Organizing Groupthink

by Maggie Gallagher
The Left applies lessons learned from gay-marriage victories to the next war.

Politico treated it the way we treat news stories nowadays, in our celebrity-driven culture in which a beloved actor’s suicide can drive front-page news for a whole week: “Media Matters’ David Brock expands empire,” it reported.

David Brock may not be exactly an A-lister, but he is one of a contemporary cluster of insiders who have changed the way the “mainstream media” game is played. Bias, once the offshoot of genteel groupthink, has become progressively, aggressively organized.

Under the old model, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), which played a key role in bringing down Jack Abramoff and the once powerful GOP congressmen Tom DeLay and Bob Ney, felt the old-school need to burnish its credibility by targeting some Democrats alongside a majority-Republican target list. (CREW’s widely covered “Most Corrupt Members of Congress” lists included 25 Democrats among its 88 featured members since 2005.)

No more. Brock was elected chairman of the board after laying out a new aggressively partisan plan to transform CREW into what the Washington Examiner called a Democratic “lapdog.” From Politico:

The reconfigured CREW, which is searching for a new executive director, will add a more politically oriented arm, expand its focus into state politics and donor targeting and will operate in close coordination with Brock’s growing fleet of aggressive Democrat-backing nonprofits and super PACs — Media Matters, American Bridge and the American Independent Institute.

“CREW gives us some potentially powerful tools in the tool box,” said Brock, who founded his flagship organization Media Matters in 2004. “We have been in the accountability [business] for 10 years very successfully. It is kind of a one-stop-shop now.”

My ears pricked up, for these tactics sound a lot like what I saw on the front lines of the gay-marriage wars. I do not mean — sincerely do not mean — to deny the powerful impact that courageous and essentially kindly intelligent voices for gay rights from Andrew Sullivan to Jonathan Rauch have had on American public opinion over the last decade. Learning that gay people are people, not demons, has had a transformative impact on American culture.

But that cultural redefinition would be less extensively successful were these positive messages not backed by the power to punish and stigmatize those who disagree.

What I witnessed, firsthand, was how intelligent LGBT culture warriors used their access to powerful insider networks to effect social change by systematically raising the cost of speaking, organizing, and especially donating to political causes challenging the pro-gay-marriage view.

For cultural impact, politics is more important for conservatives than for liberals, because political voices are harder to control through insider networks — witness the powerful effect that electing Ronald Reagan had on a conservatives’ place in culture. We might still have been despised by insider elites, but we could not really be redefined as “outside the mainstream” by them if one of our own were in the White House. Without a politically effective component, pro-lifers would not be gaining the ground they are gaining culturally either.

So what is new in the last decade is the intelligent deployment of the Left’s insider elite networks to affect the willingness and capacity of conservatives to organize politically in ways that made their values visible.

They raised costs by denying Republicans like Minnesota governor Tom Emmer, who supported sending a marriage amendment to Minnesota voters, the small “perks” that officeholders in both parties usually receive (in his case, teaching at a prominent Minnesota business school) and by exposing petition-signers like Angela McGaskill to employer retribution.

The donor class was particularly vulnerable. The business interests of San Diego’s Doug Manchester do not seem to have been seriously hurt by his personal donation to Prop 8, but the cost of the donation was surely multiplied in terms of time, money, and headache. All it took was one protest featuring 20 guys in union T-shirts (I was in San Diego and saw that apparently pitiful turnout) to generate a New York Times story and a bevy of business headaches. The publicity triggers the insider network to make trouble. It is unfair to one’s business partners to make political donations that hurt one’s business. That lesson is now being learned nationwide.

Liberal businessmen donors do not face the Koch treatment; they get instead the Warren Buffet treatment.

The recent flaying of Brendan Eich for the sin of donating to Prop 8 was only the visible wedge of a far larger mechanism at work. At a seminar in Washington, a young left-leaning member of a usually conservative religious denomination challenged me on this point: “Doesn’t it show that executives shouldn’t donate to controversial issues?” she asked.

Don’t kid yourself, young lady; the business owners who donated against Prop 8 faced no such effective retaliation for their private and personal donations. Right now, the stigma game is one-way, directed by those who have power and know how to use it against traditionalist communities they hate. (No doubt, if cultural conservatives had more power like that, they would use it in ways that would outrage liberals — I am not making a moral point here, just pointing out the mechanics as truthfully as I can.)

The effectiveness of these techniques was driven home to me last year when a friend reported on the results of focus groups with people who had recently adopted a pro-gay-marriage position in a Northeastern state. The purpose of the research project was to determine what arguments were driving these relatively “late adopters” of the pro-gay-marriage position, and what arguments might change them back. The bad news was there was no argument involved. These mostly blue-collar white voters were not even politically correct, in any meaningful sense of the word. In many respects they spoke in openly homophobic ways. But these downscale late adopters had gotten the message: To be a good person you had to support gay marriage. And so they did.

This is part of the story of the Millennials, who as a generation combine an increasing distrust of other people and a retreat from any organized institution, from patriotism to religion to marriage, with a desperate unmet yearning to be part of something bigger than themselves, a longing that the pro-gay-rights movement is uneasily (some might say ludicrously) fulfilling.

Many on the right are still openly aghast and amazed at how the supposedly pro-diversity, tolerant Left is in favor of punishing people with traditional views of sex and marriage (now redefined as “anti-gay”). Managing the messages that ordinary, less political voters hear is the key to power in our democratic system. The technological advances that might seem to open up the democratic process are instead being deployed with increasingly sophistical social psychological underpinning for the purpose of propaganda: of creating a team that hates all those outside its magic, redeeming boundary line.

It is being done by liberals, for liberals. Given the realities of team psychology, conservatives like me cannot even credibly critique it, much less stop it.

But it is making a mockery of the idea of the Liberal values we all as Americans once so recently, so very achingly recently, shared.

— Maggie Gallagher, a senior fellow at American Principles Project, blogs at MaggieGallagher.com.