A siloed left stands no chance against an organized right

By Patrick Nolen and Ilsa van den Broeck

“If you know your enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.”  The Art of War by Sun Tzu, 600 BC. 

Sun Tzu was, of course, originally referring to warfare in ancient China.  But to the hundreds of thousands who have more recently studied and applied his principles, his observation holds just as true in modern politics, and in our efforts at organizing around social justice issues.

Many right-of-center institutions and advocates seem to have taken Sun Tzu’s advice to heart. Moreover, they may even be well on the way to perfecting the deployment of intelligence-gathering tools and technologies in their efforts to understand what they view as their enemies.  At the same time, those of us who are left of center seem almost to be afraid to understand our opponents, lest the effort involved in gaining that understanding somehow contaminate us.

The political right, both conservatives and libertarians, have a whole industry full of people who are paid to think of ways to derail the left, to co-opt us and confuse our messages, all the while sharpening theirs. There are think tanks that raise and spend millions of dollars a year just to correctly frame issues to make it harder for us to get our points across.  Our efforts on the left are far less organized, more ad hoc and, ultimately, cripplingly silo-ed.

When we on the left gather intelligence, we spend money in narrow bands, and ask for specific results, such as “How can we serve this group of our constituents or that special interest group better”? When the right gathers and uses intelligence, they write a big check with the instructions “make something we can use across the board” Our intelligence-gathering is generally so compartmentalized that the results often do not get disseminated outside the initial group sponsors. When the right’ releases information, it is pushed out far and wide, using every channel available.

Just to emphasize our point, how many of our readers have read George Lakoff’s “Don’t Think of an Elephant!”? How about “Counter-Insurgency Field Manual 3-24”?  We are betting that Conservative thinker Frank Luntz has read both. We bet that Frank, and his colleagues, read a lot of books by “left-leaning” writers. They know what we fail to recognize for ourselves, which is that in order for them to be most effective, not only do they have to understand the issues from their team’s point of view, but also from our team’s as well…

Two weeks ago Ilsa was in a conversation among our colleagues where it turned out that not one of 15 people present had even heard of German general Helmuth von Moltke, Not one understood how “Mission Tactics” was important to our movement. One of our colleagues even asked derisively “how are some German generals important to me?” They did not know who Moltke was, or what that phrase meant to our movement, however, the right appears to have set up their think tanks based on their understanding of both.

At a similar gathering a couple of weeks later, Ilsa was laughed at for having compared the abortion issue, and it’s relationship to what used to be Southern Democrats, to the German attack past the Maginot line in 1940. She was even told that “that metaphor does not work, politics is not war”!

In the future, we need to learn more from our mistakes. To be effective, we need to learn to look at how we have failed and see what we can do differently. We also need to learn to use our opponent’s tactics and strategies when they prove useful.

What separates us now from greater success is our own worry that we may offend someone, or somehow be corrupted by an understanding of how and why the opposition does what it does. Our opponents have not forgotten Sun Tzu’s time-tested advice.

Neither must we.

Comments are closed as of Dec 17 2012 to prepare for migration of content to our new News site.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s