Thursday, January 21, 2010

Lessons from Massachusetts

Based on what I'd read about each of the candidates in Massachusetts, watching the White House's non-reaction as the race got close, and topped off with the underlying tone of doom in some of Nate Silver's posts as of late, I pretty much figured that Massachusetts would elect a Republican to the Senate this week. I knew Coakley was done the second she made that Fenway Park crack, while Brown was revered by the villagers for his "drivin' 'round in yer pickup truck to visit the folks" campaign style. You really couldn't have a more stark example of the big Washington elitist liberal against the good old boy that just wants to represent the common man's needs. And not only did the Brown campaign play that up to the fullest extent, the idiots in Coakley's campaign played right into that character game instead of focusing on policy, which would ensure their own success. The White House, meanwhile, sat on it's hands and did nothing, because it's Massachusetts, right? Who are you fuckers going to vote for, a Republican?

Apparently so.

Oddly enough, I'm not that upset. Yes, it's a damn shame that the seat that Kennedy once held is going to someone who will (probably) help obstruct health care reform. Yes, it's a damn shame that I'll be forced to listen to crowing about how this special election shows that Republican policies are what the people want and that Democrats better act more Republican if they want to keep their seats. Yes, it's a damn shame how one state's special election will be portrayed as some all out mandate against health care reform.

But I'm a bit hopeful that this may be a wake-up call to the Democratic party. We can't blame Republicans for this one, this was an all out, all levels involved, complete fuck-up on behalf of the Democrats. And there really is no one reason why this election played out the way it did, you have a combination of a lazy campaign that took it's constituents for granted, you have an uneasy and angry populace that is less forgiving to anyone that reeks of old politics, and you have a very unmotivated liberal base. And perhaps now that the tiny insular Obama administration bubble (never thought I'd have to write a statement like that) is broken, they might start paying attention to, you know, the people that they are supposed to be serving. Here are some lessons that I would hope the Democrats can take from this:

Lesson One: Drop the Bi-Partisanship shtick, it hurts more then it helps.

The Republicans hate you and want you to fail. Why this isn't completely obvious at this point is beyond me. One might think (I'm thinking that this is what the White House is banking on) that eventually the Republicans can't help but come around, because of the negative image they are giving themselves with their obstructive tactics. But so far, we've yet to see this happen, no matter how many times the administration reaches out. Why? Because Republicans have absolutely nothing to lose from being obstructionist assholes. They actually gain from it.

The Republican image of the rough and tough gut-trusting cowboys softens the observation that they are acting like spoiled children when it comes to obstructing policy, if anything, it reinforces the notion that they are a strong, take no prisoners party. Add that to the recent attempt to paint themselves as populist, and you get a strong, take-no-prisoners party that will fight to the death to defend the little guy. So no, Republicans haven't taken any hits for their behavior, and they won't.

But Democrats will, because what are their options at that point? They can whine about the Republicans' tactics, but until they actually manage to call their bluff and make them filibuster (and for the love of fucking god, make them filibuster), the public doesn't see obstruction, they see whiny little Democratic babies crying about those big meanie Republicansm which fits in nicely with their pre-set image that Democrats are whiny little babies.

Secondly, they can appease and appease and appease, which is what they've been doing. Again, not only does this make them appear weak, but it screws all of us by giving us crappy, watered down bills. And they keep this ruse up, because god forbid, if they actually fought for something that Republicans don't like, such as the public option, the netroots might be happy with them, and they might be tainted as (gasp!) Liberal. Which as we know, is the opposite of bi-partisan (conservative, however, is it's synonym).

And not only does this have an effect on the public's perception of the two parties, it is actually hindering legislation as well. The idea that soon we would all hold hands and sing and pass everything in a quick and efficient manner once we got over our partisan hostility has fallen flat. It is actually complicating legislation. If it weren't for the bi-partisan fetish, health care could have been done quicker. If it weren't for the bi-partisan fetish, you wouldn't have to add amendments into the Health Care bill that alienate certain groups. If it weren't for the bi-partisan fetish, we would have had a stronger stimulus bill. And the time it takes is taxing as well, how long did you waste trying to achieve that magical filibuster-proof pony, spend courting Senators Snowe and Lieberman only to have them turn around and slap you in the face?

And you know what that time spent chasing that unicorn has achieved? A lack of action on other bills we need. Bills that also are necessary to help out an increasingly unemployed and angry constituency. The economy is still shit, and unemployment is still at 10%. This are very real hardships that people are dealing with, and they do not move to the side in people's minds merely because you show them how nice you are by kissing the asses of Republicans. Someone that is unemployed and struggling right now cares fuck all about how nice you are, I assure you.

The people did not want us to fall into another great depression. The people have no problem with the government helping out with unemployment. The people wanted Health Care reform at the onset, and, when it wasn't phrased as a push-poll, responded favorably to the idea of a public option. The people want their leaders to be, well, leaders. There's a reason Bush was so popular when all of his policies were not - he owned that shit with an in-your-face attitude and never waved in the face of criticism. The guy stuck to his principles and it was never disputed that he was in charge. So this idea that the Democrats should meekly abandon the goals that got them elected in the first place, abandon the promises they made to the nation, and appease the Republicans no matter how important the issue is for the country is ludicrous.

If the political landscape is forgiving to more moderate measures, fine. Be bi-partisan. But you cannot work with people that have indicated over and over again that they have no interest working with you. But go ahead, Charlie Brown, kick that football again. I'm sure Lucy won't pull it away this time.

Lesson Two: Find your goddamn voice. Here's a hint - it should be similar to the people's voice.

The public's approval of Health Care Reform has dropped considerably since last summer. I can cite two major reasons as to why this may be - first, you have the screaming teabaggers sending out catch phrase after catch phrase condemning it. And on the left, you have nothing but a massive pile of confusion as to what the Health Care bill actually is. It should never have gone down this way, as the catch phrase is not only easy, it was put out early and eagerly accepted by health care reform supporters: "No one in America should die because they can't afford health care, and no one should go broke because they get sick".

How much easier can it get? Yet Democrats sold this bill terribly. Part of it was when they buckled and sold out to the health industry. As they are Democrats, and they don't want to appear in bed with the lobbyists, much tricky language was used to hide this, and the goal of the bill became a bit foggy. I can't deny it's nice to have a political party that doesn't just all out lie about what the policy is (Healthy Forest Initiative, anyone?). But politics is made of soundbites, whether we like it or not. And the underlying goal of this bill was to prevent people from being dropped or denied. Stick with that, and the people will follow.

Perhaps you respect the people enough to try to explain things out to them rather then deal with soundbites. And that's a fine and noble approach. But your medium does not take that angle. Villagers want quick, simple, snappy, catchy little quotes to put on their news programs. This is what get's their audience's attention, and what gives them ratings. And if you don't provide them with a narrative that is simple enough, they will create their own, or borrow from the groups that are giving them a simple narrative - in this case, the Teabagging right.

Lesson Three: Respect your base

There's been a lot of infighting among moderates, liberals and progressives lately (okay, there always is, but it's been more vicious). Liberals and progressives are upset because they feel Obama hasn't fulfilled many of his campaign promises. The base in demoralized, and when they are so, they do things like claim to have no political home that represents them or or that they are sick and tired of politics as usual, and they stay home or send up a protest vote for your opponent. Liberals are excessive in this matter as they pride themselves on being above the normal wear and tear of politics and mentally individualistic. If you want their support, you need to cater to that stuff. No, it doesn't mean kill the health care bill because it isn't perfect. It doesn't mean using your administration for the sole goal of revenge for the past decade's shenanigans. But you have to stroke their egos a bit. This shit isn't that hard.

But Democrats seem to take liberal votes for granted. They've always held the opinion that these voters have no where else to go, so they will turn out every election to support them. They don't seem to understand that they must earn the votes of their constituents, they instead throw those constituents under the bus in favor of trying to earn the votes of those that will never, ever support them. Yes, Howard Dean's plan to strengthen the Democratic electorate by recruiting more conservative Democrats seemed to pay off at first glance, when Democrats won both houses and the executive branch. But now we are in a situation where bills that are put forth by Democrats are being derailed by the those same conservative Democrats, and only Democrats are taking the blame for their failures. Why should the Republicans even stick their neck out anymore, when they have congressmen like Bart Stupak, Ben Nelson, and Joe Lieberman to derail the Democratic agenda for them? So this strikes me as a pretty unproductive strategy. Things like Health Care reform are a pretty standard Democratic platform, yet we can't even get our shit together on that, and are alienating voters in the process. And as we've seen, the voters are tired of being taken for granted and are getting angry.

Look, I get that some liberals can irritate. I wish Jane Hamsher would shut the hell up as much as the next person. But the reason why Jane Hamshers exist as prominent voices is because they give you the base from which to start negotiations from. And you guys throw it away every. single. time. The public option was not the place on which to start debate. Single-Payer was. But that was never brought to the table, so instead you decided to compromise down from an existing compromise, because, why? Republicans might get angry if you first proposed Single-Payer? Have you not noticed that they just get angry no matter what you put on the table?

One warning that I've heard is that you can't cater too much to your base, because then you end up all insane like the Republicans currently are. This is true to an extent. But first off, Republicans seem to be doing just fine with their tea-baggers (when the alternative is big-government-corporate-crony Democrats, the populist wave of crazy seems not so crazy). They managed to dominate the airwaves and make themselves as a formidable opposition to Democratic policies. This will probably blow up in their faces in the long run. But when the right's base is catered to and the left's base shunned entirely, it has the effect of moving the discourse farther to the right. At this point, the debate is between the radical right and the moderates, liberal voices are left in the wilderness. And you cannot expect them to come home every few years after you've abandoned them.

Politicians have bought into the villiage narrative that the liberal base is unhinged and unreasonable, whereas the conservative base is legitimate and significant. And Democrats have helped push this narrative along, because they are terrified of being labeled as liberal - the backlash of the politics of the 60s has turned "liberal" into a dirty word. And as such, anyone that identifies with it or it's politics too closely are shunned by the Democratic party. Republicans, on the other hand, mainstream their crazy, they give them blow horns and soapboxes and a sweet-paying prime pundit spot on Fox News. What this leads to is an increase in conservative extremism in the mainstream and a decrease in liberal extremism. I should stress that this is not because there aren't crazy-ass liberals. There are. I've met them. But they will get no where near a major media outlet, because the party has purged them (and for good reason). Republicans, on the other hand, have felt no such pressure to do so.

Now the media has trouble with this. As they too fear the "liberal" label, they have taken on the practice of trying to present themselves as fair and balanced. And when you are dealing with crazy right-wingers and meek left-wingers, and the desperate need to treat both sides "equally", this creates an atmosphere of false equivalence. But the "left of the left" being pissed off about the lack of a public option is no where near marching on the capitol grounds because you want to keep the government out of your Medicare. Hating Bush for going into Iraq is nowhere near hating Obama because you think he has some secret socialist agenda. Wanting equal rights for American citizens is nowhere near claiming this country should be run in accordance with the bible. Expressing concern about excessive abuses of governmental authority is nowhere near quaking in fear that the brown people are going to steal our jobs/kill us all and need to be detained, tortured and bombed for our safety.

No one is asking Obama to join the Animal Liberation Front's next attempt at bombing out a animal-testing facility. But it probably wouldn't hurt to read Paul Krugman once in a while. Painting those that diverge from the center-left as extremists of the wingnut variety that must be avoided at all costs is merely playing into the narrative that the Republicans created decades ago to win elections. They have no plans to support you once you cast the liberals out, so by avoiding your base you have nothing to gain but a smaller voter pool. Cut it out.

Lesson Four: Stop listening to the goddamn villagers.

A quick survey of the major news sites this week finds that the prevailing meme out there is once again that the Democrats didn't appease the "center-right" leaning constituents enough, saying that this was a mandate on the existence of Health Care Reform, on those pesky whining leftists that keep picking on poor Obama for not doing what the country really wants him to do (be a Republican), on "Big Government" liberals, or on the "overspending" and "out-of-touch" Democrats. They even busted out Karl Rove, man of the people, on Fox to talk about how this is all a rebuke of liberal philosophy as a whole. Move more right, they urge. If you would just be more like "Moderates", the country will love you. We promise.

Except, that is the lesson the villagers send out no matter what happens. Perhaps it's time to face a solid fact: The village only represents the village. So as far as the general population goes, they really have no fucking clue as to what they are talking about. These are the guys that jumped on the Iraq war bandwagon. These are the guys that allowed Bush to get away with every civil rights violation because they felt it would tar their image if they actually pointed out how fucked up some of the post-9/11 polices were. These are the guys that stood in awe of Sarah Palin and touted her as a political revolution. These are the guys that loved McCain's barbecues too much to point out that he wasn't so much of a maverick then an self-serving, bitter old man. In short, these guys are idiots. They have been wrong, dead wrong, about pretty much everything they've "covered" as "news". But for the Democrats, no media cycle hissy fit is too small to address, no gossipy opinion columnist too petty to suck up to.

The media does not represent the people, they merely represent themselves, because they are narcissists that have created this fantasy that the world cannot survive without the input of their esteemed opinions. But the reality is that they are self-serving fools, so perhaps it's time to stop listening to them. The Republicans did a long time ago, and the result was the village falling all over themselves to prove they are worthy of Republicans attention. Not only does this in turn cause the Republicans to win pretty much every news cycle, it also boosts their populist credibility among everyone because if there's one thing people of all political stripes can agree on, is that everyone hates the goddamn villagers.

Lesson Five: Start challenging conservative dogma

I believe we live in a center-left nation. But our political discourse is argued in a center-right frame. Republicans are very effective at getting out their message, and as it has been left unchallenged for decades, those messages dominate every political discussion that we have.

A large problem with selling bills like the stimulus and health care reform is that you never challenged the under-lying assumption - that that things like heath-care reform and stimulus packages are necessary evils, government involvement is always bad, spending can only be harmful to the country. That is the problem with the mindset of this country, after decades of being told that government is the problem and worshiping at the alter of Reagonomics, it's become undisputed dogma. Never mind that the majority of Americans have no problem with increased spending for programs that will help them. Never mind that Social Security and Medicare are still very popular programs. Never mind that the truly great things in this country, those times that we look back on with a touch of teary nostalgia, happened because we, the people, loved our country so much that we were willing to invest in it's future. And never mind that the Republicans spend just as much as Democrats do, they just spend on adventures that won't lower governmental costs in the long run and add it onto the country's tab for the next administration to pay off.

Challenging a frame that is accepted as universal truth is not easy. Coming out and saying that government is the solution will be rejected by and large. But it's time to take some baby steps and start chipping away at these themes. The Bush administration gave us ample opportunity to do that, yet we seem afraid to point out what exactly caused their failures. And we cannot keep doing this, because we can never win if we are arguing withing the frame of right-wing dogma.

Left-wing narratives are popular with the public, this is why the right keeps stealing them. How quickly did they jump on the persecution bandwagon? How quickly did they re-invent themselves as a populist party? How quickly did they latch onto the value of Medicare and Social Security? How long have they taken the importance of "moral" values and twisted them to work within their own means? Right-wing psychological projection is so common these days that it's a constant source of humor. Pretty much everything that the left is accused of is something that the right is already doing or attempting to do. And perhaps it's time that we start pointing these things out, not for revenge, but for the simple fact that there are occasions when the liberal idea of government helps. There are occasions when it is beneficial to invest in our society. We have the evidence to back this up, so why not base our platforms on historical accuracy, rather then fantasy?

Support equal rights for the gay community and expose the Republicans preference for certain specific beliefs over others. Present a jobs bill with a populist slant and see how quickly the Republicans abandoned "real 'Muricans". Point out the success of liberal policies like Social Security and see how quickly the Republicans throw the AARP crown under the bus. Point out the value of helping those less fortunate in society and see how long it takes for the Republicans to show their sociopathic tendencies. And above all, point out how Republicans have been wrong, wrong, dead wrong about everything for the past decade, about the war, about deregulation, about tax cuts in a time of increased spending, about the very issue of what our nation stands for in the world (hint: not imperialism and torture) and start playing at their startling lack of consistency in their own messages.

Or, we can just keep playing within this frame, we can keep moving to the right, we can keep letting Republicans pummel us with conspiracy theories, we can keep presenting ourselves as weak and indecisive, we can keep stifling voices that promote actual change, and we can keep towing the line for the most privileged in our society.

If history is any indication, I'm sure that will work wonders for us in the next election.

1 comment:

Eric said...

Ramen, sister.

I've never understood why the left has consistently conceded the framing of the public discourse to the right for the last ten years. I've been (mentally) pleading the Democratic "majority" to force a Republican filibuster since 2008. The one thing my Republican uncle and I agreed on over Christmas was that neither of us wanted to see Harry Reid back in the Senate next year.

The Republicans manage to find a unified voice because they rally around the things they agree on. The only things the Democrats consistently rally around is that they don't like Republicans. That's not going to win local and state elections, especially in non-Presidential years.