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March 30, 2005

Pyramids

Bill Bradley's op-ed today is so spot-on it brought a tear to my eye. For awhile now, I've been incoherently expressing the difference between Republican and Democratic presidential candidates by saying that the former are defined by their party while the latter are forced to define their party. But Bradley hit the target much more accurately:

To further the party's ideological and political goals, Republicans in the 1970's and 1980's built a comprehensive structure based on Powell's blueprint. Visualize that structure as a pyramid.

You've probably heard some of this before, but let me run through it again. 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 or Ralph Reed or Ken Mehlman take these new ideas and, through polling, focus groups and careful attention to Democratic attacks, convert them into language that will appeal to the broadest electorate. That language is sometimes in the form of an assault on Democrats and at other times in the form of advocacy for a new policy position. The development process can take years. And then there's the fourth level of the pyramid: the partisan news media. Conservative commentators and networks spread these finely honed ideas.

At the very top of the pyramid you'll find the president. Because the pyramid is stable, all you have to do is put a different top on it and it works fine.
...

To understand how the Democratic Party works, invert the pyramid. Imagine a pyramid balancing precariously on its point, which is the presidential candidate.

Democrats who run for president have to build their own pyramids all by themselves. There is no coherent, larger structure that they can rely on. Unlike Republicans, they don't simply have to assemble a campaign apparatus - they have to formulate ideas and a vision, too. Many Democratic fundraisers join a campaign only after assessing how well it has done in assembling its pyramid of political, media and idea people.

There is no clearly identifiable funding base for Democratic policy organizations, and in the frantic campaign rush there is no time for patient, long-term development of new ideas or of new ways to sell old ideas. Campaigns don't start thinking about a Democratic brand until halfway through the election year, by which time winning the daily news cycle takes precedence over building a consistent message. The closest that Democrats get to a brand is a catchy slogan.
...

A party based on charisma has no long-term impact. Think of our last charismatic leader, Bill Clinton. He was president for eight years. He was the first Democrat to be re-elected since Franklin Roosevelt. He was smart, skilled and possessed great energy. But what happened? At the end of his tenure in the most powerful office in the world, there were fewer Democratic governors, fewer Democratic senators, members of Congress and state legislators and a national party that was deep in debt. The president did well. The party did not. Charisma didn't translate into structure.

If Democrats are serious about preparing for the next election or the next election after that, some influential Democrats will have to resist entrusting their dreams to individual candidates and instead make a commitment to build a stable pyramid from the base up. It will take at least a decade's commitment, and it won't come cheap. But there really is no other choice.

Absolutely correct in every way.

Update: Kevin's got some further thoughts, mainly, that the remarkable success conservatives have had has come from exploiting levers of power no one had really thought of before (though he forgets what may be the most important two -- direct mail and churches). Regarding Bradley's op-ed, I'd argue that conservative innovation hasn't been the result of dedicated and original thinkers looking for new opportunities but the simple dividends of paying attention to structural strength. None of the paths they formed were particularly novel, at least not once they started forging them. But Democrats never really tried to counter the conservative radio presence (at least not until Air America), never tried to figure out our own framing, never attempted to pack the courts (not since FDR, anyway) -- but none of this stuff was exclusive to the other side, it was more our lack of interest that gave offered them such massive returns. If Bradley's ethos was adopted, Democrats would be on the lookout for ways to challenge current forms of conservative advantage and create some of their own. Evidence is they're trying, at least to a degree. Online fundraising is really owned by liberals, with DailyKos, MoveOn.org, and the Dean campaign all firmly settled on the left so that, at least, is positive.

What always surprises me is that there is a natural place to make great gains that Democrats completely ignore. While both parties battle over Hispanics and Catholics, Republicans begin vying for Blacks, and Democrats start Godding up their language, nobody pays any attention to the young. As a group, we naturally tilt towards the left, but Democrats show little-to-no interest in codifying that advantage. You don't see them working to support mobilization on college campuses, you don't see them deploying speakers and politicians to schools, you don't see them working to align themselves with the young on issues they care about, you don't see them trying to do, well, anything. And yet, here you've got a constituency that tilts left, that Republicans don't care about, and that will be voting for a long time to come. It's really a very stupid oversight.

March 30, 2005 in Democrats | Permalink

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» The GOP's Existential Crisis from Blogenlust
Ezra's correct to extoll the excellency of Bill Bradley's op-ed on the Democrats' need to build pyramids of influence, and be sure to read his entire post for his thoughts on this issue. [Read More]

Tracked on Mar 30, 2005 4:17:01 PM

» Stranger Than fiction from Pacific Views
The ePluribus Media project has some ideas about how to run a different kind of news organization, head on over and see what you think. A dKos diarist wonders why there hasn't been much coverage of a major oil spill... [Read More]

Tracked on Mar 31, 2005 5:42:06 AM

» Stranger Than fiction from Pacific Views
The ePluribus Media project has some ideas about how to run a different kind of news organization, head on over and see what you think. A dKos diarist wonders why there hasn't been much coverage of a major oil spill... [Read More]

Tracked on Apr 22, 2005 9:33:20 PM

Comments

I'm glad you bring up, if only in passing, Latinos. Real leadership vacuum there, as NCLR does not provide the same role as the NAACP does for African-Americans. So, who leads them? The Church?

The focus for far too long has been on the Boomers, because they were an easily identifiable psychographic group. They're also a BIG group.

The problem with the Echo-boomers (roughly your age group) is that they're a moving target. Forgive me for generalizing, but they aren't reading newspapers and they're not watching TV --and that's how the parties are used to communicating with their non-influentials. So, how do you get to them? Text-messaging? Videogames? Movie theater advertising?

Posted by: Roxanne | Mar 30, 2005 4:31:05 PM

None of the paths they formed were particularly novel, at least not once they started forging them. But Democrats never really tried to counter the conservative radio presence (at least not until Air America), never tried to figure out our own framing, never attempted to pack the courts (not since FDR, anyway) -- but none of this stuff was exclusive to the other side, it was more our lack of interest that gave offered them such massive returns.

Something about this analysis seems very ex post - after the fact it is easy to point out what the Right did right, and what the Left did wrong.

But it would be more convincing if it pointed out failed inititatives by the Right, and successes by the Left.

As an example of successes, thik about the change in cultural attitudes towards cigarette smoking, or gays (not to get inflammatory here, I'm just saying).

Maybe cig smoking is not a great symbol of a left/right divide, but one might want to reflect on how that change in attitude ocurred.

And I think most polls would show greater acceptance of gays today than 20 years ago (the debacle of the gay marriage referenda notwithstanding).

Why might that be, and do liberals deserve any credit for it? And if they do deserve credit, what did they do right?

And could they repeat that in other areas?

Posted by: TM | Mar 30, 2005 4:43:06 PM

Democrats, despite supposedly being the "nurturing" party, don't nurture their young. They eat them. Meanwhile, the "strict father" party provides gentle guidance (and robust job placement) for theirs.

Young conservatives are encouraged to write articles and intern at think tanks and blossom in a thousand ways, under a thousand banners. Young progressives are encouraged to stuff envelopes in the boiler room of the local HQ.

Yeah, I wrote about it, too. And if I'd been a conservative blogger, I'd be better off for having done so.

By the way, Roxanne, one answer to your question: porn. Or at least, it once was an idea. The dude got shouted down and he deleted the text of his diary, but that doesn't mean you can't still draw some entertainment value from the idea.

Posted by: Kagro X | Mar 30, 2005 4:46:10 PM

Welllll...I think Bradley's pretty much got the part about the present state of both parties right, but I'm leaning much more toward Yglesias's interpretation in Tapped today. Bradley is just wrong on his GOP history. Conservatives really haven't won the ideological war. The purely hackish think tanks like Heritage aren't working, except insofar as they allow talking heads to back up outright nonsense with a "think tank" source when they talk about policy. But the whole conservative project to establish a big beachhead in academia failed entirely--that's why they're still bitching about liberal professors today.

Most of where the GOP has gotten today is purely because of branding and other skilled marketing techniques. They have to hide most of their true domestic positions (or rely on voter ignorance about the issues) to get people to vote for them. Once they hit an issue that voters know a little bit about, like Social Security, everything starts turning to shit despite one of the most formidable misinformation campaigns we've ever seen.

Posted by: B | Mar 30, 2005 5:31:44 PM

Nobody targets us, the youth, because we don't vote in consistently large numbers, and we don't have a whole hell of a lot of money to donate. We're not all that valuable of a constituency.

Posted by: randomliberal | Mar 30, 2005 5:34:42 PM

So the Dems can't even run their own party well. Do you still think their capable of running the country in that case?

BTW Which group would gain from SS reform? The young.

Posted by: Boethius | Mar 30, 2005 5:47:37 PM

Back in the late '60s, the Democrats felt strongly enough about the Youth Vote that they got the voting age lowered to 18. OK, now what?
Myself, I think the only thing that'll get the kids away from the frat party, over to the Democratic Party--"tilt" aside--is mandatory voting. Adult non-voters will laugh off the fine a lot quicker than the perennielly financially-strapped Youth of America. The Aussiea have got it right; if you value your greater freedoms, you'll gladly give up this little one. Or pay a few bucks for the privilege.

Posted by: Doozer | Mar 30, 2005 6:02:08 PM

No, B. The group which would gain from SS reform? Stockbrokers and mutual fund managers.

Posted by: TJ | Mar 30, 2005 6:02:20 PM

doozer, in the late 60's there was a draft. nothing gets us younguns riled up like a draft. lacking a draft, i gotta agree with randomliberal's assessment.

and boethius, we may be young, but we're not stupid.

Posted by: willie | Mar 30, 2005 6:19:52 PM

The young don't get any attention from either party because, while they're young, they don't vote much. Obviously building party loyalty in this group for the long haul would be a good idea, but that would require a long-term mentality, something that as you've already pointed out, the Republicans are much better at than we are.

Posted by: Rebecca Allen, PhD | Mar 30, 2005 9:50:16 PM

There are a lot of good points in Bradley's Op-Ed, and quite a few more in these comments. I have been harping on that Powell memo since Jesus lost his lighter.

But the One Big Thing no one wants to address is that the Republicans have the Fuck You Money that the Democrats don't.

And I don't mean the Republican Party and its surrogates, I mean the large corporations that either own the mass media outlets or control its content because they are the largest purchasers of air time. Just check the ads that sponsor your local news. Check the sponsors of the Sunday morning news shows. PBS is now as much a slave to the corporate dollars as any other media outlet.

The advertising and public relations muscle of the corporate ruling class relentlessly pushes a worldview that supports the Republican Party. There is no Democratic or liberal counter to this, nor will there ever be.

Posted by: James E. Powell | Mar 31, 2005 4:14:49 AM

TJ

Better stockbrokers than government beauracrats and if they make me richer than otherwise why shouldn't they have their cut?

I am not a stockbroker or suchlike BTW ;-)

Posted by: Boethius | Mar 31, 2005 12:17:17 PM

Come on- no employee who relies on a government salary- and follows the law- is in any danger of entering Scrooge McDuck territory.

Posted by: TJ | Mar 31, 2005 1:36:16 PM

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Posted by: peter.w | Sep 15, 2007 2:47:49 AM

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