It's not as if Democrats have lacked for strong, articulate guidance as to what they could and should be telling the American public
Don't Think of an Elephant!
I've plunked the new edition of George Lakoff's Don't Think of an Elephant! atop this post because my copy arrived in the mail today. It came from Democracy for America, in return for a contribution, which I didn't mind making, since as far as I know DFA is one progressive group that hasn't backtracked on its principles and still actually stands for something I can subscribe to.
With the days and hours counting down to Election Day, I'm feeling bad for having mostly sat this campaign out. After trying -- partly humorously and partly not -- to wash my hands of it ("Throwing in the towel on the 2014 campaign, and while we're at it the 2016 campaign as well"), I backtracked ("Sure I kid about this infernal election, but of course there's a lot at stake"), but still focused on the rage-filling descent of the Right into a world of unbroken lies, delusions, and obfuscations.
I'm not sure, though, that I really got to the depth of my frustration, which has to do with this famous polarization we hear so much about now. It's pretty much the defining characteristic of U.S. electoral politics at the moment: polarization. It's reflected in most of the down-to-the-wire coverage of the campaign, with so many races looking to be determined by close margins. The conventional wisdom is that in so many states and congressional districts those polarized voters know, have known for ages, who they want to win, the only question now being who'll actually be moved to vote. It's a turnout election, we're told -- who does a better job of getting out their vote.
And I suppose this is all true. But the polarization is based on lies. Sure, there's a far from negligible portion of the electorate that really and truly favors having government serve as the agent of the oligarchical elites -- consisting not just of the actual predators (and predator wannabes) but the people who see themselves as hangers-on of the predators. Similarly, there are people who sincerely believe the craziest ideological inanity pouring forth from the mouth of the Religious Rightists and whoring sociopaths like Sen. Rafael "Ted from Alberta" Cruz.
But an awful lot of those right-leaning votes having been manipulated by a decades-long campaign of stupidifying, fear-mongering, and general thuggery. They aren't really represented by the right-wing hoodlums many of them will be voting for. If people were voting their true interests, we shouldn't be anywhere near political gridlock.
Unfortunately, the Democratic Party, which might have taken the lead in pushing back against the lies of the Right. A lot of Democrats can't, and a lot of others wouldn't if they could, because what they believe isn't all that different from their Republican opponents.
The disastrous last midterm election is on the minds of a lot of political types, and for good reason. And the precedent isn't encouraging. With that in mind, I've been looking back at a post I put up on September 1, 2010, "Can 2010 electoral disaster be averted? Drew Westen and Mike Lux weigh in." It all has a creepily familiar ring, the principal difference being that we're now four years further along in the Obama presidency, and much of what Drew Westen and Mike Lux were warning that the president need to either strongly disown or wind up owning is now presidential baggage.
At the top of the post I put this brief quote from a then-new Alternet post by Drew Westen, "What Created the Populist Explosion and How Democrats Can Avoid the Shrapnel in November."
I wished I could have quoted the whole piece, but here's some of what I did offer. Drew wrote:
[T]here were red flags already by the end of Obama's first week in office that led me to offer the following advice to the new administration: Tell the story of how we got in this mess or you'll own it. Tell a coherent story about deficit spending. Re-brand government because there's only one story out there now (Reagan's), and it's not one that supports a progressive agenda. Never let attacks go unanswered, because doing so only emboldens your opposition and leads the public to believe that you have no answers to them. And if you throw a bipartisan party and no one comes, don't throw another one. All of what followed has been as predictable as it has been unfortunate.I continued:
"The question today," Drew writes, "is whether Democrats can channel the populist anger we are seeing around the country this late in the game. The answer is that we'd better try." And he insists, based on message-testing he's done recently, thatIn my September 2010 post I also looked at a piece Mike Lux had written for OpenLeft, "Weirdest political cycle ever?, in which, I wrote, he staked out this position: "This has been a pretty weird political cycle, and I'm starting to wonder whether it is the strangest ever. . . . The weirdness I am referring to is this odd sense I have that both parties are trying so hard to lose."
there is little question that if Democrats and progressives from center to left simply say what they believe in ways that are evocative, values-driven, and speak to people's worries and anger, many stand a good chance of surviving November, particularly when their opponents have nothing to say other than warmed-over rhetoric about cutting taxes to millionaires and multinationals and fiscal restraint except where it cuts into profits of their campaign contributors.He's just as insistent, though, that "actions speak louder than words, and Americans want to see action," and it isn't too late for Democrats to go on the offensive against obstructionist Republicans on a whole series of issues, on each of which "a strong populist message trounces anything the other side can say."
But Democrats need to play offense. They need to take up-or-down votes on bill after bill, including those they expect the other side to block, knowing that every one of those votes has the leverage of a campaign ad behind it. They need to change the narrative from what sounds to the average American like a whiny and impotent one -- "the Republicans won't let us do it" -- to a narrative of strength in numbers shared with their constituents. And they need to make every election a choice between two well-articulated approaches to governance -- and to offer their articulation of both sides' positions and values.Which, he says, leads to a final point:
What Democrats have needed to offer the American people is a clear narrative about what and who led our country to the mess in which we find ourselves today and a clear vision of what and who will lead us out. That narrative would have laid a roadmap for our elected officials and voters alike, rather than making each legislative issue a seemingly discrete turn onto a dirt road. That narrative might have included -- and should include today -- some key elements: that if the economy is tumbling, it's the role of leadership and government to stop the free-fall; that if Wall Street is gambling with our financial security, our homes, and our jobs, true leaders do not sit back helplessly and wax eloquent about the free market, they take away the dice; that if the private sector can't create jobs for people who want to work, then we'll put Americans back to work rebuilding our roads, bridges, and schools; that if Big Oil is preventing us from competing with China's wind and solar energy programs, then we'll eliminate the tax breaks that lead to dysfunctional investments in 19th century fuels and have a public-private partnership with companies that will create the clean, safe fuels of the 21st century and the millions of good American jobs that will follow.
"What's a Democrat to do," he asks, "in this weird and awful political environment?" Allowing that every race is individual, he offers four overall prescriptions, for which you should really read the explanations in his post:And as I've noted at the top of this post, George Lakoff has given us a new version of his classic book Don't Think of an Elephant!. As I mentioned, I just got my copy today. Reading George has never been easy for me, but I have to think he once again has indispensable messages for us. The problem is, a lot of the people who should have been reading it haven't been -- and a lot of them don't really believe in the messages he would like to help them articulate.
1. Get out every last Democratic base voter you can.And he sums up the situation thusly:
2. Show independence from Obama, but not in a way that undermines the Democratic brand and turns off base voters.
3. Show your anger at the special interests, but also have a substitute plan for improving things.
4. Be specific in going after waste in government.
In spite of the Republican extremists being nominated, this is going to be an incredibly tough year to be a Democrat on the ballot. We are going to lose a lot of seats in both houses of Congress and downballot as well. But if Democrats turn out their base voters, take on the big banks and insurers and oil companies, and show they are focused on fighting for the middle class, they can hold their losses to a minimum.