by Chris Bowers, Wed Dec 27, 2006 at 09:15:20 PM EST
When Republicans took the majority in 1994, and in most every election they won since that time, they were quickly able to forge a post-election narrative that so utterly dominated conventional wisdom that the cultural center of our national mass media shifted to the right. We all saw this after 2004 when it became conventional wisdom that in order to win elections, the Republican leadership had to govern in a manner that would appeal to the theocon base. Establishment media outlets drew the same conclusion when it came to boosting ratings, as they all hired "faith and values" correspondents and / or some new conservative pundit. Because the 2004 post-election narrative concluded that extreme social conservatives had won the elections, virtually across the board, the entire political industry concluded that in order to remain relevant, it was necessary to suck up to institutions that promoted extreme social conservatism. Granted, in an important way, this post-election backfired for Republicans, because to an increasingly pluralistic America it portrayed them as held captive by an extremist, and generally homogeneous, base. However, it did also lay the groundwork for media and political tolerance of the two most right-wing years of American governance since Richard Nixon's first two years as President.
Entering the era of our new majorities, we have no equivalent, progressive institutions toward which either the establishment media or political industry feels any need to capitulate. There is no new progressive version of pseudo-electoral demographics such as NASCAR Dads, Security Moms, or Values Voters. Heads of progressive advocacy organizations find themselves with nowhere near the same level of newfound respect given to James Dobson and other white, conservative, evangelical leaders following the 2004 election. Even the netroots don't have that much more respect that we had going into the election, although we did grow in stature a little bit. We won the election, but we still lack the sort of victory where the media and the political industry needs to respect progressives and progressivism all that much more than it did before the election.
Now, to a certain extent this has happened because the Democratic victory was earned across the board: the shift from 2004 to 2006 was by no means specific to any demographic group. However, it should also provide an important lesson: much of the political power in this country is not determined through elections. From schools, to churches, to workplaces, to the media, to families and neighborhoods--control of ideological apparatuses in this country is largely determined by mechanisms other than elections. Even legislative power is heavily influenced by non-elective institutions such as PACs, lobbyists, the judiciary, staffers, protests, and the media. Without control over these non-elective institutions, progressives will inevitably continue to lose, among other things, every post-election narrative. As much as it doesn't make any sense that even though Republicans lost, conservatives actually won, that is the closest any post-election narrative has come to achieving the status of conventional wisdom. That is the sort of thing that happens when you don't control the major ideological apparatuses in America, and when the majority of television pundits who "represent" Democrats thought Zell Miller was the best choice for Gore's VP in 2000.
Creating a solid, long-term progressive majority means we have to go beyond just organizing around elections and move toward greater organizing efforts within non-elective ideological and legislative power structures. Our current deficit in many of those structures will inevitably cause a lot of problems for our new majorities, no matter how well conduct ourselves in terms of message, crafting legislation, conducting oversight, or maintaining a unified caucus. Even in a democracy, much of the basis of political power comes from non-elective sources. We overestimate our current power, underestimate the work that still needs to be done to forge a progressive America, and set ourselves up for massive disappointment and disengagement as a result, at our own peril.