Democratic Underground

A Time for Renewal

November 15, 2004
By Buzz Harris

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In 2000 George W. Bush came to power in what many considered a coup d'etat by the U.S. Supreme Court. Unfortunately, 2004 witnessed his outright election victory (assuming investigations into voting irregularities prove fruitless). We who abhor his and his party's policies need to grieve.

While we disagree profoundly with his supporters' analysis, voting for Bush seemed reasonable to them. Where did they all come from? How did this happen?

It was not by chance. A little history is required to understand the 2004 election.

In 1964 Barry Goldwater was the Republican candidate for president. He suffered such a terrible, demoralizing defeat that many in his party asked themselves how they had come to such a dark day. As Democrats began enacting legislation deeply objectionable to conservatives (ie. - Great Society programs, the Voting Rights Act) a Republican cohort including Richard Viguerie, Phyllis Schlafley, Howard Phillips, and Paul Weyrich began a series of soul-searching conversations about their movement's future.

Stark conclusions emerged - they had been out-organized, outmaneuvered, and quite simply beaten. An ascendant New Deal Coalition of Labor, civil rights groups, leftists, liberals, and others held the power to elect their own candidates, frame public policy, and enact legislation to put their views into force.

Republican pundits of that day, including William F. Buckley, Jr., opined that the GOP should move further to the left to keep some hold on power. The Republicans, they said, had failed to engage with the Left's broad voter base. Their conservative fellows were deeply repelled by this prospect.

Hoping to discover how they had been beaten, the conservative cohort researched the history of labor's political organizing from the 1930's and 40's, FDR and the New Deal Coalition's genesis, and leftist organizing manuals such as Saul Alinsky's 'Reveille for Radicals.' They wanted a way out of 1964.

To make a long story a little shorter, they embarked on a long-term plan (not a conspiracy, for those of you into that sort of thing, just a well-thought-out plan) to build institutions and political organizing projects that could, in time, bring the Right back to power. They founded the Schuchman Foundation which gave birth, in turn, to the Heritage Foundation and the Committee for a Free Congress (and later to such grandchildren as the Moral Majority, Christian Coalition, and others).

These groups performed various functions. Some drafted policy analysis papers on issues of import to the right, framing them in their own terms. These were distributed widely to the media, government oversight agencies, and legislators. Other groups lobbied legislators and government regulators on behalf of these perspectives.

Most importantly, some began training their supporters to run for public office (school board, water board, city council, county commissioner), and their candidates were supported, wherever possible, by local voter education and organizing projects. Many of these same politicians later ran for state legislature, governor, Congress, and the presidency.

Along the way the plan ran into Jerry Falwell and the Christian Right. Wisely, they recruited Falwell and his associates, and thereby acquired an asset the right wing needed most of all - local political foot soldiers in large numbers.

Billy Graham and the Christian Anti-Communist Crusade had partially awoken this polity which had slumbered since the Scopes Monkey Trial and the repeal of Prohibition. Work began in earnest to register these people to vote, to educate their leaders and pastors politically, and to set up networks that could generate the huge numbers of phone calls to legislators, donations to political groups, and voters at the polls that were the oxygen of any political movement.

Fast forward to today. The conservative political behemoth whose first roar was Ronald Reagan's election in 1980 has well and truly come into its own. The conservative county commissioners of the 1960's and 70's are the Congressmen and Senators of 2004. Public policy questions of all stripes are viewed through the lens of Heritage Foundation analysis. Their sun is at its zenith. Issues that the Democrats have fought a war of retreat over for the past 25 years are about to fall, finally, to Republican "reform" - a word that has earned a bitter taste in many a liberal and progressive mouth. Social Security, Medicaid, housing and food aid for the poor, progressive taxation, reproductive choice, and others will wither or die.

There is now a debate within the Democratic Party over what to do in the 2004 election's aftermath. Some, of a very pragmatic (and, some of the less-charitable of us would say, amoral) mindset, encourage us to move even further to the right "because that's where the votes are." But do we want to govern from there? What would that mean for the moral principles that motivated our political involvement in the first place? Shall the Democrats become Goya's Saturn, eating our own children?

No, my friends, this is our 1964.

We have been outmaneuvered and out-organized by people who worked very hard to get here. They have, incidentally, shown us the path back. They took it from our playbook (imitation being the sincerest form of flattery).

Liberals and progressives have before us two tasks. The first is a long-term project to rebuild the voter base, the donor base, and the public climate that the New Deal created and held for four decades. The second is a rear-guard action to preserve all of the progressive public policy that we can while the rebuilding is underway.

How? Look at the Right's past thirty years of organizing. They got the blueprint from us, remember? It is a lot of time and a lot of work, but it is how the machinery of elected democratic government works. Democracy for America, MoveOn.org, and others have, thankfully, already begun moving in the right direction. Get involved with them and groups like them.

"Don't Mourn. Organize!" says the old Labor slogan. The old is become new.

Buzz Harris is a progressive organizer and political researcher.

Some references for the curious:

The (Guilty) Conscience of a Conservative by Craig Schiller

Mobilizing Resentment: Conservative Resurgence from the John Birch Society to the Promise Keepers by Jean Hardisty & Wilma Mankiller

Right-Wing Populism in America: Too Close for Comfort by Chip Berlet & Matthew N. Lyons

Spiritual Warfare by Sara Diamond

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