A couple of questions that have been bothering me for some time now:
Why do the Democrats so consistently lose elections? Why are Republicans in control of both sides of Congress, and why do they have a good chance of winning the Presidency in 2016?
Well, I’m certainly not an expert. I’m no political scientist. But this is still America, and I’m still allowed to have opinions, no matter how unqualified I might be.
So here’s what I’ve come up with …
In a fight, the surest way to get your ass kicked is to underestimate your opponent. The second surest way to get your ass kicked is not having a plan of attack. It doesn’t matter how much bigger or stronger you might be, do these two things and you’ll likely lose. And this is where the Democrats consistently fail.
The Republicans have more money and power behind them, although the Democrats have been more effective in raising money in recent elections, narrowing the gap. The Democrats have a larger base and their values are more in step with more Americans.
So here we are, at the beginning of the 2016 Presidential campaign, and the front runner for the Republicans is Wisconsin governor Scott Walker, while for the Democrats, the front runner is former First Lady, Senator, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
On the surface, and in the current poll numbers, it doesn’t seem to be much of a match. Walker is relatively unknown outside of Wisconsin, has an unexceptional record and limited experience, is a college drop-out, and a rookie on the national political stage. Clinton is currently clobbering Walker in the polls.
But the last thing Democrats should do is feel comfortable and relax.
Over the past thirty years or so, the Democrats have lost their largest and most powerful demographic, the white working class, to the Republicans. How did this happen? On the surface, it doesn’t make sense. Republican policies enacted over the past thirty five years have resulted in their loss of income, higher unemployment, greater debt, unprecedented class erosion, and diminished individual rights. Yet this constituency has become the heart and soul of the Republican Party, aligning with the very same corporate masters and tycoons who have taken these things from them.
So why has the white, working class become more conservative? Democrats struggle to understand this and until they do, they’ll be unable to adopt an effective plan to reverse it. One thing is clear: this demographic is not stupid, apathetic, lazy, or racist, as liberals too often tend to dismiss them. This only feeds into the Republican portrayal of the left.
The conservative movement has effectively depicted the Democrats as upper class, elitist, arrogant, permissive, and immoral. The right makes emotional appeals based upon this and drives home the point that they are being threatened, that liberals want their guns, that immigrants want their jobs, that minorities want preferential treatment. They’re told that conservatives share their values of hard work, self-determination, and morality, and that all of these things are under siege from the left.
Elements of pop culture are held up as examples. Rap music reinforces the image of inner city African Americans as violent gangsters to be feared. Hollywood is portrayed as elite and promiscuous and immoral, promoting reckless values of gay rights and graphic sexuality and violence.
These messages are driven home daily by what Hillary Clinton accurately referred to nearly twenty years ago as a “massive right wing conspiracy.” The air waves are filled with the vitriol of Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity and Fox “News.” It’s amazing how consistent these talking heads are in message and how strongly they stay on point, driving home whatever their corporate commanders have deemed to be the talking points of the day.
The overall unifying message paints a picture of the world drawn in black and white, without the colors of nuance or subtlety or complexity. People buy into this message because it is constantly hammered into their brains, and it installs and intensifies primal fears. Fear has no room for ambiguity.
The reaction to the film American Sniper (which I confess I haven’t seen yet) is an illustration in point. The conservative view is that Chris Kyle was a hero, that through his killings he was saving countless other American lives, and that he suffered from the trauma of war. These are not simplistic or unsophisticated views. What seems to be lacking in any serious discussion of the movie or Kyle is any deeper ambiguity related to questioning why we over there in the first place, or what the culture of war and militarism does to the psyche of individuals and groups, or to even suggest a level of discomfort in the counting of the confirmed number of kills of human beings. To the conservatives, to even raise these issues is to question the heroism of Kyle, and to lump you in with the bleeding heart whiners who don’t appreciate the sacrifices of our troops. To be clear, I haven’t seen the movie, and once I have, I might feel that these issues are moot. But I can’t help but feel that by simply wanting to have an honest discussion about them would be worth exploring, but the right immediately shuts down at the mere suggestion of deeper complexity behind these concepts.
But the right isn’t the only side that shuts down and resorts to labeling. I’ve seen, in disagreements about other issues, left leaning people lump intelligent and thoughtful people on the right in with the radical and hysteric tea partiers, and write them off as uneducated gun toting religious fanatics.
This is where the left fails – it doesn’t take its opposition seriously. Walker goes to London and gives non responses to questions about evolution and the left eviscerates him for it. Then, Rudy Giuliani makes some ridiculously stupid and offensive remarks about President Obama, and Walker gives “no comment” type of replies. The left then goes nuts about Walker, and Walker replies that he’s not going to waste any more energy responding to such nonsense, and that he prefers talking about the issues, about his bold ideas and plans.
It’s an ingenious strategy, and illustrates how the Republicans are better organized and tougher than the Democrats. Giuliani, who is even less relevant these days than Sarah Palin, takes one for the team, and throws himself under the Walker campaign bus. Walker stays above the fray, looking serious and presidential. The bigger the fuss the left makes about Giuliani’s idiocy and Walker’s non-committal responses, the more Walker benefits. My recommendation would be that the left forget about Giuliani and discuss what Walker pretends to want to discuss: the “real” issues.
But before we get to the issues, let’s take a look at what seems to be the biggest component of Walker’s strategy: union busting. Nothing is more at the core of Walker’s platform than standing up to corrupt union bosses and the “powerful” special interests of organized labor. Never mind that it’s an easy target – organized labor has never been weaker and union membership has never been lower. Those union bosses and special interests have been on life support since the 1980s, since President Reagan fired the air traffic controllers, and since President Clinton signed the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) into law.
But that doesn’t mean organized labor won’t go down without a fight. And trust me, Walker is counting on it. It’s another example of how the Republicans have learned how to turn opposition into opportunity. When Walker faced recall over his removal of collective bargaining rights to public employees, he used the demonstrations in Madison to his advantage, portraying the protesters as an angry mob. In his memoir, Unintimidated, clearly written to frame him as a presidential candidate, he exaggerates threats from the protesters to a degree that would make Brian Williams blush. It’s no coincidence that now, as he begins his presidential campaign, he proposes a state budget with insane cuts to education.
Walker and the organized right are counting on two things: loud and chaotic protests from the opposition that he can “heroically” stand up against, and the left’s usual disorganized underestimation of the right. Both serve to energize the conservative base. Too often the left counts on their own presumed intellectual superiority, and you’ll hear, “I can’t believe that so many people are stupid enough to vote for Walker.” The left has to stop this and recognize not only that the right is just as smart as they are, but that such comments are incredibly destructive.
So if the right is just as smart as the left, why would they vote for an idiot like Walker? And make no doubt about it, when it comes to the issues, Walker is a complete idiot. His bold ideas consist of a couple of shallow Koch brother talking points, and when he is forced to explain them in depth, his intellect is as exposed and shriveled as a naked man’s privates in the February Wisconsin air.
When it comes to issues, the Republicans have been extremely effective at framing discussions to twist and distort their intentions. A few examples:
- “Right to Work” laws: This term has come to be accepted for the union busting laws being pursued across the country, when in fact they are intended to take away worker rights; primarily, the right to collective bargaining.
- “Job creators:” At the heart of the Republican unending faith in trickle-down economics is the premise that over burdensome taxes and regulations imposed upon corporations are impacting profits and preventing their leaders from creating more jobs. The truth is increasing corporate deregulation and lower tax rates have resulted in epic job losses, as the increase in revenues has been funneled to dividends, shareholders, and obscene bonuses paid to the CEOs and Boards of Directors. The typical mantra of any CEO is “We have to deliver value to our shareholders by doing more with less.” I’ve never heard of a CEO who said, “Our goal is to hire more workers.”
- “Big Government:” This has become an excuse for further deregulation and more corporate autonomy. It’s been very effective, and with the current dysfunctional, do-nothing congress being so inconsequential and incompetent, it’s become a self-fulfilling prophecy. But the alternatives to “big government” have already proven disastrous, with banking deregulation leading to the “too big to fail” collapses and bailouts. What is really needed is “effective government,” government that serves people and not corporations (which, no matter what the Supreme Court says, are two disparate entities with conflicting interests).
- “Liberal” and “Patriot:” Republicans have effectively changed the meanings of these two incendiary words. “Liberal” has come to be associated with “un-American”, and “Patriot” is associated with Christian conservatism. These words are used to define a narrow value structure that reinforces the divisive rhetoric in the messages broadcast from party headquarters. Look at Giuliani’s comments about President Obama this week – he claims he’s never heard Obama express a love of America (not a “patriot”) and that Obama was raised by Communists (he’s “an un-American liberal”). What’s interesting is that these ridiculous allegations have been raised for eight years now, and continue even in a Presidential campaign Obama will not be a participant in. The reason isn’t that Giuliani actually believes these things, or that they are remotely relevant to anything, but that they give an opportunity for Walker to portray himself above the fray, even as old attitudes and prejudices are reinforced.
So how do the Democrats win back the base they’ve lost? I don’t know. I’m really not very smart. The best I can come up with is this – the Democrats need to take the fight to the Republicans, and not stay on the ropes taking punches. The Republicans have been very effective at making the Democrats play defense. In 2004, they “swift boated” John Kerrey, questioning his service in Vietnam, deflecting attention from the miserable failure that was George W. Bush’s incomplete service in the Air National Guard.
I observed a local example of this a weekend or two ago on Milwaukee television, on a Sunday morning panel talk show hosted by local conservative radio personality Charlie Sykes. The topic was related to Walker and his budget proposal to cut more than $300 million from the state university budget while at the same time proposing $220 million in new taxes to support the financing of a new arena for the NBA franchise the Milwaukee Bucks. A couple of weeks earlier, after receiving pressure from the powerful Potawatomi Indian tribe, owners and operators of a large casino in Milwaukee, Walker announced his determination to deny a proposed casino that would be managed by the Menomonee Indians in nearby Kenosha, citing concerns about increased taxes on Kenosha residents. The Menomonees responded by offering to pay the $220 million to finance the Bucks’ stadium in return for Walker reconsidering his decision, thus eliminating a glaring inconsistency in Walker’s budget. Walker refused to even consider the Menomonee offer, fueling speculation that his decision against the Kenosha casino was in deference to the Potawatomi rather than concern for the Kenosha tax payers. When the subject of the Menomonee offer came up on Sykes’ talk show, Sykes and the rest of the panel quickly dismissed it, saying the Menomonee offer was insincere and that Walker was correct not to entertain it.
This struck me as incredibly disingenuous, because normally, there is no quicker knee jerk reaction from Republicans than when new taxes are proposed. Imagine if the governor were a Democrat instead of Walker – Sykes and his panel would have been out of their seats and through the ceiling with righteous indignation that the tax and spend liberals refused to even consider the proposal. But instead, with a Republican governor with presidential ambitions, their principles suddenly evaporated, and the issue was quickly swept under the rug.
And here’s where the Democrats, as usual, dropped the ball. In the ensuing days, their silence on Walker’s willingness to tax and spend on a basketball team at the expense of the state’s education system, despite an offer from the private sector to alleviate the public burden of funding the new arena, was deafening. It was the sound of another opportunity to point out the inconsistency and insincerity of the Governor’s actions being dropped and squandered.
The Democrats need to avoid engaging the Donald Trumps, Sarah Palins and Rudy Giulianis who are designated to stir things up and distract, and call the Republicans on their lies and inconsistencies. They need to hold the Republicans accountable. They need to play some offense from time to time.
More than anything, Democrats need to illustrate how harmful Republican policies have been to this core constituency.
On an individual level, I know from experience that it’s extremely difficult to change even one person’s mind. It’s downright impossible if you insult or personally attack his character or intellect. But that’s what happens when we discuss politics – it almost always becomes emotional and personal. As StevenVan Zandt once said, “what’s more personal than your politics?”
Here are some ideas on how to effectively engage someone you don’t see eye to eye with in a political discussion:
- Show a little respect. Recognize that most of the people voting Republican are kind, decent and caring, and love their families and their country just as much as you do. Make them understand that we all want a better world for our children, and we are more alike than different.
- Don’t take the bait – try not to engage in the emotional divisiveness from the Limbaughs and Hannitys. Don’t make things personal. You’ll just waste time and energy and punch yourself exhausted long before you get to the final rounds.
- Stay on point – the key is making people understand how the policies advanced by the Republicans will harm them. In Wisconsin, for example, make them understand that we have one of the best education systems, at all levels, in the country, and that Walker’s proposed budget will decimate that, and how our children and their children will suffer real and long term intellectual and economic consequences.
- Be informed. Don’t just scratch the surface of issues, go a little deeper, and check sources. Snopes is a good resource for checking propaganda generated from both sides.
- Be capable of objectivity. It’s highly unlikely that any individual will agree 100% with everything liberal and disagree 100% with everything conservative. Be open minded. You can’t change anyone’s mind until you’re willing to change your own.
- Remember who we’re fighting against – it isn’t the ditto head in the next cubicle who spends his lunch hour listening to Rush – even when he spews Limbaugh’s hateful rhetoric verbatim. The enemy isn’t him, it’s the rhetoric – so don’t attack him personally. Respectfully disagree and calmly describe what you find offensive about the remarks.
- Be patient and strong – our opponent is bigger, stronger, and better organized than we are. We’re going to have to take a few punches and stay on our feet. Nothing demoralizes a fighter more than taking their best punch square on the jaw and standing unflinched. Be tough and hang in there. Have a little faith.