In their fight to catch up with the right, progressives are sending their young to boot camp
On May 22, young people gathered at house parties across the country to celebrate the launch of MyGOP, a website created by the Republican Party. Similar to online community-building sites like MySpace and Friendster, MyGOP conservative enthusiasts and budding party operatives track and share their successes—in dollars raised, volunteers recruited, and voters registered. They can also upload photos, write a blog, and link to the MyGOP profiles of like-minded friends. The most prolific recruiters and fund-raisers are celebrated on a leader board at the site’s home page, allowing party leaders to identify their best young talent.
Built to attract a generation weaned on blogs, podcasts, and instant messaging, MyGOP exemplifies why and how strategists on both sides of the political divide hope to win the attention and loyalty of America’s youth. For three decades, the right has focused intently on developing this base, and has gone a long way toward making it cool to be a young conservative. The flat-footed left, historically the natural place for young people to express their ideals, has only recently begun to counter the strategy—and there’s a lot of catching up to do.
After Barry Goldwater’s defeat in the 1964 presidential election left the Republican Party in a shambles, “conservative” was practically an epithet. Young Americans rejected the label as vigorously as today’s youth avoid the term “liberal.” So movement conservatives picked themselves up and began patiently constructing a network of think tanks, foundations, advocacy groups, and training seminars for new leaders. Groups such as the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, Young America’s Foundation, College Republicans, Young Americans for Freedom, and the Leadership Institute started recruiting and training tens of thousands of conservative youth.
The movement helped fuel a momentous victory in 1994, when soon-to-be House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s Republican revolution shattered the Democrats’ ossified majority on Capitol Hill. Today the right reigns in Washington and graduates of these well-established programs work in the White House, occupy congressional seats, report for (and manage) major media outlets, and run conservative think tanks and lobbying firms.
“There are a lot of people in their 30s and 40s who are products of the conservative leadership [training programs],” says David Halperin, a speechwriter for President Bill Clinton. “They’re stepping up to run the country and they dominate the airwaves . . . [while] on our side a lot of the leaders are the same people who were the leaders 25 years ago—literally the same leaders.”
By the time Gingrich and his followers rode to power on a set of simple, inspiring messages and a consistent political strategy, many progressives had given up on the Democratic Party as a vehicle for social change and were channeling their energy toward single-issue advocacy groups and absolutist causes. The feeling was that Democrats had become so beholden to corporate money that to participate in party politics was the equivalent of selling out.
The dynamic began to change in 2004 as young progressives, enraged by the Iraq war and stung by Al Gore’s loss four years earlier, decided to give the Democrats another chance. Governor Howard Dean’s out-of-nowhere presidential campaign rode a wave of antiwar passion expressed by creative, Net-savvy youth, and legions volunteered and donated money—many of them for the first time in their lives.
Halperin, who was a policy advisor and speechwriter for the Dean campaign, believes it is still possible to capitalize on that energy and give young people a place at the table in the progressive movement. Like other strategists on the left, Halperin has studied the right’s methods and, recognizing the need to take a longer view, is looking to build power far beyond any given election cycle by recruiting fresh young talent and training them to lead for decades to come.
Since George W. Bush took office in 2001, a raft of progressive organizations have emerged, including Campus Progress—an affiliate of the Washington think tank Center for American Progress—which Halperin founded last year to provide media training and financial support to activists and journalists at more than 400 schools.
Halperin points out that strategists on the right have successfully cultivated a sense of common purpose among young conservatives by booking right-wing celebrities to speak on campuses, organizing conferences, funding student publications, and providing internships and paid fellowships to young leaders.
Campus Progress and groups such as People for the American Way, MoveOn.org, and Green Corps, as well as upstarts like Wellstone Action, Democracy for America, the Center for Progressive Leadership, and the League of Young Voters, are using a similar approach to create solidarity among young people on the congenitally fractious left—to show them, as Halperin says, “that there is value in coming together.”
“I want to go to Hollywood and organize actors around global warming.”
Odette Mucha (rhymes with hookah), a Cornell grad from New Jersey, has just been asked where she sees herself in five years: “This country is driven by consumerism and pop culture. So we need to make global warming sexy.” Her classmates respond with whoops of encouragement. Next up is Leila Darwish: “I want to talk to ranchers, farmers, fishermen,” the Calgary native says, her rapid-fire delivery more East Coast zeal than Canadian Rockies cool. Chuckling, she adds, “I’d probably die if I talked to a celebrity; I just can’t handle that kind of pressure.” Darwish hopes to do battle with oil, gas, and timber industries back home in the conservative-dominated province of Alberta: “I’m in this for the long haul, for life.”
Both twentysomething women are members of the 2006 class of Green Corps, an elite yearlong training program for grassroots environmental organizers that pays $23,750 a year. In the near future, if all goes according to plan, Mucha, Darwish, and their 11 classmates will be executive directors of advocacy groups, scholars at think tanks, congressional staffers, possibly even elected officials.
That’s because, like the hippies who went “clean for Gene” (Senator Eugene McCarthy, the peace candidate for president) in droves in 1968, these kids have decided that idealism is best pursued pragmatically. They’re willing to cut their hair, don a suit, and lobby Congress if it helps win concrete victories for the environment.
Last August, after three weeks of classroom preparation, the students were dispatched across the country to work on campaigns for a variety of green groups, from the Alaska Wilderness League to the Gulf [of Mexico] Restoration Network.
In September, those who had been sent to mobilize public opposition to oil drilling in Alaska helped organize an “Arctic Refuge Day of Action” in Washington, D.C., that drew busloads of citizens from around the country. Some 5,000 people rallied on the West Lawn, then fanned out across Capitol Hill to lobby their senators and representatives. Considering how close Congress came to passing legislation to open the refuge to drilling last fall, Green Corps’ fieldwork is at least partly to thank for saving this pristine wilderness from the oil lobby.
Last February, all the students regrouped in a hotel conference room in Boston’s theater district. They spent five days debriefing each other on the campaigns they had just finished, planning for their next eight-week assignments, and polishing their resumes and interviewing skills for the nonprofit job market.
Since Green Corps’ founding in 1992, more than 200 people have graduated from the intensive program. Many of them now hold leadership positions across the progressive movement—in organizations such as MoveOn.org, Physicians for Human Rights, Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch, Corporate Accountability International, and the office of California Congress member and House minority leader Nancy Pelosi.
Many of the organizations Green Corps works for have been so impressed with the effectiveness of the group’s fieldwork that they’ve reworked their budgets to boost their own grassroots organizing capacity—and often to hire graduates straight out of the program. Physicians for Human Rights “was way more research-focused when I arrived,” says Gina Coplon-Newfield, a 1997 Green Corps graduate. In 2000 she was only the second organizer hired by the group, which promotes causes such as AIDS prevention and a worldwide ban on land mines. Today, its campaigns department employs 11 organizers—twice the staff of any other unit in the organization.
Outplacement is a critical part of Green Corps’ role, both for its trainees and for the larger progressive movement. “Green Corps organizers like to hire other Green Corps organizers,” says Naomi Roth, the group’s executive director. Many alumni go on to work for other Green Corps graduates, and over 85 percent continue on to pursue careers in social change.
Karl Rove, the “architect” of George W. Bush’s political campaigns. Ralph Reed, the man who built the Christian Coalition. Grover Norquist, a GOP strategist who never met a tax he didn’t hate.
These conservative icons were all trained at the right-wing Leadership Institute, which was founded in 1979 by former Goldwater acolyte Morton Blackwell and has become the right’s premier training center.
Some 48,000 students have walked through the doors at the institute’s Arlington, Virginia, headquarters to attend courses with titles like “Broadcast Journalism School,” “Campus Election Workshop,” “Capitol Hill Writing School,” and “Effective TV Techniques.” Alumni hold thousands of positions across the media landscape, in political organizing, and in public service-including hundreds of state and federal legislative seats and two Miss America crowns.
Through the generous support of individual donors and wealthy family foundations, the nonprofit organization’s services are all but free. (Tuition for the seven-day Campaign Leadership School is just $250, and financial aid is available to bring that cost even lower.) The training center, housed in a five-story building that contains six high-tech classrooms capable of holding 135 students, state-of-the-art television studios, and chaperoned dormitories where up to 44 people can stay free of charge while they’re attending courses.
Antha Williams, a longtime progressive organizer who has also designed training for like-minded activists, attended the Campaign School in July 2005, expecting to learn just how far the left was lagging behind the right. To her surprise, she discovered that the nuts-and-bolts agenda wasn’t much different from what you would find at a place like Green Corps: Presenters talked clinically about building a grassroots organization, fund-raising, media and communications, opposition research, and writing voter mail.
According to Williams, the biggest difference, besides the sheer volume of students and impressive array of resources, was the institute’s disciplined way of describing issues in clear, ideologically loaded terms—an approach the media has come to call “framing.” Presentations are liberally salted with conservative code words like freedom, liberty, and family values. “Where we might talk about boosting voter turnout, they talk about preventing voter fraud,” she says. Where progressives might call for “tax equity” or “investments in our children’s future,” conservatives counter with talk of “tax relief” and “rooting out government waste.”
Since framing has become a frequent talking point among progressives on the frontlines, and there is less sheepishness today about playing practical issues for political advantage, Williams returned from her reconnaissance mission hopeful that activists on the left are well positioned to match the right’s strategic sophistication. The institute’s sheer capacity, financially and in terms of class size, remain a concern, however. And competing on that front promises to remain a struggle.
“We do have more people [than the right] to draw from as raw material on college campuses,” says David Halperin. But the Leadership Institute has a $9.4 million budget, and its Campus Leadership Program is expanding rapidly. Between September 2004 and May 2006 the number of conservative student groups it helped start grew from 216 to 731. This fall Blackwell will dispatch 60 field staff members across the country and expects to push that total to 1,000 groups by the end of the year. By contrast, Green Corps and Campus Progress each have fewer than 20 staffers and budgets of about $1.5 million.
Over the past 30 years, one of the major reasons for this financial imbalance has been the right’s willingness (and the left’s unwillingness) to dive headlong into partisan politics. (It helps as well that big business is on their side.) At the Campaign School, for instance, the main focus is on getting Republicans elected. That’s why “all of the trainers,” according to Williams, “are Republican political consultants. All of the case studies are from Republican campaigns.” And most of the students are Republican candidates or campaign staffers, she says.
Democrats raised record amounts in 2004, from both wealthy donors like billionaires George Soros and Peter Lewis, and hundreds of thousands of small individual contributors. Still, considering the right wing’s ideological support for smaller government, lower taxes, and a large military budget, progressives may never match conservatives’ fund-raising prowess.
What the left lacks in access to money it may be able to make up for in people. Significantly more voters are registered Democrats than Republicans, and polls consistently show that a solid majority of Americans support progressive policies—from energy to education, foreign policy to the environment. Still, if progressives want to win at the polls they have to take their gloves off. “When you fight it makes you stronger,” said MoveOn.org president Wes Boyd in 2004, urging Democratic candidates to campaign more aggressively. There are signs that this message is finally sinking in, and an outfit in Minnesota is leading the way.
Well-established groups like Green Corps function as a sort of West Point for organizers, grooming elite leaders to draft battle plans and strategize behind the lines. Start-ups like Wellstone Action, named for the late Minnesota senator and liberal firebrand Paul Wellstone, are in the business of training the ground troops. In its first three years the organization, founded by Wellstone’s sons Mark and David, has put 10,000 people through its weekend crash courses in basic grassroots activism.
Employing a strategy pioneered by Senator Wellstone in the 1990s (he died in a plane crash in 2002), Wellstone Action encourages people to go beyond issue advocacy and actually run for office themselves. “In every state, we need to get serious about developing leaders—starting with school board, city council, county commissioner, mayoral, and state legislative races,” the senator wrote in his 2001 book The Conscience of a Liberal (Random House).
Hundreds of veterans of the Wellstone seminars have already run for local office. This fall some 150 candidates will use Wellstone’s populist, grassroots approach to campaigning in hopes of being elected to state and federal offices in key political states such as Ohio, Arizona, and Wisconsin.
To understand the logic behind Wellstone Action’s approach, one need only look back to the 2004 elections. Several Democrats, like Montana governor Brian Schweitzer and Colorado senator Ken Salazar, shocked political pundits when they prevailed in states where President Bush won in a walk. Those candidates successfully “translated a populist economic agenda into powerful cultural and values messages,” wrote David Sirota in the American Prospect two months after the election. “This is not the traditional (and often condescending) Democratic pandering about the need for a nanny government to provide for the masses. It is us-versus-them red meat, straight talk about how the system is working against ordinary Americans.”
In the presidential race, challenger John Kerry chose to forgo this populist approach, focusing instead on his competence to govern. The Bush campaign emphasized the president’s character and authenticity. Kerry’s strategy, says Jeff Blodgett, executive director of Wellstone Action, was fatal. Compared to Bush’s simple, powerful message—“I'm resolute and you always know where I stand”—Kerry sounded like a wooden policy wonk and was effectively labeled a “flip-flopper.”
According to Blodgett, it’s all about “messaging,” a buzzword among politicos that refers to all the things a campaign does to tell its story, to control how it is portrayed in the press and perceived by the public. It’s also a field of battle where the right has long enjoyed a distinct advantage, turning partisan monikers like Healthy Forests, Operation Iraqi Freedom, and “death tax” into widely accepted rhetorical shortcuts in public discourse and on the front page.
In fact, Blodgett is obsessed with messaging—and for good reason. Senator Wellstone may have been an academic (he taught political science at Carleton College for 21 years), but his political theories were based on real-world experience. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, he used his classroom as a community organizing lab. Teacher and students, including a young Blodgett, worked on countless campaigns with family farmers, environmentalists, labor unions, and poor communities.
Wellstone’s first run for the Senate changed the way electoral campaigns in Minnesota are waged. Unable to afford expensive television and radio ads, he built a massive grassroots volunteer base. The few commercials he did produce were so clever that they generated free media coverage. In his first 30-second spot he said, “Unlike my opponent, I don’t have $6 million, so I’m gonna have to talk fast . . .” Then the film speeds up, showing him racing around the state visiting people and places he cares about—a small farm, a lake, a school, his family. Wellstone’s frenetic energy and passionate rhetorical style inspired young people, who flocked to volunteer for his campaign.
Green Corps invited Blodgett to its February gathering. Flipping through his PowerPoint slides, he pulled up a diagram called the “message box,” a tool he used as Wellstone’s campaign manager in 1990, 1996, and 2002. A simple table with four quadrants, it allows you to weigh the strength of different messages side by side. In one column, you fill in your own messages: what we are saying about ourselves; what we are saying about them. In the other column, you write down your opposition’s messages: what they are saying about themselves; what they are saying about us.
The trick in effective messaging, he told the class, is to tell a more compelling story than your opponent, one that connects with people on a deeper, more human level. Then he quoted his late boss: “Too many progressives make the mistake of believing people are galvanized around 10-point programs. They are not! People respond according to their sense of right and wrong. They respond to a leadership of values.”
The lesson jibes with Green Corps’ mission. Throughout the year organizers study how to write press releases and letters to the editor, organizing news conferences, creating good visuals, and practicing sound bites. In the Arctic drilling campaign, for instance, they could have focused their message on foreign oil or the need for alternatives. Instead, they chose to focus on the intrinsic value of the earth, asking whether destroying a priceless piece of American wilderness is worth saving a quarter at the gas pump. For visual effect, and to leaven their dire message with a little humor, they wore fake caribou antlers at protests and press conferences. The media couldn’t get enough.
The elaborate struggle between left and right is ultimately about power—who is willing to grab it and who gets to decide the future direction of the country. In an age of war, terrorism, environmental devastation, and religious strife, the future of a divided America may well be in the hands of whoever does a better job of recruiting and maintaining young talent.
The conservative coalition has no qualms about mixing it up and has been disciplined in its ability to set aside internal differences in the quest for power. That’s not to say that deep divisions don’t exist. Last year religious conservatives threw a fit over Bush’s nomination of Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court, and high-profile supporters of the war in Iraq have been distancing themselves from the administration.
Such public spats are rare, however. For conservatives, loyalty and strategic unity trump ideological purity. And thanks in no small part to groups like the Leadership Institute, the cohesion of the right-wing message machine and the Republican Party apparatus is impressive.
Not so on the left. Progressives, all but shut out of the power structure of the Democratic Party since the Vietnam War, have a hard time with the idea of actually taking power, preferring to question authority rather than wield it. Even the elite Green Corps organizers squirm when Jeff Blodgett tells them, “I hope you’ll all run for office someday.”
“My goal is to deconstruct power,” says Stephanie Powell, a member of this year’s Green Corps class. “I want to work with other people. I want to empower, but I don’t want to hold power.”
More effective grassroots organizing, on both the right and the left, is no doubt a critical piece of the puzzle. Organizing takes decision making out of the realm of experts. It shows average citizens how to make their voices heard and feel like they have a say in the decisions that affect their lives.
You can’t win in politics through outside pressure alone, however. As Paul Wellstone said often, “Electoral politics without grassroots community organizing is a politics without a base, community organizing without electoral politics is a marginal politics, and electoral politics and community organizing without good, sound public policy is a politics without a head.”
The 2004 presidential race, especially Howard Dean’s Internet-based primary campaign, created an opening for the left. It showed that the grass roots are restless and ready to take another chance on the Democratic Party. Yet since that election the Democratic National Committee, even with Dean as chair, has done little—beyond hitting them up for cash-to mine those minions for new leadership.
That task has fallen instead to the private groups that are training young leaders. While most political observers are focused on whether the Democrats will retake Congress in November, David Halperin is already looking ahead. He believes the real fight for America’s future is in the classrooms of training programs on the left and right, and in the streets where those young organizers are putting their training into practice. “Our success will be measured in years,” he says, “not in the next few election cycles.”