Chapter 7: Strategic Initiatives

This article is part of the Thinking Points Discussion Series published by the Rockridge Institute in early 2007. It was written by Joe Brewer (Rockridge Institute staff member) on Monday, May 21, 2007

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In order to advance our moral vision, progressives need to think strategically. Conservatives have been extremely successful in recent decades through the use of strategic initiatives that broadly advance their agenda. In this installment, we explore how progressives can use four strategic initiatives that promote well-being and security for everyone.

We have come a long way in this discussion, exploring the importance of values in elections, biconceptualism, frames, cognitive models, metaphors, and more that have been applied to two versions of family life (nurturance and strictness), the market, and our fundamental American values (Part 1 and Part 2).

This knowledge brings power only when it is applied through action. Chapter 7 of Thinking Points describes how we need to think strategically in order to affect sweeping change with our actions. Let’s explore how we can apply these ideas to politics in a far-reaching way!

What is a Strategic Initiative?

Chapter 7 starts out by describing how conservatives have been successful at thinking strategically, while progressives have not. This is because conservatives have implemented a number of strategic initiatives.

A strategic initiative is a policy proposal in one area that has an impact far beyond the explicit change promoted.

There are two types of strategic initiatives that can be adopted:

  1. A multifaceted initiative, where a targeted policy change has far-reaching effects across many areas
  2. A domino initiative, where a policy change is a first step toward a broader goal with the next steps becoming easier or inevitable

We can see how they work with a few examples:

Tax Cuts – A Conservative Multifaceted Initiative
They do not simply lower taxes. Tax cuts are a simple way to get rid of all social programs and regulatory government oversight with one broad stroke. This is the single most efficient way to achieve the conservative agenda of making everyone have to “go it alone.”

Renewable Energy – A Progressive Multifaceted Initiative
In order to free ourselves from dependence on non-renewable fuels, we must take actions that improve environmental policy while also increasing security (broadly speaking [shifting climate of security] – not merely in military terms), creating new jobs, and promoting development for impoverished nations. All of these entailments contribute to the staunch resistance environmentalists have faced in years past.

“Partial Birth” Abortion – A Conservative Domino Initiative
Start by changing the name of an obscure – and very rarely used – medical technique so that the fetus is framed as a living human child. When this medical technique is banned (oops, too late!), we are one step closer to making abortions unconstitutional. Along the way, we will strip women of important rights and hinder medical experts from advising patients about “secular” options that threaten the authority of literal biblical interpretations.

A Critical Difference Between Conservative and Progressive Initiatives

Conservatives typically use deception to conceal their ultimate goals while progressives fully disclose their intentions. This happens because Americans are too progressive to endorse the strategic ends of tax cuts and privatization. Progressives can counter the hidden agendas by discussing them openly. This requires appropriate frames that make the truth self-evident!

Case Study: The Invasion and Occupation of Iraq

A little known irony underlies the motivation to invade Iraq. The stated goals are overall progressive goals! Here is the explicit justification:

  • Find and destroy WMDs
  • Oust Saddam Hussein and free the Iraqi people to establish their own democracy
  • Allow Iraqi businesses to establish an open market
  • Use the profits from Iraqi oil to build infrastructure for the Iraqi people
  • Allow Iraq to become a shining example of liberty, freedom and democracy in the Middle East

These are all expressions of empathy for Iraqis. The hidden justification – known by many progressives – is quite different. It is clearly a conservative agenda:

  • Show that the world order can be reshaped to our advantage by military means
  • Show enough force to intimidate other countries in the Middle East
  • Use the war – as in the “war on terror” – as a way to establish domestic war powers to give the president and his administration greater power
  • Shift domestic spending on social programs to the military. Take domestic wealth and power and give it to defense contractors and the oil industry
  • Gain access to the world’s second-largest oil reserve
  • Establish a controllable “client state” government in Iraq
  • Establish permanent military bases in the heart of the Middle East
  • Use the war for electoral advantage in the U.S.
  • Allow American corporations to take control of a significant portion of Iraq’s economy
  • Privatize military functions to increase strength of military force, increase profits for military contractors, and remove accountability from the military
  • Establish independence from NATO and the UN

None of those is a progressive goal. Mainstream Americans are just too progressive to accept them. Recognizing these goals shows that Bush is not “incompetent.” [incompetent article]

Reclaiming Progressive America!

Progressives have generally fallen into the “laundry list” trap discussed in Chapter 1 of Thinking Points, choosing limited policy initiatives based on issues and programs that don’t reflect our values. A consequence of this approach is that we have failed to become a movement. Environmentalists, labor unions, feminists, consumer advocates, immigrants’ advocates, etc., all work on their own programs, have their own funders and publications, lobby separately, and so on. This has to change!

Chapter 7 presents four strategic initiatives for progressives. These are not meant to be exhaustive or even necessarily the most important. Rather it is our hope that your mind will be stimulated and you will start to think in a broader, more visionary way about the progressive agenda.

Progressive Initiative #1: Clean Elections
Most politicians – progressive or conservative – have paid lip service to the idea of “campaign finance reform” because they know Americans want it. It has been called the reform that makes all other reforms possible. It may be time for progressives to seize the opportunity to put their strongest support behind this crucial strategic initiative.

The idea is simple: Provide full public financing of elections for qualified candidates. Give candidates who have broad public support a grant to run for their campaigns. By accepting public funds, they must refuse any private contributions.

Having “clean elections” would accomplish many things:

  • Grant equal opportunity to run for office by stripping away unfair advantages that corrode the political process
  • It would actually save public money! The cost of this program would be far less than the amount elected officials give away to private interests as paybacks for campaign contributions in the form of subsidies, no-bid contracts, pork, regulation changes, tax breaks, and so on.
  • Proposals by elected officials would serve the public good and not the corporate good

Imagine a world where we could have universal health care without undue influence from HMOs and drug companies. We could address environmental concerns without internal resistance to the decision-making process by oil, timber, coal, nuclear power, mineral, and agribusiness industries. Local, state, and national budgets could reflect the priorities of the public – money for schools, transit, health care, parks, etc. – instead of private interests.

We can do all of this with clean elections!

Progressive Initiative #2: Healthy Food
A fundamental responsibility of the government is to advance the common good. We expect the government to keep water systems clean, manage and preserve our forests and parks, regulate the production of drugs, among other things. Our expectations should be no less for food.

We are in the midst of a food crisis.

The federal government has played an active role in the creation and perpetuation of this crisis. It spends more than $20 billion a year to subsidize the production of cheap commodity corn. This creates an overabundance of inedible corn that is the raw material for processed foods. It hurts farmers by shifting benefits to large corporate agribusinesses. Taxpayers pick up the tab for “externalized” costs including: cleaning up contaminated water from pesticide runoff; treating obesity, diabetes, and other food-related diseases; cleaning up air pollution from intense tilling or fertilizers; and disposing of waste.

This year Congress will vote on these subsidy structures in the harmless sounding – but incredibly important – farm bill. At Rockridge we believe this bill should be renamed the food bill to frame its relevance in a more accurate manner.

Read pp. 110-113 of Thinking Points (Chapter 7) to learn how this initiative touches on the following issues: class, race, public health, environment, foreign policy, civics, quality-of-life, world hunger, poverty, economy, immigration, rural vitality, and security.

A healthy food initiative can unify progressives. It can bring together environmentalists, labor activists, fair trade proponents, social justice advocates, civil rights activists, and many others.

Progressive Initiative #3: Ethical Business
Markets are an important part of human communities. They are not going away, even though the market we have now is very problematic. The rules that govern the market should create incentives to enhance the common good, and should also punish violations of the common good.

The current legal structure of for-profit corporations includes a legal obligation to maximize profits. It is not a matter of good companies and evil companies. Both of these are based on the metaphor A Corporation is a Person, which is an inappropriate description. It is much more accurate to apply the metaphor A Corporation is a Tool, because corporations are human inventions that have been designed to perform specific functions. The principle function of the modern corporation is to generate wealth (in the narrow terms of monetary value).

Chapter 7 outlines two different approaches to ethical business.

Keep the Corporation, Change the Market
One approach is to leave the corporate model intact and change the landscape of the market in which corporations act. Peter Barnes, founder of Working Assets, has an interesting idea about how we can do this. He suggests we assign all Americans property rights to the commons – an air trust, an ocean trust, watershed trusts, soil trusts, an Internet trust, an electromagnetic spectrum trust, etc. – and charge businesses for the use of the commons. All of these things are currently given away for free. The money raised from this system could be used to clean up the environment, improve worker benefits, and other public gains.

Change the Corporation, Restoring an Ethical Market
The other approach is corporate rechartering by writing into the governing structure of corporations the interests of stakeholders. Stakeholders, unlike shareholders, are all citizens, workers, communities, ecosystems, etc. who are greatly impacted by what a corporation does but do not necessarily own stock in the company. Corporations would need to renew their charters periodically, say every ten years. To be renewed they would have to demonstrate their commitment to stakeholders and to social responsibility. This would create a business model that would not have to sacrifice stakeholder interests in order to earn profits.

A strategic initiative could take either approach or a combination of both. It would advance the progressive idea of the common good and counter the conservative notion of the “free market.” Like other initiatives, it brings progressives of many kinds together. It is a labor issue because it brings workers a legal stake in the business. It is an environmental issue because it would protect the commons. It is a community issue by promoting a positive role for business in our communities. And it is a health issue because it would lead to a reduction in pollution.

Progressive Initiative #4: Transit For All
The way we move around shapes almost everything about our nation. We depend on cars, which pollute the environment, harm our health, restrict social and economic mobility, require the development and maintenance of vast transportation networks, and chain us to foreign (and domestic) oil. Changing over to mass-transit systems would relieve us of all these burdens simultaneously.

The idea is simple. Take the $70 billion a year that currently goes to subsidizing cheap oil – the essential ingredient of our car culture – and shift it toward promoting public transportation. Additional funding could come from the over $250 billion a year that is currently spent on building and maintaining the highway infrastructure.

Transit-for-all is about values. Improving public transportation gives Americans freedom of equal access to social and economic opportunities that enhance our quality of life. Investing in alternative transportation – and shifting key sectors of the economy to local distribution networks – is using the common wealth for the common good.

It is an economic issue because it increases the mobility of goods and labor, while revitalizing neglected neighborhoods. It is a labor issue because it would create jobs – construction workers, engineers, bus drivers, rail operators, administrators, ticket vendors, city planners, etc. It is an environmental issue. The relationship between modern dependence on automobiles and the climate crisis is well known. And it is a public health issue because of the impacts on air quality from dirty exhaust fumes.

What is Your Strategy?

It is time to start thinking strategically. While it is a noble goal – and a practical necessity – that we have universal, affordable health care and that we get out of the debacle in Iraq, these are not the defining issues of our times. The quality of our communities are in decline, mirroring the frightening deterioration of the life-support systems of the entire planet. At the same time, conservative thinking has corroded our constitution and compromised the integrity of our government structure. All of these trends can be reversed, but only if we cultivate long-term goals and express progressive values that unify our efforts in the realms of labor, health, environment, and so on.

What are your thoughts? Please help me explore the initiatives presented in Chapter 7. How would you prioritize them? What other strategic initiatives would you recommend, and which issues would they address?

I look forward to hearing your thoughts.

Go to the next discussion in this series.