Losing the Narrative Battle: Progressives Need to Turn Pro

No, the facts will not set you free. Time after time, progressives lose the narrative battle to the superior messaging firepower of the conservative movement. The facts don't matter if you can't sell them.

President Obama spoke again to GOP leaders at their caucus's retreat in Baltimore on Friday. Again, because the first group Obama met with upon taking office a year ago was the GOP leadership. (He met with conservative pundits for dinner at George Will's house before the inauguration.) Obama even invited more Republicans to join his cabinet than any of his Democratic predecessors. Those are the facts. Not that they matter.

In Baltimore, Obama called out Republicans for portraying health care reforms supported by the likes of Republican former Senate Majority Leaders Bob Dole and Howard Baker as some kind of "Bolshevik plot." The rebuke drew suppressed laughter and scattered applause -- not for the president's joke, likely, but for the success of their anti-reform narrative.

Supporters are sure to read Obama's Baltimore performance as some kind of takedown. But don't expect to hear about it beyond YouTube. The left may sometimes take the narrative high ground but cannot hold it. Conservatives will still appear on the Sunday talk shows to declare unblinkingly that the world is flat: Obama has gone too far left, attempted too much, not been bipartisan, etc. As Bill McKibben wrote of the Christian right, "by their very boldness [they] convince the rest of us that they must know what they're talking about." And listeners swallow it without even bothering to chew.

The progressive movement lacks the professional media training and support infrastructure conservatives use to train and retain such media spokesmen.

Case in point: James O'Keefe and his alleged co-conspirators arrested last week after an incident at Louisiana Democrat Sen. Mary Landrieu's offices in New Orleans. O'Keefe became a conservative hero last year after posting doctored video "stings" shot at offices of the community organizing group, ACORN. O'Keefe is an alumnus and former employee of the Leadership Institute in Arlington, Virginia, a nonpartisan 501(c)(3) charity and one of conservatism's top training camps since 1979. Among the school's more prominent alumni are Karl Rove, Ralph Reed, Grover Norquist and Republican Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. O'Keefe received a $500 "Balance in Media" grant through the Leadership Institute for starting a conservative college monthly, the Rutgers Centurion. O'Keefe can expect a steady paycheck from movement conservatives even if he spends time in jail.

Along with paid internships at Heritage and other think tanks, the conservative movement provides a career track for budding activists. With few exceptions (the Center for Progressive Leadership among them), progressive organizations take a different approach. More progressive energy goes into winning short-term electoral gains than into promoting a progressive narrative over the long haul. Because many jobs are temporary, volunteer or low-paid, progressives eventually lose much of their promising new talent.

Markos Moulitsas and Jerome Armstrong discussed the Leadership Institute in Crashing the Gate, contrasting the conservative training and employment infrastructure with the lack of a progressive one. Progressives expect their activists to work for "psychic income" rather than a living wage:

On our side, we face a steady stream of defections to the private sector where the pay is far better. As Napoleon said, an army travels on its stomach, a lesson progressive leaders have yet to learn. We train them young, teach them the ropes, and as they reach the age where they could take a more active leadership role in the movement, they decide they can't live with six roommates, default on their student loans, and eat Ramen noodles for dinner every night. They decide they want things like a car in good working order, they want to own a home, and they want to feel that their efforts are properly compensated.

The Leadership Institute has spent about $11 million a year recently to train new conservative leaders for a lifetime of spreading the conservative gospel. After South Carolina Republican Rep. Joe Wilson shouted "You lie!" at Obama last summer, his opponent, Rob Miller, raised over $1 million dollars in small donations in two days. Given the left's proven success at online fundraising, progressives should lend that kind of support annually for expanding their training infrastructure and for funding progressive media professionals -- not to emulate the Roves, the Reeds and the O'Keefes, but to reach voters more effectively. Or we can continue to shout at our televisions and bang our heads against the wall.

Progressive think tanks have enjoyed greater presence lately in a media environment typically dominated by conservative ones. Yet progressive efforts at controlling the popular narrative still appear amateurish in the face of the high-decibel weirdness on the right. Hunter Thompson said, "When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro." It is time that progressives turned pro as well.