29 July 2006

Influencing the Right, Part I

This is another remarkable exchange that took place between some of the membership last late Autumn.

Richard Jehn

Mike Eisenstadt writes:

-- Hardworking and neighborly folks, knowing more or less what the neighbors know, stretch as far as possible what little they do know, to make up a plausible world view for themselves. This they ground their opinions on. That is THEIR heuristic.

Sociologists can get funded to look at this phenomenon in depth. Political activists, hoping there is a way to get folks to understand their own interests better, will get nowhere with this. --

Most amusing! I think there is a bit of truth on both sides of this discussion, as usual; Mike is correct in that the whole concept of heuristics can be fluffed up, it appears, into something incomprehensible and irrelevant to those it analyzes, and Steve and Dennis are absolutely correct in that the Left has been ridiculously inept in being able to talk to people "where they're at." In periods when the American Left has shown signs of life, it has been when it has been a reflector and creator of cultural values, i.e., the WPA-funded murals, photographic documentation, parks and museum construction, and other cultural assets and products of the 1930s from Woody Guthrie to Steinbeck.

The trick is that it IS a two-way process of creation and reflection, and thus a dialectic, as Mr. E. characterizes it. In the 60s, if y'all will recall (smile), WE were the culture, but I can't claim to be any kind of cultural innovator myself; I wore the clothes, listened to the music, smoked the dope, adopted the speech patterns and ultimately the political values of the subculture which accepted me, and in which I found a home. Other people then modeled themselves after US! We talked about this a lot at the reunion.

If the question is, "How do we get that back," the short answer is WE DON'T, but by maintaining a connection with the "happening" culture of today's 20-somethings, we can maybe still take part in the reflection-and-creation process. If we can't understand rap, hip-hop, or dub music, we are just like the parents who thought Elvis was hideous and couldn't understand a word Jerry Lee Lewis sang.

There is ALWAYS a progressive element among youth, and whatever they are listening to (i.e., everything which affects the material conditions of their lives: where do they work? what do they eat? what do they learn?) is where the Left needs to be, first LISTENING, then RESPONDING, within THEIR cultural milieu.

It's not just the Right that knows how to do this real well; the advertising industry taught them; it's called co-optation and we were all there for it. Never will forget the day I saw the Benz commercial using Janis' song --SHIT!!!! But you don't even see the Left using the PLETHORA of peace and justice-oriented musicians at all effectively, much less the artists, dancers, poets, blah-de-blah... Much less the "ordinary" people who are the real cultural mainstays in their communities (the folks whose houses are always full of their kids and their kids' friends, even though some grown-ups are usually at home.) Instead, we seem to have fallen into some kind of crack in the Very Fabric of Time where it's not polite to talk politics at dinner...

Maybe it's time to revive Mother's Grits... with a new cast and crew... an all-star revue? BTW, country music sales are down this year due to hurricane losses throughout the South and high gasoline prices. Good time for a "revivalizing" message to the people?

Mariann Wizard

Mariann talks about "getting it back." We won't. She's right. We won't be the agents of social change in the youth culture. We can get out of our own comfort zone and find younger allies as Mariann suggests. We can also speak authentically to our own issues as aging baby boomers on social security, health care, the war, the appropriate response natural disasters, gay marriage amendments, etc.

I found the "in the U.S. or not" debate to be very interesting. Anyone want to chime in now that France has displayed its own immigrant contradictions to the world? My take on that is that problems are everywhere and the only solace you may have in a foreign country is that you don't understand them in much depth. But, solutions are everywhere, too. Health care is not rationed (according to insurance or wealth) in MOST industrial countries.

I am not so interested in what has failed to work. I face that everyday and become mired in it if I watch the news. I am interested in experiences people have had that worked -- that fostered dialogue and change. We had a great opportunity in the 60's to reach lots of people on the mall or at the student union or in meetings on campus. Even that isn't as true as it used to be. UT students don't live near the university. They commute on shuttle buses. More of them have jobs off campus. And we aren't on campus anyway. So, where -- in what circumstances -- have you felt you have reached out to the most people recently? In unions, in elections, as a teacher....??

Obviously, people are changing in their attitudes on the war. That doesn't seem to be happening (as it did before) through antiwar organizing. There are occasional moblizations of people, but few community debates or teach-ins or opportunities for dialogues. So, is that happening through the blogs seeping into the straight media??

What are your thoughts?

Alice Embree

Alice wrote: "Obviously, people are changing in their attitudes on the war. That doesn't seem to be happening (as it did before) through antiwar organizing. There are occasional moblizations of people, but few community debates or teach-ins or opportunities for dialogues. So, is that happening through the blogs seeping into the straight media??"

If you look at the polling history on the war and on Bush's presidency, you'll see that people haven't just recently changed their opinions. They've been moving from pro to con for several years along a steadily-declining trend line. The reason this has lately captured more attention is that public sentiment has now finally crossed the line from majority approval to majority disapproval. That crossing of the line in re the war occurred sometime in the Spring of '04. And in June-August of this year we saw approval of Bush's overall performance slide below 50% for the first time.

Ostensibly, that's good news for the good side. But it's a shaky situation, mostly because the Dems in opposition don't have any agreed, coherent, clearly-articulated strategy for an alternative course. So what happens in that situation if, for instance, there's another major terrorist attack in the US? Some people might rally round the leader like they did after 9/11, and Dubya would get some of his support back. But a lot of analysts think the more likely public reaction is outrage at the government's failure of due diligence, much like we saw after Katrina. With no clear progressive alternative at the ready, that could then mean broad public support for even more aggressive us-versus-them strategies, which could make the McCarthy era look like the good old days. Scary.

Why is this erosion of Bush support happening, even in the absence of such organizing efforts as Alice mentions? Actually, it's exactly the same trend we've seen for almost every president -- especially over the last 40 or so years -- with or without well-organized opposition. It seems to be the bloom's-off-the-rose phenomenon as applied to our national significant other. There's a little honeymoon after the election, then a steadily-growing disaffection. Even those presidents who manage re-election to a second term usually find their approval rating subsequently sinking to somewhere around 40 percent or lower. It may be that the army of volunteer bloggers has hastened George's fall from grace, but given that this is a recurring phenomenon, it's difficult to give anyone too much credit. It may just be the way these relationships work.

On the other hand, since it is always in the left's self-interest to claim credit for these things, I have come up with an explanation that proves George's decline is the result of another successful communist plot. Bear with me....

Like I said, this declining relationship thing seems to be especially pronounced beginning about 40 years ago. And what other significant relationship thing was beginning to bubble to the surface 40 years ago? No-fault divorce. Just a coincidence? I don't think so. The passage of no-fault divorce legislation in one state after another made it far easier for people to acknowledge and terminate bad relationships without the heavy evidentiary burden of having to prove their partner guilty of some sinful act. Things not going according to your expectations? No problem. Give 'em the boot. And if there's no longer any deep-rooted need for abiding loyalty to an unsatisfactory spouse, why should we stick with that guy in Washington if he's not performing up to expectations? You see? Not a coincidence.

Where did no-fault divorce come from? It was invented by the Bolsheviks after the 1917 revolution. And how did it enter the US? The first no-fault divorce act in the US was signed into law in 1969 by that infamous commie dupe Ronald Reagan, then governor of California -- who thereby ensured via the social domino effect that every subsequent president, himself included, would be entitled to no more loyalty than any other abusive partner.

Is there any way to copyright this brilliant insight? It took me probably 35 minutes worth of intense research and I hate to waste that.

Dennis Fitzgerald

-- It was invented by the Bolsheviks after the 1917 revolution. And how did it enter the US? The first no-fault divorce act in the US was signed into law in 1969 by that infamous commie dupe Ronald Reagan, then governor of California -- who thereby ensured via the social domino effect that every subsequent president, himself included, would be entitled to no more loyalty than any other abusive partner. --

Himself, may one hasten to point out, a DIVORCED MAN?? By gosh, Fitzgerald, you may have hit the nail upon the head! Perhaps this "covenant marriage" thing is really a GOOD idea!!!

You crack me up, Red; reminded me of a WONDERFUL article in the NY Times a couple of months back, an open letter to the Kansas School Board on the subject of intelligent design, specifically, the ONE TRUE Intelligent Designer, The Spaghetti Monster. See venganza.org, where the author, Bobby Henderson, proves that global warming is directly linked, via a statistically significant inverse relationship, to the decline of pirates over the last 200 years.


Okay, in a more serious vein than my last... Alice also asked for examples of experiences that have worked. Here's one of mine.

Regional multi-stakeholder sustainability group

Objectives of the group include:

  • To define long-term goals and short-term performance targets for local economic, social and environmental well-being. (I find well-being to be a clearer concept for most people than sustainability.)
  • To define measurable indicators for assessing progress towards the goals.
  • To annually collect indicator data and prepare a public report on local progress (or lack of progress).
  • To use the findings of the annual reports to identify local priorities (i.e., those aspects of local well-being that are most deficient and, therefore, most in need of improvement).
  • To engage in an on-going discussion of actions and strategies that various local groups (businesses, governments, non-profits, unions, etc.) might take (or have taken) to support progress.
  • To use the collective influence of the group (and the findings of the annual reports) to pressure all elements of the community to support and work towards progress on well-being.
  • To facilitate on-going education of group members and the broader community in re issues and strategies.
  • To promote cooperation among various sectors of the community, continual improvement and active adaptive management.
One significant positive in this approach is that it moves the focus away from what to do (or how to do it) and puts the focus on results (what is achieved). It’s something like, “That’s good your organization is spending a million dollars on 'x' program, but let’s take a look at our indicator results and see if you’re moving the dial.”

As long as the focus is on how to do something, people will always have different opinions and there will always be irresolvable disagreements. But when you focus on a measurable result and when you have agreed on a performance target, that changes the whole discussion. It becomes clear and indisputable that what’s being done either is or is not working.

I started out on this path with lots of trepidation. It looked like a certain formula for dysfunction. How could you possibly put the union federation, the chamber of commerce, government, the Indian band, the environmental coalition, etc., etc. all together at one table and expect anything other than riotous arguments? But – surprise! – there are ways to make it work. It is certainly tricky, particularly at the beginning. There are lots of steps forward and backward. But, ultimately, it is possible to reach substantive agreement on a lot of desired results – and to find ways to work towards those.

In fact, I found that one of the bigger problems is not dysfunctionality, but a tendency for the process to work too well.

Over time, people in the group form friendly and respectful relationships with each other, and they develop an increasingly more sophisticated understanding of the complexities in advancing multiple, often competing objectives. That’s all positive, but it can result in members changing their views to the extent that they cease to be representative of the interests they’re supposed to be representing. It can also result in members no longer challenging and pushing each other as vigorously as they used to – and sustaining that tension is a necessary part of the exercise. So, you have to start easing out old members who have become too moderate and recruiting new members who will be less well-informed but more passionate.

Sorry… I’m straying into the minutiae. I’ve seen so many failures and successes in these things that I could easily write a 500-page how-to and how-not-to manual. But maybe the above is enough to give you the general idea.

Here are a few relevant links for some very different groups working in this general area. I won’t waste your time with my critiques of what or how they’re doing. Enough to say that I think they’re all interesting, but if I were King of the World, I’d make some fundamental changes to each of them.

Fraser Basin Council Home; Indicator Reports

North Island Woodlands Advisory Group Home; Plans & Indicator Reports

Portland Multnomah Progress Board

UN Millennium Development Goals Home; Indicators

Dennis Fitzgerald

Once again, Dennis has hit the nail on the head in my opinion. (Thanks)

Until or unless there is some catastrophic even that changes the nature of the world we live in, which may or may not happen and is certainly not something to be wished for, the process Dennis outlines is the way in which change is going to occur. It is, indeed, probably the only way in which a critical mass of support can be generated.

David P-H’s earlier message rightly quoted Frederick Douglass that “if there is no struggle, there is no progress,” but Dennis drops the other show. After the struggle comes the process of creating change. If we are not engaged in that process – as participants and facilitators – then we leave it to those with other interests. It is at that point that we have to shift the focus to objectives – what can (not should) be done – and to engage everyone in the process to the extent they can be engaged. And, yes, that’s where compromise and concessions to the reality of the moment come into play.

And, as Dennis so rightly notes, we also have to be aware of the co-opting nature of that process and constantly work to encourage new demands and new passion from below.

Either path alone – only “struggle” or only “compromise” – is a dead end.

Enough of theory.

On another note, those of you who see each other all the time know the importance of personal connections to keep the spirit alive and thriving. The rest of us have to rely on less frequent encounters. So my thanks to Mary Walsh and David P. Hamilton for two extremely enjoyable and life affirming lunches last weekend here in the DC-area. I was amazed at the power, confidence and wisdom they had to share.

If you are in the area, come visit.

Doyle Niemann

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