By Ralph Benko
October 8th, 2017
Recently, the New York Times quoted House Minority Leader (and conservative bête noir) Nancy Pelosi saying “We didn’t win the elections, but we’ve won every fight.”
It’s a grotesque marvel. Yet Pelosi is right.
Want to know why this is happening? Follow along.
Two little-known, self-effacing, immensely potent leaders of the progressive movement, Patrick Reinsborough (long a friend and cherished archenemy) and Doyle Canning, are a big part of the reason for the left’s relentless success. They have recently published the second edition of the most important political book of our era: Re:Imagining Change: How to use story-based strategy to win campaigns, build movements, and change the world. They have quietly and effectively been teaching the left for a long time. It is working.
This book lays out, chapter and verse, the culture, strategy and tactics by which the left continues to achieve policy victory after policy victory notwithstanding political defeats. It is the hidden-in-plain-sight secret blueprint to the left’s most powerful “secret weapon.” It is a blueprint the progressive movement has been following, episodically but often with great success, for decades: the innocuous-sounding “story-based strategy.”
The good news? The culture, strategy and tactics they use are neutral. These would be as powerful in the hands of the right as they are in the hands of the left, at least if the right ups its game and powerfully stands for justice for all as well as liberty. (We certainly ought to be doing that.)
How powerful are these tools? They are the very tools which Donald Trump — who, certainly, independently derived them — used to propel himself to the presidency. Yet Trump, not exactly a man of the right, stands virtually alone in the GOP in so doing.
The bad news? The right, since Reagan (a maestro) left the scene, rarely deploys these tools. The right seems ill equipped to do so. Getting our hands on this book is kind of like being handed the blueprints to the atomic bomb. And yet, alas, we will now place it in Hangar 51, next to the Ark of the Covenant and the Crystal Skull, ignored.
Let’s make an exception in passing for the extraordinary Steve Bannon, a true populist and a modern master of narrative. That mastery greatly contributes to his power.
I am very much a man of the right, once called by a Washington Post Magazine columnist, half in jest and whole in earnest, “the second most conservative man in the world” for my advocacy of the gold standard. That said, I also am a connoisseur of culture, strategy and tactics.
Also, I have an avid appreciation of radicals — those who get to the root of things, not hooligans. My gusto extends to those who inhabit and project the counter-narrative to my own.
is a culture-shifting work. It shows exactly how the left is eating the
right’s strategy for breakfast. It shows why the left is very likely to
continue to do so.
As that great proto-Supply-Sider Peter Drucker once said “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”
This book is mainly about culture.
There have been three primary defining works for political and social activists over the past century.
The first of these is the work, especially the “Prison Notebooks,” of Antonio Gramsci. Gramsci, imprisoned by the Italian fascists, conceived “cultural hegemony” and laid out the principle described by left wing activist and martyr Rudi Dutschke as “the long march through the institutions” to replace the classical liberal republican free market hegemony with their own.
A founder of the Italian Communist Party, Gramsci recognized that the Communists were too weak to take political power but could infiltrate and dominate smaller civic entities such as the local school board and church vestry. Under the aegis of these socially-accepted entities they could gain power and resources, advance their agenda, and grow in power.
This is still productively being used by the left today. The left has weaponized de Tocqueville. Fiendishly brilliant!
The second of these works is Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals: A Practical Primer For Realistic Radicals. Full disclosure: I, under the chairmanship of Saul’s son, David Alinsky, serve as president of the Alinsky Center. Alinsky is considered a man of the left. This is entirely because he dedicated his life to fighting against injustice, such as corporate and government racial discrimination.
Alinsky was entirely uninfluenced by Gramsci, the speculations of the ignorant notwithstanding. Alinsky was just a tough talking guy from the Chicago streets who liked to teach the little guy how to stand up for himself. As an aside, Alinsky detested Big Government, publicly calling LBJ’s “War on Poverty” political pornography. He provided strategic guidance to then-Cardinal Archbishop Montini (later Pope Paul VI, hardly anyone’s idea of a left winger) to defeat the Italian Communist Party. He was neither a communist nor a socialist nor a Satanist.
Rules for Radicals is a work of populist genius. Its tactics have been widely and successfully adopted by the left. Alinsky’s tactics are an integral part of the canon of progressive political activism. Deservedly so. The right would benefit from taking them up. One hopes the political culture of both the left and right will now begin to assimilate Alinsky’s ethics of human dignity and creativity.
The third? Re:Imagining Change. It is a big claim to say that Re:Imagining Change belongs in the political canon right next to Gramsci and Alinsky. That said, I am well steeped in such matters, a long-time movement conservative, close observer of the Vast Left Wing Conspiracy, and, in the day, a Tea Party leader. I speak on this matter with some authority.
Much evidence shows that the left’s proficient use of the culture, strategy and tactics described in Re:Imagining Change is the real reason that Nancy Pelosi is right to say “We didn’t win the elections, but we’ve won every fight.” And will continue to do so.
Re:Imagining Change is the most dangerous contemporary book in my library and, so far as I can tell, the world.
The ongoing victories by the left are not accidental. Reinsborough, Canning, and their colleagues, over decades, quietly have been training and guiding thousands of progressive activists in the cultivation and use of an overlooked political and social superweapon. Behind-the-scenes, although never surreptitiously, they and their immediate colleagues have been equipping the left’s political guerrillas with a superweapon far more powerful, and more valuable, than the ones being purchased with billions of dollars by the right.
What do Reinsborough and Canning now reveal? The introduction to the 2nd edition makes it plain:
Storytelling is a foundation of human culture and has always been central to successful social change campaigns and movements.
1. We live in a unique time in the history of our planet, which
requires that we fundamentally shift the political, economic, and
cultural systems that structure our lives. …
2. Social change happens when ordinary people come together to organize with a shared purpose as part of a broad-based social movement. …
3. In order to change systems we have to change narratives.
The narratives by which we live are the fulcrum on which our political,
economic, and cultural levers rest. Shrewdly adjusting the character of
the fulcrum provides activists with far more power than does toying
with the levers.
Re:Imagining Change shows how to do that with astonishing lucidity and power.
Recognizing the power of narrative is not exactly a new insight. Yet they have uniquely and importantly recognized its political and social centrality.
Plato, in The Republic, millennia ago, wrote about the power, and danger, of narratives (and narrators), recommending that poets be banished:
It seems, then, that if a man, who through clever training can become anything and imitate anything, should arrive in our city, wanting to give a performance of his poems, we should bow down before him as someone holy, wonderful, and pleasing, but we should tell him that there is no one like him in our city and that it isn’t lawful for there to be. We should pour myrrh on his head, crown him with wreaths, and send him away to another city. (398a)
In 1703, Scottish nationalist philosopher Andrew Fletcher of Saltoun wrote in a letter to the Marquis of Montrose:
I said I knew a very wise man so much of Sir Christopher’s sentiment, that he believed if a man were permitted to make all the ballads he need not care who should make the laws of a nation…. (Emphasis supplied.)
In 1776, Thomas Paine wrote a brief pamphlet by the title of Common Sense. It ignited the American revolution. It, along with Paine’s ongoing The American Crisis pamphlets written at the behest of General Washington, gave the Americans the ideals, and idealistic principles, that inspired the War for Independence, their codification in the Declaration of Independence, and victory. As summarized at History.com:
‘I know not whether any man in the world has had more influence on its inhabitants or affairs for the last thirty years than Tom Paine.’ So wrote John Adams in 1805. In an age of political pamphleteering, Paine had become the most influential pamphleteer of all. His writings remain classic statements of the egalitarian, democratic faith of the Age of Revolution.
Napoleon Bonaparte, on June 17, 1800, casually but pointedly observed while reviewing some of prisoners of war whom his troops had captured, prisoners who cheered him:
What a thing is imagination! Here are men who don’t know me, who have never seen me, but who only knew of me, and they are moved by my presence, they would do anything for me! And this same incident arises in all centuries and in all countries! Such is fanaticism! Yes, imagination rules the world. The defect of our modern institutions is that they do not speak to the imagination. By that alone can man be governed; without it he is but a brute.
Yes, imagination rules the world.
Reinsborough and Canning activate this key point. Although it is one which has lurked at the periphery of politics forever they have seized upon it and made it central within the progressive movement. This is the secret behind their policy victories.
Will the right get woke and take this lesson in culture, strategy and tactics to heart?
Likely not. If not, I predict the left will prevail. Likely sooner than later.
Reinsborough and Canning’s manifesto is indispensable because it takes the principle of narrative and then, meticulously and nearly flawlessly, instructs the reader how to put it to work. It lays out, vividly and specifically, how to change narratives. It teaches how to get right inside people’s heads and change the way people think.
Virtually every page conveys powerful strategic and tactical secrets. These are not mere theoretical insights. These insights have been implemented, repeatedly, with many successes and refined over decades to be made even more potent. Want to know how Save The Whales came about? Climate Change? GMOs? Black Lives Matter? Read it.
Its chapter titles give some flavor: Why Story; Narrative Power; Winning the Battle of the Story; Points of Intervention; Changing the Story; and Navigating Crisis and Transition: A Call to Innovation.
In discussing narrative power, chapter II, the authors declare:
Lesson one in narrative power: myth is meaning. Don’t be limited by the common pejorative use of ‘myth’ to mean ‘lie’ and miss the deeper relevance of mythology as a framework for shared meaning. Myths are often mistakenly dismissed as folktales from long ago describing fantastical realities, but even today a sea of stories tell us who we are, what to believe, and toward what we should aspire. These stories play the same role that myths always have: answering the fundamental questions of identity, origin, and worldview.
Make no mistake about the scope of the authors’, and the left’s, ambitions. The concluding chapter declares:
Growing instability means more psychic breaks. As they chip away at old worldviews, many fights are increasingly about who provides the narration for the culture–will it be the elite media, political figures, right-wing Twitter trolls, or progressive movements? Actively narrating the change means building the power and reach to define public interpretation of the shifts happening all around us.
If grassroots movements successfully narrate the changes that ordinary people are experiencing in their lives, there is an incredible opportunity to engage public participation in the fight for systemic solutions. But to win these types of macro-framing contests we must collectively promote narrative as a key arena of struggle.
The culture, strategy and tactics of the left really are brilliant.
The left does have an Achilles heel. Several of them.
Its “America The Evil” core narrative, if recognized as such, is politically toxic and will alienate the labor, and much of the ethnic, left as well as the broad electorate. The left’s skepticism of, and even hostility to, technology is widely unpopular and not just in America but very much around the world. And the dogmas of the left (just like the dogmas of the right) are beset with internal contradictions.
As just one example of such contradictions the left is rhetorically committed to democracy. There is a certain irony implied in advancing policies advocated by candidates overwhelmingly and consistently rejected by the voters. What kind of “democracy” is that? Their “democracy” is reminiscent of “People’s Democratic Republics” around the world.
The left rationalizes this incongruity by claiming that the political system is rigged. It then proposes to rig it in its own favor. Virtually every single electoral “reform” propounded by the left would work distinctly to the advantage of left-leaning candidates. This reveals faux populism. The left isn’t really “reform” minded. It is intent on taking power.
Bravo to them! It is exhilarating to have adversaries of this genius and ruthlessness.
That said, I begin to despair. Unless the right recognizes the left’s key vulnerabilities and starts using comparable culture, strategy and tactics, the left’s story-based strategy ultimately will prevail. And the right shows little sign of interest in, or propensity to use, narrative.
And there you have it.
Now you know why Nancy Pelosi was, for the first time in her long career, right: “We didn’t win the elections, but we’ve won every fight.” The left wins every fight because it is astutely using the culture, strategy and tactics of Re:Imagining Change.
the left stays on course and the right continues to ignore these
extraordinarily potent insights the left will continue to win every
fight. The GOP will go the way of the Whigs.
Don’t fancy Re:Imagining Change? Of course you don’t!
If you’re reading this you are likely a (center) right winger. Right wingers heavily favor argument, which is a weak form of rhetoric, over narrative, which is strong. Still, desperate times call for desperate measures. And listen up: It is too late to pour myrrh on Reinsborough’s and Canning’s heads, crown them with wreaths, and send them away to another city.
The left has already let the djinn of the imagination out of its imaginary bottle. That djinn is granting the left’s wishes for the power to change, dramatically, how we live.
We of the right must either soon release our own djinn or else lose, and lose, and lose again. America, then, will plunge over the Reichenbach Falls of the mesmerizing yet utterly chimerical narrative of a Socialist Workers Paradise.
Welcome to the ultimate political battlefield.
It is the battlefield for your mind.