UPDATED: Progressives urged to be less “think tank” and more “do tank”
The following article from this morning's edition is reprinted with the kind permission of the Hill Times.
Because it talks about the political strategies of the conservative movement, and covers attempts to understand the emergence of populism in a different way, I thought readers of various political persuasions might find it interesting here.
[UPDATE: The video of the full day's conference proceedings is now available through the Rabble TV channel at Livestream.com, including other talks in the morning panel by Alex Neve of Amnesty International, and Kate Rexe of the Native Women's Association of Canada, and remarks by the panel Chair Gerry Caplan. The afternoon session focused on the economy. Unfortunately there were audio problems initially, but you can hear if you turn it up.]
Massive growth in conservative ‘ideological persuasion industry,’ funds narrative tools targeted at the grassroots.
By ALICE FUNKE
Progressive groups must learn from the strategies adopted by the conservative movement in Canada, and spend less time being “think tanks” and more “do tanks” if they want to fight the erosion of democracy in Canada, delegates to the Canadian Centre of Policy Alternatives’ 30th Anniversary conference were told Thursday.
“Yes, research is important, but it can’t be such a large focus,” University of Ottawa professor Paul Saurette urged the audience, arguing that their opponents in the conservative movement, such as the Fraser Institute and more recently the Manning Centre, “understand that they’re in the persuasion business, not the research business,” and that progressive groups will need to develop new ways to advocate.
Prof. Saurette, whose academic work has studied the development of conservative think tanks and organizations in both Canada and the United States, said that unlike the think tanks of 30 years ago, which used to follow a “tree-tops strategy” of influencing policy, there has been a massive growth in the conservative “ideological persuasion industry,” which funds a variety of narrative tools targeted at the grassroots.
The past 30 years has also seen enormous change in the media landscape, Prof. Saurette argued, citing Tony Blair’s observation that after the war in Iraq, he had to spend the next biggest amount of time responding to the media. Not only has the media adopted a “highly pro-market fundamentalist orientation,” he said, but they “have very limited content capacity now, and journalists are scared of being labelled as biased, which is the result of a campaign by right-wing bloggers, making them even more susceptible.”
Conservative organizations spend a lot of effort “both influencing the influencers and to train journalists,” he added, saying that they have been effective in redefining equality to mean “equal access to the market,” and promoting the concept of choice as “a kinder, gentler way to convey the libertarian view of freedom” and translating that to the consumer market.
“The last 30 years of attacks on government have had an effect,” Prof. Saurette said, “making people believe they can do it themselves,” something he argued the Obama campaign was able to build on effectively.
“We, the professional class, have contributed to this problem,” argued the new executive director of the Atkinson Foundation, Olivia Nuamah, who said that amongst progressive groups she felt “blessed but isolated.”
“There is a big disconnect between the way we talk about the problem, and the way they live their lives,” she said, talking about her family and growing up in Regent Park in Toronto. “My family’s income never goes up, no matter what.” No matter who is in government, she said “they see no relationship between themselves and the state, except for taxation.”
“It is my family that votes for Rob Ford. We always bear the brunt, but never see ourselves reflected in the opposition,” she said.
“We need to broaden the types of people we have dialogue with,” Ms. Nuamah said in an interview, “to really represent that working class under-class who are the base of the service-sector economy, and find out from them how taxation affects their working lives, and their lack of access.”
“I don’t know if the progressive groups are working in a bubble, but I think we may have been too selective about who we let in, and we need to let more people in,” Ms. Nuamah said.
“The Tea Party was a perfect example. They watched the Obama campaign build up, and said we need to do that too. It works,” she said, adding that once he took office, a break occurred between the Obama administration and his organizational base, which might cost U.S. President Barack Obama another term in office.
Ms. Nuamah said she thinks progressive movements have lost the argument on public-private partnerships, or P3s, for this reason. “In the U.K., almost every service is delivered that way now. And they created a lot of employment, broke the unions, yes, but also created a lot more access to services. The private sector provided access and employment that the state hadn’t,” she said, notwithstanding any other problems with the approach.
Prof. Saurette and Ms. Nuamah both advocated variations of progressive populism or economic populism as a narrative antidote. “We need a strong progressive retooling of the value of choice,” Prof. Saurette argued. “People are upset with the conditions of their lives.”
Ms. Nuamah agreed with Prof. Saurette’s advocacy of more narrative tools like the Alternative Federal Budget, saying that while “progressives’ messages are complex,” they need to emulate some of the success the Fraser Institute has had in popularizing their ideas through techniques such as Tax Freedom Day.
In an interview, Prof. Saurette said that he had a lot of respect for Preston Manning as someone who was a true populist and whose work was based on values, but “where we differ is that he thinks what’s missing is a bigger role for the free market. The market also has a lot of hidden costs.”
“Populism is identifying with the people, and what the people want, and then identifying the causes and creating the solutions,” he said, arguing that the market meltdown of 2008-2009 provided a good example of who created the problems and benefited from the chosen solutions.
“For me the question is not whether you raise taxes or lower taxes, the question is how do you help people understand the value, or not, of those taxes. If people believe that they’re not getting value, they’ll want them cut. That’s a huge challenge for progressives, because they haven’t answered that question very well,” Prof. Saurette said.
“Over the last 20 years, the NDP has used populist language like ‘working families,’ as have the Conservatives, for very different purposes. But probably because they’re on the ground, and looking at alternative narratives other parties are using and the people are using, the NDP is well aware that populism as a narrative and a story has importance,” said Prof. Saurette.
“Too many people view populism as an ignorant reaction against elites, but I don’t think that’s true. It’s often an expression of frustration and lack of control and that needs to be responded to,” said Prof. Saurette.
“The problem is that political parties can’t create these narratives alone, or create the intellectual property behind them. Preston Manning’s idea of ‘surfing the wave’ has been important to building the Conservative Party, but happened outside of it,” said Prof. Saurette.
“The progressive movement has to help recreate a narrative that allows politicians to tap into that.”
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Alice Funke is the publisher of PunditsGuide.ca
Tags: Hill Times