culture and society -- for reaching the American people with our new messengers. Vehicles that currently are under-resourced or simply don't exist.

This is a cultural project. It is an ideological project. It is a substantive project, and one where we have the stronger case and capacity to win, if we would just deploy all of the assets at our disposal. A few things we can do right now:

• Debate and define cultural identities for the progressive movement. This is not a discussion of policy or politics or a conversation about ideas and values. It is a debate -- one that encourages a range of views -- that speaks to how people want to live their lives, both as individuals and as members of families, communities and a broader society.

• Broaden our shared understanding of what's essential to advancing a cultural project. We must invest in more substantial organizing and greater community building among not just political actors but also opinion leaders across the arts, music, literary, economic, and social sectors in ways focused on advancing visions of the kind of society to which progressives aspire.

• Strengthen the cultural content and coordination among new media hubs, platforms and social networks. The debate over cultural identities needs to be reinforced in order for anything based in progressive values to be advanced and take root. We should support intermediary organizations that help bridge cultural actors and artists and encourage message coordination with the wonks, activists, donors and elected officials, who are the current core of the progressive movement.

• Combine civic engagement with "sticky" cultural touch points. We need to be intentional in connecting progressive values and ideas to people's daily lives -- how they live and experience adversity and opportunity; how they are anchored to cultural and community institutions, including farmers markets, houses of worship, parks and beauty salons.

• Invest in a pipeline of progressive cultural warriors. The Right's (and the Left's) primary cultural messengers are entertainers, not politicians or policy nonprofits. We need to engage and support them in ways connected to the progressive values and ideas we aspire to achieve in society.

Most of these ideas are not new but they bear repeating. This will not be easy, and success will require patience and time. Until we recognize that winning elections cannot be the only or even the primary goal for progressives, we will continue to lose.