Waiting for progressives to fight back.
George Lakoff's diagnosis of what ails Dems has echoes of past complaints I've made on EB. He puts it succinctly, and the timing is apt:
Democrats also help conservatives by what a friend has called Democratic Communication Disorder. Republican conservatives have constructed a vast and effective communication system, with think tanks, framing experts, training institutes, a system of trained speakers, vast holdings of media, and booking agents. Eighty percent of the talking heads on tv are conservatives. Talk matters because language heard over and over changes brains. Democrats have not built the communication system they need, and many are relatively clueless about how to frame their deepest values and complex truths.
And Democrats help conservatives when they function as policy wonks — talking policy without communicating the moral values behind the policies. They help conservatives when they neglect to remind us that pensions are deferred payments for work done. “Benefits” are pay for work, not a handout. Pensions and benefits are arranged by contract. If there is not enough money for them, it is because the contracted funds have been taken by conservative officials and given to wealthy people and corporations instead of to the people who have earned them.
Democrats help conservatives when they use conservative words like “entitlements” instead of “earnings” and speak of government as providing “services” instead of “necessities.”
I was thinking today of how important it is for leaders to do the right thing and be seen to be doing it, and how difficult that is.
Consider for a moment that the public-policy architects whom we too often mockingly describe as "wonks" (you don't here about oncology "wonks," though they are legion, and thank god for that), have a high mountain to climb. Then, after considering the virtues and potential unintended consequences of sound public policy, consider the challenge for those who must "sell" those policies - for this is a democracy, lacking the advantages of decisiveness Beijing enjoys.
Damn right, you need "factories" to develop sound and innovative ideas, and some crowd-pleasers too. You need a Greek chorus of opinion-shapers in academe and the mainstream media to embrace and help sell those ideas. You need a united political party to do the same, from door-to-door and in mailings to one's district, and op-ed contributions to a congressman's local papers.
You do need to agree on a new common language, one vastly more connected to where people live, and thus more appealing, than the dry words used especially by top Dems.
The mistake since 2008 - sorry to have to keep repeating this - was to think that motivating the troops for an election would suffice. Obama understood; on the hustings he pleaded those then-adoring troops to follow him, figuratively speaking, into the WH. Those ground troops in Des Moines and Spokane and Orlando would be needed to continue making the case, long after the election, for why the Dem agenda must prevail. It must be implemented in order to head off American insolvency by mid-century; to win rather than lose the economic competition of the 21st century versus China and India, thorough root-and-branch education reform. And it must happen to ensure - and what nobler cause could there be than this? - that quality healthcare becomes a right and not a privilege of citizenship.
Instead, the troops immediately vanished. Granted, they had a Great Recession suddenly to preoccupy them. Granted, too, Dems had made enormous gains in two consecutive election cycles, now controlling two of three branches of government. But somehow the "you can relax now, you've been thoroughly discredited" memo didn't reach the insurgent Tea Partiers and their allies on Hate Radio. And you would know - or should have known - from the Clinton early-years experience that these folks would seek to discredit your progressive agenda from the get-go. The forces of reaction protested. They found, in their vocabulary, a way of powerfully connecting with everyday Americans. And so such a basic thing as better health for Americans long into the century was, with stunning ease, reduced to "death panels," a vile canard that was a god-given opportunity to expose the non-progressives as not only insensitive but hopeless uninformed about what exactly is healthcare. (A "death panel" is what Limbaugh, first, then Palin, chose to label the everyday "end of life deliberations" that families conduct with a dying patients' physicians, to determine what to do - and one of the five Congressional committees developing a healthcare reform bill thought that those patients and their families should no longer be billed by the hospital for such grim proceedings - the least your government can do. Somehow that compassionate initiative got turned into remote, faceless bureaucrats deciding to prematurely end the life of Americans.)
Where was Jim Carville's war room to stomp all over "death panels" the second it emerged, and use it to play offense by showing, "See, you can't trust what the reactionaries say. They don't know the first thing about healthcare."
There is still time to recapture the initiative. For Lakoff, an encouraging sign is the protests in Madison, Wis. I agree, but we need look further. For starters, the "Madison model" must be replicated everywhere in America where the GOP - and even Dem governors - plan to balance the budget on the backs of the poor and working class. Yes, let summer 2011 be a season of protest across America, this time by progressives.
In the higher reaches, through coordinated action, spokespeople for a Dems' "caring agenda" must be recruited. Which means that I will no longer read of how Obama, after the SOTU address, will light out for the territories to reinforce, and "sell," his message about "Winning the Future." As if this is the president's job alone. He has unfolding events in Tripoli and Cairo, and Afghanistan, and on a still misbehaving Wall Street and an unresponsive Beijing, to concern himself with also.
No, the day after the SOTU and similar landmark events in which the Dem agenda is promulgated, I want to see Dem senators, members of Congress, governors and state legislators out there echoing and reinforcing that progressive agenda. I want them hogging the airtime, and using the using the blunter vocabulary that Lakoff correctly advises.
I've been dismayed, time and again in the past two years, that Dems have remained in hiding as their lonely leader makes the progressives' case to the American people. Such is the late 20th century mystique of the presidency, that it is all-powerful in the minds of too many. It isn't, never has been. Pre-1970s, a president always had an army of high-placed surrogates in the legislative branch and in statehouses to promote his message, along with supportive progressive journals and academics who contributed op-eds in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune and Denver Post.
There has indeed, for decades, been a "vast right-wing conspiracy," the one Hillary Clinton took only abuse for identifying in the late 1990s. The time has come to stop whining about it. And instead replicate the GOP infrastructure for opinion-shaping - and pathetic efforts like the late Air America obviously won't suffice.
We seem to have entered an era, without noticing it, in which Michelle Obama is supposed to deal with Michele Bachman on breastfeeding. (Only a "nanny state" would assist low-income pregnant women by making breast pumps tax deductible, sayeth the wise Minnesotan.) Before the First Lady gets a chance to clear her throat, a hundred esteemed pediatricians, politicians expert in healthcare, academics and authors of tomes on this subject, should fall out of the sky and squish Bachman like a bug. Which would discourage GOP and even Hate Radio from spreading lies and distortions, knowing the consequences of such rapid and through ridicule. For now, however, founts of such ignorance can count on pleasing the GOP base and finding a reinforcing embrace from Hate Radio. There are, in short, no consequences to articulating bad public policy - except for the present and future of the Republic, of course.
And progressives are wholly to blame for that.
Photo of George Lakoff courtesy Georgelakoff.com. Photo montage Michele Bachman and Michelle Obama, AP.