The GOP Machine: A Blueprint

Jeff Alworth

After the election of 2000, Dems thought they had hit rock bottom, like the drunk who finds himself in the gutter at 6 am. We awake on November 3, however, and we realize, no, that wasn't actually rock bottom. We're back in the gutter, but now we're naked.

Well, time for Dems* to face reality, crawl out of the gutter (maybe put on a pair of pants) and re-build the machine from the ground up.

Fortunately, we have a handy blueprint to consult. The GOP, trying to take over government by running on the notion of abolishing it, with a natural constituency of only the very wealthy, have managed a neat trick: they have completely seized the federal government. If a party with such little broad appeal can do it, surely liberals, who wish to speak for the 85% who are not wealthy, can repeat the trick. Having studied the GOP far too closely over the past two years (bloggers should be rewarded with honorary poly-sci degrees), I've seen how they managed to build the machine. We but need follow the blueprint.

Holding a Vision
The GOP began with a vision.  They knitted together often contractory beliefs in small government, free markets, "personal responsibility" (social Darwinism), and Christian values to create a vision for America.  It's not really relevant whether the vision was good or internally consistent.  The purpose of a vision is to inspire, to create a roadmap, and (ideally) describe the outcomes you're aiming for.  For Republicans, the vision has been an absolute guiding light for everything they do.  It sounds like doublespeak in the current 2004 version, now that it has become poluted by cross-fertilization and mutation, but because of the hard work they did between 1980-1994, it remains a shining beacon of inspiration.

The Dems have no such vision: we have policy positions.  We favor a social safety net, progressive taxation, multilateral diplomacy, a living wage.  But how do these relate to one another?  What is the vision that unites policy into something everyone can immediately grasp and work toward?  If a vision is a roadmap, what's ours?  Are we headed toward Rooseveltown or Clintonville?  We don't know.  We lack the coherent philosophy that unites our policies into a vision.  Once we have that (I have an opinion or two), the question of "reaching out" to red America will be moot.  We won't be trying to position ourselves to appeal to rural Americans in Republican terms; we will have re-cast the discussion completely so that we simply have to share our vision.

Sending a Message
Crafting and communicating the vision is the next step, but it's more than just successful PR.  If you look at all the people involved in communicating the GOP vision, it's an astounding array.  In order to combat what they believed was a "liberal media," Republicans began manufacturing new ways of distributing the message.  They had think tanks constantly churning out new "studies;" they had mass mail, and eventually, they had their own cable stations.  All of these channels were broadcasting the same thing: small government, free markets, personal responsibility, Christian values. 

Getting out the message has two purposes: attract and convert.  The GOP felt their message wasn't even being heard, so the first step was to get it out.  This attracted the "Reagan Democrats" to begin with.  And later, after years of pounding away with their message, they actually began to deeply affect the political landscape, converting the rural poor from Reagan Democrats to Bush Republicans.  We are now seriously considering a flat tax because the GOP vision has profoundly changed the way Americans think about government.  This ain't our grandparents' Rooseveltian USA.

Identifying and Nurturing Constituencies
All of this effort would be for naught, however, if the GOP hadn't identified key constituencies and created a national coalition.  In 1976, evangelical Christians were a political non-entity.  In 2004, labor is.  The lesson of the GOP's rise could be reasonably reduced to understanding how the fortunes of these two key constituencies changed in that 30-year period. 

The vision of the left was still alive in 1976, and the notion that workers should be paid a living wage was not a radical one.  But the GOP understood it could never peel away workers by offering the argument that their taxes should actually increase so that rich corporations could pay less.  So they identified and created new constituencies.  They peeled away evangelical workers by playing to the fears that the nation was sliding into degeneracy (abortion was a helpful device).  People who would have previously thought of themselves as workers and voted their pocketbook now identified as Christians and voted their conscience. 

The voters who elected Bush in 2004 were a patchwork of carefully-identified constituencies.  Some voted because they believe in the neocon ideal of active interventionism.  Some voted because they were Christians.  Some voted because they're rich.  Some voted because they believe the economy will collapse under a Dem (contrary to all historical evidence).  And so on.

There are obvious constituencies for the Dems to tap (a later post, perhaps).  The reason they haven't been effective is because they have no vision and only a confused, unintegrated, scattershot message.  Natural constituencies thus remain under the sway of the Republican vision and message. 

So that's what we have in front of us.  Agreement on a vision, collective effort to put out the message, and hard work on reaching out to constituencies.  Until we do these things, we're just going to keep waking up in that same damn gutter.

*Or liberals.  I'm all for suggestions about third or multi-party systems, but the calculation is no different: you still need to follow the blueprint.

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    I didn't mention, but should have, that most of this work happens at the grassroots and locally. There is HUGE work we can do right here in Oregon. (The Bus Project springs to mind.)

  • iggi (unverified)

    great post.

    the Dems need to read this:

    i know the GOP has...

  • Susan (unverified)

    Hey Remember your "Three Point Plan for Liberals". Bring it back.

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    Crafting and communicating the vision is the next step, but it's more than just successful PR.

    Of course, the problem with trying to find a successful counterpoint to the GOP message machine is that they have found that one of the best ways to capture attention, loyalty, and votes, is to repeatedly hammer lies into the minds of the American populace. It's very difficult to fight that.

  • iggi (unverified)

    the Dems shouldn't be opposed to lying, especially to rural Americans. they'll believe anything so why not tell them what they want to hear.

  • cab (unverified)

    Co-op the GOP Voting machines seems like a better option :)

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    It's very difficult to fight that.

    I don't think it is difficult by necessity. The reason the GOP falls into the habit of lying is because to maintain their image of populism, they have to avoid spelling out the truth of their ever more elitist policies. But liberals don't have to lie.

    I think the failure is not that we don't have a similarly powerful lying machine. It's that we don't have a message. And the reason we don't have a message is because we're not sure whether we should go for Lieberman's moderatism or Kucinich's old-school liberalism--or something in between. The thing is, we should NOT craft a vision that is designed to appeal to the most vacuous of voters. That's the DLC's strategy, and it has been a spectacular failure.

    Instead, we need to sit down and craft a vision that we actually believe in--then the message-making and delivery will be a piece of cake. I'll post again next week with some thoughts on that.

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    That's the DLC's strategy, and it has been a spectacular failure.

    Speaking of failures, and which factions of the party we should not be turning to, see Arianna Huffington on how the Clinton forces screwed over the Kerry campaign.

    And now these same people want control of the DNC in order to prepare for a 2008 run by Hillary.

  • Randy (unverified)

    Wow -- what a great article.

    I am frankly damn sick and tired of the DNC/DLC agenda, policy and process.

    They are as out of touch with reality in America as the Rs.

    I like the author's analysis. Yes, it is going to take grass roots. The last 3 weeks I've discussed politics and government with my assistant more than I have in the 8 years she's worked for me. She said no one in her family talks about issues like this -- even though her sister-in-law's husband has just been shipped off for 2 years in Iraq. And it shows -- her sister-in-law voted for Bush!

    Grass roots coalition-building takes lots of time, energy, effort and money.

    What national organization OTHER than the DNC has the ability to coordinate something like this? Move-On?

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    Grass roots coalition-building takes lots of time, energy, effort and money.

    What national organization OTHER than the DNC has the ability to coordinate something like this? Move-On?

    It's not an either/or. A similar "the DNC doesn't matter" statement was made in Salon yesterday, to which I had something of a response -- the gist of which was to argue that like it or not, the party matters, and wouldn't it be best to try to make the DNC an ally of the distributed network of Democratic and progressive organizations?

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    Some of you guys love to type "Roosevelt" as though we've just lived through the first 3 years of the Great Depression. The neocons are certainly doing their best to lay the groundwork for that but I'd prefer that we bounce them before the mess they are making gets quite that big--even if it means no Rooseveltian landslide just waiting to happen.

    You say "Roosevelt" but what I see in your arguments is "Mondale". If the DLC, the Clinton admins and the Gore and Kerry campaigns were "spectactular failures" how would you describe the Mondale campaign?

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    Man, 10:17 and I'm writing comments on a blog...must get a life...

    Some of you guys love to type "Roosevelt" as though we've just lived through the first 3 years of the Great Depression.

    Well, in the context of this post, I meant it in terms of the political philosophy.

    You say "Roosevelt" but what I see in your arguments is "Mondale". If the DLC, the Clinton admins and the Gore and Kerry campaigns were "spectactular failures" how would you describe the Mondale campaign?

    The only victory the DLC delivered was Bill Clinton. Since their great mindstorm of the mid 1980s, the country has abandoned Democrats in droves. We've lost vast swaths of state legislatures, governorships, Congress, and the courts. And Clinton wasn't even a DLC victor--he was Bill Clinton. He could have run on a platform of "purty women in every closet" and gotten elected because he was charismatic and he was running against a nut and a bore.

    Mondale got beat because he ran against one of the most popular presidents in American history. FDR would have gotten beaten by Reagan in 1984.

    But you point to a mistake Dems have been making for 24 (or is it 36?) years--thinking that merely holding power is the index of "winning." We don't hold power. We're not gaining power, we're losing it. The idea that we can somehow ride the moderate wave of Gephardtism to victory in the heartland needs to be abandoned for the failure it is.

    (Kerry, to my mind, will be remembered as the first post-DLC candidate and the first candidate of the "new Democratic party.")

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    Here's one... how bout we take back the churches from the right wingers? I mean churches have become a powerful vehicle for politics. How about if the Dems start sending in people to take over the church hierarchy? It might sound odd, but think about it. A high percentage of evangenlicals voted for Bush. Why? Because their church "told" them to. If we can somehow modify and have the message from churches changed, we might be able to swing that demographic. It might be a great time and opportunity right now because many of the more conservative baby-boomers are set to retire over the next 10-20 years. I think waging guerilla warfare on the Republican grassroots machine might be effective.

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    "We don't hold power. We're not gaining power, we're losing it.."

    I agree, but that's been happening for a long time, the DLC was a reaction to an already long slide, not the cause of it.

    What I hear people saying here is that to fix the problem all we need to do is to more fully embrace the political philosophy we held during first part of that long slide. That seems to me to be extremely unlikely.

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    Hey folks... Y'all should check out the piece in Salon by Dan Carol (who lives in Eugene). (Watch the ad to read the whole thing.)

    From the intro...

    As one of the progressive movement's self-appointed referees and evangelists, I offer a new round of organizing principles and to-do's -- for the next 100 days and onward -- to mull over as you unfurl from the fetal crouch position.

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    That's the article I just linked to a few comments back, FWIW.

  • allehseya (unverified)

    (chanting in background)

    :::: Don't forget media reform. Look up media reform. Research media monopolies. Media infrastructure. Grassroots media initiatives. Information Distribution Network. Campaign reform in Media / Advertising / Donations :::::


  • Becky (unverified)

    Kenji's suggestion to go after churches would be a big mistake if not done correctly. Already, in conservative churches people are hyper-sensitive to "New Age" and "liberal" influences that undermine their fundamentalist beliefs. Pushing in that direction will only cement them more tightly into their views. It's the young people you need to reach. Getting young Christians involved in volunteering in liberal-leaning programs (that aren't overtly so) at the local level - programs that include hands-on help administered to real people in the community - would give liberals a good opportunity to begin a conversation of ideas with young people, though sensitivity to their beliefs would be essential to ensure you weren't undermining their parents' authority. A well-coordinated program could attract children from Christian schools and give you an opportunity to teach them the kind of real community service and care that you feel is missing in the Christian community now.

    I believe that the left dominates the political scene in terms of grassroots organization (there is very little grassroots involvement on the right, and what exists is passion-less), and the reason is that the values of the left are the values of the everyday people. Those in power fear it and work to suppress it.

    Finally, I think Air America Radio is going to do a lot to undermine the effect of the hate speech of the right. It's just too bad that Randi Rhodes is biased and conceited and just goes too far, because she turns conservatives off cold and I feel her approach may just turn the left into haters the way Rush has affected the right. That would not be good for this country. But Al Franken has the ability to really reach conservatives and open their eyes. At least, he reached me! And I believe open-eyed people can begin to work together.

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    Already, in conservative churches people are hyper-sensitive to "New Age" and "liberal" influences that undermine their fundamentalist beliefs.

    But this is exactly the point. Conservative isn't the only flavor Christianity comes in. In fact, until recently, many churches had openly liberal politics. Liberal Christians--there are many--are as shocked and worried about the political agenda of their Christian brethren as non-Christians are. In fact, some liberal Christians see the threat as one to Christianity itself, as warring factions allow themselves to be divided by matters of state.

    Political liberals can help Christian liberals by not demonizing religion or Christianity, but criticizing the bigoted beliefs some people justify by invoking God.

  • Jerry/Corvallis (unverified)

    How do we get there? Look, my family are Catholic/Roosevelt- liberals that never vote Republican. They eat at Denny's and could care less about me wanting to decriminalize pot; advance gay rights, or my views on evolution. They are opposed to the war; want a living wage; health care; and run for cover when they see people like Tre Arrow coming. It is going to be tough, but in spite of the last 30 years of Chomsky worshiping, it is back to basics. A progressive message that incorporate patriotism and supports traditional values will win. It will be hard for left-intellectuals to swallow. Our future allies don't know or care about what Voltaire wrote. We already know the alternative. There are allies out there, we have to connect. For religious folks I suggest www.jesusonthe A strong anti-war group that seems to think religion has been hijacked by war-mongers. Any other ideas? Who is going to be the next head of the DNC?

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