American progressives act like a teenager who’s gotten so used to being rejected for prom and picked last in dodgeball that we just keep our heads down and try to make it through another day without getting our asses kicked. The message I want to send to the American political left is similar to what I want to tell all disaffected and awkward teenagers. I want to grab them by the shoulders, shake them and say “Chill the fuck out! You got this!”
It’s fair for progressives to feel like losers. After all, we’ve mostly been fighting defensive, losing battles for a solid forty years, leaving us with a nation of gaping income inequality, a tattered social safety net, and immense corporate influence over elections and lawmaking. We’ve been beat not only in the arena of laws and government, but in the arena of ideas: The commonly accepted worldview in America every day seems to bear a closer and closer resemblance to the Hunger Games, with ruthless competition and inequality accepted as the necessary conditions for the prosperity of life’s winners.
So when the Supreme Court upheld health care reform, setting the stage for the rollout of arguably the most historic victory for the left in a generation, many of us were stunned. Not because we thought Obamacare was actually unconstitutional, but because we’ve seen the right wing consistently dominate nearly every major American institution, including the Supreme Court, and expected a losing vote along ideological lines.
But progressives, get your boots on, because we’re entering a new era of ass-kicking. And no, the asses being kicked won’t be ours. I believe we’re going to win this round of history and here are my three reasons why.
1. Their Coalition is Falling Apart, Our Coalition is Coming Together
The right’s coalition is essentially made of three parts: working-class rural evangelicals, wealthy pro-business social moderates, and national security war hawks. All three loved Ronald Reagan, a unity that lasted through much of the Bush years, but ultimately ended in fracture best seen in the 2008 GOP presidential frontrunners: Mike Huckabee (working-class evangelicals), Mitt Romney (Wall St. types), and John McCain (war hawks).
Like any coalition, it was built over time. In the late 1960’s, the Republican Party created the “Southern Strategy”, a plan to wedge working-class Southern whites away from the Democratic New Deal Coalition that had held dominance since the time of FDR. Nixon and his strategists used racial issues and the Democratic Party’s passage of civil rights legislation in the 1960’s to make white Southerners place their political allegiances with the side that served their racial interests, not the side that served their economic interests. The emergence of the Christian Right in the late 1970’s pulled working-class rural whites further into the coalition. The religious establishment embarked on a campaign to politicize their base and move into partisan politics and media, starting organizations like Focus on the Family and the Moral Majority. Through much of American history, war has enjoyed strong bipartisan support. But neoconservative war hawks gathered under the banner of the right in opposition to the peace movement of the 1960’s and 70’s. They argued that a powerful American military presence was necessary to secure global freedom in the face of communism, and later Islam. Thus national security interests became aligned with the religious and economic interests of the right wing, as protecting the Christian American tradition and free market capitalism became the main motive for use of US military force around the world. And Wall St. pro-business types? Well, they’ve been with the right since the days of Herbert Hoover. By 1980, the modern conservative coalition was solid enough to usher in decades of social change according to their demands: deregulation of industry and finance, slashing the social safety net, and dramatically lowering the top tax rate.
However, in the aftermath of the Bush years, the mess of the Iraq War, the financial crisis of 2008, and finally the crushing loss to Barack Obama, this coalition began to unravel. With politics focused on the economy, the main fissure came at the seam between rural evangelicals and the pro-business establishment. Many conservatives, suspicious of Wall St.’s ties to government, believed the Mitt Romneys of the world had sold out their small-government conservative principles for corporate welfare and might even secretly not quite believe in their social values, only embracing them at arms length in order to get the votes of rural evangelicals. (Now why would they think that?) Grassroots conservative activists saw this as part of some larger morality play, where the reason the right had lost in 2008 was a lack of faithfulness to its right-wing principles. This tension finally erupted into the Tea Party, a movement of raw anger not just directed at Obama, but also the Republican Party establishment. The schizophrenic GOP primary of 2012 made clear that a large portion of conservatives could barely stomach Mitt Romney and everything his part of the right wing coalition represented. The coalition may remain intact as long as they are united by a common enemy (Obama), but it seems to be inevitably on the verge of collapse.
Meanwhile, a modern progressive coalition is uniting closer than ever before. Throughout world history, the left has mostly been a ragtag team of disenfranchised groups who through some miracle (and a lot of hard organizing) managed to band together under some general values like equality, community, compassion etc. Yet this coalition is often fraught with arguments over who is more oppressed and whose progress should be the priority, like a pissed off hydra whose multiple heads can’t decide which enemy to bite and often just bite each other. Environmentalists sometimes find themselves at odds with organized labor, who sometimes take positions against immigrants, who sometimes vote in opposition to LGBT people, who sometimes help gentrify black neighborhoods. But I think we’ve recently seen a historic consolidation of our progressive coalition. Just this year, the NAACP and the National Council of La Raza both endorsed marriage equality for gays and lesbians for the first time. In 2009, the two federations of labor unions in the US for the first time came to an agreement supporting comprehensive immigration reform. Environmentalist groups teamed up with unions in 2006 to create the Blue Green Alliance advocating for green jobs. Meanwhile, mainstream environmentalist groups have begun to adopt the principles of environmental justice. Urban community organizations have been doing groundbreaking coalition work between blacks and Latinos, fighting the narrative that pits American born low-wage workers against immigrants.
Like the right wing coalition that was built over a decade from the late 60’s to the late 70’s, this modern progressive coalition will take some time to reach its true strength. But the signs are clear: there is more unity on the left, and less unity on the right, than any time in recent history.
2. Modern Communication Technology is Eroding the Right’s Advantage in Messaging
Over the last few decades, conservatives have won the war of ideas. The basis of right wing ideology (individualism is the natural way of things, government is always bad, racism doesn’t exist anymore, etc) has become the basis of American political thought in general. For a long time, the right has simply had stronger, more cohesive messaging. I’ll acknowledge some of it is just that their communications people are smarter and more strategic than ours. But I think much of it comes from political psychology, and the different ways that conservatives and liberals approach political communication. Studies have shown that people who identify as conservative have stronger impulses to respect authority and more group discipline. They also think more in the language of abstract values and principles than policy analysis and comparing outcomes. Thus the right has a natural advantage in top-down, highly cohesive, simplistic messaging. In other words, they’re bred for the age of talk radio and cable news. Thus, as talk radio and cable news eclipsed print newspapers and as people began to prefer TV commentators shouting at each other over the old boring evening news anchors, the effectiveness of conservative messaging grew. Right wing media moguls like Rupert Murdoch learned how to use the media effectively as a political tool and built an empire of news outlets that reached millions of Americans. The TV commentators of the left were no match for the titans of conservative cable TV (think Keith Olbermann vs. Bill O’Reilly). Republican Party political figures coordinated their messages with conservative activists and media pundits much more closely than the Democratic Party did with left-wing activists. It all relied on the willingness of conservatives to all roughly stick to the same set of messages and talking points distributed from the top down.
On the left, cohesive messaging has never been our strong point. Most of us hear a simple, powerful political argument and say something like: “Well what you didn’t mention is how this group is affected, and the potential unintended consequences of that policy. Here’s a series of statistics and a great Noam Chomsky book to explain what I mean.” We’re a less homogenous group, so we tend to craft messages in ways that help mobilize our own communities. The way we talk to a middle-class white college student about health care reform is different from how we talk to a middle-aged black mother or an uninsured immigrant service worker, and the different parts of our coalition have a hard time sitting down at the table to come up with some talking points that work for everyone. If the Democratic Party tried to hand down talking points to progressive journalists, nonprofits, and professors they would get smacked upside their collective heads. When we try to communicate our message to political moderates, it ends up being full of wonky facts to contradict the dominant conservative worldview (“GDP growth has no correlation with marginal tax rates!”) or fringe-sounding arguments that use unfamiliar academic language (like “reproductive justice” and “intersectionality”). What we don’t do is collectively articulate our own values in words people understand and clearly frame our vision of a different world. Without strong, unified messaging, we quickly lose ground in major policy debates. For example, when you poll Americans on individual parts of the Affordable Care Act, virtually all of them get solid public support, including majority support among Republican voters for many major provisions of health care reform. However, when you ask Americans whether they approve or disapprove of the law overall, it remains widely unpopular. We managed to take something the American public liked and wanted, and let the right convince them that they hated it.
But the light at the end of the tunnel is here! We are entering an age of new media. Having conservative TV pundits, radio show personalities, Republican politicians, right wing advocacy groups and think tanks all arguing from the same set of talking points is becoming less and less advantageous. The era of Rush Limbaugh is over! All hail the era of the viral infographic! And we’re great at viral infographics! Anyone can create their own content that would appeal to their own social network, and thus micro-target our messages to the narrowest of socioeconomic, demographic or regional categories. Policy wonks and political junkies can share news and data in a way that is visually appealing and accessible, and have it spread virally out to the grassroots. Here, the top-down approach of strict adherence to a set of talking points will fail. People don’t click on a link to the same dogmatic argument they’ve heard for years. People don’t obediently share memes made by the Republican National Committee.
Of course we’re still at the beginning stages of this change. Most people get their news from the traditional sources still, and although the Bill O’Reillys and Glenn Becks of the world are on the decline, they remain powerful. However, we know where things are headed and it can only be good for us on the left. What social media is allowing us to do is crowdsource our messaging. In fact, it’s what we progressives have been doing all along, it just wasn’t working before.
3. Our Base is Growing, Their Base is Shrinking
We are a demographic bomb that’s going to explode in Rush Limbaugh’s face. The best part is, he knows it. Even between the 2008 election and the 2012 election, the voting bloc of young people, single women and people of color identified by liberal strategists as the “Rising American Electorate” will have grown by millions. In fact, the RAE accounted for 81% of the population growth in the country between the 2000 Census and the 2010 Census. Progressive-leaning demographic groups are steadily rising as a share of the voting population, and conservative-leaning groups are declining. No one believes this trend is going to turn around any time soon. Soon enough, America will look like California and California will look like LA. And astonishingly, the GOP and the right as a whole are proving themselves either a) laughably incompetent at appealing to anyone other than straight white males or b) actually crazy enough to be willing to shrivel up and die rather than give up racism, sexism and homophobia. Maybe it’s just that people are smart enough not to trust an ideology that’s been trying to screw them over for all of human history just because they get a Cuban senator who offers up a watered down version of the DREAM Act. Either way I think it’s safe to say that everyone saw this coming and in 30 years what’s left of the Republican Party will be wondering why they actively chose to dig their own grave generations ago.
Rather than moderate their views on issues like immigration or women’s rights, conservatives are making last ditch attempts to ensure this demographic change does not lead to political change. They know if all those immigrants’ kids whose parents they tried to deport, all those young single women whose ability to sue for equal pay they filibustered, and all those young people whose college tuition they raised, actually register to vote, turn out at the polls, and get politically organized, they’re totally fucked. It might explain many Republican members of Congress’s reversal on the (formerly) bipartisan DREAM Act, or any other proposal that would allow undocumented immigrants to become citizens and vote. Today’s slew of voter suppression laws and voter registration purges spreading across the country, supposedly designed to address some nonexistent wave of rampant voter fraud, are a transparent attack on young people, immigrants, and low-income communities. UFO sightings are more common than voter fraud in the US, but somehow conservatives around the country have decided this is an important issue that needs to be dealt with, preferably before November 6, 2012. The right has also developed an obsession with taking down organizations that enhance the political power of those progressive-leaning groups: ACORN, Planned Parenthood, unions, etc. Perhaps the scariest is the Tea Party vigilante “True the Vote” groups that are traveling all over the country to intimidate voters at the polls, again under the strange assumption that there’s some epidemic of illegal college student voters trying to ruin America.
These kind of tactics might work for a while. They succeeded in the post-slavery South for a few generations between Reconstruction and the Civil Rights Movement. But in the end, they’re a desperate short-term strategy that will fail. Eventually the right will have to concede that they ignored the writing on the wall and have spent most of history trying to limit who was defined as part of the “real America”, as Sarah Palin would say. But as their idea of “real Americans” becomes a smaller minority of the population, they will either have to acknowledge the humanity of others or shrivel away into the margins of the history books.
However, demographic change does not automatically produce political power. If California is a predictor of what the national population will look like soon, it is also a warning that conservatives can have an influence far disproportionate to their share of the population if they remain more politically organized. Voter education, registration and turnout efforts will help win political battles. But this must be combined with stronger stances to make real progress on issues like college affordability or immigration reform (I’m looking at you, Democratic Party establishment). A voter taken for granted is a voter who has better things to do on election night. However, with some tough organizers and some accountable elected officials, we can change the electoral map in the United States, and thus the realm of political possibility, forever.
The Roadmap to Victory
From the late 1960’s to the late 1970’s, conservatives built a powerful movement that fundamentally altered the course of the nation’s history. They stood upon a bedrock foundation of America’s strongest institutions: big business, the church and the military. Unified, clear, and values-based right-wing messages echoed through millions of homes in the era of talk radio and cable news commentators. Elections still mostly hinged on who could win the votes of older white males, and conservatives rallied monolithic support from this base.
But at the beginning of the 21st century, this movement has begun to stumble. A rift has appeared between the grassroots conservatives of America’s heartland and the business elites that dominated the Republican Party. The media megaphones of the right, Limbaugh, Beck, O’Reilly, are beginning to fade from prominence. And their single-minded focus on older white voters is backfiring, as a more diverse and progressive generation comes of age.
I believe that the history books will one day read that starting in the late 2000’s, the progressive movement began to shift the balance of power. The books will say that starting around this time, a series of stunning alliances formed between groups with historical tensions. Unions, immigrants, civil rights groups, LGBT activists, environmentalists and more began to stick together under a banner of solidarity based on the basic values of fairness, community and dignity. They ultimately failed to come up with anything resembling a cohesive message, but in the age of social media it didn’t matter. Their ideas spread like wildfire across social networks, with millions of grassroots activists and everyday supporters writing blogs, sharing news, creating graphics that communicated the values of their movement. And starting in 2008, something changed: the presidential election didn’t depend on who won the votes of older white males, but on black and young voters turning out to the polls like never before. From then on, the tide began to shift, and a new growing majority looked at the politicians who had dismissed them in favor of the “real America”, and this new majority declared: “We are the real America.”