Countering the Conservative Story of Outrage

March 30, 2008 at 10:00 am

I recently stumbled on an interesting piece of history called the Powell Memo that laid out the conservative plan for winning the hearts and minds of Americans. Written in 1971, almost every facet of the Powell Memo has come to be realized, from the creation of conservative think tanks, to the monitoring of universities, to taking the attack to what Powell would today call liberals. In 1971, he referred to them as Ralph Nader or communists.

Powell’s fundamental thesis was that the American economic system was under attack. He worried not only about communists or “New Leftists,” but increasingly about university students, the media, and minorities. These sources outnumbered by far the communists who even he admitted were “a small minority.”

Ignoring the truth of this statement (hasn’t American industry done pretty well over the last 100 years?), his memo tells a story that has been picked up and repeated endlessly by conservatives to the point where it is the dominant narrative in America.

The outline of this story is:

  • The American free enterprise system is under attack by liberals
  • Conservatives are Defenders of Civilization, returning America to how it used to be
  • Liberals will try to prevent this and conservatives should use any means necessary to stop them; the end justifies the means

Listen to a Rush Limbaugh show – any show – and you’ll find that everything that he talks about fits into this narrative. Rush will find an example, somewhere in America, of some “liberal” group that is “attacking America.” Whether it’s Al Gore talking about global warming, a MoveOn ad, or a lawsuit filed somewhere about the pledge of allegiance in classrooms.

Message: America is under attack! Defend it!

This an extremely powerful narrative. Why? First, it turns his listeners into heroes, good guys who now have a justification for just about any action. Second, any resistance to this narrative can immediately be characterized as a liberal attack. In this world view, the answer is simple: agree or you are a liberal.

Here’s an example from the March 28th, 2008 show:

CALLER: Ronald Reagan, why did he never respond to the Marine barracks bombing in Lebanon in 1983?
RUSH: Why are you interested in that? I’m curious.
CALLER: Well, I was reading a book about him, When Character was King, and then I started doing some more research on Reagan —
RUSH: Yeah?
CALLER: — and everything I found said we never responded to that terrorist attack.
RUSH: Are you trying to draw some equivalence between Reagan and today?
CALLER: Yeah, well, a little bit, because —
RUSH: I thought so.
CALLER: — and I am a conservative.
RUSH: Right.
CALLER: But you hear people say that, you know, Clinton left Somalia —
RUSH: Ha-ha-ha. See, my friends, these nice guys think they can smoke me out. You can’t trick the host. I knew this was a trick question, because it matters only to liberals. It’s totally irrelevant to anything happening today.

Rather than responding to the caller, his response is to first label him a liberal and point out that he, Rush, is being attacked.

Fortunately, conservatives are people and, when it comes down to it, many of them don’t buy into all facets of this narrative. But it helps to remember that this narrative is out there.

Because if the way you argue fits into this “outrage narrative,” some conservatives may simply label you a liberal, not worthy of discussing important matters with.

During this election, progressives have a huge opportunity to state their case because people have lost faith in President Bush and the conservative vision is ringing hollow due to the lending crisis and the continuing costs of the Iraq War. But in the conservative world view, “liberals” are not fit to lead and will still have to work very hard to overcome this dominant narrative.

One of the ways to do this is to understand this “outrage” reaction. We should be firm in expressing our values, but there is no need to insult conservatives or tell them that their opinions do not matter. Look around at any blog and see how often this happens.

If there’s another thing progressives can learn from conservatives, it’s that values and vision should be our focus. This is an approach I see time and time again from progressives and liberals. We present a mountain of facts and then expect people with different world views to simply agree.

What we need to do instead is focus on reviving our stories, setting the vision by explaining how founding principles such as the Bill of Rights are progressive principles, and building new visions around balance, community, and faith.

In a recent online discussion about the Protect America Act, the bill to renew FISA and grant amnesty to the telecom companies, I got into a long discussion with someone about how to best prevent terrorism.

Her argument was that these are terrorists and, therefore, any method is justified, even if it compromises the constitution. She is for giving the President unlimited power to fight terrorism. In her words:

Surely with the stakes so high you can see the need to give your DEMOCRATICALLY ELECTED government the benefit of the doubt …

Every time I tried to ask her how the new bill would actually protect us more than the old bill, she simply asserted it would or that the President couldn’t tell us because it would compromise security or that I was being naive and idealistic.

She was following the conservative narrative – conservatives are defending this country, therefore they are trustworthy, and any statement counter to this notion is liberal.

So instead of trying to talk policy I stepped back and considered the situation. I asked myself, what is it I really believe in? What I came up with is that I believe a world where people trust each other is the best way to fight terrorism. So I tried to explain this using a short story.

Imagine you become stranded on an island with 8 other people. You’re there for an indefinite amount of time and you’re worried about preventing crime. I believe that the best way to avoid crime is to know you can trust everyone. And to let them know that they can trust you. This is how societies function. It’s also how businesses do business. They work to build trust.

Now part of building trust would be that if someone commits a crime, that person should be held responsible for the crime. However, if person A commits a crime and you pursue person B, the rest of the island loses trust in you.

We had this situation with 9/11. Osama bin Laden was clearly responsible for the attack. Instead, we invaded Iraq. The situation was used as a political reason to occupy Iraq. This actually makes us less safe.

After I told this story, she actually agreed with me under the assumption that these are civilized people. Of course, she went on to say that these are not civilized people and that her argument was still right. But it was clear she was questioning the straight Republican party line and, in several instances during our discussion, talked about her frustration with the Bush administration.

We ended up talking as people rather than as conservative / liberal and found that though we disagreed on some issues, in many cases we agreed. Creating a quick hypothetical story helped to explain my values to her and show that I wasn’t attacking her. We found that when it came to building trust, we shared the same values.