Three Painfully Obvious Things Progressives Must Do to Take the Country Back
Culture War Ju-Jitsu and other ideas from USC’s Joshua Holland.
Opinions, Joshua Holland, USC, Mar. 1, 2005
By Joshua Holland, USC
With the exception of one brief period, the Democrats – who enjoyed a 50-seat majority in the House 30 short years ago—haven’t controlled either chamber of Congress for a decade. If it weren’t for the stain of Nixon and Bill Clinton’s sparkling charisma (and Ross Perot), they’d be looking at a presidential drought dating back to 1968.
Lost in the media’s post-election obsession with “values voters” and out-of-touch blue-state elites is the root of the problem: Democratic leaders of recent years have shown stunning political incompetence. Watching them is reminiscent of the film “Groundhog’s Day”; you know what’s going to happen, but you have to suffer through it again and again.
Whether it’s gay marriage or Willie Horton or flag burning, the right has introduced issue after issue to separate progressives from the “real Americans” of the heartland. Democrats have taken those hot potatoes and fumbled them; they’ve produced photo ops of their candidates hunting, praying and driving tanks and failed to nuance their way out of the GOP’s traps and into their “kitchen table” issue comfort-zone.
It’s getting tiresome. But there are three incredibly obvious things progressives can—and must—do right now to start fighting back. They need to better analyze the conservatives’ strategy and provide alternatives to their wedge-issue proposals; they’ve got to play the frame game with a bit of ‘touch,’ and they have to define not only what they stand for but also what it is that they stand against.
Culture war ju-jitsu
Democrats have been turned 180 degrees in the wrong direction for decades. They looked around at a country that the New America Foundation’s Michael Lind characterized as “center right on social questions and center left on economic questions,” and they decided to fight their base’s culture wars and head towards the right on the economy to assuage their corporate patrons.
It’s been incredibly easy for the right to create issues that trap them: they take—or create—a popular, socially conservative issue and then offer a solution that sounds moderate but is, covertly, quite unacceptably extreme. Take the Federal Marriage Amendment; it’s ostensibly to prevent judges from forcing states to recognize other states’ gay marriages. But in actually it’s likely to be twisted to prohibit civil unions, and maybe even private sector same-sex partner benefits. Keeping red states from being forced to accept blue state marriages seems reasonable. The rest doesn’t; it just smacks of intolerance and civil rights violations.
Democrats understand the way this plays out, but still they fight against phony issues instead of doing what is obvious to opposition parties in democracies around the world: present alternative plans for the “problems” identified by the governing party. Just look across the pond at Britain. For every Minister in the governing party’s Cabinet, the opposition has a ‘Shadow Minister’ that talks about what the minority would be doing if it held the reigns of power.
A competing, Democratic Federal Marriage Amendment might have simply codified the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) in the Constitution. Dems could have put in their own stealth provisions—maybe mandating states to recognize civil unions. With an alternative proposal in place, candidates wouldn’t have to squeeze a nuanced position into a ten-second sound byte, as John Kerry constantly tried to do during last Fall’s campaign. They could just say: “I, too, support an amendment to protect marriage. I like the Democratic version, which is moderate and celebrates diversity as well as preserving traditional values.”
Providing moderate alternative plans would show the electorate just who the extremists are in America, and that’s the way to win back the mushy center.
Stop regurgitating the right’s frames
George Lakoff’s bestselling Don’t Think of an Elephant! has gotten a lot of attention recently, but people have been writing about the conservatives’ ability to frame issues—defining the terms of debate to their advantage—without opposition from the left for fifteen years. It is a testament to the ineptitude of Democratic leaders that so many of their candidates and commentators continue to use right wing catch-phrases like ‘tax relief’ and ‘tort reform.’
By constantly reinforcing the right’s terminology, progressives only serve their opponents’ purposes. They need to come up with language with which they can present their values, they need to test that language with focus groups and they have to start disseminating winning rhetoric across their party infrastructure. Essentially, they need some message discipline. Then they should be chastised – maybe even fined like a child uttering a foul word – every time they break that discipline and mention, for example, tort reform without also adding their own spin; I like something down-homey like ‘amnesty for corporate crooks.’
What do you stand against?
Let’s give credit where it’s due: the Democrats have done a fairly good job defining what they stand for. Protecting the middle class, expanding healthcare coverage, investing in education, striking environmental balance and adopting an assertive multilateral approach to foreign policy are all good, moderate positions for an opposition party to hold in today’s political environment.
But ask yourself what the Dems stand against and the only things that come to mind are Republican initiatives. There is no aspect of American society—with all its blemishes—that the Democrats oppose.
Which leaves Democrats with a passion gap. We saw in this election that people will go to great lengths to stand for their beliefs. But they’ll go that extra mile to stand up against a perceived assault. Conservatives are against socialism; hypocritical political correctness; reverse discrimination; activist judges legislating from the bench; shadowy one-world governments; leftist religious persecution and Hollywood elites. If you bought the right’s mythic arguments you would have put up a hell of a fight too.
The sad thing is that the Dems—under the current leadership—are unable to define themselves as being against what brings together regular Americans from across the spectrum: entrenched money in politics and the unchecked corporate power it buys. A New York Times poll last year found that by a margin of 55-37 Americans felt that the GOP paid more attention to corporate interests than human needs. It’s a rich vein of disenchantment to mine, but to date the Dems are too much in the sway of the corporate types who finance their campaigns to jump on it.
Unfortunately, while that low fruit hangs out in front of us, Democrats continue their silly ideological debates and are constantly reminded by their corporate wing of the dangers of “class warfare” and economic populism. I think the short-term is bleak. Until they learn how to fight on the political playing field the right has built over the past four decades, I fear the Dems will continue to fall into trap after trap and folks like me will have to keep voting Green.