Learning From the Cultural Conservatives, Part III: Taking It To The Street

Sara Robinson

Part I
Part II

The conservative worldview has succeeded so wildly — and is still holding such tenacious sway over the ways Americans approach their current stack of problems — because the conservatives started out 30 years ago with a focused plan that put promoting their model of reality at the center of every other action. Over the past two posts, I’ve been mining the specific strategies that early planners like Paul Weyrich used to advance the conservative worldview, in the hope that we might gain some insight that will help us engage them directly on this deepest, most important territory.

Progressives will not be able to implement their vision of the future until we’re able to supplant the conservative worldview with our own. We won’t win until we take control of the discourse, offer Americans new ways to make meaning and evaluate and prioritize events, and get them to abandon conservative assumptions about how reality works.

I’d like to thank Bruce Wilson at Talk2Action again for turning me onto Eric Huebeck’s 2001 document that summarized, updated, and refocused the original Weyrich strategies. In this final piece, we’ll look some of the specific ways the conservatives structured their campaign to take their worldview to the streets, and ultimately replaced long-held democratic assumptions about government, economics, and society with the deadly and wrong-headed assumptions that now drive the thinking of the entire nation.

Capture Cultural Institutions
Thanks to David Brock, Joe Conason, Chris Mooney, Michelle Goldberg, and many others, more and more of us are becoming aware of the ways that conservatives have quietly moved in to take over almost every public and private institution in America. From churches to university faculties to public broadcasting to the Boy Scouts, the vast network of institutions that once taught people how to live in a liberal democracy and reinforced those values across society has been shredded to the point where it no longer functions. In its place is a new network of institutions — some of them operating within the co-opted shells of the old ones, others brand new — that reinforce the conservative worldview at every turn.

This takeover of the very insitutional fabric of the nation was a central part of the conservative plan from the very beginning. Weyrich understood that to change the discourse, you had to capture and control the institutions that were most directly responsible for promoting and sustaining it. And the rising conservatives pursued that goal with a vengeance.

The basic strategy was to build parallel organizations that shadowed the official ones until they could legitimately assume power within their domains. In some cases these were national institutes, professional organizations, formal committees and expert policy groups; in others, they were simply ad hoc groups of conservative citizens who showed up at all the meetings, studied the domain, wrote letters, and eventually became expert in all the same topics and issues the official authorities dealt with. Either way, over the course of a decade or two, there was hardly an influential institution in America that wasn’t operating without a gaggle of conservatives standing by to criticize every decision and thwart every attempt at action.

In some cases, such as government agencies, these self-appointed shadow officials hung around long enough, and demonstrated enough interest and expertise, that they eventually eased themselves into official positions from which they began to enact the conservative agenda. They joined public boards, got themselves appointed to commissions, and inflitrated local offices. In cases where they couldn’t directly take over, they set themselves up as the determined and loyal opposition, acting as political leg weights that hobbled and slowed down every aspect of goverment business for decades on end as they looked for opportunities to press their issues and impose their will. The official policymakers still held sway, but the constant resistance made them far less effective. In time, people would get frustrated with the inaction, and look for other leaders to get the job done. Too often, the people who’d created the resistance in the first place were the first ones tapped to take over.

Massive funding put up by conservative foundations also gave the movement clout over the country’s great non-profits, from which they insinuated themselves into research, health care, social services, education, and the arts. Pressure from investors, advertisers, and avid letter-writers narrowed the range of acceptable narratives in every kind of media. Shadow “professional” groups were established to challenge the basic Enlightenment-era premises of law, medicine, banking, teaching, pharmacy, and other essential professions.

All of this effort was in the service of one goal — to take over these institutions and eventually use them to promote conservative values and worldview. They understood that when you control these institutions, you control the culture — and ultimately, you will also control the very discourse by which everyone inside the culture interprets reality. We’re coming up against the success of this strategy every time a Federalist Society judge comes up for confirmation, every time a hospital refuses to perform abortions, every time the police commission gets a brutality complaint and looks the other way, and every time we try to get a birth control prescription filled.

Huebeck was very clear that none of this about “reform.” He wrote: “We will not reform existing institutions. We only intend to weaken them, and eventually destroy them. We will endeavor to knock our opponents off-balance and unsettle them at every opportunity.” The conservatives knew that of all the various fronts in the war for American hearts and minds, seizing control of the country’s institutional core was is the one that mattered most.

And, unfortunately, we liberals left them to it. Throughout the 1960s, the Boomers had been challenging the authority of the old institutions, which they (often rightly) found stultifying, socially confining, and too often downright criminal. But there was a serious downside to this. When they abandoned the field, they left foundational American institutions (which had been dominated by GI-era rationalists from both parties) wide open for right-wing takeover — and the result is our lives are now dominated by the authority emanating from a new establishment that is far more stultifying, restrictive, and criminal that the 1960s rebels could have ever imagined.

It’s becoming obvious to more and more of us that we will not win until we start taking these institutions back. We’ve made a good start at creating progressive media networks, organizing our own political infrastructure, and defending education at all levels from conservative incursions. We’re having our say in the marketplace, particularly when it comes to agriculture and low-emissions vehicles. Science is not going gently into the ideological good night.

But it’s all just drops in the bottom of a large and leaking bucket. There are vast sectors in which the takeover proceeds unchallenged — and will remain so until we come back with the same pervasive intensity they brought to the job. We need thousands of those same small cadres of dedicated people who make it their business to target one institution, study it, become expert in it, and eventually mount a public challenge to its authority or move in and take it over. We need local MoveOn groups providing those scoutmasters, and local progressive churches taking strong stands against religious right school boards, and teams of local letter-writers who keep our issues on the op-ed pages of the weekly paper. We need professional organizations in every field that stand up to the ideologues and restore the rule of reason. We need to be as pervasive a presence in the life of conservative institutions as they have been in liberal ones.

It took them over 20 years to effect this takeover, so we also need to expect to be in this one for the long haul.

Don’t Trust the Democratic Party
Huebeck noted ruefully that movement conservatives “shot ourselves in the foot by expecting too much from the Republican Party.” It’s a feeling that’s becoming all too familiar to progressives assessing their relationship with the Democrats.

We’re tempted to forget that Progressives are not necessarily Democrats, any more than movement conservatives were necessarily Republicans. In each case, they are a separate movement that often finds its interests in consonance with those of a certain political party. But in both cases, they stand to lose tremendous amounts of power if they allow themselves to become co-opted and turned into an appendage of that party.

In the end, many conservatives — especially the religious right — lost track of that boundary, and forgot to consider their interests apart from the party. Without enough daylight between the two entities, it was easy for the GOP to start taking their Evangelical base for granted. With every passing election, it seemed, the party relied more and more on the religious conservatives for organization, money, and votes — and gave them less and less in return. This year, the conservative churches are in full fury over this betrayal. If the GOP loses, Evangelical disappointment will be at the heart of their defeat.

This is a special problem during election season, while progressives and the party work especially closely together to take back the White House and ensure a Democratic Congress. But, even as we fight the good fight together, progressives need to remember they are not us; and we are not them. Our movement must never forget that its an an entity apart from the Democratic party, with different interests and expectations of a different future. If we allow ourselves to be co-opted by the party, and are diverted into channeling all of our actions into activities that further the Democrats instead of our own progressive agenda, we’ll very quickly end up in the same place Evangelical conservatives are in right now — used, abused, and tossed aside.

It’s basic physics: Holding ourselves at a little more distance gives us extra leverage, forces them to work a little harder for our votes, and ultimately gives us more power to create the changes we seek.

Invest in our own members; grow our own leaders
Political leaders of all stripes like to expand their territory and hoard their power. Weyrich understood that personal empire-building is a selfish indulgence no successful movement can afford — first, because it leads people to put their own interests ahead of the movement, which should never be tolerated; and second, because it stunts the growth of new leaders and inhibits the transmission of leadership skills.

That’s why the early conservatives insisted that leadership should actively seek out leadership talent, nurture it, and groom it to assume power on its own. The more well-trained leaders the movement has, the bigger it can get, the more it can get done, and the faster its agenda will be adopted. Success depends on building a culture in which leaders are evaluated not by how much territory they control, but by the number and quality of new leaders emerging from underneath their wings.

Furthermore, giving people the chance to learn new skills and offering them new opportunities for personal growth is the most powerful way to bond them emotionally, socially, and even economically to the movement. In a time when people aren’t often given the chance to grow to their potential on the job, political work can provide a far more engaging and satisfying outlet for their ambitions. “Every member [must] be given the support to reach his maximum potential,” wrote Huebeck, who also observed that when we raise each others’ personal confidence and skill, it increases the confidence and skill of the movement as a whole.

This was the clause in the plan that launched a thousand wingnut welfare programs, stocked a hundred think tanks, and catapulted countless Young Republicans to positions of real power. But this lesson is far older than that. Earlier progressives understood the role that unions, churches, and civic organizations played in bringing along people who could become local, regional, and eventually national leaders. This isn’t something that happens just inside the Beltway. Finding and grooming emergent talent everybody’s job; and those who do it well have earned their place among our most esteemed leaders.

Ask people to invest in return
Changing the world is not a spectator sport. The early conservatives weren’t afraid to ask their members for incredible investments of time, energy, and money — investments that were essential if their perceived life-or-death struggle for the hearts and minds of America was to be won.

The money, in particular, matters. The conservatives realized that they would need to fund the the early years of their movement themselves until they racked up enough wins to attract foundation support. We progressives are short on corporate white knights; instead, we’ve built our movement on small donations from millions of Americans. Those people are making investments in us — and with every PayPal transfer they send, they are deepening their emotional bonds to our cause.

However, the problem with a lot of progressive fundraising is that it’s too often aimed at winning short-term battles. Pass or defeat this legislation. Win this election. Fund this organization for another year or two. Once that milestone has passed, groups have to conjure a new reason to get people to pony up. Donors figure that the battle’s won, and they can slack off now. Or it wasn’t won, and there’s no point in continuing to give. Either way, it doesn’t take long for donor fatigue to set in.

The conservatives largely avoided that problem by setting out one huge long-range goal that provided the all-in-one justification for an entire lifetime of generous giving. They were in it for nothing less than a total cultural transformation. Every smaller battle was just another step in the long war, which they expected to outlast their lifetimes. The leaders kept up their high expectations that their members would make enormous sacrifices — not just in the early years, but for decades on end until that transformation was complete. Nobody was allowed to slack off — and few wanted to. As the victories racked up and the stakes grew higher, the atmosphere got positively giddy — and the money pile kept getting bigger as people got more and more excited about the movement’s momentum.

We need to remind the progressive donor base that they play the deciding role in a battle that we, too, can expect to be fighting for the rest of our lives — and which will probably be the most important work of all of our lives. As such, we will continue to expect their full support until the job is done. And the more we win, the more we’ll prove that we deserve it.

Think nationally. Organize locally.
The original progressive movements drew on (and helped build up) a vast network of local political gathering places. By the 1920s, there wasn’t a county or town in the nation that didn’t have a permanent progressive hangout — a place where people came together for news, education, organizing, good times, and help when they needed it. Most of these places were union and grange halls; some were civic clubs, Democratic party offices, lodges, churches, pubs, or just some old place the local folks bought and fixed up for their own use.

The collapse of this physical infrastructure is one of the biggest losses we’ve sustained in the conservative attack on American institutions. Even as the country’s last union and grange halls were being emptied out by Republican labor and farm policies, the rising conservative movement was busy building a shadow network of its own. The religious right’s biggest contribution to the cause may have been the ready-made national chain of conservative meeting halls it provided in every small hamlet and burg. Every Evangelical church in the country was a potential nucleus around which a revolutionary cell could form. (Using churches is dicey business, but ministers were taught where the lines were, and the IRS often enough looked the other way. Besides, the broad “cultural transformation” frame meant that a lot of the most important work wasn’t political at all, but rather social and cultural, and therefore entirely appropriate to a church setting.) The GOP money guys still met (as always) at the exclusive downtown and country clubs; but the churches provided a place where conservatives of all classes could gather for social support, education, training, and coordinated local action in service of their revolution.

We’ve suffered mightily by not having that same ubiquitous network of public outposts from which to run our ground game. MoveOn.org has been our biggest boon in re-creating this: it took the lead in using the Internet to help local progressives find each other, and helped them begin to form permanent organizations in remote parts of the country. (Until MoveOn and the Dean meetups brought them together, many rural liberals had spent years believing they were the only ones in town.) The 50-State Strategy is also seeking to correct this, by opening Democratic party offices in as many towns and counties as possible across the country. But, though these are two good starts, we need to stay focused on the task of making sure there isn’t a village in America that doesn’t have a permanent space that progressives can call home. Once we restore our place as an integral part of the country’s physical landscape, becoming a natural and accepted part of its cultural landscape will follow on naturally.

Don’t just talk. ACT.
Huebeck’s definition of political action is pointed and narrow. Action is “1) the subversion of leftist-controlled institutions, or 2) the creation of our own institutions of civil society, whose sole purpose is outreach to, and the conversion of, non-traditionalists.” All action needs to have direct results, and should also deepen the skills of the members who engage in it. And it’s an important way of bonding people to the movement: “Action in the world encourages the identification of the member with, and dedication to the group.”

“For example, we will go to public lectures given by leftists and ask them ‘impolite’ and highly critical questions. We must, of course, be fully prepared beforehand for these sorts of excursions, and we must also be prepared to embarrass ourselves, especially at first,” wrote Huebeck. He also advises local groups to do charity work that will both build esprit de corps and generate good PR. “Bonding with others in one’s generation or society is the means by which values are strengthened and perpetuated. It is vitally important that we bond in such a way that the values perpetuated are our own.”

In other words: Our actions need to be good for the movement’s long-term goal of cultural change; good for the community; good for our group’s reputation; good for our own internal cohesion; and good for us as individuals. It’s an excellent set of criteria, and one that we might want to borrow as a sturdy yardstick for the essential worthiness of every activity we plan.

Concentrate on students and young adults
Conservatives capitalized handsomely on the energy of their youngest members. Weyrich and the rest of the early planners carefully nurtured the small handful of disaffected conservative students remaining on the nation’s campuses. They gave them enormous roles at very young ages, while they still had high enough energy and few enough encumbrances to work crazy hours under insane conditions. They also richly funded conservative college newspapers and journals; granted scholarships to promising students with a conservative bent in law, politics, media, and business; and opened their social and business networks to graduates looking for high-paying work. In a very real sense, they found these kids in their cradles, and promised to look after them to their graves.

They made this investment because they realized that if you get them while they’re young, they’ll stay with you for life. Thirty years later, looking at Washington’s middle-aged conservative True Believers, it’s obvious that this investment in nurturing the party’s most promising young sprouts paid off for them many times over.

We have our moment now, with the vast numbers of young voters who are rushing to the Democrats this election. But the conservative success with an earlier generation of young voters tells us that we need to be very proactive about bringing these kids into the process, giving them some real power and some serious training, and returning their loyalty by attending well to their individual futures using every means available to us. If we want to build a progressive nation that will stand for the next 50 years, it’s not too early to start cultivating solid careers for those who will take over for us when we’re gone.

Be there for each other — especially when the pressure builds
Many of the above strategies — from creating permanent physical structures and solid career paths to establishing reliable internal funding flows — reflects the conservative battlefield mentality. They were determined to be self-sustaining and self-sufficient, beholden to no one in the liberal world. Another piece of this was social independence: Weyrich knew that conservatives had to learn to rely on each other, not the larger culture, for their social and emotional validation.

People creating change take a lot of flak from those profiting handsomely from the status quo. The more you start to win, the stronger and uglier this resistance gets. Movements often crack under this pressure — often when they’re right on the cusp of winning all the marbles, and the opposition is at its most intense.

But the founders of movement conservatism knew that people can withstand almost anything if they have the firm support and acceptance of their peers. They strengthened their followers against this pressure by teaching them not to give two hoots about what the rest of us think. To them, the only people who matter are the ones who believe as they do — the ones they trust to actually have their backs, look after their kids, and throw their bail when the opposition takes out after them with ugly intent.

The changes we seek now will eventually create equally tectonic shifts as we set the country back to right. The money and power is all lined up behind the conservatives; and they’ve already demonstrated their willingness to use it to viciously punish progressives who dare to challenge it.

We will only survive this if we learn to be equally self-sufficient. We cannot care what they think, do, or say about us. We need to make a point of being there for each other when the heat is on, and the cons come after one or another of us, hoping to pick us off. And that kind of defiance comes a lot easier when we make a point of looking to each other for validation, and building bonds of trust that will hold us tightly together when trouble comes.

Don’t Ever Give Up. We’re In This for The Long Haul.
Movement conservatism first started chipping away at the dominant liberal culture in the early 1970s. The strategies in these three articles were largely formulated in the decade that followed; and they’ve been the basic principles governing conservative behavior ever since.

From the very beginning, they realistically viewed their goal of cultural domination as a multi-generational fight. Those who started it didn’t expect to live to see the end of it — and they were right. The people who first plotted strategy and tactics 30 years ago are now passing into death and retirement; their movement is now in the hands of a carefully-nurtured second generation, and a third is already coming of age. The humiliations of the Bush era are sending them back to their local gathering spots to take stock and regroup; but just because they vanish from the scene for a few years, we mustn’t ever delude ourselves that they’ve finally gone away. They will be back — and, no doubt, their comeback will be largely constructed out of these same strategies.

Weyrich and Huebeck warned the faithful about just these kinds of setbacks. “We will not hunker down and wait for the storm to blow over. Our strategy will be to bleed this corrupt culture dry.” They told conservatives that good efforts and good intentions count for nothing, because losing is not an option for them. “The real question is: if the fight is winnable, why have we not won it? If it is not, why are we diverting our efforts elsewhere?”

It’s one last thing to bear in mind, a final challenge from the conservative movement’s master strategists. If the fight is winnable, why have we not won it? If it is not, then why are we diverting our efforts elsewhere? This struggle for America’s heart and soul and mind has gone on from the beginning, and it will never end. Being progressive means committing our entire lives to the work of promoting America’s founding Enlightenment worldview, building a thriving movement that will outlast us, and raising up people who will carry on when we’re gone. As long as conservative culture warriors are out there trying to undermine the very model of reality that defines American democracy, we’re going to need to be out there resisting their incursions and reminding the country why that foundation matters. We, too, are in this for the long haul.

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