On Nov. 3, progressives awoke to find that they had returned to 2004. Despite important legislative victories, Democrats had been outflanked. Republicans had successfully sold themselves as the party of economic growth, the party of the angry out-of-work American, and, most dissonantly, the party of change. They owned the narrative and won big.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this. In the dark days following George W. Bush’s re-election, frustrated progressives set out to build an enduring movement that would effectively advance and communicate their ideas, policies, and values. Funders and strategists created new institutions and scaled up existing ones, including think tanks, civic-engagement organizations, and media-watchdog groups. These institutions played a key role in the 2006 Democratic takeover of Congress, the 2008 election of President Barack Obama, and the passage of parts of the Obama platform in 2009 and 2010.
Yet as progressives watched Democrats suffer the worst election loss since the Republican collapse of 1948, they seemed to be back where they started. Just as in 2004, many have blamed the losses on ineffective Democratic campaign messaging. The problem, however, runs much deeper. Electoral and Beltway politics are episodic, short-term, and transactional. Movements, however, are long-term. “Public sentiment is everything,” Abraham Lincoln once said. “With public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it nothing can succeed. Consequently, he who moulds public sentiment goes deeper than he who enacts statutes or pronounces decisions. He makes statutes and decisions possible or impossible to be executed.” In other words, movements must change hearts and minds in an enduring way. They must change the culture.
Culture is the space in our national consciousness filled by music, books, sports, movies, theater, visual arts, and media. It is the realm of ideas, images, and stories — the narrative in which we are immersed every day. It is where people make sense of the world, where ideas are introduced, values are inculcated, and emotions are attached to concrete change. Cultural change is often the dress rehearsal for political change. Or put in another way, political change is the final manifestation of cultural shifts that have already occurred. Jackie Robinson’s 1947 Major League Baseball debut preceded Brown v. Board of Education by seven years. Ellen DeGeneres’ coming-out on her TV sitcom preceded the first favorable court ruling on same-sex marriage by eight years. Until progressives make culture an integral and intentional part of their theory of change, they will not be able to compete effectively against conservatives.
Conservatives have long recognized the role that culture plays in shaping public sentiment and building movements. Created in 1938, the House Committee on Un-American Activities first aimed to discredit the arts program of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration, then went on to blacklist hundreds of writers, public intellectuals, musicians, directors, producers, and actors. Glenn Beck’s and Andrew Breitbart’s attacks on progressives in the arts, the media, and the federal agencies that impact those areas are a 21st-century echo.
The modern conservative movement built an infrastructure to deploy its own cultural strategy. In a famous 1971 memo, corporate lawyer (and later Supreme Court Justice) Lewis Powell argued that the time when a policy elite — the political leaders, wonks, and the chattering class — could advance ideas and shape debate was ending. Instead of catering to this elite, conservatives formed alternative media networks that bypassed mainstream-media gatekeepers and allowed them to communicate their stories to the American public directly. Beck, Rush Limbaugh, and Bill O’Reilly are the products of this four-decade investment. Now conservatives dominate both the top-10 cable-news programs and the top-10 AM talk-radio shows. The trinity of Limbaugh, Beck, and Sean Hannity commands 40 million radio listeners alone — an audience that eclipses CNN and MSNBC’s combined prime-time viewership.
Conservatives have used these outlets and media figures to mobilize their supporters, promote “traditional values,” and neutralize progressive ideas and thinkers with stories that are divisive. Think of Gov. Jan Brewer evoking fictional headless victims of the Mexican drug war in the Arizona desert, or the army of right-wing pundits decrying the “insensitivity” of “the ground-zero mosque” and “Obamacare’s” supposed “death panels.” These stories catalyze fears and pull people toward conservative values and a right-wing worldview. Shortly after September 11, Bush adviser Karl Rove met with more than 40 Hollywood leaders, including heads from Paramount, Viacom, the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, and the Motion Picture Association of America to discuss seven administration-approved themes. Rove avoided the word “propaganda.” “The word I like is ‘advocacy,'” one attendee said.
Far too many progressives still focus on speaking to a consensus-seeking policy elite — one that privileges objectivity, data, and argument — instead of pushing their ideas out to a divided public that responds to values, images, and stories. Andrew Rich of the progressive Roosevelt Institute has found that 77 percent of conservative think-tank leaders place a high priority on shaping public opinion, compared to 58 percent of liberal think-tank leaders. Rich concluded that left-leaning think tanks remain badly positioned to fight a war of ideas.
More than that, progressives cede the cultural terrain, allowing conservatives to shape the narrative. When election season rolls around, they spend huge amounts of money trying to change it. Progressives correctly lament that conservative stories — like outlandish speculations about Obama’s citizenship — often have no basis in facts. But facts are useless without a story. To take just one example, the Obama administration created the Recovery.gov website to showcase the success of the stimulus. Featuring lots of maps, charts, and dollar amounts — but no stories — the site quickly became just another data-heavy government website.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Progressives actually hold a natural advantage on the culture front. The latest neuroscience research suggests that progressives are more open to new information, ideas, and cultures. That may be why they are overrepresented in the loose, diffuse networks of creative professionals who drive music, arts, comedy, literature, and media. To flip a famous hip-hop lyric, it’s bigger than the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) and The New York Times.
Yet progressives have been slow to claim their history of cultural strategy. Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration was not just the cornerstone of a successful jobs program; it produced the art — by Ansel Adams and Dorothea Lange, Richard Wright and Zora Neale Hurston — that defined the themes of struggle and triumph that the world now associates with “the American Century.” In the 1960s, John F. Kennedy used cultural strategy to solidify Cold War liberalism. “I see little of more importance to the future of our country and our civilization than full recognition of the place of the artist,” he said. Under Lyndon B. Johnson, the National Endowment for the Arts and the CPB were created.
Conservatives frame change as restoration. Progressives see change as possibility. In 2008, Obama’s success depended on conveying this message — and letting the culture do the rest. At a University of California, Los Angeles, rally for Obama, the appearance of 4,000 Shepard Fairey posters sparked a nationwide creative operation that directly involved hundreds of artists. By the fall, millions of T-shirts, prints, murals, and ephemera, unauthorized by the Obama campaign, heralded a new face of progress and change.
This lesson has been lost on the left. Liberals tend to call on creative types — especially famous ones — only around election time to raise money or reach a crucial demographic. In the campaign off-season, the left has depended upon a deep reservoir of goodwill from artists and patrons and the ample gumption of arts organizers to take up the fight.
Creatives may be the most underutilized asset in the progressive movement. But they are not tools of propaganda, either. Artists don’t think like wonks or organizers. That’s a good thing. Cultural strategy is not about agitprop, benefit concerts, and lapel buttons; those are tactics, sometimes useful, sometimes terrible. When artists tell new stories, they can shift the culture and make new politics possible — cultural strategy is about understanding that fact and empowering artists to do what they do best.
Take Moises Kaufman and the Tectonic Theater Project’s play, The Laramie Project. The play helped organize support nationally for the introduction and final passage of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act. It tied emotion to a tangible vehicle for change. Al Gore’s film, An Inconvenient Truth, did more to spark broad and deep action on climate change than Gore did as vice president. The movie framed the facts in cascading images that illustrated the stakes of political failure, reaching through the histrionic media environment to win new audiences. These projects also highlighted values — inclusion, sustainability, the right to live free of violence, the common global good — that point to a progressive agenda. When such values are promoted in the culture, they are normalized. They become core American values.
A new cultural majority — an emerging American public that is the most demographically diverse ever and predisposed to support a progressive agenda, a public that elected Obama in 2008 but mostly stayed home in 2010 — is still out there. But it is not being reached by progressives’ formal infrastructure. Meanwhile, the right is constantly working in the culture to fragment it. During periods of economic and social upheaval, people seek a way of making sense of the chaos that surrounds them. Caught in the storm, they desire comfort and strength. Conservatives address this by pulling people backward to an imagined past. Progressives prepare people to come together to face the coming world. Culture is where they can instill faith.
In freeing creativity — that most renewable, sustainable, and boundless of resources — progressives can once again capture and carry forward our national imagination.