07 October 2010

The Democrats' 'Unpopular' Values and the Need for Scare Tactics

The latest New York Review of Books has a pessimistic forecast for the congressional elections from political writer Michael Tomasky. Pessimism's nothing new on the liberal front, but Tomasky's article deserves attention for his even more demoralizing analysis of long-term Democratic weakness. You don't have to be a Democrat to be demoralized by what he writes.

Tomasky contends that there's a profound rhetorical gap separating Democrats and Republicans, the latter enjoying repeated success at framing political debates around their values while the former often seem inexplicably inarticulate about their own values. If Democrats have a hard time spinning a vision, Tomasky suggests, that may be because they know, or are afraid, that their core values are simply unpopular with the American electorate, or less popular than "Republican" values, i.e. those values that Republicans have successfully identified with their own cause. The situation is so messed up, he suggests, that Americans seem to like what Democrats do, but not what they believe. Tomasky's short list of "Democratic" values supposedly rejected by Americans is alarming.

In American politics, Republicans routinely speak in broad themes and tend to blur the details, while Democrats typically ignore broad themes and focus on details. Republicans, for example, speak constantly of “liberty” and “freedom” and couch practically all their initiatives—tax cuts, deregulation, and so forth—within these large categories. Democrats, on the other hand, talk more about specific programs and policies and steer clear of big themes. There is a reason for this: Republican themes, like “liberty,” are popular, while
Republican policies often are not; and Democratic themes (“community,” “compassion,” “justice”) are less popular, while many specific Democratic programs—Social Security, Medicare, even (in many polls) putting a price on carbon emissions—have majority support. This is why, when all else fails, Democrats try to scare people about the threat to Social Security if the GOP takes over, as indeed they are doing right now.

What Democrats have typically not done well since Reagan’s time is connect their policies to their larger beliefs. In fact they have usually tried to hide those beliefs, or change the conversation when the subject arose. The result has been that for many years Republicans have been able to present their philosophy as somehow truly “American,” while attacking the Democratic belief system as contrary to American values.

"Community," "compassion" and "justice" aren't popular, while "liberty" is. Tomasky isn't even arguing that Republicans have made it so, only that they've taken advantage of Americans' alleged bias in favor of liberty at the apparent expense of communal values. Americans aren't rejecting Democratic appeals to community, compassion and justice, because Tomasky says Democrats aren't making those appeals. That would seem to mean that an already-existing hostility to those communal values makes many Americans reflexively hostile to Democratic policies unless they see an immediate personal benefit from them or happen to be angry for the moment at Republicans.

Tomasky offers no statistical basis from polling data that his three communal values are as unpopular as he claims. For all we know, he may infer the fact from election results from 1980 forward; if Republicans won most of the time, it must mean that voters reject certain values. But if Democrats themselves, on Tomasky's own testimony, "hide" their beliefs, how is any election a referendum on them? For that matter, why should voters assume that the Democratic party actually upholds those values if Democrats hide their beliefs? Tomasky seems to be making assumptions that aren't necessarily justified about the assumptions voters make. He also offers little practical advice, implying that Democrats need to find a way to make their policies appear "American" and "patriotic" rather than "compassionate," etc. But if voters identify American patriotism with "freedom" and "liberty," as Tomasky concedes, how do you convince them that policies allegedly at odds with "liberty" (as will certainly be alleged) are more patriotic than those of the party that wraps itself in the flag and proclaims liberty throughout the land? I'm still not convinced that the communal values are as hopeless as Tomasky thinks; they simply need more credible expression than Democrats can give them.

Reading the article more cynically, however, I did find something that Democrats might find useful. Tomasky anticipates that Republican control of either house of Congress will result in countless congressional investigations of the Obama administration, whether sincerely or sanely motivated or not. At his highest pitch of alarm, he suggests that these expected inquiries could lead to "another impeachment drama." There, rather than in repeating the usual Social Security alarms, is where the good old politics of fear might be applied most usefully, as Tomasky himself hints:

Republicans would deny that impeachment is ultimately on their minds. But why wouldn’t it be? They have shown repeatedly that they play to their base, and much of their base already believes that Obama is probably not an American citizen and therefore is an illegitimate president. In a Harris Poll from March, 24 percent of Republicans even agreed that Obama “may be the Antichrist.” When your most loyal voters think that, not trying to remove the man from office would amount to malpractice. If the Democrats are worried about the
much-discussed “enthusiasm gap” between Republicans’ voters and theirs, perhaps bringing these issues out of the shadows would help close it.

This just might work. While it seems extremely unlikely that the GOP will win the Senate majority it would need to convict Obama of any offense, it's probably worth it for Democrats to insinuate as much as possible that Republican congressional candidates have an agenda to overthrow the Executive Branch by a quasi-legal coup d'etat in the next two years. Most Democratic pols and strategists are probably too reasonable to take the threat seriously themselves, but given what Republicans say about Democrats, waving the pre-bloodied shirt of partisan impeachment conspiracy could well get those precious independents worked up against the Republicans, too. Is this suggestion dishonest or dishonorable? Well, I said I was in cynical mode right now, and I also think it'd be entertaining to have every Republican congressional candidate tell us now if they have any plans to remove the President from office. If they deny it, they might lose votes from their own base. It looks like a win-win scenario to me .


d.eris said...

Indeed, and while we're at it, one might also inquire as to why charges have not been brought against officials from the previous administration, up to and including the president.

Anonymous said...

So basically, Repugnicans try to appeal to the lowest common denominator, while Democrats attempt to appeal to reason and logic. That tells me that the split between right and left is not merely ideological, but a split in comprehensive ability: The left attempts to reason out a problem, come to some solution that the majority of people on the left can accept. The right attempts to rile up their rank & file, who just want the problems to go away. They don't want to know the "why" of the problem, they just want it gone.

Apparently, the best way to do that is to single out a certain group (gays, welfare recipients, liberals, etc.) claim that that particular group is the cause of the problem and by making that group go away, the problem goes away.

The fact that the right seems to be "winning" pretty much tells the world which direction the US is heading...


Anonymous said...

To answer your question, d, my guess would be because politicos consider themselves off limits regarding the law. They don't want to be prosecuted for things they've done or may do, so they won't push the issue when it comes to other politicos, especially members of the same party. Which is why, for at least 1 or 2 terms, the American people need to vote both parties out of office and elect representatives who will enact laws to stop political abuses of the law and to make sure any politician who breaks the law suffers the penalty.