Merge, Left: What Progressives Can Learn from the Right Wing's Rise
Published on Friday, June 6, 2003 by
Merge, Left:
What Progressives Can Learn from the Right Wing's Rise
by Joe Bevilacqua

Listen hard when the U.S. President says "You're either for us or against us." These words bespeak the confidence that conservatives stand solidly together, united by a simple message.

The rules of political engagement have changed, and progressives had best observe the planful discipline that has brought right-wing conservatives to such powerful heights. The ladder of these heights was built, rung by rung, through the efforts of non-profit organizations.

Let's begin with a leader: Paul M. Weyrich. He's the founding president of the Heritage Foundation, and founder of the Free Congress Foundation, which, unlike Heritage, can act as a political action committee. Weyrich convinced Jerry Falwell to found the Moral Majority in 1979 to unite Christian Right organizations. With former Colgate Palmolive ad man, Southern Baptist Edward McAteer, Weyrich co-founded the Religious Roundtable to rejuvenate the right wing.

Or take Karl Rove, George W. Bush's chief strategist and the power-conservative of the moment. Time Magazine called Rove "the Busiest Man in the White House." Investigative journalist Wayne Madsen labeled him "America's Joseph Goebbels." Rove is the preeminent practitioner of a new wave of behind-the-scenes political manipulation and dirty tricks that put George W. in the White House and delivered the U.S. Senate back into the hands of the Republicans in November of 2002.

Then there's Grover Norquist, one of the best-connected members of the "New Right," wielding enormous influence over the Republican party, large U.S. business interests and even the U.S. media. As president of Americans for Tax Reform, Norquist helped the Heritage Foundation write the Newt Gingrich 1994 "Contract With America." He led a right-wing charge to "de-fund the Left," declaring that "We will hunt [these liberal groups] down one by one and extinguish their funding sources."

Each Wednesday, Norquist heads a meeting in Washington to organize right-wing leaders and ensure that all are on the same page. The attendee list reads like a virtual "who's who of conservative activists." It includes some 70 or so groups with grassroots operations, from the NRA to the Christian Coalition, plus conservative congressional aides and writers who serve as movement propagandists. By the time the meeting ends, all these groups with their diverse interests agree on one agenda for the week. If they don't play along, Norquist cuts off their access to funding or to the White House's policy staff.

Looking at the work of any one of these men, one can see the vast difference between the effectiveness of the Right and that of the Left. The Left has never been this organized, this united, this tough.

In a slow and calculated manner over the last 30 years, the Right has built a solid organization that is only now reaping the fruits of its labors in the form of unprecedented governmental, corporate and media control. The Left has sat quietly, letting it happen. Some say that even if the Left starts now, it might take another 30 years to regain its share of the power and put things back in balance.

One who believes the Right has slowly gained power while the Left has slept is Bob Borosage, co-director of Campaign for America's Future, a think-tank devoted to revitalizing the progressive agenda. He points to several pieces of the puzzle, each independent of the other, that form what some refer to as the "right-wing conspiracy." Indeed, Borosage says, it's really nothing more than the Right working together with one voice, even when they don't agree.

The first steps, says Borosage, came after the defeat of Barry Goldwater for president in 1964, then intensified with the Vietnam War, and culminated with the Watergate scandal in 1974. The events of those 10 years brought the Republican party to a conscious decision to become more ideologically based.

Bob Borosage: When Nixon was discredited and Ford lost the presidency, and Democrats controlled everything, they continued to build and increase the size dramatically of [the] Heritage [Foundation], and groups engaged in the politics of the Moral Majority, and so they quite consciously ignored the counsel which was "we gotta move to the center," and instead said "No, we're gonna drive an ideological message and we're gonna build institutions that are of dramatic weight and size and thrust because we have to pull this debate to the right."

Over that same 10-year period, the Democrats were emboldened by the advancements in civil and women's rights, Roe v. Wade, the end of the Vietnam War and the implementation of environmental protections. They rested on their laurels. They were demonized by the Right, and failed to defend themselves. Continue this pattern for a few decades, and by 2003 we have an ineffective Democratic party with no clear message or agenda.

"I wrote an article about this in The Nation in January," says Borosage. "Kevin Phillips went to the Democratic Caucus after the defeat in November and basically he just read them the riot act. He said, 'You know it's pathetic. We have Gilded Age inequality here, declining wages, workers getting screwed, middle-class people are getting screwed and you people are losing elections. It's just ridiculous!'"

And yet, Democrats are silent. The Democratic Leadership Council tells those in safe seats to bite their tongues and curb progressive tendencies, lest they harm fellow Democrats in swing seats. But those tactics simply allow the swing seats to drive the message, and deprive liberals of any message at all.

"What Republicans do," explains Borosage, "is they say to conservatives in safe seats in the South, take the gloves off and beat the shit out of these guys. Right? Just tear their flesh off, with right-wing, you know, Bob Barr/Tom Delay craziness, just go after them like attack dogs.

"And they say to their swing people, 'you figure out the deals you gotta cut in your district and you figure out the language that works and you can push off our attack dogs if you need to distinguish yourself. To be able to preserve your seat. But we're gonna define what the Republican party is and more importantly, we're gonna define liberalism with our attack dogs.'"

"What we do by silencing the liberals," Borosage continues, "we don't define who they are much less who we are. So if you ask voters what's the Republican plan on the economy, they say it's cut taxes and deregulate and privatize, whatever. And if you ask them what the Democratic plan is, they don't know."

The second piece of the puzzle is important: it's funding. Much more money is going to right-wing ideology than left. John Podesta, chief-of-staff during the Clinton administration, is currently setting up a think-tank some see as the Left's answer to the Heritage Foundation. Others say it will just make the same mistakes other Democratic think-tanks have made.

Blatantly political policy-oriented output on the part of Heritage and many conservative think-tanks have blurred the line between research and advocacy. Right-wing donors support independent ideologically-grounded capacity while liberal donors, such as the Ford Foundation, shy away from funding broad ideology in favor of targeted policies and issues, such as civil rights.

In an article for The American Prospect, Borosage wrote that progressives can learn from the book Blinded by the Right: The Conscience of an Ex Conservative, David Brock's account of the conservative machine.

"Brock describes in passing the large fortunes and foundations -- Richard Mellon Scaife, Smith Richardson, Coors, Olin -- that pour millions into right-wing institutions, and guide corporate and Wall Street money to them as well," Borosage wrote.

The Center for Policy Alternatives drew a clear fiscal picture in 2002: "The major conservative think-tanks in Washington -- American Enterprise Institute, American Legislative Exchange Council, the Cato Institute -- had a combined budget of $45.9 million, while the major progressive think-tanks -- the Center for Policy Alternatives, the Institute for Policy Studies, the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities and the Economic Policy Institute -- had a combined budget of only $10.2 million. That greater than four-to-one advantage permits the conservative think-tanks to pour more money into promoting their scholars, staging more conferences and providing more and better-packaged information to Congress.

"The imbalance between right and left is neither secret nor surprising," says Borosage. "The Heritage Foundation, the most influential conservative think-tank, runs on more than $25 million a year; the Economic Policy Institute, the premier think-tank of progressives, gets by on less than $6 million annually."

Is this imbalance likely to moderate or change?

"I don't think that groups on the left-of-center will ever have the ability to aggregate the resources that those on the right do," says Nan Aaron, President of Alliance for Justice, a national association of environmental, civil rights, mental health, women's, children's and consumer advocacy organizations. "Corporations and right-wing financiers will always have more resources to pour into special interests advocacy and activities. I would not think that left-of-center groups could even begin to match the resources on the right. They're there because they won't have and will never have access to those kinds of resources. Look at campaign finance reform, a perfect example. There's a never-ending source of money to support pro-business work."

But Borosage says progressive think-tanks are just not progressive enough. "They keep making the mistake of saying 'Okay, let's build another... like the Podesta Institute," says Borosage. "The Podesta Institute will be, whenever it gets built, will be disciplined by the Democratic party, by Tom Daschle and Hillary Clinton and the Treasury wannabees who will be a big source of the funding. It will drift. It won't have the kind of pull on the debate to the left, to a progressive, aggressive capacity that the right wing did on the right side of the debate."

Repeated calls to John Podesta were not returned, but his office said he would not comment on the Institute so early in the development process.

What -- if anything -- is the Left doing right?

"I think there's a lot more collaboration these days among the various organizations on the left," believes Nan Aaron. "I know there certainly is on the issue we address, and that concerns judicial nominations. The groups involved include ours, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, People for the American Way, the Sierra Club. I think these organizations have developed a very effective coalition. Recently, a large number of organizations pooled their money and put out an ad supporting the filibuster against Miguel Estrada. I think, in fact, we're going to see much more of that, only because, frankly, if we all want to win, we know we all have to work together. Coalitions are difficult ventures but I think we all recognize how incredibly important they are."

The Internet has also become a powerful tool. The Right is not using this as much, possibly because the Right has enormous media influence and doesn't perceive a need. But the Left value the Internet as a relatively inexpensive, amazingly effective and accessible tool allowing people without resources to weigh in and organize.

"Because organizing on the Web costs so little," explains Aaron, "an organization can engage in much more, for instance, lobbying activities. Expenditures are kept down, which allows an organization to do much more.

"There are some classic examples now. I think the peace movement. The effort to galvanize citizens to weigh in on judicial nominations is due in great part to the Internet. There are a million examples in every single area. [Sen.]Diane Feinstein said she received over 21,000 faxes, calls, faxes, letters and postcards within just a few weeks, [which helped convince her to vote against Judge Carolyn Kuhl.]"

Nan Aaron believes the Left needs to focus on what it does best: coalition building. "Because the resources amassed on the other side are so enormous, the only way to have leverage is to pool resources and talent. That is why the Alliance was formed. We have over 60 organizations. It was born out of the need to address common issues in a collective way. I think that we don't want to style our work, advocacy or activism based on what the right wing does. I think some of what they do, some of their activities and arguments and advocacy methods are deplorable. I'm not sure we'd want to emulate them. Yes, all of us would like the resources, but not if it comes at the expense of our integrity."

"We need to regain our pride in being liberal," says Kathy Bonk, the executive director of the Communications Consortium Media Center. Bonk is credited with defeating the nomination of Judge Bork to the Supreme Court in the 1980s.

"You know, the conservatives are not afraid to call themselves conservatives," Bonk says. "They don't want to be positioned as extremists, because they know that if they are labeled as extremists, the American public does not feel comfortable with it. So I think some of what happens with the liberal community is that we've allowed the conservative movement and the extremists on the conservative movement to somehow make liberals feel like they are extreme lefties and to kind of recreate the words and the terminology so that we don't even feel comfortable calling ourselves liberals anymore. We've got to recapture the vocabulary, recapture the words, the phrases and the values that are truly on our side of the aisle."

Part of that vocabulary shift might include the Left's framing its message with optimistic tones -- which now is a specialty of the Right. In an recent essay, "The Left's Postwar Blues," Dick Meyer, Editorial Director of, wrote: "The optimistic idealism of classic liberals and progressives is that the world can be changed and improved; that becomes pessimistic negativity when the promise of better, more perfect times disparages and scolds what is satisfactory in the present.

"The pessimistic curmudgeonliness of classic conservatives is that change is bad; but their optimism comes from seeing opportunity in the present and in the traditions of the past. Often lately it seems that that the politicians we label as conservative are actually the optimistic advocates of change. Optimism sells in America," Meyer concluded.

One essential fact has been lost; the fact that so many of the improvements society enjoys today were liberal inventions. Liberals need to own this notion, and repeat it over and over like a mantra. The Left must proudly stand up for the liberal policies of today.

"Vast majorities of people passively, without much [political] education, support us in position after position after position after position," says Bob Borosage. "So I don't think it takes 30 years to turn this around, and I don't think you have to have to match them institution for institution. But you have to have sufficient institutions and sufficient weight to be able to put out a position and drive it."

Kathy Bonk believes the goal is to regain a kind of balance: "As my friend Ellie Smeal says, 'This country needs a left wing and a right wing.' I mean, in order for birds to fly, they need a left and a right wing. And we've allowed the right wing to dominate to the point that our country isn't flying anymore."

"Unless there's I viable Left... I mean, I almost think what we need to form is the 'L Network' -- groups and organizations that share some common vision of where the future of this country ought to go, are proud to stand up and say, 'I'm working for a set of beliefs and a set of values and principles that this country was built upon," Bonk says. "If you read the U.S. Constitution, if you read the Founding Fathers and a few Mothers in there, it's liberty, it's justice, it's equality. I mean, those are core American values that are unanimous among Americans except for a very small, very radical extremist group of people that are trying to redefine our country."

Joe Bevilacqua is an award-winning radio dramatist and documentarian whose work has aired on NPR, PRI, and internationally.