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Times That Try Men's Souls
How the Radical Right Snuck Into Power and How We Get Them Out
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The Planet

How the Radical Right Snuck Into Power and How We Get Them Out

We need a powerful vision of what we stand for and how we can achieve it

by John Byrne Barry

Two weeks after Election Day, the Sierra Club Board of Directors met with key volunteers, staff, and allies to talk what happened on November 2 and what comes next. Despite the bleak outcome of the election, this was not a bleak gathering. We left stimulated, hopeful, united.

"Something was born here today," said Club Executive Director Carl Pope. "Let's keep it growing."

This story is an attempt to share with the broader Sierra Club community some of the ideas, analyses, and enthusiasm from that and subsequent gatherings. I will break it into four parts: (1) what happened and why, (2) what the Sierra Club accomplished, (3) the signs of hope and opportunity, and (4) where we go from here, both short-term and long-term. (All this in 2,000 words? Well, fasten your seat belts.)

1. What happened?

The election itself was summarized by Conservation Director Bruce Hamilton: "Fear trumped hope, character trumped issues, values trumped programs."

While a lot of variables shaped the outcome -- voter concern and fear about the "war on terror" -- Bush's success in painting Senator Kerry as indecisive (however unfair), and the inability of the Kerry campaign to focus voters on a positive domestic agenda resulted in a narrow popular-vote win for Bush, and an extraordinarily close result in the electoral college, where fewer than 200,000 votes would have changed the outcome.

But Bush did not just win with his 2004 campaign. The radical right snuck into power, said Rob Stein, one of the guests at the post-election board meeting, and it didn't happen overnight. Stein, a former advisor to the Democratic National Committee who has studied the radical right's climb to power, said that 30-some years ago, the business community and the corporate right were in disarray and feared that their version of capitalism was under attack. The fiscal conservatives hated the social conservatives. The libertarians were divided into their own camps, and the traditionalists were suspicious of everyone. Young people were not becoming conservatives. In 1970, shortly before he became a Supreme Court Justice, Virginia lawyer Lewis Powell wrote a memo that became a blueprint for the radical right's rebirth, calling for wealthy conservatives to invest millions in creating a new movement, complete with think tanks and media outlets.

"Survival of what we call the free enterprise system," wrote Powell in his now infamous manifesto, "lies in organization, careful planning and implementation, in consistency of action over an indefinite period of years, in the scale of financing available only through joint efforts, and in the political power available only through united action and national organizations."

In other words, raise money, get organized, work together.

Many of today's ubiquitous right-wing think tanks and advocacy organizations, like the Heritage Foundation and the Cato Institute, were founded in the '70s. Stein documented 43 groups that collectively received about $3 billion over the past 30 years -- they're not necessarily homogenous, but they've tolerated ideological differences in the pursuit of power. This "conservative message machine," as Stein calls it, is designed to reach every sympathetic voter every day to keep them on message. It frames the issues in such a way that its opponents are put on the defensive. Stein calls it the most potent machine ever developed in a democracy -- "a never-ending source of intellectual content, laying down the slogans, myths, and buzzwords that have helped shift the public opinion rightward." One example: Despite the rightward tilt of mainstream media and the dominance of Rush Limbaugh, Bill O'Reilly, and their ilk, the organization Accuracy in the Media keeps shouting that the media is too liberal.

Every Wednesday, anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist hosts a meeting of about 80 people who debate the issues, then unify around strategy and talking points.

Progressives have nothing comparable. Sure, there's Al Franken and Air America, and there are various think tanks, but nothing broad and unified.

2. What we did right

We can't pretend we won, but the Sierra Club mobilized more volunteers, talked to more voters, developed more new leaders, and forged more partnerships than ever before. The Club's voter education program alone, based in 11 sites, recruited 12,000 new volunteers, who, along with dozens of staff members, knocked on more than 1 million doors and made more than 1.5 million phone calls. New volunteers like Ed Dinnen, a life member from Pittsburgh, went from attending a local Sierra Club meeting for the first time to walking neighborhoods knocking on doors at least once a week and hosting house parties to attract new volunteers.

Never before have so many Club staff and volunteers taken their vacation and weekends to do unglamorous work like door-to-door canvassing and phone-banking in states hundreds -- even thousands -- of miles from home. (I was one of them. You can read excerpts from "My Most Excellent Midwestern Doorknocking and Phone-Banking Adventure" on page 10.)

Many busloads of volunteers from the San Francisco and Los Angeles areas made their way to Reno and Las Vegas. Massachusetts Chapter members went next door to New Hampshire. Staff and volunteers from Washington, D.C., and Maryland traveled to Pennsylvania.

Thousands of Club volunteers also wrote and mailed handwritten letters and postcards to swing voters in other states to remind them of the differences in the environmental records of the candidates.

Carey Maynard-Moody, vice chair of the Kansas Chapter, drove to Minnesota to work five consecutive 12-hour days with local staff and volunteers. "It was joyful work," she says. "The collective hope and energy in that office was palpable, contagious."

In Milwaukee, volunteers poured in the week before the election. Staffer Dave Westman remarked that the "volunteer rule" had been reversed. "Usually," he said, "for every two people who sign up, one shows. Now, for every one who signs up, two show up."

"Our organizational capacity and name recognition has never been greater," said Hamilton. "Now we need to be smart about how we nurture and use this new capacity."

And while some voters saw entirely too much of us, others came out to thank us. Hamilton, who went door-to-door in Reno with his family, said "one voter told our canvass, 'I would crawl over glass to be sure to vote in this election.'"

The Club worked with a huge coalition -- there were 39 groups in America Votes including the AFL-CIO, Planned Parenthood Action Fund, MoveOn.org, and the NAACP.

Deputy Conservation Director Greg Haegele said that the Club and its allies matched the right in mechanics and coalition building. "We activated our base. We got out the vote. We picked the right battleground areas."

3. Signs of hope and opportunity

On the national stage, the environment was overshadowed by Iraq and terrorism and health care. The only wolves that got much television coverage were Karl Rove's symbolic terrorists. But at the local level, not only did the environment get more of a hearing -- strong pro-environmental candidates and ballot initiatives prevailed, even in the "red" states.

Colorado voters passed Amendment 37, the first citizen-sponsored initiative of its kind in the nation, which requires the state to generate 10 percent of its energy needs from renewable sources by 2015. Also, voters in the Denver area approved a $4.7 billion sales tax increase to build 119 miles of light rail and commuter rail lines and other public transit facilities to expand the existing system.

In Montana, despite being massively outspent by the mining industry, the Sierra Club and its allies defeated a ballot initiative to repeal the ban on using cyanide in open-pit heap-leach gold mining.

Nationally, 22 of 28 ballot measures for reducing traffic congestion and financing public transit improvements passed on November 2, according to the Center for Transportation Excellence, a transit advocacy and research group.

It's easy to forget that the election was not a mandate for dismantling environmental protection. Despite the fact that that they voted George Bush back into office, said Pope, "Most Americans share our values."

"You don't steal from future generations, you don't poison the well, if you make a mess, you clean it up....These values are not controversially divisive, and don't divide red state from blue state."

4. Where now?

The Bush administration and its congressional allies are already flexing their muscles and we expect them to unleash a renewed assault on our environmental protections. At the federal level, they can, with a few exceptions, enact any law they want, appoint any judge they want, refuse to enforce existing standards. We can't succeed by simply being defensive. Instead we must become an effective environmental opposition -- which means we must take the initiative, just as the radicals did in 1970. It took them 10 years to elect Ronald Reagan, and 14 to capture the House of Representatives.

But the Sierra Club knows a lot about stamina. It took 10 years to pass the Alaska Lands Act. Ten years to pass the California Desert Protection Act. And we didn't succeed in adding the Valley of Mineral King to Sequoia National Park until 65 years after John Muir first included it in his proposed park boundaries. We know how to build over time and persist until we prevail!

We need to link that stamina with visionary solutions. In some ways, that's the easiest task. We know how to build sewers that are big enough for the toilets hooked into them. We know how to clean up power plants, oil refineries, and toxic waste dumps. We know how to make windmills, solar cells, weather stripping, and more efficient motors to reduce dependence on Mideast oil dependence and protect the Arctic Wildlife Refuge -- and our solutions don't require that we sacrifice the lives of young Americans and Iraqis. We know how to save wilderness: just let it be.

But this vision needs to be something we can feel, not just an intellectual abstraction. "Humans don't respond emotionally to technicalese, descriptions of process, or legalisms," said Pope. "Club members share fundamental values with the nation but we tend to think that if we make a case intellectually, people will believe us. Well, we are not Vulcans, we're humans."

As we develop our values and vision, we need to build a network to broadcast them. It won't be the same as the conservative message machine that Stein described -- it will have to reflect our values -- but we will need a bigger megaphone than we have now.

We are already doing many of the things we have to do. Like talking to our neighbors, cleaning up a creek-bed near our kids' school, hosting a house party, circulating petitions at our union hall or environmental alerts at the coffee shop. Americans share our values -- but they've allowed the radical right to sneak into power even though they don't share its values.

Why? Because they don't see that the asthma cases on the soccer field, or the mercury warnings at the lake, or the toxic waste dump near the overpass, or the clearcut where the elk used to graze, are not a necessary trade-off for jobs or national defense, but the conscious recklessness of leaders who don't care. That's the ugly secret. The radical right does appreciate clean air -- the congressional leadership lives in neighborhoods in the D.C. metro area with the cleanest air. They understand how vital clean water is -- the public drinking water supply surrounding the president's Crawford ranch has alarmingly high levels of arsenic, but the water in the tap at the ranch itself is pristine. The vice-president loves beauty and wildlife -- he has a ranch right next to Grand Teton National Park, and spends every hour there he can.

It's not that the radical right doesn't care about clean air, and clean water, and beauty and wild places. But they're not concerned that the rest of us don't have the same access to it all as they do.


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