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Rockridge Institute's Demise Deprive Liberals of a Voice

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The Rockridge Institute, a liberal think tank in Berkeley, will disband at the end of the month.

From its inception in 1997, Rockridge sought to combat the domination of right-wing think tanks that for more than 35 years have spent billions of dollars shaping the public conversation on issues of taxation, morality, national security and the role of government.

Conservative think tanks have done a masterful job of demonizing many issues that liberals hold dear, such as the environment, health care and public education. At the beginning of the Bush administration's second term, it appeared, albeit briefly, that even Social Security would give way to the cascade of conservative ideology.

This is the ideological climate in which Rockridge, under the leadership of George Lakoff, was born. Lakoff, a professor of linguistics at the University of California-Berkeley, was seeking to change how liberals proactively "framed" their issues.

It was Rockridge's mission to promote an effective articulation of liberal, progressive values. Much of the institute's work involved bringing the values aspect -- a glaring failure in recent liberal ideology -- to specific policy areas.

By applying top-to-bottom issue-framing on health care, immigration, climate change policy, the war on terror, tort reform, democracy, education, religion and others, Rockridge gave liberals a way to speak about issues from the head as well as the heart.

It also produced a handbook -- Thinking Points -- and other progressive materials, all free online, so that political advocates could not only familiarize themselves with the notion of framing and values but could effectively enter these concepts into the public conversation.
It also created the "Rockridge Nation,'' an 8,000-member community that included scheduled questions and answers on critical issues, a weekly workgroup and a blog.

These things, however, were accomplished not with the benefit of an endowment or three- to five-year block grants, which could sustain continuity for research and issue development, but by year-to-year fundraising, which ultimately took its toll. It is not surprising that Rockridge's demise stems from a lack of resources.

Perhaps only those comprising the Rockridge Nation will feel the void left by its loss on a day-to-day basis. The rest of us will know it each time a right-wing think tank tells us only tax cuts can bring back the factories that created well-paying blue collar jobs to the small towns that lost them, and there is no contrarian liberal voice.

We need the liberal-values voice to remind us that the $600 rebate checks in the economic stimulus package will do little to stimulate because of declining home values, rising energy prices and escalating costs for other goods and services. Meanwhile, business tax cuts, in addition to the tax cuts already heaped on corporate America, will do more to contribute to the widening gap between rich and poor than it will encourage investment in jobs, education or the nation's infrastructure.

Rockridge closing its doors is not the same as losing a liberal AM talk show. The demise of AM talk radio, liberal or conservative, would, in my opinion, enhance the public discourse.

I wrote back in 2003 about my skepticism of liberals attempting to compete with conservative blowhards on the talk show circuit. When the dust settles, it's all entertainment.

But think tanks are about ideas. We've witnessed the effectiveness of conservative policy institutes over the decades as they have systematically changed the public conversation.
Bill Clinton's two terms as president did little to change the right-wing ideology that permeated the public dialogue. Was it not Clinton, the Democrat, who proclaimed in his the 1996 State of the Union address: "The era of big government is over"?'

If liberal think tanks like Rockridge cannot compete with conservative institutions because of a lack of resources, right-wing ideology will continue to be the de facto arbitrator of public conversation, and that has more long-term impact on public policy than who occupies the White House.

When will liberals learn that, like their conservative counterparts, they must put their money where their ideas are?

Byron Williams is an Oakland pastor and syndicated columnist. He is the author of Strip Mall Patriotism: Moral Reflections of the Iraq War. E-mail him at byron@byronspeaks.com or go to his website, byronspeaks.com