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The Right Gives Away Its Guidebook - Will We Listen?

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During my recent two-week vacation, I read seven nonfiction books, each one of them about American history, politics and culture (I am a huge nerd). During the non-vacation parts of my year, I probably complete a grand total of three books, but when I am on vacation and unplugged from the world, I get a chance to read books all the way through. And the seven I picked this time around were some of the best books I've read in a long time - books that every progressive and/or aspiring writer should pick up because they teach us lessons on all the things we think we know, but clearly do not. This is the first of three posts I will do on the books I read. (This one is devoted to only one of the books I read, because it was such an important book - but the other two posts will include groupings of books).

America's Right Turn
How Conservatives Used New and Alternative Media to Take Power
By David Franke and Richard Viguerie
Bonus Books (August 2004)
384 pages

America's Right Turn was written in 2004 by David Franke and Richard Viguerie, the conservative direct mail guru - and I'm really sorry I didn't get around to reading it right when it came out. For the record, I cannot stand promoting a book by conservatives, but this book is absolutely essential reading that, frankly, too many self-anointed Democratic/progressive "experts" ignore. Though not a linguistically well-written book and a bit bogged down with long-ago debunked GOP talking points, the book is nonetheless a must-read for anyone working in the progressive movement – and I say that understanding that the term “must-read” has become so overused as to be rendered meaningless. But this really is a must-read, because it cuts straight to the heart of how movements – regardless of ideology – are actually built.

One of the major misconceptions on the left is that all we need to do is build nebulous "infrastructure" for the Democratic Party and all of our problems will be solved. Just fund more 527s, more GOTV operations and more think tanks to better "package" the same GOP-lite prescriptions of many Democrats in Washington and eureka! - America will be fixed. This "infrastructure" mantra is repeated ad nauseum to the point where it's become a cliché - from professional Democratic consultants to big donors in the Democracy Alliance, all we hear is "infrastructure" - never ideology.

But as Viguerie shows, that's exactly how liberals lost the last thirty years, and how conservatives - shunning such an outlook - came to prominence. Conservatives - unlike their progressive counterparts inside the professional political apparatus and the blogosphere - started building their movement in the late 1950s as separate and distinct from the Republican Party. Viguerie, for instance, recounts how in 1977 he turned down a major offer to work for the National Republican Congressional Committee "because I wasn't happy with the drift of the Republican Party and didn't want to be co-opted by the GOP establishment." He goes on to state that the movement found its strength in being able to "concentrate on advancing the conservative agenda rather than the Republican agenda [because] the agendas most definitely were not always the same."

He details his work going after ideological opponents in both parties, with a heavy focus on ridding the GOP of conservative turncoats not only because they were ideological opponents, but because they were helping undermine conservative electoral chances. "The purpose of these purges was to keep the new movement on the path to power," he writes. "Conservatives mastered the art of discipline - of being able to purge elements from the movement that might hinder it." Translation: intra-party ideological battles, far from weakening a party, can strengthen it by building a movement for said party to take electoral advantage of.

Such drawing of ideological lines is exactly the kind of behavior that media pundits and insulated liberal Beltway organizations attack. These people find it disgusting and impolite for anyone in politics to actually believe and feel passionately about their convictions to the point where they may actually fight really hard to make an agenda reality. Democratic leaders in Washington - too often concerned with Beltway etiquette and opinion, rather than actual human beings outside I-495 - thus ask progressives to applaud as Democratic presidential candidates refuse to campaign on anything other than deliberately vague platitudes like "the audacity hope" and/or "winnability."

But as we learn from one of the right's key trench warriors, it is values-based discipline that is critical to all political movements - and ultimately to winning electoral politics. The Republican Party's relationship with the conservative movement was symbiotic - each entity provided benefits to each other, but they were separate and distinct. As Bill Bennett once said, "conservatives see the Republican Party as a means to an end."

Sadly, as I've noted in an article entitled Partisan War Syndrome, too many Democratic politicians and progressive activists continue to ignore our opponents' lessons at our peril, seeing the Democratic Party - rather than a movement and its goals - as the end unto itself. Many of the leading voices that are supposed to be part of the progressive ideological movement will disparage those who question other Democrats on substantive ideological grounds. These attacks come not out of any policy objection, but simply because one Democrat is questioning another Democrat, which we are led to believe will result in the destruction of the growing movement, rather than the fueling of it, as Viguerie shows.

And Democratic politicians on Capitol Hill? They are more clueless than anyone when it comes to understanding movement building, and their own self-interest in it. All they see a movement as is a threat (probably because, unlike the GOP, so many Democratic politicians ascended during an era where it was cool to shun, rather than embrace, the progressive movement - and now we've got House and Senate caucuses dominated by professional weathervanes). Consider the minimum wage - progressive labor unions and think tanks were fully prepared to push for $8 an hour, but they backed off because, as the Economic Policy Institute's Ross Eisenbrey told the New York Times, "Our friends on Capitol Hill said our statement would be heard as criticizing the Democrats...it would be perceived as raining on the parade."

Put another way, Democratic politicians couldn't muster the intelligence (guts?) to appreciate the value of having an outside progressive movement setting the boundaries of the debate at $8 so that, when it comes time to compromise, the final number can be set at $7.25. Instead, the cry like little infants over potentially hurt feelings, and idiotically suggest that it is more advantageous to start negotiating at $7.25 - thus creating the very real possibility that the "compromise" will be much lower.

Such behavior on a bread-and-butter issue like minimum wage begs uncomfortable hypothetical questions: Had the same Democrats been serving in Congress during, say, the civil rights movement, would we have seen them tell Martin Luther King to push only for a partial repeal of Jim Crow laws because to do otherwise and push for a full repeal would "be heard as criticizing the Democrats?" What about women's rights? If today's Democrats were serving during the fight over suffrage, would they have told the women's movement to not push for full suffrage, because - gasp! - to do so would "be heard as criticizing the Democrats?" And what about on other fights? Will we soon be hearing Democrats telling progressives not to push for, say, a real effort to end to the Iraq War because to do so would "be heard as criticizing the Democrats?" The mind reels at the possibilities - and the destructive results if the progressive movement had accepted such demands in the past, or will accept such demands in the future.

In reading America's Right Turn, I kept thinking how so many people who purport to be progressive "strategists" really must not bother to explore recent history, and how such ignorance hinders our movement. I've met a lot of these people over the last decade, and many are really smart, devoted warriors. But many also seem to have absolutely no sense - no even vague understanding of - what a movement actually is, how it fundamentally differs from a political party or a candidate, and how all of this is proven by the rise of the very right-wingers they say they are devoted to stopping.

That really pisses me off, because such a lack of understanding is most often not due to intellectual shortcomings and isn't just playing dumb in pursuit of corrupt ends - it is total laziness and arrogance. All you have to do is spend a bit of time reading a book like America's Right Turn to learn some lessons of history - and all I can conclude in watching so many progressive activists and so much of the blogosphere serve as merely a microphone for the Democratic Party and not an ideology is that many people who make their living in progressive politics are apparently too lazy to read a book, or think they are so smart they don't have to learn anything from their opponents or from very recent history. That, or we don't have a movement at all - we have the same old breed of exclusively partisan focused political activists and consultants who think rebranding themselves as part of a "movement" is new and cool and cutting edge - even if they don't want to be part of a real movement in the first place (next thing you know, the power-worshipping media will be billing consultants like James Carville progressive movement leaders).

One other thing that this book kept pounding home was the right's prioritization of movement and ideological unity over inter-organizational turf battles. I can report from firsthand experience building the Progressive States Network, our side has huge hurdles when it comes to this. The bulk of my efforts as one of the chairs of the organization has not been helping legislators, working on bills, or even fundraising (though all of that has taken up my time, too - and luckily we have paid staff whose job is to work with lawmakers). No, my time has been taken up by helping the organization navigate a minefield decades-old turf wars and fight off an ideology of self-centered egotism that still plagues the progressive movement. I feel a sense of some accomplishment and more importantly of progress that I and the other founders of PSN have brought together such a broad cross-section of groups and leaders on our board - but putting this organization together has only reinforced to me how big a problem institutional disunity really is on the left.

As the 2008 presidential campaign gears up, all of the organizations and voices outside the Democratic Party Establishment will face a very clear choice. Will this constellation - the unions, the environmental organizations, the Netroots, the Democracy Alliance, etc. - be merely a microphone for the anointed candidates and policies of the moneymen, consultants and professional ladder-climbers inside the Democratic Party in Washington, D.C.? Or will this constellation be the building blocks of a progressive movement that is rooted not exclusively in partisan loyalties, but in a common agenda?

As Viguerie says, conservative direct mail fundraising in the 1970s and 1980s "helped conservative candidates remain independent of GOP institutional inertia." Clearly, similar "institutional inertia" exists inside the Democratic Party in Washington. Whether it is leaders of the incoming majority saying they will consider cutting Social Security, pushing more free trade deals, or refusing to make a serious effort to end the war in Iraq - this "inertia" runs counter to everything that the progressive movement is supposed to be about.

Will we step up, or will we slink away? As America's Right Turn shows, our opponents built their movement that dominated the last three decades by stepping up and embracing movement ideology. What will we do?

Will we be held hostage by the all-too-frequent naysaying among our all-too-cautious-and-comfortable "allies" in Washington's liberal non-profit/think tank circles - people who have good intentions, but too often lack the intestinal fortitude to make enemies of some people they see on the cocktail party circuit? Will we listen to the liberal-sounding pundits that we all love to read and cheer on, but who primarily look down their noses at actual movement building? Or will we have the guts to build a movement that takes no prisoners, creates enemies, and makes the Beltway Establishment angry as we pursue goals like universal health care, fair trade, better wages, serious environmental protections and real civil liberties?

I read this book because I believe history's lessons are not to be ignored, and I am willing to admit - unlike many others in politics - that I don't know everything. I'm glad I held my nose and slogged through the nauseating conservative-glorifying language of America's Right Turn, because the book tells a very empirical story about which path leads to victory and power, and which path leads to defeat and irrelevance.

I know where I stand on these questions that confront the progressive movement, and I know what path I'm taking in my work - can you say the same? Your answer and the answer of others around you will make all the difference in the coming years.

Cross posted at Sirotablog and DailyKos