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March 30, 2005

Stepford Wonks and Security
Posted by Lorelei Kelly

Progressive circles in Washington and elsewhere have been anxious and chatty for months over the rise of the conservative movement, its implications for American society and politics, and what progressives can do to fight back. This was kicked off by a NY Times magazine article last year by Matt Bai, which outlined the efforts of a long-time Democrat named Rob Stein to educate progressives, liberals and other Democrats about the media-money-message-matrix on the right. The gist: conservative dominance is not an accident, but an outcome. Knowing this is empowering for those of us who work on security because it places our challenge today in a long-term perspective. It also places 9/11 in the context of a talented and cynical conservative movement at the top of its game.  The right doesn't have a superior narrative on security, what they do have, however is a peerless echo chamber.

Stepford Wonks are a vital feature of this echo chamber. Thirty years ago, conservatives decided that, because the left had academia, they needed to create an alternative universe for themselves. (Anybody who has worked in a university knows that academics are not remotely equipped for policy relevance, but anyway)  Spun up conservatives proceeded to bankroll legions of organizations, think tanks, fellowships, institutions and the like, to carry forth the conservative message.  A revolving door between the Republican party and these institutions ensured a ground truth perspective into politics and how to get things done.

The result is that, on the left, we have academics and operatives.(who don't communicate with each other) The right has academic operatives. Karl Rove is the prototype. Stepford Wonks are the ones who repeat the talking points on TV and radio. The academic operative  fights in the gutter in the morning but then cleans up nicely for a Clausewitz lecture in the afternoon. Voila!

The liberal side doesn't really have anything equivalent in significant numbers. Yglesias' piece about the gap between the liberal concept people and Democratic operatives on defense issues is a good overview and identifies places to begin building infrastructure for our side. (Derek, the 12 Step Program!)

This conservative coddling (Heritage Foundation now has a dorm for its interns next door) has paid off. The conservative defense "narrative" was coherent and well-wired years in advance of 9/11. The result has been an effective message that--to paraphrase my redneck upbringing--is a riff on "opening a can of whup ass on the world". Effective yes, sustainable, no.

One alternative to this world-view can be found online. The "US in the World" project has put together a  handbook for progressives who would like to build their communication skills to promote a progressive vision for America and its relationship to the rest of the world. I'd be interested in any feedback.


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The guide is a good idea - you want these things together in one place so people can look them up in a rush. I want to touch on your new blog for a second though - as issues come up you need to show, each time, how your principles and analysis are applied to each issue in turn. More than that you have to be willing to hit the same issues time and time again, each time from a slightly different angle. It may seem tiresome, but repitition is necessary, not just to pound in your message, but because if you say it slightly differently each time one of those times may be the one that blows through someone and makes them "get" it. Finally, you need traffic. Pick some discussions or arguments - trackback and engage.

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