We Are the Infrastructure

Yesterday I spent pretty much all day traveling to Connecticut, which meant that it was kind of tough to blog until the late afternoon.  The leaves are changing up here, and it's gorgeous and soothing.  On all day train days, I'm glad to see that my blogging is totally unnecessary, because it would only distract from some really important work by Chris Bowers about movement building.  You need to bookmark these three pieces:

Republicans Are Not Losing Because of "Mistakes"

Progressive Majority Rising

The Netroots and The Progressive Movement Are The Difference

I've been meaning to circle back to this piece in The Nation by Ari Berman on the Democracy Alliance, the group of wealthy donors who have put themselves into a sort of club that is designed to give long-term financial stability to the movement to fight the right.  It's a piece very much worth reading, because it shows just how much work we have to do.  DA has serious structural problems, as Ari points out.  My sense is that the group is struggling with a strategic paradox; there are inside actors that want to copy the right rather than embracing progressive values, and there are inside actors that want to do the opposite.  This latent debate is actually taking place all over the progressive movement and within the Democratic Party, and as usual, each side is claiming history as their guide.

There's a myth that the emergence of the conservative movement came because of a small group of scheming billionaires who funded think tanks and publications that created policy and a culture of political activism on the right.  One of my pet peeves is how much the left has internalized this myth, and you can see this in discussions of Pete Coors, Richard Mellon Scaife, or Karl Rove.  It's particularly annoying when it comes to Karl Rove, who is a skilled and amoral political operator, but not one who's supernaturally good.  Rove learned his turnout game from labor, after all.  And think tanks on the right can't hold a candle to academia.

This myth is pernicious because it encourages us to think about infrastructure in terms of a top-down group of think tanks and publications, all of which have official seals of approval from Clinton-era operatives.  It encourages us to copy the right.  The problem is, we are not the right.  They built their infrastructure around a core set of values, and they did it with people who had conviction and passion for those values.  The big funders came later, as did the alliance and ultimate subjugation and corruption of the business lobby.  The small dollar donor base of the right-wing was the first large scale funding for political activism on the right, filling in for Goldwater's campaign when traditional squishy Eastern Republicans wouldn't.

So it is with us.  Whereas they built their model upon top-down atomized media outlets meant for a suburban America, our model is built on community media for a participatory media.  Whereas they outsourced the formation of policy from government to think tanks, we are outsourcing policy from think tanks to the public at large.  Whereas they are authoritarian and allow only the authorized to speak, we are pluralists and allow everyone to speak.  They have a model for governance that emphasizes authoritarian devotion to a charismatic leader, we have a model for governance that emphasizes individual achievement using community-developped tools.  They choose leadership through corrupt insider dealings, we choose leadership through open debate and accomplishment.

Our infrastructure reflects our values, their infrastructure reflects theirs.  Actually, I wish we could start using some other word rather than 'infrastructure', because that's such a bloodless way to describe interlocking networks of passionate progressives.  Every time you act, every time you donate, every time you volunteer or register a voter, you are part of the new progressive movement.  That's how it works.

Tags: netroots, progressive movement (all tags)

Comments

27 Comments

Re: We Are the Infrastructure

Matt,

Well said, my man. While it's important to overcome the reflexive destaste for what the right has done in order to learn from their success -- much as Rove did wrt. Labor -- it's equally important to not replicate a plan that's been 40 years in it's operation. Part of the reason the right wing machine is faltering is that things are changing and their methods have passed their peak of effectiveness.

I personally think one of the most interesting things will be to what extent the values and methods the progressive movement has embraced will ripple out over the next decade or so to empower and energize less/non-partisan Public.

If we're able to successfully break the current "conservative movement" and their divisive, propagandistic, 50+1 methods, there seems to be the potential to really generate a historically unprecidented kind of public consensus in the 21st Century.

by Josh Koenig 2006-10-11 08:43AM | 0 recs
Re: We Are the Infrastructure

" My sense is that the group is struggling with a strategic paradox; there are inside actors that want to copy the right rather than embracing progressive values, and there are inside actors that want to do the opposite.  This latent debate is actually taking place all over the progressive movement "

absolutely matt. i'm seeing this all over the place too (of course very far from power centers)... how do we organize ourselves? who are our leaders? how are they chosen? do we operate transparently or do we hoard access and information?

i think this is FAR more imporant that most of us have recognized... because for the most part we aren't conscious of it and we don't have organizational structures to model ourselves after... if we don't think about it... we tend to default to the known structures we are familiar with - like corporate structures. not a good way to build a progressive movement.

i don't think we can be progressive when we organize ourselves in ways that undermine our values.

by selise 2006-10-11 08:44AM | 0 recs
Re: We Are the Infrastructure

to organize in a fashion that represents solutions to problems, that are based on real effects to voters, instead of special interest groups.

That is the best metric. Most Americans, as Zell Miller pointed out, are a quilt of different values, perhaps socially liberal in some areas, conservative in others, fiscally disciplined (like Dean) and in general, the action of labelling them has been and continues to be the domain of Washington insiders who seek to perpetuate agendas.

But by and large, remember, if someone is expressing to you that they're worried the GOP is going to lose control - reassure them that, this is what is supposed to happen in a democracy and there's nothing wrong with it.

That does not mean that one blog or another will be the center point of some kind of movement, and it certainly doesn't qualify people like stoller to knock people like my husband out of this "pluralistic set of voices" simply because my husband opposes gay marriage.

It does however say pretty clearly that the system is working, and that should give you hope.

And speaking for myself, I am encouraged to see Chris' three posts - they are quite good. Matt is wasting space by telling us how good they are, but then again - so what. After all, isn't the majority of our genetic code just unexpressed bits of material, meant to keep us from getting virused?

by heyAnita 2006-10-11 09:39AM | 0 recs
Great post.

That's all I have to say at this moment.

by ira13ping 2006-10-11 08:48AM | 0 recs
Re: We Are the Infrastructure

While much of this post is smart, I have to take issue with this line: "And think tanks on the right can't hold a candle to academia."

I'm not even sure what this means.  Are you asserting that academics in university setting are able to exercise more power than the people who inhabit right-wing think tanks?  If this is what you are trying to say, I think this is grossly incorrect.

Whether one is talking about the power to affect policy or the power to affect dominant discourses in the mass media, it is academics who can't hold a candle to think tanks.

Maybe we are talking about a different idea of power and how it is exercised, but by almost any measure of power I think your statement is extremely hard to prove.

by Stahlsworth 2006-10-11 08:50AM | 0 recs
Re: We Are the Infrastructure

No, I don't mean academia has more power.  I just mean that there's better content, and the key is to connect that content to governance.

by Matt Stoller 2006-10-11 10:43AM | 0 recs
Re: We Are the Infrastructure

Got it.  This makes much more sense.

by Stahlsworth 2006-10-11 11:23AM | 0 recs
Re: We Are the Infrastructure

I don't see the analogy.

Academia is a vital part of sane governance (just look at the recent Lancet report on Iraqi casualities.)

But the role is very different from right wing think tanks -- whose mission is explicitly ideological. Their job is to define, simplify and sound-byte a global right-wing story.

I think the left could do with a couple people like that, in addition to the careful, "humble" work of academia, where people are careful not to overstate or overreach.

by sdedeo 2006-10-11 12:21PM | 0 recs
Re: We Are the Infrastructure

Theories of a cabal of billionaires creating a movement counter to the wishes of the people is a self-deluding fantasy that does nothing but excuse the past. The left lost in this country on a broad front. Scaife et al did their part, but it was only one part of what happened.

To the present ... the term "infrastructure" isn't quite right not because it's bloodless, but because it's too rigid. Progressives have somewhat of an "infrastructure," but it's dynamism is part of the DNA of that infrastructure. Infrastructure implies roads and bridges, immovable and permanent objects. One of the central "objects" of progressive infrastructure is the quality of dynamism. Dynamism isn't an adjective to describe the infrastructure; it's one of the nouns of that infrastructure ... if that makes sense.

One reason progressives are dominating the Internet is because of the very qualities of progressivism that you mention. We are comfortable with the discordant noise of many voices, all singing from different hymnals. We just expect that eventually some sort of harmony will come out of that, some central melody. Before the hyper-speed of debate on the Internet, that process was too slow to compete with the right's message discipline. But now ... it's often only a few hours after a story breaks or an event occurs before some central themes begin emerging in progressive rhetoric. It's Darwinianism of talking points at a very fast speed. As opposed to the Intelligent Design of right-wing talking points.

And Darwinianism is far stronger than Intelligent Design ...

by BriVT 2006-10-11 09:12AM | 0 recs
What a lot of isms

If you repeat them over and over, maybe someone will listen. Maybe not.

Evolution makes more sense that darwinism.
Simply being a proud member of the Democrat party, makes more sense that being entangled in a network of passion soaked progressives.

And of course, if Karl Rove is just an amoral political operator - then George W. Bush is just a lame duck president.

Thats why I'm going to go see "BORAT" The Movie!
:)

by heyAnita 2006-10-11 09:33AM | 0 recs
Re: We Are the Infrastructure

by BriVT 2006-10-11 09:13AM | 0 recs
Re: We Are the Infrastructure

Oops. My cat walked across my laptop and clicked on "post" ...

Please ignore ...

by BriVT 2006-10-11 09:15AM | 0 recs
Re: We Are the Infrastructure

Meow.

by Matt Stoller 2006-10-11 10:43AM | 0 recs
To you

Thanks for all that you do.

by heyAnita 2006-10-11 09:22AM | 0 recs
Re: We Are the Infrastructure

Think tanks may not be a match for academia but every sincle academic I have ever met not only treats their staff like trash, but is incredibly petty and short sighted.

Also can I ask you to clarify something: You say they built their models on top-down methods, but you also say that they built their models around true believers and the big guys came later.

So does that mean that while they started in a similar network of people-power as the progressive infrastructure, it was taken over and has been directed and funded by the elites?

by MNPundit 2006-10-11 09:40AM | 0 recs
Re: We Are the Infrastructure

So does that mean that while they started in a similar network of people-power as the progressive infrastructure, it was taken over and has been directed and funded by the elites?

They always had, and still have, people-power.  There is an authentic conservative populist base, though it is more Minutemen than Brooks Brothers.  The right-wing movement has always been controlled by elites telling their populist base what to do.

by Matt Stoller 2006-10-11 10:45AM | 0 recs
Re: We Are the Infrastructure

Thanks that does help me understand what you were getting at.

by MNPundit 2006-10-11 12:32PM | 0 recs
Re: We Are the Infrastructure

Matt, I agree with your assesment here, but let me tie it back to my frustration with the Democracy Alliance.  Their inability to move forward has meant that our new infrastructure is going underfunded.  We may not need the think tanks to the degree that the right does, but we do need to keep guys like Glen Greenwald from having to beg for Paypal donations.  There are tons of great projects out there looking for funding that would seriously grow the progressive movement.  I am sure that any of us could rattle of a list right here and now.  There is only so much we can do with small dollar contributions and blog ads.

by juls 2006-10-11 09:55AM | 0 recs
Re: We Are the Infrastructure

here here!  just saying "we are the infrastructure" doesn't solve the problem that we have rising stars everywhere, and by and large they are living off of scraps.

but I remain convinced that the Democracy Alliance is largely useless.  I think we're going to have to find a way to fund our projects with small dollar donations and hybrid for-profit/non-profit organizational models.

by Shai Sachs 2006-10-11 11:00AM | 0 recs
Re: We Are the Infrastructure

Okay, I'll disagree with this post.

First off, I don't hear anyone saying that we should "replicate the Right."  Just that we should learn from them.  Bit of a strawman there.

Second, I vehemently disagree that the well-financed infrastructure created by the right is "top-down" in any sense, except financially.

What the Right does do, which works and which we should emulate, is broadly fund individuals and groups which identify with a core philosophy. (Notwithstanding the propensity of Republicans, of late, to dispense with their priniples on a whim.)

Where progressives fund issue-based groups and back specific legislative initiatives, movement conservatives have treated their money and their time as seeds to spread across the political landscape.  Which particular seed will eventually grow and be harvested cannot be known in the short term. Who knows when that Fellow you endowed will prove to be a useful guest on a cable show on a particular issue?

So, while technically the money comes from a few, wealthy players, there are fewer strings attached.    And everybody from elected officials to College Republicans can dip into the trough, as long as they are loyal to the movement.

In contrast, progressives will only dole out money  if there is likely to be an immediate return.  Witness the opposition to the 50-state strategy.  Even if it didn't payoff in the short-term (which it does) idiots like Rahm get apoplectic over the possibility that they might have to wait more than one election cycle to see a benefit from money invested in Democratic infrastructure.  And that is money that goes DIRECTLY to party builidng!  Do you think the numbskull has any interest in building up the College Democrats as a minor league for his party, like Karl Rove does?

by space 2006-10-11 09:57AM | 0 recs
Re: We Are the Infrastructure

Those are great points.  I'll have to think about them.

by Matt Stoller 2006-10-11 10:46AM | 0 recs
Re: We Are the Infrastructure

Juls brings up my issue -- the one thing our grassroots work has not been able to do is reliably fund its up-and-comers.  The long-term investment in conservative pundits, thinkers, and operatives has yet to produce an analogue on our side.

by Kimmitt 2006-10-11 09:59AM | 0 recs
Infrastructure

Astonishing to think that anyone considers G.W. Bush a "charismatic leader."

Oy.

by global yokel 2006-10-11 10:10AM | 0 recs
Re: We Are the Infrastructure

The progressive word for infrastructure when referring to people has always been and still should be "community".  It is our word.  It is a word that also implies connotations of the right when they refer to "culture war" items.  Only the right never gets beyond the individual.

by Dan5602896 2006-10-11 12:12PM | 0 recs
The Key Lesson of the 20th Century

The key lesson of the 20th century is that in any movement the ends BECOME the means.  Any movement that commits unethical actions in pursuit of an ethical goal is doomed to ultimate failure.

In other words - right on brother - we must never become the enemy.

by elblot 2006-10-11 01:02PM | 0 recs
Re: We Are the Infrastructure

Speaking of infrastructure, if you or anyone else here find yourselves travelling a lot and either out of WiFi range and/or unwilling or unable to pay the usage fees, I'd suggest looking into cell phone connectivity, which is widely available, reasonably fast, very reliable, and not that expensive.

This works either via a USB cable that connects your laptop and cell phone, bluetooth, or a PCMCIA-type wireless card. I've been doing this for some time with pretty good results. And it works pretty much wherever your cell phone works in digital mode. And since I don't take up much bandwidth, it's free for me. I used this to stay connected this summer while on a cross-country train trip on Amtrak, and almost always had connectivity.

by kovie 2006-10-11 02:01PM | 0 recs
Re: We Are the Infrastructure

This post is rife with so many "misperceptions", both in what is said, and what is assumed. The main one is the (now) legend that the so-called conservative revolution, and subsequent election successes were somehow created by these Machiavellian Republican strategists according to some overall diabolical plan! Please remember that the history of the changing fortunes of the Republican party has been just a piece of this country's history over the past 40+ years. Their "strategy" owed a large part to taking advantage of macro historical trends. Somehow in this ongoing conversation about Democrats "learning" from the Republican successs, too much attention is paid to organization and strategizing and not enough attention is given to the historical view.

There were three major historical (read- economic, social, political) development "lines" that came together in the '60's and '70's that allowed those crafty Republicans to position themselves for electoral power in the subsequent decades.

The first was the Civil Rights Movement and its "reluctant" attachment to the Democratic party. This took years to evolve, resulting in the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Up until then , it was the Democratic party that owned the South. Following that time, Nixon-era Republican politicos were able to instigate the Republican capture of the South. In a truly Machiavellian program, the Republicans turned their backs on Civil Rights in the South in order to be more appealing to white southerners (i.e. bigots). It didn't take long for electoral success. Within a few election cycles, the Republicans started to dominate the whole South.

The second  historical trend line was the rise of the evangelical Christian movement and its politicization. Some of its ambitious leaders saw an advantage in an alliance with a certain faction of the Republican party (non-establishment, more populist), and thus was born the Reaganites! All it took was Reagan's success, and the rest of the Republican party "saw the light!"

But that would not have been possible without the third piece of historical pie - the decline of the union movement! Union membership, and its associated loyalties (to the Democratic party) shrank substantially from the 1960's on. It was that shrinking and dilution of identity that made possible the so-called Reagon Democrats. That trend has continued since then, so that today, the union movement is a much-weakened presence not only in the Democratic corridors of power, but nationally too.

Without the convergence (some of it helped along) of all three of those trends, I do not think we would have seen such success over the past 25 years for those Republicans.

I don't see how Democrats can in any way duplicate the path of the Republicans! But that does not mean that we cannot also study historical trends and focus our energies in promising areas, but, hopefully, not sell out real purpose and principles totally for the sake of gaining power!  I am hopeful for the mid-to-long-term future for the Democrats, as once solid red regions come into play, in large part because demographic/historical
changes should present potential for Democratic allegiance.

by disgusted 2006-10-11 04:20PM | 0 recs

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