03/28/2011 06:32 pm ET Updated May 28, 2011

Fighting the Enemy Within

What would you do if someone told you that America was in grave danger -- that a powerful enemy with almost unlimited resources had infiltrated every level of government, the media, both political parties and the Supreme Court? What if someone told you that it was up to you to save your country -- to protect its promise, to save the dream?

Throughout history, our greatest leaders have warned of threats to our democracy. At the Constitutional Convention, Ben Franklin famously answered a woman's question about what type of government had been created with the caution, "a republic madam, if you can keep it." Theodore Roosevelt worked to bust the corporate trusts that threatened our democracy. Dwight Eisenhower warned that only an "aware and informed citizenry" could protect the country from the growing influence of the military-industrial complex (interestingly, an early version of his speech warned of the military-industrial-congressional complex).

If these leaders were with us today, they would likely reiterate their concerns. The wholesale deregulation of Wall Street, the financial crisis, the economic collapse, the multi-billion dollar bailout, and the subsequent GROWTH of the Too Big To Fail institutions at the center of the crisis indicate a system gone seriously wrong. Many of our elected officials leave office only to serve the corporations they used to oversee. More than 125 former congressional aides and former elected officials now work for financial firms. The 70+ former members of Congress who lobbied for Wall Street during the re-regulation debate include: two former Senate Majority Leaders (Trent Lott and Bob Dole), a former House Speaker (Dennis Hastert), and not one but two Dicks (Gephardt and Armey), both former House Majority Leaders. Perhaps this trend helps explain why the $13 trillion hole in GDP caused by the financial crisis has led to exactly NO criminal convictions. To add insult to injury, the president's former head of the Office of Management and Budget just left the White House to join Citigroup, one of the banks at the heart of the crisis. Of course his multimillion dollar salary is likely just a fraction of that paid to Bob Rubin who joined Citigroup just days after ensuring the repeal of Glass-Steagall. How problematic could it be, really? Not nearly as problematic as now-Treasury Secretary, then-head of the NY Fed Tim Geithner ensuring a 100 cents on the dollar payout to the banks during the AIG bailout.

With this level of collusion, is it any wonder that Americans suffer both the highest level of inequality in the developed world and have borne the greatest increase in the level of inequality among rich nations for the last 20-30 years. Thanks to the president, several Democrats and the Republican Party, despite a growing deficit and increasing concerns about our financial health, the 375,000 Americans who make more than $1 million a year (approximately .01% of the population) got a tax cut last year. Their rates are now about a third of what they were 60 years ago. And breaking news from this weekend, the man who is serving as a lead adviser to the President of the United States was most recently chief executive of a corporation that paid no taxes at all on profits of $14.2 billion. If none of this proves a threat to our country's democratic integrity, perhaps a tour of Guantanamo, a glance at Justice Department memos providing legal justification for torture, or a quick fact check of the deliberately crafted "intelligence" that led us to war will.

Of course we all know that the threat to our country is real and incredibly powerful. In cynical moments, we aren't sure we can beat it -- or how to even try. To figure that out, we must learn the full dimensions of the threat -- who is at the heart of it and what tactics they employ to win.

After the 1964 Goldwater defeat, a small group of radical conservatives began to build a set of ideologically-aligned institutions -- academic centers, think tanks, legal advocacy institutions, watchdog groups, single issue groups, community organizations, and media vehicles -- to develop and promote conservative ideology. These institutions provided the far right with critical capacities such as idea generation, legislation drafting, litigation, message dissemination, voter registration, investigative reporting, media monitoring, public relations, lobbying, policy analysis, grassroots mobilization, mass communications, direct marketing, and human resource development. In addition to these individual capacities, they also developed critical coordinating mechanisms to connect the moving pieces. Organizations like the Council for National Policy and the Philanthropy Roundtable, and in-person gatherings like Grover Norquist's Wednesday meetings and the Philadelphia Society retreats serve as connective tissue between various parts of the conservative infrastructure.

When Republicans were in power, this infrastructure pushed its priorities from within the government -- from trickle-down economics to preemption to faith-based initiatives to social security privatization. During periods of Democratic dominance, the right was almost as influential. The repeal of Glass-Steagall, NAFTA and welfare reform -- all conservative ideas -- were promoted and passed by a Democratic president (and quite a popular one at that).

In 2003, progressives began to understand that they were structurally outmatched. They were sending David to fight Goliath without a slingshot. Since then, several new organizations have been developed to challenge conservative dominance. In addition, leaders of established organizations have begun to transform their institutions, developing fresh strategies and innovative tactics for a new political moment. If built to scale and effectively connected, these organizations could coalesce into an intellectual and communications infrastructure capable of fighting the powerful forces that threaten our country.

To counter that force effectively, it is critical to understand that politicians are the least important part of politics. While offering a public face to the debate, politicians are just a small piece of a fierce battle for power driven by people and organizations most Americans have never heard of.

Politics has a value chain just like any other business -- a set of activities that converts raw materials into finished products and then markets and distributes those products to customers in the marketplace. Think of Nike. Nike buys raw materials like canvas and rubber, designs and manufactures shoes, develops "swoosh" and "Just Do It," and then hires Michael Jordan as its spokesman. In politics, raw materials such as philosophical principles and economic and legal theories are transformed into specific policies which are translated into slogans and soundbites and then marketed and distributed to candidates, or directly to voters. A philosophy about fairness and the dignity of work combined with an economic theory about labor markets may be turned into a specific policy to raise the minimum wage. Marketing experts translate the policy into a "Living Wage" campaign, which is "sold" to voters either through the candidates (wholesale) or through ballot initiatives (retail). Voters then "buy" the product (elect the candidate or pass the ballot initiative). Nike does not ask Michael Jordan to design the tennis shoes or to develop the "swoosh." For years, progressives searched endlessly for exactly the right Michael Jordan, but spent no time at all designing a better tennis shoe. Conservatives understood that wrestling a country from its citizens required more than a single politician, however talented. Over the last 50 years, they built a value chain to develop and promote their ideas. This value chain is a threat to America. The threat is real. It is well-funded. And it is powerful. But it can be beaten.

Business theorist Michael Porter argues that competitive advantage stems both from the ability to perform particular activities within a value chain and from the ability to manage the linkages between these activities effectively. By the same token, it is possible to create competitive advantage in the public policy arena by strengthening each link in the value chain and by connecting those links effectively. By doing so, the parts -- the thinkers, writers, policymakers, marketers and candidates -- become an effective whole. The individual pieces become a system that can transform theories into policies, policies into messages, and messages into political power.

Today, the Agenda Project launched the Daily Agenda, a hub for Americans who understand -- as we do -- that progress doesn't start with politicians. The goal of the Daily Agenda is to highlight the best parts of the 'value chain' and to build the linkages in between them. Between outdated political parties, self-interested corporations, and ineffectual elected officials, citizens have lost the power to guide their government. We hope that the Daily Agenda will help to build a movement that will make the well-being of regular Americans the driver of public policy.

Like the Daily Agenda on Facebook!

Follow the Agenda Project on Twitter: