The Long Game For Progressives: areas to start being proactive

By John Atcheson on Common Dreams 24 Aug 2017
Progressive values include fairness, equity, a level-playing field, compassion, justice, reverence for our planet and environment, and a genuine pursuit of peace, not war – all things which play extremely well in the hearts of Americans, not to mention in political polling. One of the reasons Sanders is the most popular politician in America is that he tapped into these values and put specific proposals into a broader-values based message.

“Progressive values include fairness, equity, a level-playing field, compassion, justice, reverence for our planet and environment, and a genuine pursuit of peace, not war – all things which play extremely well in the hearts of Americans, not to mention in political polling. One of the reasons Sanders is the most popular politician in America is that he tapped into these values and put specific proposals into a broader-values based message.” (Photo: Flickr/Vince Alongi/CC)

Conservatives navigate using a polestar; Democrats steer by their hood ornament.  As a result, conservatives set the agenda, while Democrats respond to it.  Worse, conservatives shape polls, and Democrats are shaped by polls. Conservatives have been strategic.  Democrats have—at best—been tactical.  That’s been the story since Reagan.

This explains why our country has drifted to the right; it explains why Democrats have gone from majorities in government at all levels in the 70’s, to barely holding onto a shrinking minority at any level. It explains why today’s Democrat is more conservative than yesterday’s Republican, and why a corporate friendly brand of neoliberalism has taken over what used to be the Party of the people.

Even now, with Trump—who’s about as strategic as a six-year old on speed—the daily headlines are defined by what he’s doing, and how we’re responding to it.

Resistance, while necessary, is merely reactive.  Progressives need to start being proactive.

That means we need our own polestar to navigate by, and our own long game.  Fortunately, the blueprint has been laid out clearly for us by the conservatives.  So let’s examine, in broad strokes, how they succeeded in taking over the terms of debate in this country, so that we might emulate their success.

How conservatives conducted their “silent coup”

The broad elements of the conservatives’ strategy can be found in a 34 page memo by Lewis Powell to the Chamber of Commerce, dated August 23, 1971. The Powell Memo was not exactly a blueprint; rather it was a think piece about how to “strike back” against “un-American” influences coming from “…the college campuses, the pulpit, the media, the intellectual and literary journals, the arts and sciences, and from politicians.”

He repeatedly called for “balance” and “fairness” in these institutions.  Sound familiar?

To Powell, anything that constrained the free enterprise system was un-American, socialist, or—gasp!—Marxist, even if it was done to protect the environment, human health, or social welfare.

If “culture” is the collective beliefs, values, and practices that comprise a society, then Powell was taking direct aim at the institutions that defined culture from the 1930 to the late 1970’s.

A few rich families, operating behind the scenes and largely ignored by the press (particularly after corporations purchased most of it) took aim at the existing—and predominantly liberal culture—by doing essentially what Powell recommended and investing in the following six areas:

  1. creating a conservative infrastructure composed of foundations, think tanks, endowed university chairs, media outlets and media savvy spokespeople to give far right extremism an intellectual basis beyond greed and self-interest, with the purpose of influencing the public and politicians to adopt more conservative positions;
  2. weakening the FCC and ultimately taking over the press;
  3. glorifying the free market as the source of all things good—investing in the Myth of the Magic Markets;
  4. discrediting government as a source of anything good—investing in the Myth of the Bumbling Bureaucrat;
  5. perfecting propaganda and messaging—distracting, deceiving, dissembling, and lying to obscure the takeover; and
  6. making it safe to buy politicians and elections.

A cadre of ultra-rich conservatives, including the Koch brothers (and their father, who helped establish the John Birch Society) Richard Mellon Scaife, Adolph Coors Jr, Alice and Jim Walton, John Olin, Lynde and Harry Bradley, and Betsy DeVos (Trump’s Secretary of Education) poured billions of dollars into the effort, with each establishing multiple foundations and think tanks. Corporations also contributed to the effort.

They were spectacularly successful, as today we no longer live in a democracy, and our electoral choices are between corporatized Democrats or far right Republicans.

How Progressives can replicate the Right’s success

The three most important things progressives can do is:

  • Train progressive politicians and thinkers on how to message; how to get press coverage; and what to do when the elite establishment media ignores them;
  • Reinstate FCC authorities starting with the Fairness Doctrine;
  • Get the money out of elections and politics.

Let’s start with messaging:  Face it, progressives don’t know how to communicate effectively with voters.  Whereas Republicans and conservatives talk in terms of values, progressives often have issue papers, complete with data, statistics and analyses.  Snooze alert.  If you’re talking about the results of an econometric model, while your opponent is discussing what it means to be an American or to practice Christian values, while simultaneously appealing to arch myths like self-reliance, and giving folks a bogeyman to blame for their misfortunes—you’re going to lose.

For example, Hillary Clinton was widely recognized as a “quick study” and “the smartest person in the room,” and her expertise was a big part of her campaign.  But she was never able to convince voters that she operated with a core set of values that benefitted them—something that now infects the entire Democratic Party.

Progressive values include fairness, equity, a level-playing field, compassion, justice, reverence for our planet and environment, and a genuine pursuit of peace, not war—all things which play extremely well in the hearts of Americans, not to mention in political polling. One of the reasons Sanders is the most popular politician in America is that he tapped into these values and put specific proposals into a broader-values based message.

It seems inconceivable that Democrats are refusing to embrace this broader, values based approach to politics—or it would if you didn’t understand that they’re afraid of losing campaign contributions.

In truth, this isn’t only about simply training plutocratic puppies to speak in progressive soundbites, it must be about getting the plutocrat’s errand boys and girls out of the process and replacing them with genuine progressives and training them.

Case in point, each year, like clockwork, the Congressional Progressive Caucus develops a budget that cuts the deficit, retains and even expands social and health care programs, provides protection for the environment and human health, and establishes a more equitable distribution of wealth and income, all using strategies that enjoy broad popular support.  And every year it is roundly ignored, while Paul Ryan’s deficit-exploding, feed-the-rich, screw-the-working class Americans gets round the clock, front page coverage.

The Democratic Party ignores the budget, and so there’s no pressure on the media to cover it.  Conservatives, on the other hand, have a steady stream of white papers, press releases, “expert” spokespeople and academics ballyhooing their trickle down con, so it gets covered. If we created a counter-balancing progressive infrastructure the progressive budget would get covered, and if it got covered, people would back it overwhelmingly.

Restore FCC rules requiring diversity and responsibility in the media: Until Reagan, the government maintained three critical positions on the media: first, that the airwaves were part of the public commons; second, that a license came with responsibilities to fulfill a public trust; and third, that the government had a right and a duty to assure that trust was honored.  The FCC accomplished this by assuring diversity of ownership both nationally and within markets (this applied to both print and broadcast media), requiring a certain amount of publically valuable content, and assuring that alternative points of view were provided.

These provisions prevented the formation of the kinds of philosophical monocultures we see in Fox News or MSNBC, and it served to make fake facts—the fuel that feeds the right—more transparent.  As a result, folks couldn’t tune out the “other side” the way they do now. Prior to Reagan, broadcasting licenses had to be renewed every 3 years, so the FCC had a big stick.

After Reagan, the licensing period was increased to five years, and after Clinton, the licensing period increased to 8 years, licenses were given away for free (losing some $70 billion a year in revenue), and it was more difficult for citizens to intervene in licensing decisions. Note the drift here, with the “liberal” Bill Clinton of the 1990’s being well to the right of the conservative Ronald Reagan of the 1980’s.

A Bill to restore the Fairness Doctrine, decrease licensing periods, allow for greater citizen input into renewals and to charge for airwaves would make it difficult for information monocultures that put people in fact free bubbles to exist.  It would also likely be popular with voters. For example, according to a Rasmussen pole, a plurality of Americans supports measures that would restore the Fairness Doctrine and other controls on media. With an effective educational campaign, that number could easily be increased to a majority of voters.

Get the money out of elections and politics: There is widespread support for campaign finance reform, with some 77% favoring limits on spending.  Indeed, it is one of the few areas where Republicans and Democrats agree.  There is also strong support for legislation overturning Citizen’s United.  Similarly, Americans favor putting a stop to the revolving door between industry and government.

This should be an easy lift

What’s in the way are the Democratic Party members and leaders themselves, who benefit from the status quo.  That’s why the Democrat’s “Better Deal” equivocated on health care and campaign finance.

But that’s the point of a long-term strategy.  Taking on these issues and changing culture takes time.  As Lewis Powell said:

Strength lies in organization, in careful long-range planning and implementation, in consistency of action over an indefinite period of years, in the scale of financing  available only through joint effort, and in the political power available only through united action and national organizations.

Exactly.  Progressives can build a progressive infrastructure to accomplish these tasks “27 dollahs” at a time.  Ironically, it will take a lot of money to get money out of politics and return the public forum to the public. But if the Democratic Party would look beyond its hood ornament, and embrace a long-term, values-based strategy, it would pay big dividends to the Party, the people, and the country.

If they won’t, it’s time to abandon them to their own, self-inflicted demise, and buy back the country ourselves—“27 dollahs” at a time, of course.

John Atcheson screen_shot_2017-07-26_at_9.09.47_pm.pngJohn Atcheson is author of the novel, A Being Darkly Wise, and he has just completed a book on the 2016 elections titled, WTF, America? How the US Went Off the Rails and How to Get It Back On Track, available from Amazon. Follow him on Twitter @john_atcheson
Organization Profile:  Public Citizen Contact:  Phone: 202-588-1000 Whose Side Are They On: Main Street Consumers or Wall Street Banks?

The Senate Could Take Away Consumers’ Right to Go to Court to Challenge Wrongdoing by Financial Companies

WASHINGTON – One of the major battles in Congress this fall will be a fight over a regulatory repeal measure that will have lasting ramifications for Americans’ constitutional rights. That measure, if it passes and is signed by the president, would take away consumers’ right to challenge wrongdoing by financial companies in court.

This note provides basic information about the consumer right that is at risk and why it matters, the process Congress is using to try to repeal it and the current state of play. Please cover this important issue before a vote takes place.

Forced Arbitration “Rip-Off” Clauses

Financial companies have systematically taken away consumers’ right to go to court by hiding forced arbitration “rip-off” clauses in the fine print of take-it-or-leave-it contracts. These clauses (PDF) block consumers from joining class-action lawsuits against corporate wrongdoing and push disputes into secretive arbitration proceedings rigged to favor financial companies. The average consumer forced into arbitration ends up paying more than $7,700 to the bank or lender, according to a report from the Economic Policy Institute.

Forced arbitration may be the single most important tool that predatory banks, payday lenders, credit card companies and other financial institutions have used to escape accountability for cheating and defrauding consumers. The secretive nature of arbitration proceedings – by design – conceals wrongdoing from regulatory authorities. Wells Fargo’s defrauded customers were blocked from going to court and unable to share their stories – allowing the bank to continue its fraudulent practices for years before getting caught.

On July 10, the U.S. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) took a critical step toward protecting consumers by finalizing its long-awaited arbitration rule, which restricts rip-off clauses in consumer financial contracts and allows customers to join together in court to hold banks and lenders accountable when they break the law. Yet, even as a new Wells Fargo scandal seems to break almost every month, Congress is attempting to reinstate secret arbitration as the law of the land.

The Need For Protections Against Rip-Off Clauses

The result of a congressional directive and five years of careful study (PDF), the arbitration rule was proposed in May 2016 after the CFPB’s comprehensive 2015 study documented that forced arbitration effectively wipes out consumer claims. Wells Fargo’s fraudulent accounts scandal demonstrates how rip-off clauses allow corporations to hide and get away with egregious misconduct. Even after pledging to make things right, the bank continues to use forced arbitration to block customers from suing over fraudulent accounts and the bank’s other crimes.

Letting banks and other financial institutions rip off customers with impunity is a savage attack on American consumers. By voting to overturn the CFPB’s arbitration rule, Republicans in Congress are choosing predatory banks, payday lenders, credit card companies and the financial industry over Main Street Americans and putting themselves on the wrong side of history.

Forced arbitration is particularly harmful to military servicemembers, who are in no position to individually challenge a financial institution’s illegal or unfair practices due to their limited resources, frequent relocations and deployments overseas. Class actions are the only way many servicemembers can enforce their rights and obtain justice.

With the CFPB rule in place, consumers still can choose to pursue arbitration if they prefer. But there is absolutely no consumer benefit in being forced into arbitration and losing the right to file a class-action lawsuit; these suits return $440 million to 6.8 million consumers every year, after attorneys’ fees and court costs.

The Congressional Review Act

Just 15 days after the CFPB finalized the arbitration rule, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a Congressional Review Act (CRA) resolution of disapproval striking down the rule. The CRA allows Congress – by majority vote in both chambers, with limited debate, no possibility of a filibuster and the president’s signature – to overturn recently issued public protections. Making matters worse, the CRA blocks agencies from issuing rules that are “substantially the same” without express authorization from Congress.

The CRA process gives the U.S. Senate until roughly the end of October to act.

To date, Republicans in Congress and President Donald Trump have used the CRA to strike down 14 regulatory protections as payback to their corporate donors, who spent more than $1 billion to get their way. Seven months into the Trump administration, these 14 resolutions remain the only legislation of consequence the president has signed other than Russia sanctions (which Trump signed reluctantly). The arbitration rule is at serious risk of becoming the 15th protection repealed using the CRA’s expedited process.

The financial industry has given more than $100 million in campaign contributions to Senate Republicans co-sponsoring the CRA resolution, according to an analysis (PDF)from Public Citizen. These contributions may explain why Republicans in Congress are willing to aid and abet bank rip-offs of their own constituents (PDF) – even after many of these same politicians condemned Wells Fargo for its litany of financial abuses and even in the face of polling showing that voters in both parties strongly supportprotections against rip-off clauses.

The State of Play

According to press reports, U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) opposes the CRA resolution overturning the arbitration rule, and U.S. Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine), John Kennedy (R-La.), and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) remain undecided as to how they will vote. Every senator who wants to be able to look a Wells Fargo customer in the eye should oppose repeal. Siding with consumers should be an easy choice.

With so many pressing issues on the congressional docket this fall – government funding, the debt ceiling, renewal of the Children’s Health Insurance Program and the National Flood Insurance Program, and more – it would be a relief to tens of millions of American consumers if these senators never had to make a choice.

Senators are expected to return to Washington, D.C. on September 5, concluding the August recess. From that point until late October, the CRA resolution to repeal the arbitration could be brought to the floor for a vote at any time. If this CRA resolution follows the timetable of similar resolutions voted on in the spring, there will be less than 24 hours of advanced warning when a Senate vote is scheduled.

In late March, Americans across the ideological spectrum were shocked to learn that Congress had repealed broadband privacy protections and dismayed that the public hadn’t been warned in advance about such a flagrant and unpopular corporate power-grab. The CRA’s lightning-fast repeal process allowed Congress to act before the press caught wind of what was happening. It easily could happen again.

The time to cover forced arbitration is now. Please contact any of the individuals listed above to speak with an expert.


Public Citizen is a national, nonprofit consumer advocacy organization founded in 1971 to represent consumer interests in Congress, the executive branch and the courts.