Underneath today’s electoral contests is a fierce argument about policy and power. Candidates, elected officials and party committees are the public faces of this conflict, but the struggle goes far beyond elections.
After the 1964 Goldwater defeat, conservative philanthropists began to build a set of ideologically-aligned institutions – academic centers, think tanks, legal advocacy groups, single issue groups, community organizations and media vehicles (lots of media vehicles) – to change the intellectual and political climate of the country. Today, this intellectual and communications “infrastructure” enjoys a combined annual operating budget in the hundreds of millions of dollars. The infrastructure indoctrinates young conservatives in the philosophy of the far-right, offers skills training and job placement. For establishment conservatives, the infrastructure provides legislation drafting, message dissemination, voter registration, investigative reporting, media monitoring, public relations, lobbying, policy analysis, direct marketing and mobilization capacities that are critical to influencing the national “conversation” and the country’s political dynamic.
In 2002, progressives began to wake up to this enormous structural disparity. We began to understand that our candidates were losing not because they were bad candidates but because they were structurally outmatched. We were sending David to fight Goliath without a slingshot. So we began to build new institutions outside of politics and to transform old organizations to meet this new challenge.
Today, the progressive infrastructure includes dozens of organizations and thousands of permanent employees. Since 2002, the progressive infrastructure has stopped social security privatization, prevented the disenfranchisement of hundreds of thousands of voters, exposed substandard body armor, out of control mercenary armies, White House visits by Jack Abramoff, and illegal activity by right-wing “churches.” It forced the retirement of UN Ambassador John Bolton and six members of congress, including Tom Delay. It legalized gay marriage and decriminalized pot. The Progressive Infrastructure lobbies Congress, publishes white papers, drafts legislation, writes op-eds, magazine articles, and voter guides. It produces ads, videos, memes and films. It argues in front of the Supreme Court, testifies in front of Congress, registers millions of voters and recruits thousands of volunteers.
With a progressive infrastructure, we can restore our country. Without it, we cannot. Here’s why . . .
Like any other business, politics has a value chain – a set of activities that convert raw materials into finished products and then markets and distributes those products to end customers in the market.
Consider Nike. Nike buys raw materials like canvas and rubber, then converts these materials into shoes that it distributes and sells to customers. Along the way, Nike’s marketing team develops the “swoosh” and clever slogans like “Just Do It” and then the company hires Michael Jordan as its spokesperson.
The same thing happens in politics. Raw materials, like philosophical principles and economic theories, are transformed into specific policies that are marketed and distributed to candidates and advocacy groups or directly to voters.
For example, a philosophy about fairness and the dignity of work combined with an economic theory about a demand based capitalist economy may become a specific policy to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour. Good marketers translate the policy into a “Living Wage” and the “Fight for $15” which is then “sold” to voters either through a candidate (Bernie Sanders) or through ballot initiatives. Voters then “buy” the product (elect the candidates, pass the ballot initiative or demand action from legislators).
Nike does not ask Michael Jordan to design the tennis shoe or to develop the “swoosh” and we shouldn’t either. For years, progressives searched endlessly for exactly the right Michael Jordan and spent no time at all designing a better tennis shoe. The intellectual and communications “infrastructure” is about the canvas . . . the shoe . . . and the swoosh.
Business theorist Michael Porter believes 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. Following his logic, it is possible to create competitive advantage in the public policy arena by both developing each step in the value chain and by connecting them effectively. By doing so, the parts - the thinkers, writers, policy makers, 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.
A decade into the development of the “progressive infrastructure” we are beginning to see flashes of that competitive advantage. With the help of some visionary entrepreneurs, and both citizen funders and a core group of major donors, much of the capacity differential has been overcome. However, structurally, the Right still enjoys far more political power than it should. Gerrymandering, voter suppression, Citizens United and other factors make fully exorcising the tumor of conservatism incredibly difficult. Regular Americans – who focus on politics once every four years – just haven’t yet figured out that the Right is destroying their country. They feel the insecurity of an economy designed to enrich billionaires. They sense that they have less power, less control, but they don’t fully appreciate the fact that the Right is actually to blame for almost everything that is wrong in America.
Many regular citizens believe Washington is “broken”. It isn’t. Washington works just fine for corporate lobbyists and Republican politicians.
It’s time it worked for decent people trying to make good lives for themselves and their children.
That starts with the truth. A linguist once said the Agenda Project’s founder could “teach a master class in speaking truth to power.” The Agenda Project and the Action Fund are infused with that spirit.
Since our founding 6 years ago, we have relentlessly hammered the Right, fiercely exposing their plans for America. When Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich and Glenn Beck went after Muslims, we frontally assaulted their bigotry and hate. When Paul Ryan tried to rip the social safety net out from underneath seniors, we tore him to shreds. When Republican budget cuts actually ended up killing people, we had the guts to say so. When the Chamber of Commerce pretended it was just another business group, we exposed it as the biggest lobbyist in the country. When conservatives tried to make tax cuts for billionaires palatable, we found hundreds of wealthy patriots to challenge them.
Is it possible to beat the Right with a fraction of their financing? Yes, but fully wresting control of the government away from the Right will require a level of citizen engagement not seen in a generation.
Bernie Sanders is correct. We need a political revolution. And we need fearless leaders to guide that revolution. The Agenda Project has a proven record of exposing the Right’s radical plans for America, and of furthering the values that most decent citizens support. Join our fight.