Levers of Power

LEVERS OF POWER….Bill Bradley writes today about the makeup of the “pyramid” of Republican success:

Big individual donors and large foundations ? the Scaife family and Olin foundations, for instance ? form the base of the pyramid. They finance conservative research centers like the Heritage Foundation, the Cato Institute and the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, entities that make up the second level of the pyramid.

The ideas these organizations develop are then pushed up to the third level of the pyramid ? the political level. There, strategists like Karl Rove…convert them into language that will appeal to the broadest electorate….And then there’s the fourth level of the pyramid: the partisan news media. Conservative commentators and networks spread these finely honed ideas.

Basically, Bradley argues that Democrats don’t have a pyramid like this, so every four years their presidential candidates have to start from scratch to build and sell a liberal vision to American voters: “Unlike Republicans, they don’t simply have to assemble a campaign apparatus ? they have to formulate ideas and a vision, too.” Without a prepackaged vision, personal charisma becomes all important, and candidates without it are doomed.

Says Ann Althouse: “Very well put ? by a man with a fancy educational background who once ran for President and wiped out early, because of a woeful lack of charisma.” Well, yes. And perhaps that makes Bradley a little oversensitive about the role of charisma in presidential contests.

But I’d like to make another point. Roughly speaking, here’s what conservatives have done over the past few decades.

First, they created all those famous think tanks to spread their ideas: Heritage, Cato, AEI, etc. Second, they researched language and invented a new way of talking about conservative ideas and promoting wedge politics. Third, they figured out that the judiciary was a big deal and started overtly campaigning to install conservative judges on the federal bench. Fourth, when the Fairness Doctrine was tossed out in 1987, they glommed onto the underutilized AM spectrum and filled it up with the syndicated talk radio shows we all know and love today. Later, Fox News joined them. Fifth, they began the K Street Project, designed to coerce lobbying firms into hiring only fellow Republicans if they wanted any chance of getting their agendas passed.

The Democratic response to all this has been simple: build foundations of our own, fashion a competing liberal way of framing issues, fight back on judges, create liberal talk shows, and remind lobbyists that Republicans won’t be in power forever. Which is all fine. But in a way, I think it misses the point.

What conservatives really did was to exploit new levers of power in ways that no one had thought of before. Their answers turned out to be foundations, language, judges, talk radio, and lobbyists, but there’s nothing sacred about those particular levers. So while creating our own foundations and talk shows is important, what’s more important is that we should be constantly searching for new and underappreciated levers of power and figuring out creative ways to exploit them. Howard Dean’s campaign did this in a minor way with its use of internet MeetUps, a new way of organizing grassroots support that took everyone by surprise.

Merely mimicking conservative strategies is a strategy for staying in second place forever. Closer, perhaps, but still in second place. What we need in addition is to stay relentlessly on the lookout for new ways of mobilizing public opinion that no one has thought of before. Suggestions, anyone?