The Democratic Party has lost the thread of its own narrative. Instead of positioning itself as the friend and ally of the working and middle classes against the power and privilege of exploiters, the party has allowed its opponents to portray it as being openly in the service of powerful elites, e.g. “Talibankers,” and naively in the service of powerless “elites,” e.g. “welfare cheats.” In this Tea Party/Republican narrative, Democrats are depicted as feeding and favoring both the “fat cats” on Wall Street and the “fat poor” on Main Street.
What’s remarkable here is not the pervasiveness of this narrative but the lack of push-back from Democrats. It’s almost as if prominent Democrats have come to accept the conservative caricature of them as self-referencing elitists who are both voluntarily and proudly detached from mainstream American values.
Unlike Democrats, Tea Partiers and their Republican allies are keen to exploit the simmering resentments of working Americans. This is not difficult to do, since workers are both pissed off and scared. They think they’ve done everything right: They’ve played by the rules, worked hard, paid their taxes, attended church regularly, contributed to local charities. And they’re asking: Why isn’t my life better? Where’s my American dream?
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And, unlike complacent Democrats, the Republicans and tea partiers have a compelling narrative to sell to the aggrieved: It’s not your fault. Blame Obama. Blame un-American, unpatriotic liberals, because we all know they’re for big government and high taxes; besides, “they” always blame America first. And don’t forget to blame Democrats for helping “losers” on welfare to cheat the system. But, whomever you blame, never blame conservatives and never blame yourself.
In reply, Democrats like to talk about tolerance and shared sacrifice, but stressed-out workers see little sacrifice coming from Democratic politicians. Meanwhile, “tolerance” is a feel-good word that just doesn’t resonate. Indeed, anti-liberalism draws strength from the idea that too much tolerance is a source of our country’s problems, and that it and similar words like “diversity” are sellouts that favor everyone but hardworking whites.
Much of the anger seen at Tea Party rallies is a culmination of fear and frustration generated by real events and problems, whose source is attributed to various bogeymen: socialists, immigrants both legal and illegal, homosexuals, pro-choicers, atheists, Muslims, Barack “Hitler, Stalin, Anti-Christ” Obama – the list is as long as it is diverse. Intolerance of these “enemies” constitutes the main thread of an intoxicating, and ultimately destructive, Tea Party narrative.
Of course, it may not be easy for Democrats to offer a compelling counter-narrative. The problem is that Democrats are not even trying. We’re ceding the field to the Tea Partiers, the Glenn Becks, the Sarah Palins. And that’s major mistake No. 1.
Major mistake No. 2 is the advisory staff that surrounds the president. Men like Rahm Emanuel, Tim Geithner, Larry Summers, Bob Gates and James Jones aren’t the best and brightest; they’re the usual suspects. They aren’t “hope” and “change”; they’re more of the same.
To foster real change, some heads need to roll at the top of the president’s administration. It would also send a clear message of who’s in charge at the White House.
After some much-needed house cleaning, Democrats need a compelling narrative that pushes back against Tea Party and Republican distortions. Call it a “Don’t Tread on Me” decree. And keep it simple: “Ten commitments” should do it.
For a distinctly Democratic and truly actionable platform, I suggest the following:
1. Every American willing to work deserves a decent job with decent pay. If need be, re-create the Civilian Conservation Corps of the 1930s. Re-create the WPA. Put America back to work.
2. Every American deserves decent health care at affordable prices. Expand the military health care system and open it to uninsured civilians. If the existing military (government-run) health care system is good enough for America’s heroes, it should be good enough for ordinary Americans.
3. Create a more equitable federal tax code, with fewer exemptions for corporations and the rich, and higher tax rates for the richest.
4. Reasonable adults aren’t against government spending, they’re against wasteful government spending. After the government raises taxes (See 3 above), it must spend the additional funds to improve our nation’s infrastructure and our educational system – the backbone of our present and future.
5. We need a strong national defense, with an emphasis on defense. In other words, our military must stop bleeding money overseas. Why are we spending billions on roads and other infrastructure improvements in Afghanistan when our own roads and bridges are crumbling beneath our feet and wheels? Let’s downsize our military commitments and invest the money saved in America.
6. Recommit to energy independence, to include greater conservation. Nearly all of our military entanglements are connected, one way or another, to securing oil and other energy resources. Our national defense will be far simpler when we’re not forever worried about gasoline and jet fuel.
7. Recommit ourselves to being good stewards of planet Earth. God created the Earth for humanity, not just for Americans.
8. Play hardball when necessary. Americans respect strength and commitment. If civility and bipartisanship fail, take the lead. No more excuses about Senate filibusters. If Republican senators keep gumming up the works, call them out as being too obstructionist to care about saving America.
9. Take the lead on campaign finance reform. America is fed up with politicians who are bought and paid for by major corporate and banking interests. Public funding of elections should reverse the graft and corruption endemic to our current system.
10. Finally, never lose faith in America. Don’t appease us with happy talk. Tell us how tough it is. We know it’s tough. Americans are ready to work. They want hand ups, not handouts.
One bonus commitment: Eliminate appeals to fear, and exaggerated references to terror threats, in our political discourse. Fear is for the weak. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is un-American.
When politicians use scare tactics, call them out. With respect to global military might, America has never been stronger. Even when we were weaker, our “Greatest Generation” didn’t confront the Great Depression and World War II by whining about how scared they were.
If Democrats truly worked to relieve the burdens of workers – to empower them to succeed – we’d relieve most of the simmering resentments that Tea Partiers are so eager to exploit. And we’d make a better America.
How about it, Democrats? Let’s see a moral commitment to true change. Push back!