The Work Cut Out for Us

Published January 29th 2007 in The Nation
According to exit polls, the two issues that concerned voters most in the midterm elections, by a large margin, were the failure of the Iraq War and corruption in government. This raises the question: What if the Iraq War had been less spectacularly mismanaged and right-wing politicians had been less extravagantly corrupt? Suppose the Republicans had been just a little more prudent and restrained--if, say, Paul Bremer hadn't disbanded the Iraqi army and civil administration, and if the party leadership had prevailed on legislators and staffers to wait a little longer before cashing in or at least to do it a little less visibly--would they have taken another large step last November toward permanent one-party government?

Michael Kinsley wisely remarked that the real scandal is usually not what's illegal but rather what's legal. Likewise, the real danger to American democracy is not so much reckless misjudgment or flagrant lawlessness as the methodical hollowing out of regulatory and labor law enforcement, environmental protection, fiscal solvency, respect for international law, Congressional sovereignty, judicial integrity, a competent civil service, procedural transparency, the contemporary and historical record and the ideal of civic virtue. Since 1980 democratic governance in the United States has been steadily undermined, as though by termites. A generation's worth of damage won't be easily repaired. And it's not certain yet that the Democrats will even try.

If they do, there's plenty of guidance available from a spate of valuable books published last election season. Nearly all are both expository, cataloguing Republican depredations, and strategic, advising on how to make American elections fairer and on how Democrats can win more of them. There are useful lessons here, and not just for the next two years.

The first is: Don't take the New Deal for granted. Most Americans, even Republicans, do, which is why many former Democrats have felt free since 1980 or so to vote Republican. But American capitalism in the post-World War II decades was not fully mobile, constrained by financial regulation and ideological competition. Now, thanks to the collapse of pseudosocialism, the triumph of the IMF-enforced Washington Consensus and a great deal of covert and overt regime change in the Third World, American capitalism is mobile and mean. The fundamental purpose of American foreign policy has always been to prevent the spread of the New Deal to the developing world. Having largely succeeded there, the business elites are now determined to roll it back at home.

They've made great progress. Organized labor has been decimated. Unemployment benefits have been trimmed. Much of our regulatory structure has been dismantled, defunded or handed over to industry flacks. Persistent false alarms about Medicare and Social Security have led to proposals that they be replaced by riskier and less generous individual health and retirement accounts. Most insidious, many policy options have been foreclosed simply by insuring that there won't be enough money in the government's coffers to pay for them. By means of tax cuts, energy subsidies, defense expenditures and financial deregulation, Republicans have transferred a trillion dollars or so (and with Social Security privatization, they seek to transfer a couple of trillion more) to their principal constituents, who have no need for or interest in New Deal programs. Prying a significant fraction of that money out of those people's hands in order to pay for Medicare, Social Security, tuition assistance, earned-income tax credits, etc. will require a revolution or (what is almost as unlikely) a determined and unified Democratic Congressional majority.

The rhetorical leading edge of the assault on the New Deal is the phrase "personal responsibility." The economic troubles of the 1930s taught most Americans an obvious lesson: Sharing risk makes everyone more secure. Conservatives grumbled, but a more secure workforce was, after all, less susceptible to leftist rabble-rousing. Besides, jobs were less exportable then, the domestic market mattered more and unions were still a force to reckon with. All that has changed. As a result, business has engineered a less secure, more disposable workforce with drastically reduced overhead (i.e., benefits) and bargaining power. The risks and costs of unemployment, illness and other forms of bad luck are being shifted from government and business to individuals and families. The principle of shared risk--that we are collectively responsible for one another--is being replaced by the principle of personal responsibility--that each of us is on his own, not entitled to expect help and not obliged to offer it. How this ethos--a convenient one for the rich--has been sold, and what it portends for the nonrich, is very well described in Jacob Hacker's The Great Risk Shift.

The environment, antitrust, civil liberties, executive power, science policy, the electoral system, the separation of church and state--here too the record of the Bush Administration has been one of nearly unbroken success. That is, they have implemented nearly all the policies they wanted to, with very much the results they intended, however unfortunate for the rest of us. Even their national security policies have largely accomplished their real goals: to channel tens of billions of dollars to corporate cronies, to further undercut international law and institutions, to demonstrate the United States' awesomely destructive military technology, to distract the electorate from the Administration's domestic policies. Permanent bases in Iraq and regime change in Iran may be unattainable for now, but the costs the United States is willing to impose on anyone threatening its energy dominance have been made starkly clear. Malevolent people inclined to propose changing the currency of the international oil market from the dollar to something else, as Saddam did, can't say they haven't been warned. The security of most Americans has not been enhanced, but that was never the point.

And so on, and on and on. Any nonrich, nonreligious person who has paid attention to politics since 1994, when the Goldwater/Gingrich Republicans took over Congress, and above all these past six years, has probably exhausted his or her capacity for indignation. The greed, the mendacity, the indifference, even hostility, to such notions as the common good or the public interest--the whole sorry record, reviewed in sickening detail by David Sirota and Mark Green, whose powerful books very much warrant their enraged titles and subtitles--have left many of us gasping.

We now have a bit of breathing space, thanks to the midterms. It's time to consider how the right got away with it and how to prevent it from happening again. The most useful of these books (along with Sirota's splendidly hard-hitting and extraordinarily well-documented Hostile Takeover) is Steven Hill's 10 Steps to Repair American Democracy. "To ponder the shortcomings of our political system is to court despondency," Hendrik Hertzberg observes in his foreword. The Electoral College, the Senate, the disenfranchisement of the District of Columbia, the two-party duopoly, the winner-take-all principle, partisan redistricting, 95 percent incumbent re-election rates, media concentration, Buckley v. Valeo, the K Street Project, voter turnout below 50 percent, shortages of voting machines and poll workers--this is a functioning democracy? If these travesties of logic and fairness promoted majority rule rather than prevented it, they would doubtless have been abolished long ago. Hill's recommendations, beginning with proportional representation and instant-runoff voting, invariably hit the mark, and each of them is accompanied by links to groups already on the case. Perhaps his most radical notion--as he says, it goes "to the very heart of our political system"--is that representation should no longer be based on geography. Because of partisan residential patterns, more and more election districts are noncompetitive even without gerrymandering. Tens of millions of votes in American elections don't really count; and, perhaps as a consequence, millions more are never cast. Making representation correspond to what voters think rather than where they live is now perfectly feasible, as Hill makes clear. When (if) the Democrats regain the electorate's trust, they should consider proposing that, procedurally speaking, the United States join the modern world.

Hill's book is a no-brainer--there's simply nothing in it to disagree with. Thomas Edsall's Building Red America is another matter. Edsall is a celebrated political reporter, formerly of the Washington Post, and the author of two influential studies: The New Politics of Inequality and (with his wife, Mary) Chain Reaction. His new book is a shrewd, well-documented analysis of conservative movement-building and Republican electoral strategy, particularly how they've exploited white male voters' resentment of the Democrats' association with affirmative action, feminism and gay rights. What will be, or deserves to be, controversial is his clinching chapter, "The Democrats: Two Sets of Problems--Ideological and Structural."

Thomas Frank, Jeff Faux and others have argued that the Democrats can become a majority party again by embracing economic populism. Edsall is not so sure. Populism, he points out, "requires a strong majority base of hard-working men and women who believe, with justification, that they are inadequately rewarded for their efforts, that they are personally demeaned, that they are deprived of their rights, and that their values are not honored by society." This, he claims, simply does not describe the contemporary Democratic Party's constituency. The party is an alliance of two groups, a "largely white, well-educated, professional class" and "the bottom third of the socioeconomic ladder made up of lowest-income whites, blacks, and Hispanics," fewer than half of whom are employed. The former group, who set the party's agenda, are cultural liberals. The latter are demoralized, disorganized and inarticulate. A party with this profile is an unlikely vehicle for an economic populist movement.

What's more, Edsall argues, populism is about other values besides economic fairness, as the right has demonstrated over and over again since the 1960s. To millions of voters, "traditional values of family, neighborhood, church, school, and the workplace are...'money in the bank'--they are what holds people together, providing security against a rainy day, making possible credit based on trust and familial cooperation in entrepreneurial endeavors...[they] give individuals the backing and the fortitude to meet their obligations and to fulfill their ambitions even in the face of setbacks. From this perspective, the liberal culture--the Democratic liberal culture--appears dangerous, encouraging social chaos, eroding kinship networks, and facilitating community breakdown. For many American voters--more than Democrats are willing to acknowledge--perceived social chaos is a strong political motivator."

Even the case for economic fairness is not a slam-dunk: "Core GOP ideology revolves around the virtues of competition, whereas the Democrats' core philosophy revolves around the virtues of cooperation. The virtues of cooperation have become increasingly hard to sell to the top half of the income distribution in a country as driven by consumption, the acquisition of resources and status, and the tradition of individualism as is the United States. This is even more true when the bottom half of the distribution is heavily minority and when the left coalition is committed to values frequently antagonistic to those of moderates and conservatives--attitudes toward the distribution of wealth, equality, the women's movement, codes of sexual conduct, religion, the business ethos, education, multiculturalism, and the rights of the unborn."

So what should progressive Democrats do? Wait for the rest of America to catch up with their enlightened sexual and multicultural attitudes, meanwhile losing elections? Or back off from affirmative action, gay marriage, unrestricted abortion and sexual harassment codes, settling for economic justice and counting on blacks, gays and feminists to recognize that Democrats' hearts are in the right place?

Edsall won't say. He's a reporter, he insists, not an advocate. But he does drop a hint: "When...Democrats look to see who in their party has won, especially in general election contests with large numbers of conservative voters, a relatively clear pattern emerges. The two Democrats who won the presidency since 1968...ran as moderates, each maintaining some independence from the traditionally liberal social agenda, both Southern Baptists supporting the death penalty, and both conveying certain cultural values through the cadence and rhetoric of southern vernacular."

In other words, fudge. (The technical expression is "triangulate.") Perhaps that's the responsible, realistic, savvy thing to do. Certainly most Democratic strategists, particularly around the Democratic Leadership Council, will agree. But in a democracy, if a large enough majority of citizens want economic populism plus cultural conservatism, isn't that what there ought to be? And if that's not what there is, then it's not much of a democracy, is it? What these truisms imply is that perhaps the right thing for progressives to do is not hire ever cleverer triangulators but, instead, first make sure American democracy works (for which, see 10 Steps to Repair American Democracy) and then get most Americans to agree with us.

For which, see Paul Waldman's Being Right Is Not Enough. Waldman is something of a rarity: a Democratic strategist who is as sick of triangulating as he is of losing elections. Like Edsall, he thinks progressives (and for those who dislike the word, he gives a good argument for preferring "progressive" to "liberal") have everything to learn from conservatives about building a movement; above all, stay the course. Edsall quotes a study by the Democracy Alliance: "Conservatives systematically invest in non-electoral, social, religious and cultural networks to wage a 'permanent campaign' that continuously dialogues with people around conservative values outside of election season and then inspires them to make conservative electoral choices. Progressive capacity concentrates efforts on the eve of elections, while conservatives work to create conservative culture and work to produce conservative voters year-round." Waldman echoes this: "Passive citizens don't proselytize; members of a movement do. And in recent years, all the proselytizing has come from the right. Conservatives have worked hard not just to motivate their own supporters but to turn opponents into supporters. In the process, they remade the Republican Party in their image."

Waldman and Edsall disagree, however, about something equally fundamental. Edsall, like Alan Wolfe, William Galston and other influential Democratic centrists, thinks most Americans are cultural conservatives. Waldman produces a mountain of polling data suggesting otherwise. On most economic, social and national security issues, a majority of Americans agree with Democratic positions rather than Republican ones. (The data seem solid, from Pew, Annenberg, Gallup, the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, Time, Newsweek, NBC, CBS, ABC, Fox, etc.) Why, then, do many more Americans call themselves conservative, moderate or independent than liberal or progressive? And why, until recently, did Republicans control the elective branches of government?

There are several plausible answers to the second question. One is that Republicans cheat. That the presidential election of 2000 was stolen is scarcely disputed. As for 2004 (and 2008), even those who have moved on should read Greg Palast's lengthy chapter "The Con" in his raucous book, Armed Madhouse. Another explanation is our defective Constitution: Though Democratic votes for Senate candidates consistently outnumber Republican votes, the two-senators-per-state rule means that the proportion of Republican seats to Republican votes far exceeds the proportion of Democratic seats to Democratic votes. Still another possibility is that more people with Democratic opinions don't vote than people with Republican opinions.

Waldman emphasizes another, by now almost equally familiar, explanation: Democratic rhetoric. Being Right Is Not Enough is George Lakoff's Whose Freedom? done properly, with much firsthand experience brought to bear and without Lakoff's interesting but entirely superfluous cognitive-psychological baggage. Waldman's point, copiously and tellingly illustrated, is that Democrats aim at voters' minds, while Republicans aim at their hearts and imaginations; that Democrats aim to convince, while Republicans aim to arouse and inspire; that (to use Aristotle's categories) Democrats appeal to logos (reason), while Republicans appeal to ethos (morality) and pathos (emotion). "Voters aren't debate judges carefully marking their scoresheets," he reminds us. "Electoral success isn't about plans...and it isn't about ideas. It's people feel about a candidate, and how he makes them feel about themselves." Republicans understand this; Democrats don't.

This doesn't mean Republicans don't have ideas. "In their full form, conservative ideas are just as complex as liberal ones," Waldman writes. But while "there are plenty of very smart conservatives who have thought long and hard about what they want to achieve and why...there are lots of other smart conservatives who have thought long and hard about how to reduce those complex ideas to simple expressions of values and beliefs. It is in this area that liberals have failed."

It is true, of course, that out in the field, Republicans very often exaggerate wildly, simplify ruthlessly and sometimes just lie. Waldman is not proposing that Democrats do this. If he's right about public opinion, they don't need to. What they need to do is get people's attention, win their trust, capture their imagination. He has lots of practical suggestions for doing this--stories, frames, contrasts, etc.--most of them very good. He also seems to understand that slickness is no use. Stories have their own integrity; you can't just manufacture them: "Just as the best art has both a complexity that challenges the intellect and an emotionality that touches the soul, political messages need to be logically persuasive and laden with emotion."

Still, as a mostly logos kind of guy, I was a tad ambivalent about having my nose rubbed so persistently in ethos and pathos:

Progressives need to banish the idea that if only voters could be convinced to look at the issues, then everything would be fine.... Progressives need to understand that campaigns are not about issues.  The way the American people relate to politics and make political decisions is not rational. There is nothing rational about it.  One might argue that the Bush campaign's incessant invoking of September 11 was a way to short-circuit rational thinking on the part of the electorate, but one has to grant that it worked.

Waldman looks at recent presidential elections and is dismayed to find "a progression of Democratic candidates desperately pleading with voters to eat the political broccoli of position papers and policy proposals, while Republicans respond with the red meat of fear and anger." One sees what he means, of course, and he's right. Still, it's worth pausing over this piquant formulation. For one thing, broccoli is a lot more nutritious than red meat (which isn't always really red--some factory-produced meat is so pasty that it must be artificially colored), as well as tastier (e.g., when steamed with black mushrooms, baby corn, water chestnuts and tofu, seasoned with tamari and served over brown rice... mmm). But never mind that. I have no objection to carnivores clogging their arteries and degrading their palates, any more than to smokers blackening their lungs. That's what freedom's for. As for the billions of animals (and thousands of illegal aliens) leading a wretched existence in meat factories before being slaughtered (or deported)--I sympathize, of course, but animals and illegal aliens don't vote, much less contribute to political campaigns. No, the real, unsentimental, non-goo-goo objection to meat factories (read: propaganda mills) is that they produce gigantic quantities of reeking manure, noxious gases and toxic feed additives (i.e., stereotypes, clich�s and non sequiturs), which befoul the environment (i.e., the civic culture).

To put it nonmetaphorically: If we want a durably decent society, we have to improve the quality of political discussion. Yes, we will always need to address people's hearts and imaginations. But in the long run, their ability to think, to see through right-wing (and left-wing) bullshit, is even more important. After all, Rush Limbaugh is most dangerous not because he's a right-wing moron but because he's a moron. Karl Rove is most dangerous not because he's a right-wing liar but because he's a liar. Jerry Falwell is most dangerous not because he's a right-wing demagogue but because he's a demagogue. If voters had even a slightly enhanced tolerance for position papers and policy proposals, the influence of Limbaugh, Rove, Falwell et al. would evaporate, or at least be vastly diminished. Isn't that a worthwhile goal?

How to accomplish it? I don't know. Perhaps population exchanges or year-abroad programs between blue and red states. Perhaps The Nation should offer free subscriptions to registered Republicans. Perhaps Katha Pollitt and Ann Coulter (or Thomas Frank and David Brooks, or Greg Palast and Matt Drudge) should barnstorm the country, the way Stanley Fish and Dinesh D'Souza did in the 1990s. Perhaps all secular liberals should sign a pledge: Every time one evangelical reads a nonreligious book, one of us will go to church. Somehow or other, someone must sow a healthy appetite for informed, discriminating political argument across large swaths of the electorate where it now appears lacking. Otherwise, public life will become wholly (what it now is largely) a marketing competition, and nothing more.

Can Barack Obama make Americans eat their political broccoli? He's certainly gotten a lot of them to read, or at least buy, The Audacity of Hope. He seems to have struck a spark with granitic New Hampshirites recently; and Beltway reporter-chatterers are charmed--for now. His first book, Dreams From My Father, was a genuine achievement. Growing up in Hawaii and Indonesia; on the street in Chicago, organizing; visiting Kenya in search of his father and clan: It's a colorful background and he made, if not the most of it, then quite a bit. Samuel Johnson famously pronounced: "A woman's preaching is like a dog's walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all." Ditto for a politician's writing prose. Dreams had a fine loose rhythm and a nice way with dialogue. There were touches of staginess, corniness, didacticism, but the author was clearly a mensch and even, in a few passages, an artist.

The Audacity of Hope has touches of passion and vividness, but on the whole, it's a campaign document--a very, very good stump speech. Not broccoli but granola (i.e., fairly nourishing but with too much sugar). Lots of anecdotes, hardly any figures, many ringing but always carefully qualified statements of position. Just about all of them are reasonable, progressive positions. America will be very lucky if they're enacted into policy.

But Obama's no giant. In intellectual and moral stature, he comes just about up to Ralph Nader's or Barbara Ehrenreich's knee, or to Russ Feingold's or Barney Frank's navel. Nevertheless, he's probably the most intelligent, honest and idealistic of the Democratic presidential candidates.

So what? The quality of leaders matters less than the quality of citizens. President Obama, like President Hillary or President Anybody, will operate within constraints dictated by the balance of forces surrounding him, the sum of pressures brought to bear on him. For progressives, the goal should be to affect that balance, to contribute to that sum. Writing in The Nation last June, David Sirota observed: "Obama is all about the art of the possible within the system." What's possible is up to us. The main lesson of the right-wing ascendancy is: The bastards never give up; or as Yeats put it, rather more elegantly: "The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity." The best had better get--and stay--off their asses.