The Rockridge Era Ends

by: Rockridge Institute

Mon Apr 21, 2008 at 18:16

The following is a letter that the Rockridge Institute sent to its community this morning announcing its closure.

First, a big Thank You!

The Rockridge Institute was founded with a mission: to teach Americans about the role of values and framing in political debate, and to help progressives equalize the framing advantages enjoyed by conservatives. With your help, Rockridge has done more than any small think tank could be expected to do. About 1,000 of you have donated to support our efforts. More than 8,000 have registered as members of Rockridge Nation to engage actively with us. And hundreds of thousands, both in the US and abroad, have bought our books and used our materials. If you are one of those hundreds of thousands, political discourse will now look different to you. As you read the newspapers and the blogs and watch TV, you can see the effects of our work everywhere. Your support has made that possible. For this and so much more, you have our complete admiration and gratitude.

Nonetheless, the Rockridge era will come to an end on April 30.

Rockridge Institute :: The Rockridge Era Ends
What we have written will remain as archives on our websites and

The end of any organization, even a small one, is a complex matter, and an emotional one for those who have invested themselves in its life. In important ways, Rockridge's triumphs and its limitations reflect the state of the progressive community and point to what the progressive future needs to be. Let's begin at the beginning.

The Rockridge Institute was formed to address a set of challenges: The right-wing think tanks, after spending 35 years and 4 billion dollars, had come to dominate public debate. They had done this by framing Big Ideas their way: the nature of government, the market, taxation, security, morality, responsibility, accountability, character, nature, even life. This allowed them to then frame lower-level issues, special cases like terrorism, Iraq, education, health care, retirement, stem-cell research, the death penalty, affirmative action, and on and on.

Our challenge was to figure out exactly how they had achieved such dominance over the minds of Americans and what progressives could do--not just how to respond case by special case, but how to do the Big Job: to reframe the Big Ideas governing our politics.

How could a tiny institute in Northern California hope to make any progress on such a large task? Our strategy was to use the tools of the cognitive and brain sciences, and to address not just one or two issues, but the full range.

In the last five years, and on a shoe-string budget, Rockridge has achieved more than we could have dreamed of:

  • Theoretical achievements: We worked out the theory of conceptual structure in politics, including how framing works; value-based modes of reasoning for conservatives and progressives; biconceptualism; top-to-bottom issue-based framing; neo-liberalism; contested concepts; elementary and complex cultural narratives as they apply in politics; and the idea of cognitive policy.
  • Applications: We have applied top-to-bottom issue framing and other theoretical results to many issue areas, most recently, health care, immigration, and climate change policy. And we have applied other of our theoretical results to such issues as the war on terror, tort reform, popular democracy, education, religion, and so on.
  • Popularizations: We popularized the understanding of framing and values in political discourse, and have produced a progressive handbook--Thinking Points--and other useful materials, all free online. As a result, political advocates all over America have become far more sophisticated about framing and values than they were five years ago.
  • Community Creation: We have created and maintained a busy, interactive and sophisticated on-line community, Rockridge Nation, with features like question-answering, a weekly workgroup, and a blog. And we have aligned with key influencers to turn our ideas into action on health care, climate policy, and more.
  • Trainings: We have done successful trainings and workshops on a small scale.
  • Political effectiveness: We have helped get progressive candidates elected across this country at all levels, and even in Spain. Various observers, upon reading Thinking Points, have seen in it many elements of the Obama campaign and a new politics.

Most important to us has been how our work has resonated with you. We are proud of what we have done together. In short, with your support and participation, we have had more of an effect than any tiny Northern California nonprofit think tank had any right to expect.

But... we have not done the Big Job, not even close. The conservatives' Big Ideas about government, taxes, security, the market, and the rest still dominate political discourse. Democrats in Congress still cringe at attacks based on these Big Ideas, and many have been intimidated into voting for conservative policies--on funding for Iraq, on government spying without a warrant, on taxes, on bankruptcy, and on and on. The Big Idea intimidation is still working. Changing that is the Big Job.

We at Rockridge have used the physical think tank form to get us this far. We've made important advances in understanding and articulating political cognition. We have done more in-depth studies than most people have the time to read, and we know what has to be done to tackle the Big Job. But we also realize that no small non-profit think tank can do significantly more of the Big Job than we have already done. That will take a large-scale, well-funded progressive cognitive infrastructure.

The progressive infrastructure built so far does not include a cognitive infrastructure. It has not tackled the Big Job--reversing the dominance of conservative Big Ideas in public life. Policy institutes do not address cognitive policy--the ideas and values that have to structure the public mind in order for nuts-and-bolts progressive policy to be accepted as just common sense.

When Rockridge started on its mission, we knew there were huge hurdles -- not just from the Right, but within the progressive community itself.

  • The Progressive Funding Problem: The 1997 Covington Report [Sally Covington, Moving a Public Policy Agenda: The Strategic Philanthropy of Conservative Foundations] observed that conservative foundations tend to give large, multi-year block grants to promote conservatism in general. By contrast, progressive foundations tend to give small grants for a short time over a short list of specific issue areas. This results in small nonprofits having to constantly spend a lot of time and effort raising money, and all too often failing to raise enough.
  • The Cognitive Science Problem: Few people are aware of the results in cognitive science and neuroscience and the techniques of analysis developed in cognitive linguistics. Progressives tend to view research in terms of polls, surveys, and focus groups, rather than the methods for understanding human cognition.
  • The Enlightenment Reason Problem: Progressives commonly believe in some version of Enlightenment Reason, which says that reason is conscious, dispassionate, logical, universal, literal (it directly fits the world), and interest-based. The cognitive and brain sciences have shown this is false in every respect. But if you aren't aware that we normally think unconsciously in terms of frames and metaphors, then framing would seem like deception, spin, or propaganda.
  • The Material Policy Problem: Unlike conservatives, progressives tend to think of policy as material policy alone--the nuts and bolts--and not cognitive policy: the ideas that must be in the brains of the public for policies to be seen as common sense. There is thus little or no understanding of the importance of cognitive policy.
  • The Framing-as-Messaging Problem: If you don't know that framing is the study of thought, then you would naturally but incorrectly think of framing as messaging. This is reinforced by the fact that understanding framing does, in fact, help with effective messaging.
  • The Training Problem: Framing research can't be done by just anyone. It takes training. And since staff members have lives and need financial security, it is hard to maintain a highly-trained staff without sufficient and stable funding.

In the end, we encountered all these problems. They are endemic to progressive advocacy and politics. We weathered them for years and accomplished a huge amount. Eventually--even with a thousand donors--the funding problem caught up with us.

Thank you for all your support.

Together, we will keep the Rockridge spirit alive and together we will continue to build a strong progressive movement with a sustainable infrastructure and a vital understanding of
the cognitive dimension of politics, policy and governance.

--The Rockridge Staff
Joe Brewer
Bruce Budner
Evan Frisch
Eric Haas
George Lakoff
Sherry Reson
Glenn W. Smith

P.S. We are conducting a final Rockridge Nation discussion on this issue through Wednesday, April 23rd.

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Shit. (4.00 / 4)
I had no idea they were in bad shape.  Might've sent some $ had I known (though not enough to make the difference--I'm not that fat a cat).

Thanks to everyone at Rockridge for their great service, and hopefully they'll be able to continue their work in other organizations.

Not Too Late for Others (0.00 / 0)
It may be too late for Rockridge, but there are lots of other organizations that could use your help. Here is an annotated list of 500 leading national progressive organizations. Find a few you like and send them some love.

[ Parent ]
This in incredibly sad and worse, ironic (0.00 / 0)
appearing side by side with Matt's diary Block Blackwater and War Funding seems to indicate the Dems in Congress, despite popular support for the opposite action, seem to be conceding on the idea of blocking the supplemental war funding request or tying any supplemental to withdrawal timelines.  Why?  Because the big bad Republicans might call them unpatriotic?

(sorry for the mini-rant there)

But this is sad, as it is a testament to how far the progressive community still has to go to become the force in national politics this country so desparately needs, imo.

Oh, damnit. (4.00 / 1)
As a longtime admirer of Prof. Lakoff, I was so excited to learn of the founding of the Rockridge Institute -- I had hoped they would effect some big changes in discourse and liberal infrastructure. I bet they could have probably joined with, or someone similar, and raised a few hundred k.

If I ever sell a tech startup, I'll fund a new institute to do sometime like them ;D

As If We Needed Any More Proof That Democrats STILL Don't Get It! (4.00 / 8)
This is really terrible news--not just because of the loss of Rockrdige, as if that wasn't bad enough, but because it shows so clearly that there is NO recognition of the need to build progressive infrastructure.

Just look at how many millions have been raised by the Presidential campaigns this cycle.  And just a tiny fraction of it could have not just kept Rockridge afloat, but DOUBLED it in size.

Here's a thought: how about we impose a tax on our online fundraising efforts?  Say 2% of all donations go to a special "infrastructure building fund."  And we spend that on infrastructure of our own choosing?

I damn sure wish we could implement this idea immediately, and save Rockridge.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3

That's a great idea, Paul (4.00 / 4)
A while back, I had hopes that some kind of act blue type "infrastructure building fund" would come together in time to help us. Maybe it's in our futures. After years of the starvation economics of the non profit sector, I certainly hope so.

[ Parent ]
"there is NO recognition of the need to build progressive infrastructure." (0.00 / 0)
That's the LAST thing the 'mainstream' Dims want, and you know it all too well, Pablo...
Damn DFHs! Universal Health Care? Alternative Energy? Tree-drivin,' latte-sniffin, Volvo-huggin' elitists! They'd drive all the CorpoRat Cash away...Hell, vegetarians are the fascist spawn of the nazis, I heard...

[ Parent ]
Let me add to that (4.00 / 1)
A dollar to a progressive infrastructure org today is like ten dollars to EACH progressive candidate in the country two years later.

Let me explain what I mean.  Progressive infrastructure organizations are working to help the public understand and appreciate what progressives are about.  By explaining the benefits to them of a progressive approach they help build public acceptance of and demand for progressive policies and candidates - across the board.  As more people understand why progressive solutions benefit them more than conservative proposals, they develop a lasting identification with the progressive brand.  Then later, during the election cycle, they vote for progressive candidates.  Across the board.

This is how the conservatives have been so successful.  They work year-round to convince people to identify as conservatives.  When election time comes around all some of them have to do is point at the opponent and shout "liberal" to win.  They ride a wave of nationally-advanced propaganda convincing people to support "tort reform" or "tax relief" that has been going on for years.  At campaign time everything is laid out for them on a silver platter, the public is prepared and primed, and the national conservative movement infrastructure will have some special issue to fire yup their voters and get them to the polls.

Progressive candidates, on the other hand, are generally on their own.  Their general campaign begins in the summer, they have to decide what "issues" to run on, they have to develop a message from scratch, by themselves, and then they have to reach their voters from scratch.  And they have to do all of this on their own in a few months.

This is why building up a national progressive advocacy infrastructure would leverage these campaign donations and help us build a sustainable progressive majority.  A few dollars to progressive advocacy organizations on any given TODAY builds long-term support for every progressive candidate on any given TOMORROW.  It lowers the need for massive election-cycle funding.

Like you said, the Democratic Party donor base hasn't yet gotten that message.  Masses of money for candidates at the last minute - a million dollars in one minute today, the day before the big primary.  But almost nothing for the Rockridges and Commonweal Institutes.


Seeing The Forest -- Who is our economy FOR, anyway? Twitter: dcjohnson

[ Parent ]
Mission for the Netroots (4.00 / 1)
During off election years... spend a lot more time highlighting a progressive group or piece of infrastructure which needs funding.  

We won the Battle. Now the Real Fight for Change Begins. Join and fight for progressive change.  

Off election years? Which ones are those? (4.00 / 3)
You have the year after a presidential, which is when the big policy battles tend to be fought.  That's the most active season for legislation, as far as I know.

Then the midterm year and associated campaigns.

Then the presidential primary year.  It was much worse in 2007 than usual, because there were open primaries on both sides, but theoretically 2007 was an "off year."  Didn't feel like much of one to me.

And then you get the presidential year.

I say this to point out that every time is a bad time for long-term organizing; there is always some short-term excuse.  Long-term priorities have to be advanced despite, not in deference to, the short-term calendar.

Of course, that's easy to say and hard to do.

[ Parent ]
Agreed. (0.00 / 0)
Was thinking non presidential years and non congressional years... don't know what I was thinking there.  

We won the Battle. Now the Real Fight for Change Begins. Join and fight for progressive change.  

[ Parent ]
Another Small Think Tank (0.00 / 0)
FWIW, the Center for Progressive Reform is still in business, though it doesn't really duplicate the work of the Rockridge Institute.  

CPR is composed of 50 member scholars who work on a volunteer basis on a broad range of issues.  Scholars have written editorials, white papers, articles, and books; testified before Congress on numerous occasions; provided Hill Briefings to members of Congress and their staff; and organized conferences to promote progressive public policies.  

Even a primarily volunteer organization like CPR, however, needs funding for staff and miscellaneous expenses.

Hrm (0.00 / 0)
I'm a fan like everyone, and it's a shame, but I have to say it strikes me as profoundly weak to fold like this at a time when many progressive causes are, to use a good framing term, flourishing.

Perhaps too much reliance on big checks.

Me | My Work | Future Majority

Oh sure it is their fault. (0.00 / 0)
Meanwhile they cultivated a list of readers and subscribers who donated very little. Meanwhile there are groups out there whose very job it is to find and fund progressive infrastructure.

Take Democracy Alliance, our so-called secretive savior in this monetary arena.....

The mission of the Democracy Alliance is to strengthen democracy by partnering with, making human and financial investments in, and fostering collaboration among progressive leaders and institutions committed to turning the Alliance's vision for America into a reality.

Here is a list of the major groups they have donated to....
Notice anything? These are virtually all action oriented/GOTV oriented/single-issue-oriented groups. There are two--TWO--idea driven groups here CAP (and that is run by John Podesta, quite the Washington insider) and the Journal.

Where are the long-term groups who are building a coherent progressive narrative and connecting policy to values which we know is the Conservative's winning formula?

Organizations self-identified or identified in published reports as receiving financial support from the Democracy Alliance include the following:

   * ACORN
   * Air America Radio network
   * America Votes
   * AmericanForeignPolicy, [5]
   * Catalist, [6]
   * Center for American Progress
   * Center for Community Change
   * Center for Progressive Leadership
   * Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, CREW
   * Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, [7]
   * Democracy: A Journal of Ideas, [8]
   * EMILY's List
   * Media Matters for America
   * New Democratic Network, [9]
   * People for the American Way, [10]
   * Progressive Majority, [11]
   * Sierra Club
   * USAction
   * Young People For, [12]
   * Women's Voices. Women Vote., [13]

We won the Battle. Now the Real Fight for Change Begins. Join and fight for progressive change.  

[ Parent ]
errr (0.00 / 0)
It's their fault for not asking people like you and me for money. Was there a grassroots fundraising drive? I don't think so. That's a massive and damning oversight if they really do in fact want to stay in  business.

The Democracy Alliance is no savior. It's a big pile of money that does some institutional work. The fact that Rockridge didn't fight (as far as I can tell) to stay up and running is weak sauce.  

Me | My Work | Future Majority

[ Parent ]
I can assure you... (0.00 / 0)
that we tried very hard to develop a grass-roots fundraising capacity. In the long run though, fully funding a think tank with the resources to compete with Heritage, Hoover, American Enterprise, etc. requires the "big checks" on top of grass roots support.

It is difficult to read someone say we "didn't fight" when that person has no idea how hard we did fight for the last two years to sustain ourselves financially and to produce great work.

Bruce Budner
Executive Director
Rockridge Institute  

[ Parent ]
This hurts long-term (0.00 / 0)
Hopefully something will come along to take the place of Rockridge, but as has been noted this is a symptom of one thing that differentiates our party from the other party. The conservatives of various stripes recognized the need for long-term institutions, and they built those institutions and gave them lots of money. I think progressives have been slowly learning about the Cognitive and Reasoning problems outlined above, thanks to Rockridge and Lakoff, but not fast enough.  

"I think the economic logic behind dumping a load of toxic waste in the lowest wage country is impeccable and we should face up to that."
-Lawrence Summers


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