Notes on the Atrocities
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Friday, May 09, 2003  

Emma’s Three-Point Strategy for the left

I’ve discussed the problem; here’s the solution. (Not that I have a savior complex or anything. Just call me Jesus.)

1. Win back political “morality.” From FDR until the mid-70s, the left controlled the morality—the secular faith—of politics. The instrument was good, old-fashioned liberalism. (That is, the “political theory founded on the natural goodness of humans and the autonomy of the individual and favoring civil and political liberties, government by law with the consent of the governed, and protection from arbitrary authority”). But the actual “faith” was belief in a better future.

The Democrats completely lost this morality during the Reagan years, and have remained befuddled since. What they miss is that the Republican faith is based on the sense that the future is a dark and dangerous place. Within this context, the only progress is a regression to a fictive Frank Capra America. Once the Democrats accepted the new faith, it was hard for them not to cede vast areas of policy to the right because in a morality based on fear, the Grand Old Party has all the answers.

(This is obviously not new ground—but evidence abounds that it’s forgotten ground. Never have the left been more hang-dog low than now, and so it’s difficult for them to see a better tomorrow. But that’s what liberalism is founded on. If there really is no hope that liberalism can make a better future, there’s no point in leftist politics.)

2. Lead with positives. The image of the left is a sour-faced Tom Daschle complaining bitterly about a popular president. Or worse, of an Al Gore, in the midst of a booming economy, identifying the “poor” and discussing how he planned to save them. The left holds the trump card on speaking positively because it actually holds the value (rather than just speaking the rhetoric) of benefiting the majority. But instead of giving America a big, positive picture, it’s tried to compete with the right in scaring the electorate into voting Democrat. Which of course sends the inevitable mixed message, because the mechanism of change is liberalism. But when the electorate is scared, they want Frank Capra, not George Jetson.

The Dems have gotten trapped in the habit of saying they speak for America, but then defining their constituency in a manner few Americans can identify with. By leading with the vision of a hopeful future, the majority then become the “we” in the language of the left. This is the positive message Democrats want to send, and it is inclusive, not divisive. And finally—

3. Craft a coherent platform of policy that always underscores the first two points. Democratic policies are seen as failures because they inadequately address the defined needs of the Republican moral universe. Of course they do. Democratic policies aren’t designed to return people to a safe, distant past—they lead to an unknown future. As long as the right controls the debate on secular faith, the future will seem like a frightening descent into chaos, and leftist policy will be seen to hasten the process.

This is where Clinton did the Dems wrong: he ceded the morality question to the Republicans, but adopted quasi-liberal (or new, unanticipated conservative) policies to meet them. For example, he agreed that welfare was a failure (it was). But where he could have characterized it as a failure of execution, not morality, he let the right dictate the terms of the debate and the solution. Ten years later, the Dems have painted themselves into a corner and can’t see a way out, because all of the political landscape has now been ceded to the right.

So what does the platform look like? An example: environmentalism. The left can’t understand why this isn’t a winning position. It’s because the issue is seen as not representing the “mainstream”—by which we mean it doesn’t seem in synch with the values of Frank Capra’s America. You have hippies blowing up log trucks and an “activist” government getting in the way of people’s wish to farm, ranch, build homes, log, fish, and so on.

So, flip the terms of the debate. America is rich in ecological treasures: through proper management, they can benefit so many more people. If the Dems go out and speak to those people who farm and ranch and log and fish, they'll find a group of people who, in the main, are interested in protecting the environment. Instead of demonizing a logger, hail him as a the great hard-working American he is. Then back it up by putting into place incentives to mills to switch their equipment so that it’s calibrated for second-growth logs. Add other incentives to harvest selectively. Now you’ve helped the forest, the economy, and the logger, and you’ve shown a way to a better tomorrow.

The point is: don't even bother arguing with the Republicans. A successful strategy is in going directly to the people with the coherent message of hopeful liberalism. Americans want safety, health, and prosperity. The Dems have real solutions to fix these problems.

They must lead on this point—Americans have had no reason to think the Democrats can craft policies for a better future, because the Democrats haven’t given them any indication they know what it looks like. The only successful strategy is in abandoning the old, let’s-go-back-to-the-good-‘ol-days model and offering a hopeful one. Then they can present genuinely beneficial solutions.

posted by Jeff | 9:19 AM |
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