Friday, April 01, 2005

When I received a few emails yesterday recommending a Wednesday Times op-ed, it came as no surprise to see that the piece in question was written by Bill Bradley. Bradley is one of the more extraordinary individuals of his generation -- it's not often, after all, that you see Rhodes Scholar, professional basketball player, and Senator on the same resume -- and true to form, his piece puts in succinct and digestible form the structural advantages currently enjoyed by conservative political organization. Further, it also argues convincingly that for liberals to be competitive in the future, they need to reform their organizational structure accordingly.

According to Bradley, the current conservative structure resembles a pyramid with the following five levels:

1) big individual donors and large foundations
2) research centers and institutes funded by those donors
3) political strategists who spin/market those institutes' findings
4) partisan news media which disseminates the strategists' spin/message
5) presidential candidate who runs on that message

As Bradley notes, the vast bulk of this pyramid exists independently of the candidate it eventually supports. The all-crucial result is that the conservative structure and message remain stable even when its political appointees change.

By contrast, Bradley states that current liberal organizational structure resembles an inverted-pyramid. Rather than occupying the top of the pyramid, the presidential candidates occupy the bottom -- they themselves must develop their own message, strategy, and base. As a result, the liberal infrastructure is inherently unstable in moments of political transition.

Up to this point, I agree with Bradley entirely. His diagnosis of what's wrong seems just about dead-on.

When it comes to Bradley's solution, however, I have to disagree. His parting shot is that liberals need to begin emulating the conservative pyramid. This is nonsense. It's true that liberals need to develop a stable political structure and message independent of its specific candidates. But if such a structure is to actually work, it cannot resemble the one which conservatives use.

Why do I say this? It's a matter of personal psychology. Conservatives tend to fundamentally differ from liberals insofar as they prefer authority to persuasion. That is, to get conservatives to mobilize, you need to appeal to a transcendent authority such as a religious scripture or a constitutional text. However, to get liberals to mobilize, you need to convince them that they've been convinced; even if they're only fooling themselves, liberals need to believe they've critically analyzed an issue before they'll act on it politically.

In these terms, the conservative pyramid works because it combines hierarchical discipline within the pyramid with an outward political message that is authoritatively couched in a biblical and constitutionalist vocabulary.

For liberals to try to copy that success would thus be a disaster. The conservative pyramid is contingent upon a reverence for authority that liberals generally lack. And the point at which this would most become a problem is level four: the conservative means of disseminating a unified message simply isn't viable for liberals. Al Franken's listeners to the contrary, liberals do not believe in partisan media. In fact, to them the very idea is anathema. By expressly determining which news to air and why it is important, partisan news consciously pre-empts the deliberative process by which liberals define themselves. For that reason alone, the conservative pyramid will never work with a liberal agenda.

In the end, Bradley is right to articulate the need for liberals to develop a stable organizational structure that exists independently of its candidates. But if liberals adopt a conservative model in doing so, they needn't be surprised if conservatives still win.


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