18 November, 2008

Progressive infrastructure

Early in my undergrad days, I went to a talk by a guy named Eboo Patel, who had started an interfaith organization for Chicago youth. His idea was to get kids from all different religions to get together and do volunteer work together, and in the process, talk about their faiths and by doing so learn to understand and respect one another. But that day - I think it was shortly after the 2004 elections - he talked less about the religious aspect and more about the future of progressive ideals - tolerance, secularism, peace and social justice - that seemed to be continually on the defensive in Bush's America.

He was first I heard to articulate what seems now to be a pretty common idea: that the future of progressivism was not in marching in the streets or in mobilizing for elections (although those are both important) but in the more difficult and longer-term work of building and nurturing institutions. The Right has its policy think tanks and publications (Heritage Foundation, National Review, Weekly Standard, Rush Limbaugh) and its civil society organization (Focus on the Family, et al) and now even its own cable network, all which raise money, field volunteers, put out publications and advertisements, push their preferred narrative, and in general serve as supporting infrastructure for the right-leaning universe. The closest thing the progressives had was labor unions, which had lots of members, but who only addressed a relatively narrow topic and didn't really have a coherent media presence.

Patel traced the discrepancy to the failure of the civil rights era progressives to lay the groundwork for an enduring movement. While some important institutions did emerge, like the NAACP, a huge part of the movement was simply too invested in radical and immediate change to think about the long slog of institution-building. And, it must be said, a large part of the movement wasn't at all serious about governing and had wildly unrealistic and self-contradictory visions of a future America. This wasn't a recipe for longevity; it was a recipe for a massive cynical burnout, which is to my understanding what happened. Meanwhile, conservatives hunkered down for the long haul, creating in the 1970s many of the institutions that would be given oxygen by Reagan and then bear fruit during the 1990s.

All that is to say, I think some people have gotten serious about learning that lesson, and we're starting to see some of the fruits of it already. The blogosphere is a big part of this, with Talking Points Memo, Huffington Post, Daily Kos, et al, pushing stories, getting commentators on news shows and challenging the limits of "reasonable" and "serious" debate. There is also the growth of progressive publications and think tanks that can provide research and serve as homes to progressive expertise. (The director of Obama's transition team, John Podesta, founded The Center for American Progress). And now we have mainstream political television programs featuring Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow. The center of gravity has shifted, and conservatives will no longer be able to win arguments by default.

Conservatives, and their arguments, still get more playtime on the air, but it is amazing to see the impact of just a few more sharp progressive voices. I was especially reminded of this when I saw this clip of Paul Krugman countering conservative George Will:

Here Will states the conservative argument that New Deal policies were actually responsible for the worst of the Great Depression. Four years ago, or probably even two, Paul Krugman would not have been sitting next to Will in order to counter his argument in real time. Will acts a bit surprised, almost like he has been parroting this for years without being challenged. And judging by our media, that is probably the case.

Update: Speaking of which.


Cassady said...

I'm all for the establishment of progressive institutions and think tanks and such, because I believe that the conservative institution has played a pretty major role in the past, and that healthy discussion/debate--even outright arguments--will ultimately be constructive to redefining policy platforms and informing a greater portion of the electorate about these different ideas.

Almost more important, in my mind, are forums where both of those parties can come together without having either be in a somewhat hostile environment. Public radio debates, interviews, and such. (maybe public radio isn't quite up to par, but it's close) I heard a great discussion today about whether there was this huge "liberal bias" in American universities. The two guests were partners in a comprehensive study of that issue--one conservative, one liberal--and they have a fantastic working relationship, and flushed out some serious and specific questions while simultaneously kaboshing the Couterian notion that universities are brainwashing otherwise upstanding neo-cons.

spencer said...

It must have been weird in the eighties to not be able to go online and find a million policy papers on whatever liberal idea you're interested in. No wonder Dukakis lost so badly... Here is a bloggingheads on the past (and future) of the conservative movement.

The problem with institutions seems to be that after they've been around for a while they tend to get rotten. I'm sure places like the American Enterprise Institute and Brookings used to have new ideas all the time, but now they just come up with fairly weak justifications for positions that conservatives already hold. The key is to come up with a system that stays fresh.