(This is part of a longer piece I just posted in full at Greater Democracy:
....This makes me think about the context for this election: Traditionally the U.S. has had elements on the right (corporate interest above all) and left (public or social interest above all) advocating for either extreme, but actual governance and policy has been relatively well-balanced somewhere near the middle. The GW Bush presidency is the culmination of one extreme's careful strategic work over the last thirty years, and the problem is not just the Bush presidency and it's not really a "Republican" revolution. A more extreme element within the Republican party has worked very hard and very smart to take control – of the executive, yes, but they now also control the legislative and, to some extent, the judicial branches of government.
They did this by staying on message, persistently. They have an extremely effective propaganda machine. They understand spin. They understand the authority of media. I first heard about the conservative "message machine" from David Isenberg, and we've talked about it quite a bit within Greater Democracy. There's some background information about the conservative strategy in Matt Bai's article Wiring the Vast Left-Wing Conspiracy, in The New York Times, which mentions "how conservatives, over a period of 30 years, had managed to build a 'message machine' that today spends more than $300 million annually to promote its agenda." Later in the same article, there's a paragraph that echoes a sentiment I've been hearing and thinking about for the last two years:
Privately, and sometimes publicly, leading Democrats will admit that the party's shrinking influence has its roots in the most basic problem of "message." Despite having ruled Capitol Hill for a half-century, during which time they successfully enacted a staggering array of innovative programs, Democrats have been maddeningly slow to adapt their message to the postindustrial age. "The truth is that a lot of the people who ran the Democratic Party in the 70's and 80's ran it into the ground," Simon Rosenberg said. "The imperial Congress was in charge of America for 50 years, but we lost our way, and we've got to fight back."The article goes on to note the emergence of progressive groups funded by "new political venture capitalists [who] see themselves as true progressives, unbound by any arcane party structure." Who needs monolithic party structures, after all, when you can build coalitions of smaller, agile activist/advocacy groups?
As the old union bosses and factional leaders who dominated the Democratic Party in the 20th century file into the FleetCenter this week, waving signs and hooting for their heroes, be sure to take a long, last look. The Democratic Party of the machine age, so long dominant in American politics, could be holding its own Irish wake near Boston's North End. The power is already shifting -- not just within the party, but away from it altogether.That's a bit of a digression, but I'm getting an interesting juxtaposition here thinking about vision (or lack thereof) and leadership, Kerry's speech, the malleable concept of freedom, and the beginnings of several longer-term projects to reclaim America via Bai's "vast left-wing conspiracy," which is really about reclaiming a balance that (to me) is more centrist.
Thanks for posting these thoughts here, Jon. I look forward to reading your full essay.
Thanks, Emily! There are a couple of good comments to the longer post at Greater Democracy, as well.