The resurgence of organized conservative activity was written about in a recent New York Times piece about Dick Armey and his influential movement organization, FreedomWorks. There are three points that strike me about about the conservative movement now:
ECONOMIC CONSERVATIVES ARE IN ASCENDANCE -- growing in influence and setting strategy for the right. The social religious wing, dominant in the Bush administration, has become less effective and relevant. Their message is angry, populist, and economic: FreedomWorks' slogan is: Lower Taxes, Less Government, More Freedom. Government takeover is their bogeyman. In 2010, they will focus on exploiting the economic pain in the country, railing against spending and taxes, and blaming all government and certain incumbents.
CONSERVATIVES ARE BORROWING FROM THE PROGRESSIVE MOVEMENT -- The NYT article quotes FreedomWorks staff saying that they are making close study of Saul Alinsky and other community organizers. Like progressives, the other side is increasing conservative candidate development (NY-23 and in GOP primaries all over the country), and improving their grassroots advocacy skills (like the impression made at August town halls).
THE CONSERVATIVE MOVEMENT CONTINUES TO BE BETTER FUNDED -- FreedomWorks, just one of many groups, easily raised $7 million from donors in 2008, including single gifts of $1 million and $750,000. The Leadership Institute, the premier training center for the right, sustains an $8 million dollar annual budget--at least twice the budget of any of comparable groups (like Wellstone Action) on the progressive side. Americans for Prosperity, another key conservative economic group has 73 staff people nationally and in 20 states.
These People Are Not Joking
One thing in which conservatives have been successful -- and which I am still in a bit of a disbelief —- is to take on the mantle of economic populism and use that as a rallying cry against the Democratic administration. Who would have thought a few short years ago that the economic populists who would have the most political impact in hard economic times in the U.S. would be conservatives railing against Democrats?
I have always thought that in tough economic times, old-school Marxists, Socialists and Progressive populists would find a ready audience for their message and we’d have a working and middle class radicalized and mobilized en masse to fight for working peoples’ interests like in the 1930s. I have always thought that the Progressive Left had superior arguments in advocating for working peoples’ interests against free-market conservatives and that Progressive Populism will explode in popularity in times of economic crisis. After all, didn’t the economic policies which have caused this mess we are in based on radical, free-market ideology as espoused by economists like Milton Friedman and implemented as policy by his followers in government? And in finding someone to blame, that most people would naturally gravitate to its opposing viewpoint?
Boy was I wrong! Instead of resulting in an army of modern-day Eugene Debses, exploding into popular culture are the current heroes of conservative populism like Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck who have massive followings among ordinary, working people. Sarah Palin’s book just came out today and is a huge bestseller drawing crowds of hundreds of people at her book signings.
Something is going on in American culture in this time of economic crisis and for some reason, the Right is tapping into the psyche of ordinary working Americans in a big way that I have never seen Progressives do in recent memory. Those who oppose these conservative populists and who laugh at, ridicule and dismiss them as irrelevant do so at their own peril. It is very easy to dismiss Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh and Sarah Palin and laugh them off as bad jokes. But these people and the movement they represent is no joke. They are organized, well-funded and, whether we like it or not, wildly popular and with a large constituency.
A New Approach for Progressives?
I have yet to see from Progressives wide discussion of innovative approaches in engaging this conservative populist movement. Jeff Blodgett frames the fight to be had along the lines of the 2010 Congressional Elections and that engagement would be defined as stopping the election of Republicans into Congressional seats—with the implication being electing Democrats into these seats or preventing Republican takeover of these Democratic seats will be the definition of victory.
For me that is not good enough. We’ve all seen this year how getting both a Democratic majority in Congress and a Democratic President in the White House doesn’t necessarily translate into getting Progressive agenda enacted into public policy. Helping make Congress a solidly Democratic turf in 2010, therefore, doesn’t necessarily translate into a victory for Progressives.
The discussion among Progressives should be centered on how to harness this society-wide anger and frustration with the tough economic times and channel them towards ends that are unmistakably Progressive—but without resorting to electing Democrats as the default position. Can it be done? I don’t know. But I can’t see any other way.