In light of the recent passage of the torture bill and the absence of Congressional Democrats both from the debate on the subject, which they left to Republican party factions, and far too many of them from the actual vote, it’s time to revisit the basic rules for taking over a party.
There Must Be Consequences Movement conservatives understand this. They are willing to primary their ideological foes within the party. They will not raise money for them. They will not direct their people to volunteer. There is no reason for anyone to ever do what you want them to do if you will support them anyway and you won’t ever attack them.
There Must Be Party Loyalty Irrespective of the above, you must still direct your people to vote for party members who have crossed you on bottom line issues. Loyalty is the cardinal political sin. If you are a Democrat even a bad Democrat is better than a good Republican. If you are a Republican, even a bad Republican is better than a good Democrat. Party members need to know you’re with the party for the long haul, and that you are loyal to it. Now, of course, some ideologues simply won’t vote for people who, er, vote for torture. That’s fine. Your job is to say why they should, then turn to the violaters in private and shrug and say “I tried. But torture is important to my people, and some of them simply won’t cross that line.”
You must reward good behaviour I’m pissed at Sherrod Brown right now for voting for torture and for gutting Habeas Corpus. And Howie Klein, who runs a succesful netroots donation program, has pulled that fundraising endorsement from Brown. (But he’s still urging people to vote for him.) But if at some future date a new Congressman Brown admits he was wrong and votes to stop torture and restore habeas corpus, I’ll treat him like the Prodigal Son. One of my friends used to say “I forgive, but I never forget”, and that’s the way you have to operate. People who want to come inside the tent must be rewarded for doing so. And those inside the tent already must be supported and praised and not taken for granted. Because while we might like to think our people are doing it based on 100% principle, everyone’s human. All that praise on TV for being a “moderate” and taking a stand against your own party can look seductive if you aren’t getting any kudos for being onside. The number one rule for getting behaviour from people is “reward the behaviour you want.” (The number two rule is to punish behaviour you don’t like. But it is the second rule, not the first, for a reason. Reward is actually more effective than punishment in most cases. In fact punishment works only about half the time. It’s as much for other people as it is for the victim.)
You must take care of your people This is a big place where Democrats in general, and progressives in particular fall down. If you’re a Republican and something goes wrong, or the party loses power, as long as you’re loyal, you get taken care of. Some think tank, foundation or company will take care of you. In the old days the universities performed part of this function for Democrats, but mostly it wasn’t need – Democrats were in power, and the party in power always has plenty of jobs available for its people, and plenty of outsiders who realize that supporting a party member is a good idea. But when Democrats lost power, that went away. And these days, unless you’re part of the charmed circle of beltway strategists and “consultants” (which very few progressives are) working politics means living hand to mouth. Getting started is, likewise, awful, most internships and other entry level positions either pay nothing, or pay less than a living wage. Parents are expected to step up and fill the cash register – which is why so many Democratic staff come from affluent families. Others need not apply.
But this is more than about money. It’s about no leaving people out to hang, about pulling together and about rehabilitating your fallen soldiers. When Scooter Libby took a fall to protect his boss, Dick Cheney, he was found a job, a defense fund was put together and over time more and more stories are planted or sold to try and rehabilitate him and make him look like a victim of an overzealous prosecutor. When you do these sort of things, people are willing to take the falls – and unwilling to cooperate to save their own skin, since they know you’ll help them. Let them feel like you don’t have their back, and they’ll turn and plant a shiv in yours so fast you’ll be cold on the floor before you know it.
You must sell your own message and not count on the media While the right wing now has very good media coverage they didn’t always. The media really was against them for a long time, and they really were ridiculed. They did two things – they developed channels around the traditional media (like mailers and talk radio) and they worked hard to influence the media. As an example, young conservatives get a huge amount of media training. I am aware of one 22 year old kid who got a whole week, in a studio, just learning how to give soundbites. No one all that important yet – but they want everyone to have that training. Almost none of the liberal talking heads you see on TV have had that sort of training. Most of them are lucky to have had a day before the first time they find themselves sweating bullets trying to answer a cheap shot from Chris Matthews. (And camera work is profoundly unnatural. You have to not move your head except in a couple ways, you have to sit a certain way, you have to keep your gaze fixed in a certain way, you have to move slowly and deliberately always or the camera will make you look weak, and so on. It isn’t natural.)
And selling your own message means moving the debate. People like Coulter and Malkin aren’t anomalies, they are stalking horses who express far right wing views to get them out there and to move the discourse. Sure, it doesn’t move all the way to them – but they become the far right of acceptable discourse, and those who determine the center by simply looking at far left and far right, adjust their sights. And so, somehow, we’ve reached the point where we’ve legalized torture, after debating its merits for 4 years. Thirty years ago, or probably even ten, that would have been unthinkable. Torture was simply evil, not something you had a rational debate about. And anyone who excused it was beyond the pale. Now they’re at best slightly right of center. Torture is something “reasonable” people debate. There is no left wing equivalent of this. Noam Chomsky (who is not half as far to the left as Coulter is to the right) can’t get on American TV to save his life. (He has no trouble getting on Canadian or European TV, by the way.)
Run Everywhere This doesn’t so much mean geographically, this means at every level. Dogcatcher, school boards, city councils, sherrif – run for it all. Owning these positions makes a big deal to the ability to organize for State and National elections, not only because it develops candidates, but because it develops the base – a volunteer list, a donor list and a list of like minded people who can be counted on.
Create Community The main consideration for building up an ideological base is community. Surrounded by peole who also believe, supported in their beliefs, people become energeized and willing to do things. They become evangelists for ideas and for action. They don’t drift away. If a blog, or a ward organization, or a Democratic club is an important part of your social life, odds are you’ll stay a progressive or a Democrat. If isn’t anything but a (D) next to your name, and you just receive the occasional letter and pull a lever every couple years then you won’t. Politics, or at least ideology, needs to become part of people’s lives. It doesn’t have to be the main thing, but it has to be a thread that doesn’t end, and continues, month in, month out and year to year throughout their lives.
Concluding Remarks There’s more to it than this, of course, and endless work is involved. But these are the basics – reward people who help, punish those who betray you, stay loyal to the party but more loyal to the movement, develope a community, run everywhere, make your own media and shift the boundaries of the debate. This is, largely, how the right did it. While the left will do some things differently, learning from the successes of others is the first place to start.
And maybe next time it’ll be Conservatives wondering why their Senators let them down and let universal health care happen.