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The Power of Investing in Intellectual Infrastructure

big_landscapes.jpgIn discussing the present state of the US Democratic party, former Senator Bill Bradley wrote an insightful editorial in the New York Times (which I read in the IHT). Bradley reminds us of how in 1971, Lewis Powell, who later became a US Supreme Court judge, "wrote a landmark memo for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in which he advocated a sweeping, coordinated and long-term effort to spread conservative ideas on college campuses." He wrote it in reaction to his disgust of the "1960s revolution" and activism against Vietnam. The conservatives were loosing the battle over ideas, Powell surmised, and he wanted to change that. Following that memo, the Republican party built up a comprehensive pyramid structure that would fund, develop, and renew the intellectual foundations of the right wing. It works like this:

Big individual donors and large foundations form the base of the pyramid. They finance conservative research centers like the Heritage Foundation, the Cato Institute and the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, entities that make up the second level of the pyramid.

The ideas these organizations develop are then pushed up to the third level of the pyramid - the political level. There, strategists like Karl Rove take these new ideas and, through polling, focus groups and careful attention to Democratic attacks, convert them into language that will appeal to the broadest electorate.

It's a very smart and proven model. By contrast, the Democrats have an inverted pyramid structure, one that relies unduly on its' leader to marshall support and ideas. Whereas in the Republican system the leader matters less because the base is stable (which is paradoxical because Bush is seen to be a "strong" leader), the Democrat's model is vulnerable to collapsing once the pivotal leader changes. Moreover, "In such a system [democratic party] candidates don't risk talking about big ideas because the ideas have never been sufficiently tested. Instead they usually wind up arguing about minor issues and express few deep convictions. A party based on charisma has no long-term impact." Recent studies in business and organizational literature also confirm this insight. Sustainable and stable companies avoid the "cult of leadership" and are built more like the Republican pyramid model; since this is the party most closely tied to business, perhaps this isn't surprising. Cross fertilization across sectors and social networks has always been a source of innovation.

Meanwhile, the Republicans have been reaping increasing returns from this 35 year investment in ideas and the institutions that incubate them. It's taken money, vision, and discipline, but arguably the conservatives are in power now because of this. By controlling the discourse through framing the debate, they now control the US government. Cognitive linguist George Lakoff has become a thought leader in recent years by making this point and process more transparent to us. His solution is a systematic (re)investment in new framing ideas for the progressive movement, a strategy that Worldchanging fully supports, as Alex Steffen has written in Reframing the Planet and I've done in New Frames.

The imprint of Lakoff's agenda is plainly written all over Bradley's editorial, which is good news. We need more people to take this strategy seriously, because selling longer term investments in anything -- let alone something as abstract and intangible as "ideas" -- is hard these days, a time where our social metrics only seem to recognize short term pay back.

Part of the problem is that the various actors involved -- leaders, advisors, activists, and investors like foundations in the political sphere -- don't have a good model or big picture for how worldchanging happens across times scales, something that I've argued is important. To simplify, worldchanging happens at many levels at once, and through the interaction between fast and slower moving drivers. The faster moving developments are easily perceived because we see them on the surface (e.g. events, experiments, new technologies, leaders); they are measured in time by the day, week, quarterly, yearly, or electoral cycles. The slower moving drivers (paradigm shifting ideas, values, culture, governance and infrastructure) work over decades and centuries and are thus harder to see and understand. Stewart Brand explains the neat division of labour between the fast and slow layers in The Clock of the Long Now:

Fast learns, slow remembers. Fast proposes, slow disposes. Fast is discontinuous, slow is continuous. Fast and small instructs slow and big by accrued innovation and occasional revolution. Slow and big controls small and fast by constraint and constancy. Fast gets all of the attention, slow has all of the power. All durable dynamic systems have this sort of structure; it is what makes them adaptable and robust.

Successful civilizations, organizations, political parties, or individuals throughout history have figured out how to balance short term and long term investments. Without this balance, without both, these systems become brittle and maladaptive, which is where the Democrats are today. And they are not alone: much of the globe today is living with this imbalance, driven by a high discount rate for the future which has created years of underinvestment in our infrastructure -- whether it be transportation, education, health or our ecology.

The question is: can the progressives renew themselves by mustering the vision and discipline to fund such long term projects? This will require a long view. A long view is important because it enables people to see why and how long term investments make sense; a longer view makes these more visible in the present and thus more of a priority amongst the many competing short term imperatives. But the Catch 22 is that a long view is a kind of meta-meme that frames all the other ideas, and thus requires investment and time as well.

At WorldChanging we support all kinds of worldchanging -- both fast and slow. But we're also clear that it's these slower moving ideas that make the biggest difference in the long run. We are concerned, of course, like Bradley because right now it looks as if we're being whopped by better organized and better funded doomsdayers with a savvy sense of how to use both soft and hard power strategies. Even in the pop culture domain it looks as if we are being outmaneuvered, if the Left Behind apocalyptic novel series, which have been disturbingly successful, is any indicator. Not by accident, the authors are right wing evangelical politicos.

At the end of the day, we're hopeful, because we believe that grounded hope is the best strategy moving forward. We also take comfort in the fact that we are part of the culture creative class. This makes us a powerful and emerging contingent, as likely to surprise the mainstream by our collective clout in the near future just as the conservative religious right have done so today. So here is a fun challenge: let's create some pulp eco-fiction, stories that convincingly promulgate benestrophes instead of catastrophes, which is admittedly a much harder creative task than trading on negativity and biblical templates. But it's possible and needed. Besides, most people crave a happy ending more than anything else, so don't tell me there isn't a market for this.

And we're here for the long haul -- online and offline, and we're part of much larger global movement that transcends the American party system. (Case in point: I'm a Canadian based in France writing about American politics.) At WorldChanging, we're indicative of a long view group of committed folks co-creating a coherent set of ideas and practices that will, we hope, evolve into a better theory for how we want to live, work and play on this planet. As one wise person said, "stories are tools for knowing and judging. Change the stories and you change how people live." We believe that parts of this new story are already here, and while fragments of the narrative are still emerging, the bottom-up forces we are fortunate enough to float in give us a sense that they are within our grasp. The hard part will be focus, discipline, and of course, funding. But we'll get there.

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>we're indicative of a long view group of
>committed folks co-creating a coherent set
>of ideas and practices

And yet {they | the other side} doesn't seem to worry about coherence. Only cohesion. And without suffering cognitive dissonance.

When {we | our side} decide we can suffer the cognitive dissonance of compromise, then maybe we have a chance.

Posted by: bjd on 1 Apr 05

Actually, from a longer view perspective -- and once you understand the strict father metaphor morality (Lakoff's work) -- the short term contradictions (pro death penalty, pro life) get sorted out and their project assembles a form of coherence. So they have both coherence, on some level -- the powerful slower moving level -- AND cohesion and discipline. An effective combo.

Posted by: NIcole Boyer on 1 Apr 05

Great piece, Nicole. Very well done.

Posted by: Alex Steffen on 1 Apr 05

A question about metaphor: is a "pyramid" what we want or need? If you duplicate the processes which created the modern Republican Party, do you wind up with - the modern Republican Party?

Is "web" a closer metaphor of what needs to be built?

I understand the main point, about creating a strong base and investing in intellectual capital, rather pinning hopes on a single charismatic "leader." What I wonder is whether to embrace a "pyramid" model of hierarchy - wouldn't a "web" model of "panarchy" be better?

This sounds like an opinion, but it's a genuine question.

Posted by: David Foley on 1 Apr 05

I don't mean to suggest we mimic or model the pyramid structure. It was just description of the Republican approach. So yes, other web based models are more appropriate. I"m sure there are other organizational forms and structures as well.

In fact, Lakoff makes the point that we need DIFFERENT models, different metaphors, to be successful against conservatives. The last thing we should do is copy them, because that means their controlling the rules of the game.

Posted by: NIcole Boyer on 1 Apr 05

If you emulate the Republicans' bottom-up power structure, you don't end up with the Republican party. You end up with.... Power.

And you know what they say comes with great power, don't you?

A web is a metaphor that leaves everyone powerful, which is good and egalitarian, but which loses against a competing pyramid.

Also: I think this idea of fictive prediction is an idea that's floating around in the psychic woowoospace. _Seattle Weekly_ just did an issue on green utopianism in the Pacific northwest, featuring an interview with Ernest Callenbach, author of 'Ecotopia.' He talks about the need for an update of the premise of his book, which was published in 1975. A bright green 'Left Behind?' Interesting idea...

Posted by: Paul on 1 Apr 05

Excellent posting. Progressives do, indeed, need to develop the ability to re-evaluate hoary cliches and assumptions and generate new ideas.

Even the greatest progressive thinkers get mired, as we saw recently in Jared Diamond's new book COLLAPSE, which calls for vigorous activity to defend the planet, then falls back on the same-old failed methodologies of guilt and shivering in the dark. (

The psychology of positive sum games is important. Yet we will never be allowed to reclaim this deepest of American values so long as anti-modernists of BOTH left and right insist that we adhere to the ridiculous and never-defined Left-Right Political Axis that was cursed unto us by the 1989 French Assembly, of all things.

(Isn't that enough reason, alone, to abandon it?)

The fresh thinking you call for may demand a break from cliches and recognizing that ALL ideologues are fundamentally romantics and anti-modernists. (See: The Enlightenment and its child - modernism - are based upon a set of assumptions (pragmatism, openness, merit, problem-solving and optimism) that are anathema to radicals of both "left" and "right"...

...though, to be sure, the problem is currently far worse on the right. The GOP has been completely co-opted by a troika of elements that are savagely anti-modernist. In contrast, the democratic party is still marginally (!) run by elements who are dedicated to the modern project of incremental and pragmatic negotiated solutions to problems, using an eclectic variety of non-ideological tools.

Part of the solution will be frsh persepctive, e.g recognizing the real truth about 9/11... that is was a victory of amateurism and the common citizen, even though the professional protective classes have all tried to picture it as a cause for fear and more authoritarian "solutions"


With cordial regards,

David Brin

(author of EARTH, The Postman, and The Transparent Society: Will Technology Force Us to Choose Between Freedom and Privacy? )

Posted by: David Brin on 1 Apr 05

"Inverted pyramid structure." You've got to wonder what planet he's living on.

Y'know, Bill, there are these institutions called Universities... perhaps you've heard of them. They seem to attract billions of dollars. Their social sciences faculty are overwhelmingly liberal, when they aren't outright Marxist and/or Fascists (same difference).

Oddly, despite all this intellectual investment, and a mainstream media with far larger reach than talk radio that is generally very sympathetic and almost as reliably liberal (only 4:1 instead of 10:1, though), the returns in terms of intellectual heft and public credibility have mostly been negative.

Perhaps it isn't about a funding strategy, or having media messengers. If it was, the USA's universities and major media outlets like the NY TImes, LA Times, CBS, ad nauseam would have made liberalism utterly dominant.

Maybe, Bill, the problem is that the ideas animating your party are badly flawed, and that their deconstruction by both a conservative critique and general experience has never really been addressed and answered.

Now, there is nothing wrong with the pyramid structure. It's very effective, and I recommend it. But it's equally important to have ideas that actually work in terms of human economics and practice.

" can the progressives renew themselves by mustering the vision and discipline to fund such long term projects?

No. Absolutely not. They can renew themselves by developing an underlying theory that doesn't owe anything to Marxism, implementing it, and being able to show success that makes people want to climb on board. Oh, and make them feel that voting for you won't get them killed by their enemies.

Some of the stuff may help point the way there. But expecting money and flacks to get you out of this hole is like the heroin addict who thinks one more needle will make them happy.

Posted by: Joe Katzman on 1 Apr 05

and a mainstream media with far larger reach than talk radio that is generally very sympathetic and almost as reliably liberal (only 4:1 instead of 10:1, though)

In which country? Surely you don't mean the United States.

Posted by: Joseph Willemssen on 1 Apr 05

I could explain whats wrong but then where would the fun be in that?

Posted by: wintermane on 1 Apr 05

Good writing Nicole. You provide an avenue to establish the rapport between the micro and the macro. The impersonalizing pyramid of the Republicans is the constant protection of the war machine economy, which sadly, has been needed to keep containing the human animal tendencies that do not accept the boundaries of personal responsability towards the others and on the Democratic side, the cult of leadership turns everything it touches into idolised butt kissing that can't stand the truth that lies behind the masks that it takes to make it all the way to the top, and the top is the only attraction on both sides. Both refuse the daily grind of remaining cutured and cultuvating spiritual persons. No world changing without persons being changed and equipped to adapt to being cultured by the discipline of justice of peace and of joy. That's what is material, the rest is immaterial without manifesting the invisibility of the Faculty of Living. Ideas cannot live outside our bond to one another. The short term is in the daily dynamics of the contacts that we live our lives with. The attention to care here and now without compromise is the energy that takes our daily experience in the small details and gives us a sense of what is needed now and that will make it more enjoyable and/or efficient tomorrow. As we all learn to make room for each other's whole person to be involved, then comes the bond within the need to find the best possible positioning for self to be served and to serve the efficiency of the bond. As long as the bond system remains an attraction to profit, instead of the benefit of building comfortable confidence and the spread of healthy well being first, then we will have to go on re-inventing from within the "us versus them" symdrome. The success of short term and long term ideas are best expressed with the immage of the wise cruising through life of a father and mother who go on keeping the bond with their moms, dads and sibblings and they insure that the care for their children develops within the sense to carry existance itself into the sojournor's Bond to the Faculty of Living! The sense that life is eternal must be the source for here and now to happen within the short term reality of existance. The daily and whole hearted participation to maintain and to wisely cultivate each one's own presence on Earth in love, is what goes on to feed each one's health. We then become one another's environement to foster the ongoing live education in the celebration of well being. When the nessecities of such a bond are well defined for all involved and that it becomes the boundaries of our will, then this mother of invention keeps us all sharp and going through time with youth for ever. Money becomes a commodity instead of a master. The local is then set for the global!!! Benoitctr

Posted by: Benoit Couture on 2 Apr 05

Wow. I was going to post, but Joe Katzman and David Brin (David Brin!) completely destroyed my ability to add anything of weight to the conversation.

So yeah. The "conservative" "pyramid" work because it has good ideas. The ideas aren't good just because the Heritage Foundation says they are.

1. Drop the useless Left- Right/ Democrat- Republican frames.
2. Get good ideas.
3. Profit.

Posted by: Cardozo Bozo on 2 Apr 05

Wow. Quite a lot to digest...

I am a visual thinker and find tremendous benefit in being able to "see" what I'm thinking. How can we shatter all previous man-made models, like the pyramid, and embrace a dynamic, open-source-connected, intuitively-truth-speaking, organization-turned-organizm model that will enable-encourage seemingly-seperate groups to work together? I am reminded of one of my favorite R. Buckminster Fuller quotes:

"You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete."

Posted by: Daniel N Smith on 4 Apr 05

"I am a visual thinker and find tremendous benefit in being able to "see" what I'm thinking. How can we shatter all previous man-made models...?"

Daniel - look at fractals, then look at nature.

Posted by: David Foley on 4 Apr 05


Thanks for the great post. A couple of points:

1. It's not surprising to hear the charisma-challenge Bradley whine about Clinton's charisma. Charisma is simply a tool; it's the ends to which it is put that are significant. Lawrence Bossidy greatly succeeded at Honeywell, _and_ he had charisma. Dependence on charisma is as flawed a strategy as ignoring it - ask John Kerry.

2. A fundamental point of Lakoff's framing is that it's not just about the ideas; it's about activating your frames in the listener. This activation does not merely depend upon the presentation of arid ideas; it critically requires the skillful use of emotion _and_ intellect. The development of the Democratic upright pyramid is not just about developing "good ideas" - it's also about developing "compelling ideas" - compelling because they speak to people's deepest feelings and beliefs. It isn't important whether they are based on Rawls or Adam Smith.

3. The neocons/theocons , in large part, succeeded because they had a successful,non-introspective New Deal social/political heritage/infrastructure which had flaws they could point to, and which had created social/financial surpluses which they could use up without creating any immediately apparent disasters. Effectively, they are eating the seed corn the New Deal generated, leaving nothing for next year's crop.

4. David Brin's implicit claim to not be an ideologue is just silly, as much as I enjoy and sometimes admire his writing. It is this same egoistic tendency that forces him to attempt to mischaracterize Diamond's Collapse as guilt-inducing, anti-technological, etc.

While I agree with much of Brin's analysis, ultimately it seems to me to collapse into a call for "a world of really smart people, who would see the correctness of my position"(not a quote, but rather a smart-ass characterization of how I see Brin's position). The fact that I agree with much of Brin's analysis makes it even sadder that it ultimately is ungrounded, IMHO.

5. To seriously understand Lakoff, a reading of "Women, Fire and Dangerous Things," his 1980's tome, is a necessity, IMHO.

6. There is a new progressive framework emerging. My hunch is that it will be based on compassion, justice (i.e., fairness), and genuine courage, rather than the fear-based politics I see coming from the right. And while it will reject identity-based politics, it will address many of the issues those in identity groups raise, by addressing the underlying social problems that creat those issues.

(Think back to the New Deal - it emerged as a strong, reassuring response to fear, rather than an attempt to stoke fears higher (as George W. and company do, IMHO)).

Thanks again, Nicole.

P.S. We met at the Scenario Planning workshop in Boston in 2002 (2001?) Best personal wishes.

Posted by: Douglas Bruce Weinfield on 6 Apr 05

Katzman and Bozo above put it well; the question isn't whether "our side" is losing; getting beyond the Red-Blue/Right-Left, the reason why Democrats are in decline is they've abandoned principles. They've become what true liberals always detested; a bunch of angry busybodies clutching for goodies and dictating how we live our lives. So it is no wonder we have to hold our noses as we pull the lever, or not even bother voting.

What the Democratic party needs isn't a flashy media campaign, or a round of clever framing. Rather, it needs a thorough re-think, to align its platform away from a coalition of beggars and petits tyrants towards a practical appraisal of what works. For example, the notion that we save people living under dictatorship is a long liberal tradition, dating from Wilson and before. Elsewhere, welfare reform has saved millions of families from a cycle of self-destruction. Yet our shibboleths and kneejerk partisanship lead us to decry the very principles we should represent, a genuine desire to support whatever policies actually solve oppression and poverty. So it's not a question of ad campaigns; the problem is much deeper and requires an open mind and an open heart, and requires that we refocus from the news of the day and remember what makes the liberal revolution the best hope for our flawed world. As Bozo puts it so well above, good ideas is what we need, and is what will return America to its liberal roots.

Posted by: Peter Harwood on 6 Apr 05



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