Wednesday, February 4, 2009

The Big Picture: Harness Populist Outrage to Progresive Ends

Despite the Three Big Facts we discussed yesterday - radically diminished security and opportunity in people's lives; populist outrage at Republicans, conservatives, and business; and extraordinarily broad and deep support for President Obama - proponents of action are being outmaneuvered by the unrepentant Right. The Senate is poised to reflect the rapidly congealing conventional wisdom of the media elite, through jaw-droppingly shortsighted deep cuts to vital programs in an already too-small economic recovery package, and through even more giveaways to big corporations and the very rich. How is this happening, and how can it be turned around?

Some of the problems are understandable and forgivable. It has been over 40 years since liberals had the power to significantly expand government, so this entire process is new. Liberals have to get used to the idea of actually leading through strategy, rather than stopping the bleeding through tactics, and more importantly the American public will take time - and evidence that activist government really does improve their lives - to put their full faith behind a broad expansion of the safety net and government's role in the economy.

However, other problems are emerging; we can't say they're unexpected after observing politics for the past 40 years, but they are absolutely unforgivable. The very people who drove the country into the ground - ideological conservatives, corporations and their advocates, sell-out Democrats who always give in, and the media which treats these groups as the only "reasonable" people even when they prove themselves dead wrong time and again - were unfortunately not stripped of power, and they have hijacked the entire debate about the economic crisis. They lie and distort and protect their privilege while everyone else suffers, and they smugly, self-righteously proclaim themselves as the protectors of the national interest, of our children's inheritance, of our nation's ideals. They are beneath contempt. It goes far beyond how they affect the recovery package - if they are allowed to retain their power despite the economic crisis, despite the election, then they will never let any real reform occur in broader economic policy, health care policy, energy policy, tax policy, labor policy, foreign policy, and we will have blown this one chance at changing America's course.

The Three Big Facts mean the stars are aligned for this exceedingly rare opportunity to sweep that entire smug class, that entire smug ideology, into the dustbin of history. But Congressional Democrats and, to a lesser extent, Obama are not taking advantage. I do not disagree with Obama's tactics of acting magnanimously, showing everyone that he will listen and reach out. The problem is that this must be only part of a grander strategy, one that reshapes the entire debate in a direction favorable to the change we need. The Democrats must harness populist outrage for progressive ends. Liberals in Congress and President Obama need to use a bad cop/good cop, pushed by outrage/pulled by hope strategy to make the American people, wavering Senators, and the media riveted by the absolute urgency of the situation so that there will be no doubt that the only answer is massive government intervention.

President Obama should continue to rise above partisan politics, but he needs to recognize that he has no choice but to fully commit himself to the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act - which is what he should make sure everyone calls it instead of the misleading stimulus. It makes no sense to talk of stimulus, as if this is a small cyclical downturn where we just need to give people some money to spend - that is what drove this economic collapse in the first place. The only people who think this way are the smug elites who were doing great for years and only in the last couple months have seen their stocks decline. For everyone else, there are huge structural problems in the economy, the "Crunch". People are working longer and harder than ever, two parents in most families, often crippling family life, and still falling behind, and that's why they borrowed so much. We need to change the entire system, to increase wages, opportunity, and security, and decrease rising costs and catastrophic risks. Liberal economists have been saying this, but now in this time of crisis people are far more receptive to the serious changes necessary; and we now have an enormously popular President with exceptional speaking skills to make the case. He must do so, forcefully, passionately, in a way that moves every American to believe in determined action for a brighter future.

Obama shouldn't name names and and demonize people or institutions, but Congressional Democrats definitely should. They should follow the "Make Me" strategy - there is a famous story that labor leaders and liberals went to FDR and demanded more progressive programs, and FDR responded, "Make me". The role of the Congressional Democrats should be to stir passionate popular outrage and demands for massive changes, and then Obama can appear as the above-politics conciliator, tempering the radicalism, appearing centrist while pursuing policies that are still sweeping and progressive. In the 1930s, the Pecora Commissions and a constant drumbeat of other congressional hearings shocked and appalled the public by bringing corporate crooks to testify as well as people who were really struggling and needed help and drove the moral urgency of action.

Two things drive a political movement: a common enemy to fight against, and a sympathetic face to fight for. Every Congressional Committee, with the help of experts in media spectacle creation, should call up all the people who ruined us with their greed and incompetence, and unite Democrats and the American public against them. Right now people are extremely upset at corporate executives, but much of the media and of Congress is demonizing spending programs. Step 1 is to build up new demons, ones that deserve it, and that will spur the measures that must be taken to take away corporate wealth and power. Step 2 is to put a sympathetic face on on all the people who are suffering because of these enemies, and call them to Congress to testify about budget cuts that are stripping them of their jobs and critical services. Every day, make the story the hard-working admirable dad who's being laid off after 20 years of service and has no one to feed his family. Make the story the senior care-givers I was reading about in the New York Times today who won't be able to get to their jobs anymore because buses are cutting service to their place of employment. There are so many stories like that, they deserve to get told, and they will completely change the storyline.

We've already seen this dynamic work very effectively. Last week Claire McCaskill railed against corporate executives giving themselves billions in taxpayer money in bonuses - "the idiots kicking sand in the face of the American taxpayer" and called for capping salaries at $400,000. Now, Obama is appearing more moderate by speaking in more gracious tones and capping the salaries at $500,000 - even though this is truly a radical move. We need this dynamic replicated everywhere, all the time. That's how you create the groundswell necessary for sweeping reform. We've got the facts and the leader on our side - now let's add passion and focused strategy.

No comments:

Post a Comment