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Beating the Right at its Own Game
Welcome readers. Sorry for the delay in this edition. It required substantial research and coordination and we needed to get this right. The first article, “Just Nation Movement Strategy,” details the requirement for a new national movement to secure American democracy and outlines the strategy framework we suggest it follow in the near term to most effectively combat the surging American right. In the second piece – “Like Fox News, But Not Evil,” we take a deep dive into one horribly neglected aspect of progressive strategy -- information warfare – and how we can begin to counter the pernicious impact of the Fox Propaganda Network.
Please disseminate this edition to your networks.
Just Nation Movement Strategy
Introduction: A strategy has many purposes; it indicates a seriousness of purpose; it serves as a rally point for mobilization of resources and energy; it serves as a powerful amplifier of resources and energy through focus and the reduction of waste; it indicates perseverance to adversaries, and it bolsters that of its adherents. But most importantly, it signals worthiness of the cause and the single-minded intent to fight for it no matter the opposition -- and this same signal is a hologram messaged slightly differently to adversaries, to third parties, and most important of all, to its own ‘troops.”
Republicans have a strategy, Democrats do not. The Republican strategy is replete with achievable objectives, campaign plans, resourcing options, communications plans, and flexible tactics. Republicans even have a long-term, if hidden, meta objective known as an “ideality.” Their ideality is the maximum possible accrual of power and money for its elite with the least possible accrual of responsibility, transparency, and accountability. Achieving this has been their utopian objective for over fifty years, and they have all but achieved it with the left firing nary a shot in defense.
It is long past time to stop waiting for the Democratic Party to develop a strategy, indeed, to lead in any meaningful manner. They are welcome as members of the Just Nation Movement coalition but cannot be allowed to usurp or retard it.
Proposed Action: We posit the requirement for a new American progressive movement combining the resources, goodwill and aspirations of extant liberal, progressive, human rights, democracy advocacy groups, and the Democratic Party. We suggest the Just Nation Movement is a useful placeholder name. The organization type will be multi-leader cellular network.
Approach: We envision a phased approach, each with its own over-arching objective:
Phase 1 – “Save and Preserve.” Phase 1 objective is to live to fight another day. It is characterized by actions that: establish the movement as a strategy entity and power base; ensure the safety, security, and rights of citizens; halt the right’s momentum and seize initiative for the movement. Massive, continuous ecumenical protests; economic boycotts and work stoppages must figure prominently in this phase.
Phase 2 – “Stabilize.” Phase 2 primary objective is to establish societal framework preventing erosion of progress. It is characterized by a transition from representative to participative democracy; a new Constitution; a new framework for justice; mutual accountability of citizens and officials to national commitments, agreements, laws, and objectives with justly enforced sanctions.
Phase 3 - “Flourish.” Phase 3 primary objective is to optimize the wellbeing of citizens and our global ecosystem. It is characterized by: the establishment of mutually reinforcing objectives and their relentless pursuit through all societal mechanisms.
Call to Action:
What does the journey to save American Democracy look like? First, we’ve got to come to agreement on what we stand for -- our principles. To simply stand against Republicans, authoritarianism, and neoliberalism -- does not generate the right or sufficient energy to prevail. We remember fondly the “Arsenal of Democracy” World War I slogan, but probably not the “Stop the Mad Brute” anti-German poster of the same period, right? It is also important to lay down what we really want beyond simply overcoming the reactionary forces now plaguing us --because it is just this lack of faith in and focus on the future that has opened the door to creeping authoritarianism.
Here’s what we stand for, which can hopefully serve as a rally point and organizing principle:
Declaration for Democracy: “We the People of the United States: affirm life; embrace our civic responsibilities; and declare our support for Democracy, the United States as a democracy, the inalienable rights of people, and the enumerated Constitutional rights of American citizens. To honor those on whose shoulders we stand, preserve that which we have built, and leave the world a better place than we found it, we will defend all transgressions of our principles to the last full measure of devotion.”
Let’s examine our declaration.
The shoulders we stand on: first, the untold millions of people who advanced the cause by simply doing the right thing, whether that was just raising a good family, resisting tyranny of kings and tyrants, or refraining from using power when doing so was wrong. Paradoxically to some, we owe the English heavily in this regard, as they led the way towards representative government and constraints on the use of power and led the charge against chattel slavery. Second, those who made defined contributions to American Democracy, including Salem Poor, Phyllis Wheatley, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Harriett Tubman, Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, William Lloyd Garrison, Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant, Susan B. Anthony, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, Lyndon Johnson, and Stacey Abrams. Finally, those who served without public recognition in the cause to which we also now devote ourselves, with special consideration to those who were injured or lost their lives so that we might have a better world.
The value we seek to preserve: things are not perfect, far from it, even in the last best hope of earth -- and they were never so despite the revisionist history of white supremacists. They are downright dreadful in much of the world. But in the aggregate, people are freer, live longer, healthier lives, fear less violence from each other and their governments, have more physical safety, have more agency and more opportunity to express themselves than the millions who came before us did. Thanks to previous social capital built, technology, representative government, democracy, the state of health care and its trends, international organizations, rule of law, and the signal contributions of the United States as global leader -- we can climb higher now and, in the future, than we could without all these things. To willingly give them up due to collective frustration, depression, ignorance, or religious belief is to turn our backs on all the good work, sacrifice, endured pain, and successful striving of our own species – it is in fact a collective suicide and a type of future genocide. These have not been the values of any religion, any serious ideology, or of America -- why are we so willingly accepting them now?
The better world we seek includes all of the following for all people -- now: democracy; equality of opportunity; equality of restraint; dignity; compassion; justice and just outcomes; freedom from coercion and discrimination; lawfully bounded power. Am I describing a utopia? You bet. Why wouldn’t we seek that which we want and deserve? Why should we instead eat the dystopia shoved down our throats by those suffering from collective psychosis? That is the height of cowardice and inconsistent with the spirit and sacrifice of those who came before us. To accept dystopia and fail to strive for utopia is itself an injustice.
The things we’re willing to do: resolve to prevail; execute our civic responsibilities; inspire our allies; persuade the ignorant; buttress the faltering; fight and, if necessary, perish. We may appear to be in a post-truth, post-accountability, post-honor, post-commitment world -- but this is an illusion, a deliberately constructed ‘gain of function matrix’ created by a combination of neoliberalism, late-stage capitalism, evangelical eschatology, and political opportunism. Yet let us not compound this historical, suicidal, nihilistic heresy with our own naïve belief that “the moral arc of history bends towards justice” on its own – it bends towards equilibrium on its own, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. so averred. The bending towards justice that does occur over time is not teleological, but, according to King and confirmed by our analysis -- the result of deliberate human. We’re willing to join the long line of people who bent the arc -- with courage and in full recognition of the potential near-term futility of our efforts. The Revolutionary War, Civil War, and both World Wars started badly and looked grim for the ultimate victors – but this did not deter our forebears, and the grimness of our current situation must not deter us.
Strategy Composition: The strategy consists of: sequential phases as noted; Campaigns, long-term effort composed of multiple lines of effort organized to achieve a strategic objective; Lines of Effort that link multiple tasks and missions using the logic of purpose—cause and effect—to focus efforts toward establishing operational and strategic conditions; and tactics, techniques and procedures (TTPs): tactic is the highest-level description of the behavior; techniques provide a more detailed description of the behavior in the context of a tactic; and procedures provide a lower-level, highly detailed description of the behavior in the context of a technique, which cross-cut phases, campaigns and Lines of effort.
• The Republican Party won’t reform itself.
• Time works in favor of the Right; Demographics won’t outrun disenfranchisement efforts.
• The Supreme Court won’t save us; it will favor the right and will draw no red lines in support of democracy.
• Institutions won’t save us; they are teetering already.
• The Democratic Party won’t lead, in in some aspects won’t even participate in executing, the strategy required for victory. They must be included and artfully leveraged; but cannot be allowed to constrain the movement.
• National Political Actions and Results not yoked to the movement’s strategy won’t change the balance of power or trend lines – they are simply “the noise before defeat.”
• Unguided citizens won’t learn fast enough; change fast enough or turn out in sufficient numbers to tilt the power balance.
• Liberal and Progressive Organizations will be reluctant to cooperate with each other; but their cooperation is seminal.
• Small Wins, Momentum and Enrollment are the keys to victory.
• Hierarchical movement governance won’t work fast enough to prevail; a network structure is required.
• The Right will not be constrained in tactics, level of violence or resource expenditure in this war; however, Progressives will constrain themselves, in some cases unduly and unnecessarily, regardless of circumstance. This is a constraint to be addressed and accounted for in strategy.
• The movement will be tactically and strategically weak in the near term; solid campaign plans leveraging emerging tactics will be keys to victory.
• Victory will be a close won thing in any event; engaging the enemy using this strategy must start now.
• Center of Gravity: Money
• Major Strengths: Movement Cohesion; Lack of Principles and Morals; Geo-political concentrations
• Weaknesses: Constitute a minority nationally; Ignorance and false beliefs limit movement attractiveness and sustainability, and limit the value of Intelligence; cannot decisively control the military
Movement Credo: Accept reality; acknowledge uncertainty; embrace diversity and inclusion; tolerate dissent; act with discipline
Friendly Forces Centers of Gravity:
1. Network Communications
2. Intelligence and Sensemaking Capability
3. Objectives Development Process
Risks and Mitigations (Mitigations to be Elaborated):
• Individual and Organizational Safety
• Individual and Organizational Privacy
• Individual Job and Financial Security
• Individual and Family Retribution Post Future Elections
Strategy Augmentation/Next Steps: Movement leaders will devolve the strategy into a detailed Strategic Implementation Plan and Campaign Plans; specialized resources will provide the Movement with continuous intelligence Analysis and ongoing Threat Assessments.
That said, a recent Open Social Innovation Campaign in Germany called “We Versus Virus” (actual German name: #WIRVSVirus) that mobilized Chancellor Merkel and 28,000 citizens in a highly successful broad-spectrum response to Covid-19 challenges, is instructive. Details are available in the article “Open Social Innovation,” by Johanna Mair and Thomas Gegenhuber, “Stanford Social Innovation Review,” pp. 26-33 print version of Fall 2021 Edition.
In “Two Experiments with Outcomes Frameworks,” by Max French, on pp. 57-58 of the same Stanford Social Innovation Review edition, the author highlights a method called “Outcomes Frameworks” in which “initiatives proceed without hierarchical control or direct results-based accountabilities and carry no clear blueprints for action or implementation plans.’ While this concept may appear totally counter to the concept of a strategy with integrated objectives, campaign plans and tactics, it is instructive for the following reasons:
1. A full reading of the text details how such an approach can be entirely consistent with modern movement strategizing.
2. It may require some time before the strategy and coalition we advocate in this paper becomes a reality. American democracy may disappear during that period. Thus, such an approach may be all we have to work with in the near term, and is certainly better than continuing to do nothing, strategically speaking.
Author’s Note: This is a hypothesis, and as the basis for a plan is probably no more than 60-70% right. Its purpose is to catalyze and connect a community that will get the plan to “good enough,” then act with purpose and alacrity.
Like Fox News, But Not Evil.
The left needs our own version of Fox News. And no, MSNBC doesn’t count. It’s the Diet RC-Cola to Fox News’ Coca Cola, an inferior, water-downed also-ran in the propaganda race. There is nothing even remotely close for our side. We need something that can help us win the propaganda war.
Make no mistake, Fox News is great at what it does: messaging Republican talking points, seizing the narrative, and activating the right-wing base to take action on the issues most salient to the Republican overlords and their long-term strategy of oligarchic centralization and ecocide and... tax cuts.
The Democratic Party is almost always on the reactive, the right wing media apparatus filling the void for inertia prone journalists, reaching out to a Democrat or two after the story has already been framed for their ‘response,’ usually something to the effect of ‘holy shit no the Republicans are wrong’ and then our intrepid reporter writes up a headline about ‘partisan debate’ and they‘ve done their jobs for the day.
Unless we develop our own well-oiled propaganda ecosystem, we’re always going to be fighting an uphill battle, allowing the worst people on the planet to choose the terrain for our information age struggles.
Yes yes yes, you may be thinking right now about how gross Fox News is. I get it. It IS gross. I think mostly people on the left rightly recognize the pernicious and poisonous impact Fox News has had on functioning governance, and recoil in horror. No one wants to be anything like these bastards when it comes to WHAT we’re talking about.
As for the HOW, well, we should be so lucky. The strategies and tactics work. Ridiculously well. Whole raft of data to show the effectiveness and the penetration of the digestible the talking points spewed up from the Murdoch hole. Fox News viewers are the most misinformed of any of the cable news shows. You might see that as a failure, but for the right wing, that’s a victory. To wit: reality has a well-known liberal bias.
WHO are we trying to message, besides legacy media? There is a small segment of the electorate not already in the camp that could be winnable with the right persuasion machine. Right now, the Fox News megamouth scoops all of them up. If we even took a small piece of that group, it would be worth it. Beyond the “Independents” and the “No Party Affiliations” out there in the ether, this propaganda machine is designed to fire up the base; the progressive wing of the party ready to take action.
Here’s what the left’s answer to Fox News would look like
(Hint: not MSNBC, it’s definitely not MSNBC)
Let’s get this out of the way, Fox News is news the same way Cup O Noodle is food: sorta but also not at all. Fox News is actually a right-wing propaganda machine, having never taken seriously the ‘fair’ or ‘balanced’ part of ‘fair and balanced.’
There is no equivalent for those of us who prefer FDA-approved vaccines to horse dewormer. CNN? Let’s call them center of the road, at best. Their panels are stacked with right wing idealogues in the interest of providing balance. Same for Headline News, hell, even MSNBC stacks their pundit panels with right wingers and retired defense contractors. No, friends, it’s time we have a channel that loudly, proudly proclaims its leanings without a scintilla of pretense of bipartisanship.
I want a lineup where not a single Republican Face is seen all day long, not a one. I want real leftists talking about scaling back defense budgets, defunding the police, I want less Rick Santorum and more environmentalists, socialists, antiwar activists and progressive Democrats.
I want this thing to scream left wing propaganda without a sliver of doubt. Not MSNBC.
Action - Oriented
Information that gets people all worked up but gives them no place to go is not ideal. Fox News provides people with not-so-subtle directions on where to direct their outrage. Hell, with the Tea Party protests, they straight up directed viewers to dates, times, and locations.
Our propaganda machine should do the exact same thing. We need bodies in the streets, we need counter protestors to confront the right wing chuds when they’re trying to intimidate a local school board, we need letter writers, sign waivers, bullhorns and boots on the ground. We don’t need someone to sit and stew. We need them to stand and deliver.
So, we should help them know where to go and what to do. We should explain which politicians are most vulnerable to public pressure campaigns. We should send our correspondents to report on grassroots movements, to give scale and weight to the very real numbers of people on our side.
The Tea Party was never anywhere near as large a movement as the social justice protests in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, and it was motivated by white supremacist animus; witness the disparities in coverage.
Tell the people what’s happening on the ground. Include dates and times. And then, when they show up in record numbers, report on it.
Flashy and Simple
People on the left have a tendency to overthink things and overexplain instead of just going for it. Fox News succeeds because cable news isn’t where people go to to -- it’s blinking lights and bullshit, and Fox News has built a finely tuned blinking lights and bullshit machine.
Listen, there are some people who require a 3,000-word treatise to get there. That’s not most people, even among the well-educated sophisticated coastal elites. Stop overthinking it. Make it as simple and dumbed down as humanly possible. Then dumb it down again. Then make a splashy graphic.
The menace of the caravan worked, not because it made sense or because there was a logical explanation. It was images that activated the lizard brains of Trumpos. It was sensationalist. It was not a nuanced look at the immigration system.
That’s what we should be doing, but in the other direction. Show the victims of right-wing violence. Interview parents and children freed from detention centers. Play the House’s second impeachment video over and over and over again. Make it emotional, make it compelling, make it simple, and then keep saying it. Which segues nicely into the next point...
Ceaseless Onslaught of the Truth
Find what works and repeat it until the sun expands and engulfs the earth. Democrats are terrible about messaging saturation. Republicans don’t have better arguments. They barely even have arguments at all. They just say the same thing over and over again.
Fox News isn’t effective because they present a well-articulated thesis statement about tax policy. It works because it repeats simple, effective, visceral messaging, over and over and over, coordinated closely with the messaging needs of the right-wing players.
We should have anchors, graphics, memes, with simple declaratives flooding the zone:
Republicans want you to get sick (hey this is true)
Republicans want you pay more taxes than billionaires (hey, also true)
Republicans want you dead (also true -- their COVID policies if nothing else)
Changing the Conversation about what is Normal
Fox News has used their massive reach to successfully launder far right talking points into the mainstream, effectively moving the Overton window, putting extremist viewpoints like replacement theory in primetime.
We should make use of our propaganda mechanism to do the same thing, but in the direction of the sorts of ‘far left’ policies that overwhelming majorities of people in the country enthusiastically support.
Part of the enduring legacy of the Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaigns is successfully shifting the parameters of the debate around Medicare for All and taxing the rich. Elizabeth Warren’s Presidential Campaign accomplished a similar shift, introducing commonsense ideas like a wealth tax and universal Pre-K to the American people, and having them shaking their heads saying actually yeah, this shit all sounds pretty good to me.
Let’s let the progressive, commonsense views have their day in the sun, so that people can start to get acclimated to the ideas that most of them broadly support when you actually bother to ask them about it. Instead of the usual DNC consultants, Politico journalists, and retired generals, let’s treat our viewers to a wider range of opinions -- let’s talk with workers from workplace cooperatives, let’s talk about alternatives to capitalism, let’s get the word on the withdrawal from Afghanistan from peace advocates.
What is open to debate is shaped by what we talk about. Something like Medicare for All or student debt forgiveness would have been completely out of bounds during the Clinton Presidency. Let’s move that window so that Universal Basic Income, eliminating fossil fuels, abolishing law enforcement in their current form, all become commonplace ideas.
Fox News, But Better
Obviously, there are independent media outlets who do some or all of this, especially when it comes to featuring diverse viewpoints and progressive priorities. I’ve written for a bunch of them. Difference here is we’re talking about doing it at the same scale as Fox News. Democracy Now is excellent. Democracy Now operates at a microscopic scope compared to the bigs.
The left-wing media startups that have come and gone, funded with deep pockets and high ambitions, have all suffered from the same sort of illusions about what a cable news network should look like. Al Gore’s Current TV, which lasted from 2005 to 2013, never so much as made a blip on the media landscape, aside from a few stories at its inception and at its demise. That’s because Current TV fundamentally did not align with the strengths of the medium.
The financing mechanisms need not re-invent the wheel. Sure, it’s not cheap, but there are plenty of left-leaning billionaires out there (looking at you Steyer). The deep pockets willing to fund something like The Intercept or Current TV would find their investment much better spent not in developing long form persuasive arguments, but in setting up a cable channel that can alter the prevailing media and political landscape through a blunt force application of naked propaganda.
The revenue model can borrow from existing cable networks - robust advertising from primetime shows. Lots of people watch Maddow.
I want to see this thing playing at every liberal coffee shop around the world the same way Fox News is piped into the waiting room of your tire change place.
I suspect it would do rather well. There’s really only one way to find out.