On the Talking Points Memo post, I don’t have the same read that Charley does here. The problem identified by “JB” was not a lack of anti-plutocratic populism — though I think that has been part of the problem underlying the spinelessness of establishment Democrats. Instead, the problem “JB” identifies is much more pervasive and endemic, reaching beyond DC to progressives all over the country — it’s a lack of partisan chutzpah, driven by a misperception about how politics really works.
We Democrats — especially the most liberal/progressive ones — have an unfortunate tendency to see politics as a logic-based exercise. We believe that if we have the best policy arguments, we ought to win elections and have a chance to enact those policies. We care about whether our presidential candidates are good debaters, as though scoring rhetorical points in some sort of Ivy League competition is the point of a televised debate. We want our candidates to be as intelligent as possible, and we wring our hands and decry the state of the republic when the electorate prefers an affable cipher like George Bush or Ronald Reagan. We shake our heads in disbelief when middle- and working-class red-staters “don’t vote their interests” and vote Republican, and we think they’ve been “suckered” or “duped” by “wedge” or “hot-button” issues like abortion or religion or gay rights. We howl when a conservative group attacks, but whether it was McGovern or Dukakis or Kerry, liberals never want to counterattack lest we “sink to their level.” We see politics as a chess match; they see it as a war. We finally win our most decisive presidential victory in 44 years after conservatives destroyed the economy, and rather than deliver on the decisive changes a solid majority of Americans asked for, THIS is the time we pick to attempt a new era of post-partisanship and big-tent cooperation. The dominant mode of Democratic rhetoric and campaigning and governance for the last 60 years has been what we might call “passive-progressive.”
This isn’t necessarily about moneyed interests. This is about a lack of understanding about politics. Elections aren’t about logic; they’re about emotions and values. The supreme irony here is that educated liberals believe that economic behavior is emotional while political behavior is logical, while conservatives believe that economic behavior is logical while political behavior is emotional. This is why they win elections and then enact laissez-faire trickle-down economic policies that are doomed to failure. We have the more sound economic plan but can’t get it enacted.
The ultimate problem is that, when it comes to politics, we still believe in Enlightenment notions of human rationality — even when we embrace the emerging paradigm shift of behavioral economics. But emotion dominates all human endeavors. It’s how we’re wired, even the smartest of us (remember that Isaac Newton lost his fortune when the South Sea stock bubble burst). How could political opinions and voting behavior be any different?
So back to “JB,” the problem the last 3 years has been a hesitation to be too partisan, to upset anyone, to be aggressive — and to pin the blame for the recession on George Bush and the GOP. People like narratives. They like stories with good guys and bad guys. We give them policy lectures, or a story about “hope” and “progress” that has been stripped of any villains (except maybe the occasional unspecified “fat cat”). We learned the wrong lesson from 2008: we didn’t win because we had a positive message and a good policy platform and had a better ground game of volunteers and get-out-the-vote (i.e. the liberal Platonic ideal of How Elections Are Won); we won because the other side really, really, really screwed everything up, from Iraq to Katrina to Lehman. We didn’t give them a villain, and conservatives filled the narrative vacuum — making Obama the villain. Suddenly it wasn’t the shredding of common-sense financial rules that caused the recession, but deficits and over-regulation; it wasn’t reckless tax cuts or military misadventures that ballooned the debt, but liberal “socialism”; it wasn’t Wall Street debt that tanked the economy, but the government debt that was incurred to prop up the banks. We didn’t give people a narrative, and conservatives swooped in — turning the whole story upside-down.
Perhaps we haven’t wanted to blame conservatives for the economy because of a devotion to factual accuracy, but this is politics, not political science. Accuracy isn’t the point. Winning is. Because you only get to govern if you win.
This is what “JB” meant. And this is a problem not only for Obama and Reid and Pelosi, but for all of us. It has doomed Democrats all the way back to Adlai Stevenson. And again: it’s not necessarily about money, or about fighting moneyed interests (though that’s a huge issue in itself, a story for another time). It’s about being willing to fight — going on offense, telling an affirmative story about why we’re right, rather than a defensive apology about why we’re not wrong (or why we’re marginally more right than they are, according to these charts I have right here . . . you get the point). It’s not about the substance — we’re already really good at substance. It’s about how we present it. And while we are usually tempted to spend a lot of time discussing how awful it is that we have this image-obsessed culture, that TV is a plague, that the web is a cesspool, that talk radio is corrosive, that everything is fake, that all people care about is personality, guess what? This is the world we live in. Our withering cultural critiques will not overturn the zeitgeist in time for the next election. Indeed, they haven’t for the last 60 years.
Conversely, this issue is precisely what makes Liz Warren so exciting: not necessarily that she’s willing to make an aggressive case for progressive economic policy, but that she’s willing to make an aggressive case, period. We’ve seen this revived assertiveness begin to rise up from the netroots in the past decade — and now, just maybe, we’ll begin to see it more among prominent progressive candidates. This is the importance of winning a victory for Warren, making her outspoken, no-apologies progressivism a new template for future candidates and the next generation of Democratic leaders.