Conservatives, Communication and Coalitions

The latest round of argument within the progressive coalition over the Obama Administration – touched off by Cornel West’s scathing criticism – has generated a lot of heated discussion. Most of it seems to simply repeat the same arguments that have been played out over the last two years: Obama is a sellout, Obama is doing the best he can, you’re not being fair to him, he’s not being fair to us. Leaving aside for this article the personality issues at play here, what’s really going on is a deeper fracture over the progressive coalition. Namely, whether one exists at all.

Whenever these contentious arguments erupt, a common response from progressives is to bemoan the “circular firing squad” and point to the right, where this sort of self-destructive behavior is rarely ever seen. Instead, the right exhibits a fanatic message discipline that would have made the Politburo envious. Grover Norquist holds his famous “Wednesday meetings” where right-wing strategy and message are coordinated. Frank Luntz provides the talking points, backed by his research. And from there, and from numerous other nodes in the right-wing network, the message gets blasted out. Conservatives dutifully repeat the refrain, which becomes a cacophony that generates its own political force. Republicans ruthlessly use that message, that agenda, to shift the nation’s politics to the right, even as Americans themselves remain on the center-left of most issues.

“Can’t we be more like them?” ask these progressives who understandably grow tired of the Obama wars. The conservatives’ disciplined communications strategy typically gets ascribed to one of these factors. Some see it as an inherent feature of their ideology – the right is hierarchical, the left is anarchic. (Of course, the 20th century Communist movement disproved that.) Others see it as an inherent feature of their brains – conservatives are said to have an “authoritarian” brain where everything is black and white and where values and ideas are simply accepted from a higher-up, whereas liberals have brains that see nuance and prize critical thinking, making them predisposed to squabble instead of unite. And still others just see the conservatives as being smarter, knowing not to tear each other down, with the implication that progressives who engage in these bruising internal battles simply don’t know any better, or are so reckless as not to care.

Perhaps some of those factors are all at work. But I want to argue that the truth is far simpler. Conservatives simply understand how coalitions work, and progressives don’t. Conservative communication discipline is enabled only by the fact that everyone in the coalition knows they will get something for their participation. A right-winger will repeat the same talking points even on an issue he or she doesn’t care about or even agree with because he or she knows that their turn will come soon, when the rest of the movement will do the same thing for them.

Progressives do not operate this way. We spend way too much time selling each other out, and way too little time having each other’s back. This is especially true within the Democratic Party, where progressives share a political party with another group of people – the corporate neoliberals – who we disagree with on almost every single issue of substance. But within our own movement, there is nothing stopping us from exhibiting the same kind of effective messaging – if we understood the value of coalitions.

A coalition is an essential piece of political organizing. It stems from the basic fact of human life that we are not all the same. We do not have the same political motivations, or care about the same issues with equal weight. Some people are more motivated by social issues, others by economic issues. There is plenty of overlap, thanks to share core values of equality, justice, and empathy. But in a political system such as ours, we can’t do everything at once. Priorities have to be picked, and certain issues will come before others.

How that gets handled is essential to an effective political movement. If one part of the coalition gets everything and the other parts get nothing, then the coalition will break down as those who got nothing will get unhappy, restive, and will eventually leave. Good coalitions understand that everyone has to get their issue taken care of, their goals met – in one way or another – for the thing to hold together.

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