(UPDATE - July 27,2014: This was originally written for the 2010 midterm campaigns but is equally relevant for 2014. If you're reading it this year, your suggestions and feedback are appreciated. I also have a follow-up diary here: http://www.dailykos.com/...)
We’ve all heard the conventional wisdom for this year’s midterms: The Democrats are gonna get slaughtered and Republicans will win big, possibly even winning back majorities in the House and Senate. I believe that if that happens, we will have only ourselves to blame.
That’s right. We progressives are allowing it to happen. We’ve dropped the ball. This is because we’ve failed to understand what the Right has understood all too well for over 30 years now: The importance of developing and enacting new, fresh, creative strategies instead of lazily recycling the old outdated ones.
We’ve got 4 weeks left to turn this around. But only if we start now. If we believe it’s too late to introduce new strategies and that we should just continue with a “laser focus” on what we’ve already been doing, we are going to laser focus ourselves straight into failure.
Adjusting, adapting, and creating new strategies for outreach should be our top priority. Our enemies (the pro-war, pro-corporate, anti-healthcare, “free-market” right-wing) are always thinking up new strategies and new ways to propagandize and influence the public. We need to adapt just as quickly. Because if they’re playing chess while we continue to play checkers, we will only continue to lose, and continue to be dismissed as the “anti-American” “loony left” while the progressive reforms of the New Deal era continue to get dismantled and the middle class descends into poverty.
The three most important things we need to do: Outreach. Outreach. And Outreach.
We need to be reaching out to Joe Public (the voters) and countering the right-wing propaganda in ways that Joe Public will hear. We need to focus on changing minds. Why aren’t we doing that?
We need to become like evangelists. We waste far too much of our energy preaching to the choir. We need to get out of our comfort zones and start engaging in outreach. We need to confront and debunk right-wing propaganda every chance we get. Don’t let an opportunity to influence the debate go by. Our opponents don’t.
And yes, mobilizing the base is important. But it’s not enough by itself. And just knocking on doors or cold-calling and wanly reminding Democrats to vote isn’t going to instill a lot of urgency or passion. We need to be reminding them how important this is. And we definitely need to address their disappointment and disgust with the current administration and all the weak spineless Democrats in Congress. We need to remind them that staying home and withholding their vote is the worst thing they can do, and that it will only give more control to right-wing extremists. We need to make sure they know that the way to address their disgust isn’t to stay home and give up. It’s to vote in stronger, more progressive Democrats. And to reward with re-election the Democrats, like Russ Feingold in Wisconsin, who have had the courage and backbone to fight for progressive values instead of selling out to the highest bidder.
And appealing to our current elected officials is fine. But what good does it do if for every one of us writing or calling them from the left, there’s 2 or 3 people appealing for the opposite from the right? The elected official will take the path of least resistance, and we will lose. So the solution is to reduce the number of people appealing to them from the right. We do that by reaching out to those people and changing their minds. We do that by bringing them around to our side so that we end up outnumbering our opponents. When there’s more people (voters) fighting on our side than against us (or apathetic), only then can we win in any significant way. Only then can we get the real, significant, reform that we all know is desperately needed.
Here’s an example of what we’re up against. From:
“One-hundred-thirty-eight million people commute to and from work in automobiles, where they have no access to computer or TV screens. For around a third of them, or 48 million, AM talk radio is their entertainment of choice. Of the top 10 AM talk radio shows, nine are hosted by extreme conservatives, giving the right wing a captive audience of around 40 million listeners a week—at least seven times greater than the combined audiences of Fox News, CNN and MSNBC. Talk radio’s audience dwarfs that of every other category in the news political arena, including the network news and Sunday shows, NPR’s public affairs shows and political Web sites.
It was not preordained that all of the millions of people who identify with the Tea Party movement would believe the conservative narrative that the economic ills afflicting the middle class are the result of liberalism. But given that tens of millions of them had no alternative explanations or solutions, it is not surprising that conservative ideas and candidates are ascendant.
...At the outset of the Obama administration there were dozens of columns reminding progressives that Franklin Delano Roosevelt had told liberal activists of his day to “make” him initiate progressive programs by mobilizing public opinion.
Instead, most of today’s progressives spent the last year talking to themselves while conservatives convinced millions of people that global warming is a hoax, that torture is required to keep America safe, that non-millionaires in Canada and Europe have worse health care than their American counterparts. The right wing could never have convinced 45 percent of Americans that the Democrats wanted “death panels” if their outreach was limited to Sarah Palin’s Facebook page and the three million people a night who watch Fox’s highest-rated shows.
...One-third of the American public are never exposed to progressive ideas or even to facts that are incompatible with the right-wing narrative.”
So the reason we were unable to, for example, get meaningful single-payer Health Care reform passed is because our message isn’t getting out there. It’s that simple. We need to change that.
Another important fact: 70% of Talk-Radio listeners vote, far more than the general population. And we’re not even on their radar screen. All they know about liberals is what Limbaugh & Hannity tell them. They never hear our actual arguments. Only the gross mischaracterizations they get from Rush & Sean. No wonder they hate us. I’d hate liberals too if all I knew about them was what Glenn Beck & Mark Levin told me.
So let’s come up with some ways to reach these listeners.
I travel the country a lot and I’ve noticed that while Progressive Talk radio only exists in certain select large cities, Right-wing talk is absolutely everywhere. And it’s not just the major syndicated shows, like Limbaugh, Hannity, Beck, etc. Almost all these Right-wing “News Talk” stations have at least 2 or 3 of their own local mini-Limbaughs. Of course they follow the same talking points as the national guys, but they also give the right-wing spin to local and state issues.
Here’s what I found out:
Because they usually follow the hit syndicated shows in the schedule, these local shows often have very large audiences. But unlike the syndicated shows, it’s easy to access these local guys. They have less callers so it’s easier to get on-air. And they will read your email and sometimes even reply.
Give them a call during their shows or email them. Let them know we won’t let them get away with lying to their audience anymore. And let their audience know they’re lying to them.
For example, when I was in Phoenix,AZ last year I had an email dialogue about healthcare reform with this local right-wing radio personality:
He had no legitimate arguments so he tried to rely on distractions and red herrings and it was easy for me to make mincemeat of his few weak points. (I can forward you our exchange if you’re interested)
And I’m a high-school dropout with a GED. Many of you are much smarter and better-educated than me. Imagine how much you could accomplish if you tried this!
Imagine if there were 10 or 20 of us relentlessly challenging him every time he lied on air. Calling him, emailing him, showing up at his public appearances. It would then be very hard for him to continue misleading his audience. We could literally effect the content and direction of his show. And we could be doing the same with the many other local Limbaughs throughout the US. Why aren’t we doing this?
Now I’m pretty sure the local right-wing talk hosts throughout your state are bashing your Democratic candidate and supporting the Republican right about now, correct? Well, how about contacting them and challenging them to have your candidate (or if he’s busy, a campaign spokesman) on their shows for a debate?
Cynics might argue that this strategy would be ineffective because those listeners are all close-minded right-wingers who’ll never change. But that’s nonsense! Lots of Independents and Undecideds listen to right-wing talk, particularly in markets where there isn’t any other option. And even the hardcore Republican listeners can be influenced. They may not switch their vote, but if you can instill enough doubt in their candidate, they might stay home and not vote at all. (Less votes for our opponent = Good for us!)
And even if they ignore us or refuse to debate us, we still win points because we can use that against them. “Hey voters, why does Station X/Host X refuse to accept our offer to debate? What are they afraid of? What are they trying to hide? What do they not want you, their listener, to know?”
Let me take a moment to address the myth that it’s a waste of time to debate right-wingers because they’re “set in their ways” and “won’t change their minds”.
This is simply not true. And off the top of my head I can give you four famous examples to disprove it:
- Arianna Huffington.
- Ed Schultz
- David Brock. (Media Matters, author of “Blinded By the Right”)
- Bill Maher. (watch early episodes of “Politically Incorrect” and compare them to the Bill of “Real Time” today)
All started out as Conservatives. Now they’re all on our side.
How did this happen? Obviously, someone thought it was worth debating the issues with them. And it worked.
Another (not-so-famous) example that disproves the myth:
That’s right. I used to believe a lot of the right-wing arguments when I was younger. Remember Morton Downey in the late 80’s? He was kind of like the Glenn Beck of his day and I was a big fan when I was 18/19. To my unsophisticated young mind, he seemed to make a lot of sense. (”God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve”. Uh, sure, sounded logical to me.) And I loved his bold take-no-prisoners style. I was also an early listener to Rush Limbaugh. Remember when he briefly had a late-night TV show back in 92/93? I was one of his few viewers. He was so entertaining and so confident he must be right, my feeble uneducated mind reasoned.
And I might still be one of those people today if not for the fact that someone thought it was worth their time and effort to challenge and debate me. And I am so grateful that they did.
Did I do a complete 180 overnight? Did I have a sudden “Eureka!” moment? No. That’s not how it works. Ego and cognitive dissonance get in the way. It’s painful to admit you were wrong, even to yourself. So it takes time. Changing one’s political views is a process. A process that usually takes place over a period of months. Sometimes even years. The person needs time to reflect on the arguments you presented them. They usually aren’t going to admit being wrong while in the heat of battle. They’ve got face to save. But that doesn’t mean you aren’t having an effect. What’s important is that you’ve planted a seed. You’ve got them thinking about perspectives they never considered before. Just think of every right-winger you debate as a potential future progressive. A potential future ally. Some of them will never come around. But I guarantee you that some of them will.
So when someone tries to repeat the tired myth that debating right-wingers would be an unproductive use of your time, don’t believe them! It’s actually one of the most productive things you can do. Use every opportunity you can to do it. Relatives, co-workers, church members, people at a Tea Party rally you happen to drive or walk past.
And if you feel you wouldn’t be good at debating, you’re probably right. Neither am I. But I’m getting better. And I’m studying the art form. Practice makes perfect. Take a debate class if one is offered near you. Or read one of the several books on debating/argument/persuasion skills.
But if debating’s just not your cup of tea, there’s still a lot you can do. Like...
Make and distribute your own flyers.
You can make a campaign flyer for this year’s midterms. You can make an answer/response flyer to Republican attacks of your candidate. Or make a general issue flyer about Healthcare reform, the war(s), “free-market” predator capitalism, or any issue you feel most passionate and informed about. And you can do it for cheap. There are several copy shops (I use UPS stores) where you can print black & white copies for as little as 4 or 5 cents a page if you get 100 or more copies. Make the flyers small so you can fit four onto one 8.5×11 sheet and you’ve only spent one penny per flyer. And don’t worry about them looking cheap. A simple black text on white background can actually be more effective than something flashy and multi-colored. Where the latter can look like an advertisement, the former can look more like a personal note, and thus is more likely to be read.
You want to be careful how you compose your message. (PM me and I’ll show you an example of mine) Since you’re trying to convince right-wingers, you don’t want to come across like the stereotypical touchy-feely hippy-dippy bleeding-heart liberal. Nor do you want to come across in an insulting manner. Word your message in language the right-winger can relate to and understand. Appeal to his values (patriotism, honor, strength, courage, freedom) in a way that supports your message. An example: Ending the Iraq war = The Patriotic thing to do.
Obviously you can’t fit a fully detailed argument on a quarter-page flyer. So make sure to include websites where the reader can go for more info. If you don’t mind some potential harassment, you might even want to leave a phone # so the recipient of your flyer can call and discuss it with you.
And at the size of a quarter-page, you can fit these flyers into books at libraries and bookstores. Know of a popular right-wing book that you know is full of lies? Make a flyer that directly responds to and debunks those lies and place it in copies of that book. Or make a general purpose flyer that you can place inside all right-wing books. But remember to be discreet and try not to be seen doing this. If an employee or manager sees you, they’ll likely tell you to stop or even leave. But don’t worry about it being illegal. It’s not. I’ve done this at well over a hundred bookstores and I’ve only been caught once. And all they did was ask me to stop.
I’ll go to the military section of bookstores and put my anti-war flyer in the books that are aimed at recruits and/or are pro-Iraq/Afghanistan war. (there’s a lot of them!)
Know who else is doing this? Local military recruiters. I’ve often found their business cards placed inside pro-war and military career books. So if it’s a good enough idea for them, it’s a good enough idea for us!
I also made a “Liberal Bias”-debunking flyer. I think it’s very important to debunk the “Liberal Bias” myth as much as possible. Because when the general public is fooled into thinking the news is coming through a liberally-biased filter it hurts all liberal/progressive causes. I put it on cars with McCain/Palin/Bush/Nascar/NRA/anti-Obama bumper stickers and in right-wing books.
Ever read David Brock’s “Republican Noise Machine”? He does a good job of showing how the Repugs developed their cynical “media is liberally biased” strategy, and how enormously effective it’s been for them. We desperately need to develop counter-strategies to this.
You can also leave your flyer on public bulletin boards at libraries, coffee shops and grocery stores. And leave one behind every time you use a public restroom. That’s what the Christian evangelicals have been doing for decades (ever see those Chick tracts?) and it seems to be working for them.
Another good all-purpose flyer idea would be one promoting the progressive talk station in your area (if you have one). You could carry flyers in your cars/purses/pockets and place them around town whenever you get a chance. Let your community know there’s an alternative to right-wing talk! Maybe the station itself could even create and print them for you if you bring the idea to them. It’s free promotion for them. They’d be foolish to turn you down.
Don’t feel like making your own flyers? Then how about cutting out your favorite magazine articles /columns (like the Hightower Lowdown) or political cartoons (like This Modern World) and using them as flyers. It’s free, it’s easy, and if nothing else, it’s better than throwing them away.
Have you ever seen those “Free-Speech Zones” outside of some public libraries? They’re almost never used. A team of 2 or 3 could set up a table with literature & reach a lot of people there. Or at other public places or parks that have a lot of pedestrian traffic. Have someone there who is good at and comfortable with debating right-wingers without losing their cool. I’ve seen Libertarians and Lyndon LaRouche people tabling outside DMV’s and on downtown Main Street sidewalks. Why aren’t we doing this? It’s important that Average-Working-Joe-Conservative know that we’re not his enemy. We’re the ones on his side, not Limbaugh and Glen Beck. And you can use this as an opportunity to register voters as well.
And if you’re trying to get more progressives to vote, particularly if it’s at a college campus or other youth-oriented location, you absolutely need to address the disenchantment and disgust and cynicism that most young voters are feeling right now. Just asking them to vote isn’t enough. They feel betrayed and they don’t want to continue supporting spineless sell-out Democrats. So you must stress the fact that withholding their vote this midterm is the worst thing they could do. Make sure they understand that if they don’t vote, they are handing the controls to the right-wing Tea Party lunatics who will be voting. I’d suggest that you even have a large banner present that addresses their disenchantment head-on. Make sure they realize that apathy is not the answer. Remind them what Plato said: “The price of apathy is to be ruled by evil men.” Apathy is a luxury that they, and we, can not afford.
Nowadays the political debate is taking place online far more than it is in the streets. The right-wingers know this and they’ve got armies of propagandists all over the web. I’ve even read a couple of times that right-wing campaigns and think tanks actually pay people just to join forum discussions and post right-wing arguments everywhere. On news websites, blogs, yahoo groups, and discussion forums. So we can all be very effective and influential if we just go to where the discussion already is. Most right-wing websites have open forums and comment sections. They need to hear from us!
Here’s an example: As “Andrewrogers” I debated them on a comment thread at a website called TheRightScoop and, by any objective standard, handily won! I left 11 comments two weeks ago. Notice in particular, my 5th comment, a reply to “KeninMontana” in which I lay out 5 examples of Glenn Beck lying or misstating facts. Scroll down to the comment section here:
It’s been two weeks now and they have no further argument in response. The truth won.
Game. Set. Match.
So if even a high school dropout like me can dispatch these clowns so easily, imagine how well you could do!
But it’s not just these right-wing sites. Even neutral mainstream news websites are over-run with rabid right-wing commenters who are going largely unchallenged. (Just look at the comments at any Yahoo news story or Youtube political video.) Think about all the Undecideds and Centrists that this influences. It’s heartbreaking.
They need to hear from us!
The facts are on our side. We can win this if we just get those facts, presented persuasively, to the people who most need to hear them.
But I’ve learned from experience that you can burn out quick if you’re doing this all by yourself. Being alone in hostile territory while right-wing thugs hurl countless abusive ad hominems at you can be very dispiriting. But if you’re working on this together with other supportive progressives, you can fight harder and you can fight longer without feeling burnout.
We could be forming online anti-propaganda teams for this. Why aren’t we? Let’s say there are 8 people in a team. They can pair off and each pair take a different news site/discussion forum to join and add comments/messages to and debate on. If they get stuck or can’t figure out how to respond to a particular right-winger’s argument, they can consult the rest of the team for advice/assistance. A private yahoo group could be formed for this purpose. Or if that might be too easily infiltrated or spied on, just have the whole team in an address book and correspond through regular email. Create a file of around a dozen good rock-solid talking points that can be shared and used by the whole team. Then adapt, adjust, and refine those talking points based on the kinds of responses you get from your right-wing opponents.
If you do this, you will experience a lot of hostility. You will be called a lot of rude names. That’s OK, it comes with the territory. Resist the temptation to escalate the hostility. While I think it’s OK, and even useful, to attack/expose the character and motivation of their heroes (Palin, Beck, FOX, etc), I would avoid personally attacking the people you’re debating with. I would suggest that instead of stooping to their level and returning the personal attacks, reply by calmly introducing facts and asking them questions. Questions they probably can’t answer. Questions that will back them into a logical corner. And don’t let them get away with logical fallacies. (strawmen, red herrings, slippery slopes, appeals to popularity, etc. Here’s a good website for recognizing logical fallacies:
Then, if all they have left are personal attacks, they are exposed to the entire forum as petty, childish, and wrong. And you’ve won the debate.
Important: When debating online, always use spell-check! (or a dictionary) If you misspell even one word, they will seize on it as an opportunity to insult your intelligence and question your credibility. Don’t give them that chance!
Yes, many right-wingers are immune to logic and so indoctrinated that they’ll never change their minds. But if just 1 out of 10 of them come around to our side, it could make a huge difference and even have a positive snowball effect.
Also, keep in mind that you’re not just influencing the people you’re debating online. You’re influencing all the silent members reading the forum and all the people who visit it in the future. Many of whom are Centrists and Independents who are open to the best arguments. Therefore, this would be a very productive use of your energy.
And if you’re debating on a local news website cordially invite your right-wing opponents to meet publicly. Invite them to a film night or just a friendly group discussion. People tend to be a lot less hostile when they know they’re gonna be meeting in person.
You could even organize an official weekly Debate Night where Liberals and Conservatives can meet publicly for friendly debate. I’ve often wished there were something like this! Why isn’t there? A large bookstore, market, or restaurant would be ideal venues. Have it announced in your local free weekly. For a small fee, you could even have it placed in the classifieds. Invite all the right-wingers you find in person and online. It would probably start out small but could grow into something big and very constructive.
IDEA #8. YOURS!
Don’t like any of my ideas? That’s fine. Come up with better ones! And share them with others. What’s important is that we progressives recognize the urgent need for new ideas & strategies. If you think we can just keep doing the old-fashioned “tried-and-true” actions that have been failing to produce results for the last 30 years, expect huge losses in November. And expect a tragic outcome for the middle and working-class families that are already suffering from 30 years of Reaganite dismantling of New Deal protections.
Can you afford that? I know I can’t. But if it happens, we will have only our own inaction & lack of creative thinking to blame.
Finally, if you’re one of those people, like Chris Hedges in a recent article, who thinks electoral politics don’t matter or are a waste of time, you’re dead wrong. Disengaging from electoral politics out of disgust is the stupidest and most destructive thing you can do. All it will accomplish is to make it that much easier for the corporate sociopaths in power to destroy our lives. The Tea Partiers aren’t dropping out of the system. They’re channeling their misguided disgust into more action, not less. If you abandon electoral politics, you’re handing them an easy victory.
The answer isn’t to give up on elections because the current Democrats have betrayed us and sold us out. The answer is to get better, more progressive, more courageous Democrats into office. For example: Just imagine how much better off we’d all be if every member of Congress was someone like Dennis Kucinich, Bernie Sanders, and Russ Feingold. We can make that happen! Our country, our world, and our future generations depend on us taking action now, not dropping out in disgust.
Do you have relatives you love and care about? I do. I have a daughter who doesn’t live with me. If I gave up on politics and dropped out of ‘the system” to go live in some isolated sustainable community in the woods, I may get to feel all righteous and enlightened, but what happens to her? Think of the hellish third-world conditions she will have to face in 20 years. What happens to my mom who just retired with minimal benefits? What happens to my brother and his wife and children who have already lost a house to foreclosure and are struggling to survive?
Albert Einstein said “The world is a dangerous place, not because of those who do evil, but because of those who look on and do nothing.” When you drop out in disgust to go live in some insular enlightened commune, as far as the rest of the world is concerned, you may as well be doing nothing. And you’re enabling the very evil we should be fighting. As Desmond Tutu said, “If you see injustice and say nothing, you have taken the side of the oppressor.”
And if you ignore electoral politics and drop out of “the system” how long do you think it will be before a right-wing corporate-controlled government gives Monsanto or some other powerful and well-connected entity the right to come in and take your land and destroy your nice little community? Or to pollute all the air, land, and water around it?
In other words, there is no escaping. There is no “dropping out”. You can’t afford to neglect electoral politics. You can’t afford to “drop out” of the system. The system will eventually get you anyway. Unless you work hard now to change it from within. We can do this! We can win in November and beyond and we can permanently defeat the corporate plutocracy. It just takes some more effort and some more creative strategies. Yes we can do this!
Our children and grandchildren will never forgive us if we don’t.
(EDIT - Notice the poll below. In it, the majority of respondents who read this piece in 2010 told me I was wrong. But looking back now, isn't it obvious that I was correct? Clearly, canvassing and phonebanking alone didn't work. Clearly, ideas like mine were needed. Have we on the left finally learned our lesson yet? It appears at least some have, as the poll results in my follow-up diary suggest: http://www.dailykos.com/... )
(March 2012 EDIT - Funny, in the 2+ years since I wrote this, the poll results below have magically changed and the majority of respondents now agree with me. Before the 2010 election date, 57% thought I was wrong. Several post-election votes have since brought that down to 46%. Hindsight truly is 20/20, huh?)