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Commonweal Institute And Building The Progressive Infrastructure

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Four years ago, my friend, Dave Johnson, proprietor of Seeing the Forest, introduced me to Dr. Katherine Forrest who founded the Commonweal Institute along with her late husband, Leonard Salle. Kate and Len founded the Commonweal Institute after studying what the right wing movement had been doing to make the country receptive to their worldview, and they realized the need to be equally smart about building an progressive movement that could effectively move public attitudes so that progressive ideas and solutions could once more be heard and considered viable by the broader American public.

To understand the effectiveness of the conservative movement it behooves us to see where it all started. Back in 1971, Lewis Powell, shortly before he was named to the Supreme Court by Richard Nixon, realized that to move public opinion, conservatives would need a full set of tools to get their message in front of the public. The various conservative corporations, organizations and interest groups (including the fundamentalist Christians) saw that this could be very effective and agreed to work together to support this effort, pouring significant funds into helping get things started.

Do read the Powell memorandum to see how he proposed moving the country to a more conservative philosophy and what institutions and organizations would be required to do that. One surprising thing that I found in Powell's memo is that the original goal was simply to make sure the conservative side would have an equal voice with the dominant liberal consensus of the day. Yet the conservatives that built the movement were some of the most authoritarian true believers in our society and because they were unable to tolerate differences or dissent, they settled on a goal to destroy the enemy in their midst (liberals and progressives) who had been keeping them from dominating society. And they believed that all tactics, moral or not, would be used. Today it is common to hear conservatives express the idea that Democrats and progressives are traitors to the country and should be done away. Here's Rush Limbaugh's speech before the GOP House in 1994 on what should become of liberals in the United States:

Please, whatever you do, leave some liberals alive. I think we should have at least, on every college campus, one communist professor and two liberal professors, so we never forget who these people are and what they stand for.

So here we are today, in an society that is badly divided where one side has declared war on government and any who would stand in their way to total power. Yet, those of us to the left of center believe we must make our government work again for all of us because the problems we face are too big for any one person or even the different interest groups such as the environmental movement or the civil rights movement or the human rights community or unions to solve. We must have government helping and we all must be working together. We can no longer afford a single-issue focused approach to solving just "my" problem. Every one of these excellent organizations face a tremendous head-wind to even get their message out to the American public. It is almost de rigueur for the public to believe liberals and progressives don't have any ideas and the two political parties are both corrupt and out only for themselves. Candidates that want to talk about the plight of the poor are pilloried as being too "wussy" to even be listened to.

Even more the pity, it is almost impossible for progressive candidates or mainstream center-left representatives to support an idea so far out of the political mainstream as single payer healthcare despite the fact that our healthcare system has all but collapsed and single payer could be the best way out of the mess.

So what's to be done?
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What Kate and Len proposed was that progressive and pragmatic citizens need to take a page out of Lewis Powell's memorandum and build a progressive infrastructure of think tanks, writers, researchers, television personalities, spokespeople, and so on, that can effectively compete with the right wing messaging machine. So they started the Commonweal Institute to:
  • provide research about what the conservative movement has been doing
  • build connections between various progressive organizations
  • provide marketing analysis about how words do work on the human psyche (partly to defuse the effect of the right wing Luntz-speak that appeals to the lizard brain and partly to help find words to engage the heart and the brain to move public attitude back to working on common problems with hope and a sense of community)
  • train people on how to talk with people who have been too busy to understand the stakes and who have been disillusioned by the cynical and corrupt use of our government by the conservative authoritarians who purposely fail at governing to sell the idea that government is your enemy (thus leaving everyone else to the whims of a Hobbesian world).

It is a daunting task Kate and Len undertook when they founded the Commonweal Institute. Yet, is it an inspiring and worthwhile goal on which to work these days.

And so I'm honored and ridiculously pleased to have been asked to become a Commonweal Institute Fellow, joining Dave, Chris Bowers, Bill Scher and Patrick O'Heffernan. I'll be blogging at the Commonweal Institute blog about such topics as human psychology and behavior, leadership, messaging and community. All in a hope that I can do my small part in helping move public attitudes to be more pragmatic, community-oriented and future-oriented in deciding what future we build for our country.
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Mary Ratcliff is a senior writer and editor at The Left Coaster and Pacific Views.

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