In scenario after scenario or business plan after business plan the basic vision of a winning progressive movement tends to be a repainted blue version of the 2004 Rove machine. Hopefully, we now know better. What we see today is working and it is not what the gurus planned. .
There is a constant drumbeat of new liberal tribes working to establish a dominance of ideas, policies, strategies, brands and ideas. Each group, vision or organization becomes flavor of the month and the new hope for a stable competitive edge against the conservative juggernauts dominating political culture, tempo of change and policy debates.
Going after the shock and awe of the Rove machine, Progressive investors have established many groups to recruit new leaders, counter-balance the right in the press, build a new field, dominate the frame or saturate airwaves with good progressive ideas, campaigns, issues and candidates. there were lots of meetings where everyone wanted thier own version of the conservative influence machine.
As each new project struggles for breathing room (energy, talent, resources, funding and attention), traditional leaders learn and adapt to challenges to their power successfully defending old positions because they reach so many so quickly. They can claim to already serve the same needs or claim to be heading in the new new direction (Pope response to Death of Environmentalism). In the last few years, we have seen this process destroy progress on many important concepts and projects (Advokit or Community Managed Voter File).
New strong ideas begin to take shape and hold promise for new directions and new outcomes but then the forces of inertia pull back and reign in change. The majority of funding going right back to TV ad media work. The big and important ideas from the value of framing, technology, data targeting, mobilization and blogs to Air America and CurrentTV make it launch and are torn down or ignored to death.. The ideas are pulled back in and controlled by a small handful of the same leaders or those that share the same strategy and perspectives of the last 30 years. (Drummond Pike of Tides new role at Democracy Alliance). The dynamic plays out on large and small efforts from ACT and Center for American Progress to small start ups like progressive leaders, civicspace and Rockledge Institute. The cycle hurts us all.
New groups emerge with visions of new ways to centralized power only to be pealed back and away by the extraordinary unregulated competitive base. We are like crabs imprisoned by our own instincts to survive and stuck in a perpetual chain of pulling each other back into the pot. Barring egregious and self-inflicted wounds of the conservative opposition (Abramhoff, War, Page Scandal, Weldon, Sherwood, Allen Gaffes, immigration) it is unlikely to see the progressives fight the well coordinated and centralized machine of the right. We may loose the fiight for direction of the culture and national policy.
Independents swing the balance of elections. We have worked hard to lower the barriers to party entry and exit so the public can and will swing back and forth building little momentum in any direction. Policy will be locked and stalled for the next two years.
The fight for the future is a culture struggle. It is a struggle the progressives can do really well in if we understand the stakes and reorganize infrastructure and investment to meet the challenges ahead.
The progressive movement is a big tent movement of many groups and fractured ideas and visions. The progressive movement is leaderful and bossless. We are decentralized and very difficult to control. The progressive base will always be this way and our power will always be distributed to the issue leaders and key interest hubs that power progressive progress. The big engines of change will not go away (politicians, unions, enviro groups, peace and social justice groups, etc.) nor should they. We will always have competing messages across the base that supports our direction for lots of personal reasons big and small. We will continue to inspire upstart leaders. We will continue to be a movement that can not be controlled. It is in the very core DNA of progressive and liberal to question authority and seek individual freedom and opportunity.
There are those that call for one message. They are wrong. The meta-narrative is dead in America. It died with the launch of cable. The reason no one has a unified national message is because it would cause progressives to loose power. The campaign and media people know there is no national message on security, environment, immigration, the war, etc. etc. We are no longer a mono-culture (we never were) and our call for one message is no different than Pat Buchanan wishing we could go back to the 50s it is not going to happen (if it does it would be a disaster. ) We do have shared emotions. We do share an ability to think logically.
The challenge today for progressives is to build the capacity to manage ad hoc coalitions. The challenge is to establish a regular framework for counterbalancing the natural friction of a fighting within our ranks and to establish many bonds to the progressive movement that are not just message or policy specific but social, emotional and shared resource dependencies.
As a movement, we will not be able to straight jacket our base into a molded message or under a single leader for any long period of time. There is a need to accept that we live in a big tent. Our future lies not in how successfully we control everyone but how quickly we can coordinate the scattered energy, momentum and motion to create change. The new challenge is to solve conflict and debate with speed and ease NOT to attempt to control all conflict. The new challenge is to find as soon as possible the opportunity to swarm a scattered movement in to sync with the winds of change.
To the casual eye, the winning movement of progressives in the future will look no different than the jumble of issues, causes, competing organizations and people pushing for change today. However, the new winning movement will be effectively networked together so that it can self-organize drives in policy, enforce reputation behavior rules within its own ranks, and experiment with innovation. The winning progressive movement includes tapping the power the edges of the movement to contribute the success of the campaigns.
The new progressive movement looks more like a plate of spaghetti (social network) of public interest groups, cultural centers and political activists. It does not look like clearly designed organizational chart and 72 hour march plan designed by "the architect".
We need to think carefully and strategically about the ways to make the messy network jumble bigger, more effective and efficient. And, we need to fight any urges to pretend centralization or "one thing" (data mining, tv, bloggers, women, yada,yada ) will be the key to future success. We need to make sure that we continue to build network health and network strengths across our wide and inclusive base. We need to design projects, policies, infrastructure and campaigns that work well on the network level not just at the organizational or party measures.