The recent hoopla on healthcare has shed light on an issue that has been painfully obvious to many progressives: even with a President that is a great communicator of progressive values, in terms of ongoing long-term communications, conservatives continue to dominate the public narrative. So much so, that progressive framing guru George Lakoff has come out in full force to suggest an alternate to the boring “public option” branding: the “American Plan“. Yes, of course any healthcare reform MUST at least include a strong public option (otherwise it will be a giant giveaway to the insurance companies’ already bloated greed). However, in terms of branding, the name “public option” simply does not do justice to what the public option is trying to accomplish: reform the system so that the American people’s health is placed above CEO’s bonuses, rather than the other way around. In larger terms of the picture in communications matters, 2009 is undeniably a different world when it comes to progressive media infrastructre compared to how it was back in 2000, when in that year we saw the conservative machine in full attack mode to make sure that Gore did not become the next President of the United States.
I refer back to 2000 to illustrate and recognize just how far we’ve come in terms of building a progressive infrastructure but at the same time to highlight just how far we still have yet to go. Like many others, that was the year when my political awakening began, amid a national media landscape that was incredibly hostile to progressive ideas. Prior to George W., I was just a small town Latino teen that was absolutely apolitical, overwhelmed with my own families’ struggles, and could care less about what went on with politicians in DC. However, the downward spiral into the depths of right-wing authoritarianism that the country took under George W.’s presidency became too alarming to ignore. I started to take notice, from the blatant betrayals of the American public’s trust with the invasion and occupation of Iraq to the excesses of the scary right-wing/conservative religious rights’ alliance with the Republican Party. On that front, much has changed too: with some progressive religious figures like Reverend Jim Wallis, Michael Lerner, and progressive activist faith groups and projects like Faithful America, The Network of Spiritual Progressives, Interfaith Alliance, Catholics United, and Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good gaining some much-needed traction on the national stage to fight the authoritarianism of the religious right. Nevertheless, the presence of progressive religious figures in the national media continues to be a struggle, as I have argued before (click here to read my previous post on the matter).
In retrospect, it is no surprise I can track the moment when I became aware for the first time of the massive conservative propaganda machine: when I caught word through a progressive medium-a new movie, “Outfoxed“, which detailed just how much the Fox News channel serves as the bullhorn for the Republican Party’s propaganda. I was so starved to connect to other progressives, that when the credits rolled at the end of the film, I frantically started to write down the names of the organizations that had contributed to make the film just so I could search for them online. One of the major progressive hubs of information sharing and activism that I found was AlterNet.org, which would occasionally post information on progressive groups doing grassroots activities on the local scene.
It was through one of such local grassroots events that I had another brush with another progressive medium that brought about for me a pivotal moment in the formation of who I am now as an activist. It was when I saw Marcos Moulitsas, founder of DailyKos, speak at a bar in Santa Monica, CA during an event that was being sponsored by the Public Campaign. He was promoting a book that he had co-authored, Crashing the Gate, and so I bought his book right there and then and asked him to autograph my copy. I started reading it and quickly became amazed at how incredibly well-organized and powerful the conservative infrastructure really was to the point where they completely dominated the national discourse with their far-right messaging. Crashing the Gate laid it all bare, pin-pointing how the conservative machine had come to be and how the inept angry left of the U.S., broken up into its silo single-issue self-righteous factions, had allowed it to happen. After finishing the book, I immediately made the resolution to answer the call to action to help build an organized progressive infrastructure that could fight the conservative machine. I did not exactly know how or where to start, so I kept on reading more progressive works like The Left Hand of God and Don’t Think of an Elephant, while at the same time continuing to attend progressive-minded events such as Drinking Liberally, and started listening to progressive radio personalities after they started to be syndicated nationally. In short, whatever progressive communication outlets that had been launched back then were extremely useful to inform and motivate new progressive activists like myself and countless others.
Today, there is now a “progressive infrastructure” that continues to grow that simply did not even exist back in 2000. Nevertheless, currently a progressive nation-wide communications system is virtually nonexistent. Famous professor of linguistics, George Lakoff, in his newly published piece The Policy Speak Disaster for Health Care, discusses this very same issue in terms of how it relates to the current healthcare debate. He has, in fact, warned about this before, specifically on his “The Obama Code” piece:
The president is the best political communicator of our age. He has the bully pulpit. He gets media attention from the press. His website is running a permanent campaign, Organizing for Obama, run by his campaign manager David Plouffe. It seeks issue-by-issue support from his huge mailing list. There are plenty of progressive blogs. MoveOn.org now has over five million members. And yet that is nowhere near enough.
The conservative message machine is huge and still going. There are dozens of conservative think tanks, many with very large communications budgets. The conservative leadership institutes are continuing to turn out thousands of trained conservative spokespeople every year. The conservative apparatus for language creation is still functioning. Conservative talking points are still going out to their network of spokespeople, who still being booked on tv and radio around the country. About 80% of the talking heads on tv are conservatives. Rush Limbaugh and Fox News are as strong as ever. There are now progressive voices on MSNBC, Comedy Central, and Air America, but they are still overwhelmed by Right’s enormous megaphone. Republicans in Congress can count on overwhelming message support in their home districts and homes states. That is one reason why they were able to stonewall on the President’s stimulus package. They had no serious media competition at home pounding out the Obama vision day after day.
Such national, day-by-day media competition is necessary. Democrats need to build it. Democratic think tanks are strong on policy and programs, but weak on values and vision. Without the moral arguments based on the Obama values and vision, the policymakers most likely be unable to regularly address both independent voters and the Limbaugh-FoxNews audiences in conservative Republican strongholds.
The president and his administration cannot build such a communication system, nor can the Democrats in Congress. The DNC does not have the resources. It will be up to supporters of the Obama values, not just supporters on the issues, to put such a system in place. Despite all the organizing strength of Obama supporters, no such organizing effort is now going on. If none is put together, the movement conservatives will face few challenges of fundamental values in their home constituencies and will be able to go on stonewalling with impunity. That will make the president’s vision that much harder to carry out.
In light of what the right-wing has been able to accomplish in their battle against healthcare reform, is it any wonder that many progressives are left wondering “where is the progressive messaging machine?” Well, it is MIA because it simply does NOT exist. Yes, progressive have the blogosphere and some rising stars on MSNBC, but let us not confuse that with an actual progressive MESSAGING machine. The blogosphere and other media outlets are just that, outlets with a lot of useful information. They ARE important and essential outlets, but they nevertheless are missing a piece: the messaging and framing element that works on a nation-wide marketing level.
So who would it be up to to build such a progressive communications system? Al Gore considered creating a liberal cable channel, and instead settled for creating the youthful socially conscious “Current TV“. Nevertheless, even a progressive channel would still need the right messaging. In absence of a nation-wide progressive channel, Professor Lakoff suggests the following communications strategy concerning the healthcare debate:
A progressive communication system should be started. It should go into every Congressional district. It should concentrate on general progressive ideas. President Obama has articulated what these are.
• The basic values are empathy (we care about people), responsibility for ourselves and others, and the ethic of excellence (making ourselves better and the world better).
• These values form the basis of democracy: It’s because we care about our fellow citizens that we have values like freedom and fairness, for everyone, not just the powerful.
• From that, it follows that government has two moral missions: protection (of consumers, workers, the environment, the old, the sick, the powerless; and empowerment through public works; communication, energy, and water systems; education; banks that work; a court system: and so on. Without them, no one makes it in America. Taxes are what you pay for protection and empowerment by the government, and the more you make the greater your responsibility to maintain the system.
Appropriate language can be found to express these values. They lie at the heart of all progressive policies. If they are out there every day, it becomes easier to discuss any issue. This is what it means to prepare the ground for specific framings.
Once progressives hammer out the right messaging approach, the need for a nation-wide progressive TV channel that can broadcast it everywhere will become even more evident. MSNBC has taken some good steps, but it has not capitalized on its recent ratings success with its progressive hosts (Rachel Maddow, Keith Olbermann, and Ed Schultz). In fact, a recent poll reveals something that has now become almost painfully clear: MSNBC has established a marketable niche that it is simply not servicing at it should be. MSNBC would do itself a favor by embracing its progressive niche and switch to an all-progressive format, before someone else beats them to it. After all, our country is quickly changing with the new so-called millenial generation that tends to be overwhelmingly progressive taking over. MSNBC from its inception positioned itself to be a bit more youthful and edgier than CNN. In the spirit of its original business model, should MSNBC position itself to serve the up-and-coming progressive-minded millenial generation, it would reap financial rewards that would most likely eclipse its competitors’.
When will MSNBC start realizing that they have created a niche with the progressive community that it should capitalize on? The above video is a sample of the kind of progressive talent MSNBC could benefit from. Progressive media personalities like Stephanie Miller or even Randi Rhodes (on the radio) have proven to be hugely successful, even beating their conservative competitors day after day in the ratings. So what are the powers-that-be waiting on?