I've been rolling thoughts over in my head since the election results came in, wondering what can be done to rescue the Democratic party and the country from this relentlessly tightening corporate takeover of government. It's easy to become frustrated or hopeless in the face of the appetite of voters for nincompoopery, flat-out lies and corporate propaganda.
The Democratic party and the president lost this election primarily because they forgot to tell the country a simple, compelling story. Leaders do that: they explain to people where they are, where they need to go and how to get there. President Obama appears not to know that that is the most important part of his job description. He's gotten lost in insider dealmaking and technocratic detail for most of his first two years. He forgot to talk to the country in simple, understandable terms telling them what was wrong and what he was doing to fix it. He had no Fireside Chats, aside from Saturday morning webcasts that nobody not reading Daily Kos ever saw.
Below find some thoughts on what the Democratic story might be, how it can work to our advantage, and how storytelling can re-elect the president and save the Democratic party from its leaders.
Restoration is the theme of my story. Americans know that the country is falling apart. We are no longer a beacon to the world. The American Dream is the punchline of a cruel joke. Our streets are potholed, schools seem beyond redemption, and the idea of our children having a better life than we did can't bear the least scrutiny. America needs to be restored to its former glories, and Americans are dying to believe in their country and their futures again. There are three central themes Democrats must weave together to tell a compelling story, and fight back against the crazies and the corporations.
1. Restoring the Middle Class
Nick Kristof in the NY Times today wrote a column naming the most obvious unmentionable truth about America today: we are a banana republic. Our richest 1% take home 24% of national income, making us more unequal than erstwhile actual banana republics like Nicaragua and Guyana. And as the rich get richer, all the rest of us get poorer. Thom Hartmann has written an entire book about how government actions have repeatedly made and unmade middle classes in this country, and describes in painfully familiar detail how the current postwar middle class has been systematically ransacked and garrotted by 30 years of government policy. This is the root of our economic crisis, just as it was in 1929, the last time income inequality was this severe in this country. You can't have a stable economy which is this top-heavy: it will inevitably topple over.
Democrats, then, need to diagnose the problem properly and communicate that to voters. Americans are painfully aware that the middle class is dying, and would be very receptive to measures to bring it back. Restoring the middle class should be the central theme of our story. Reducing income inequality and putting money back into the hands of the many will necessarily involve taking some of the hoard of the rich away from them, and Democrats should not shy from class war. It's time the rest of us fought back against the attacks by the rich. Taking a firm and unwavering stance on ending the Bush tax cuts on the rich should be our first step. Explaining why this is necessary will help introduce our story, but it must only be the introduction. Some other chapters in this story are as follows:
- Restoring the estate tax to end unhealthy concentrations of wealth is a laudable goal, and pointing out how few people are affected by the estate tax should preface any discussion of it.
- A stock and derivatives transaction tax, as Britain has instituted, is a way to raise lots of money from Wall Street, "to pay the country back for the bailouts and the damage they have caused." It will also help curb harmful financial speculation too, but that's a needless elaboration in our story.
- Trade policy has to be reoriented to bring jobs back to this country. China is happy to bare its teeth at the mention of such changes, and their plutocratic co-conspirators in the boardrooms of the Fortune 500 will help them. But people know where the jobs have gone, and they know nobody's trying to bring them back. Americans need to hear from Democrats that we'll bring the jobs back.
- The minimum wage needs to be raised above the poverty line, and indexed to inflation. There's no need for the poor to get poorer in this country when they can find a job. This rising tide will lift all boats, and will contrast nicely with teabagger calls to end the minimum wage altogether.
- Corporate taxes need to be reshuffled. Cancelling tax breaks that do nothing to create American jobs, or even encourage offshoring, is a no-brainer. The money raised can go to new tax breaks aimed at promoting domestic employment, to avoid the Republican hue and cry about tax and spend Democrats.
- Public colleges and vocational training schools should be expanded, and assistance with costs should be universally available. Most Americans won't be ready for the work force coming out of high school, even assuming they finish high school, and we won't be able to expand the middle class nearly as much as we should without investing in our human capital. Education and training should be approached as urgently as national defense, because we won't be able to defend ourselves forever if our economy collapses and we can't compete in a future world economy.
There are many other chapters in this tale, but they all have to revolve around the simple theme of Restoring the Middle Class. It's the most powerful antidote we have to the poison of free-market fundamentalism Republicans have made into conventional wisdom in this country.
2. Restoring Our Democracy
Citizens United and the flood of lying attack ads funded by shadowy zillionaires and corporate interests have scandalized most Americans. This creates an opening for Democrats to talk about American democracy. Many of us believe that the country is no longer a democracy, but an economic oligarchy running elections as a reality show, and sponsoring government as a wealth-transfer agency operating on their behalf. But the residual power of the idea of democracy is powerful, and Democrats should use it while they still can.
The DISCLOSE Act is an entry point. Much better would be calls for a ban on all political advertising except during a specified time before elections, as many other countries have. Public financing should be proposed and debated, so the essential corruption of our current system can be highlighted. Instant Runoff Voting, tamper-free voting systems, nonpartisan redistricting, expanding the voting public by proposing small fines for not voting -- all these things are done in other countries and can be done here. The corporate stranglehold on the media must be challenged, and the extension of that stranglehold to the Internet must be a line in the sand.
Actual legislative reforms will be slow and difficult to achieve, but none will happen until Democrats start telling the story. American voters don't know why IRV would be a good thing, but there's hardly an American who thinks the elections aren't rigged against them. Tell them why, and what we'll do about it, and this will become a powerful story.
3. Restoring the Planet.
It is shocking and untenable that our national energy policy in the new Congress will likely be "reward oil and coal companies more, and deny climate change is happening." The pushback against the capture of government and media by extractive energy industries must be strong and sustained. Aside perhaps from education, it is doubtful that any story will so engage the young as Restoring the Planet. Appeals to altruism and to self-interest among the young must be buttressed by economic arguments about jobs and the vast wealth transfer out of this country caused by reliance on oil. Don't start the story with cap and trade or raising taxes. Vilify the villains and call out the liars. Point out the stakes. Show the vanishing icecaps and the projections of a hotter and drier future for much of the country. Tell the story first, so that the details will make sense for people.
We all want our country back. The question is, who has stolen it? The Democratic party has to have a story to tell voters that makes sense to them, that explains their dissatisfactions and their fears, and that tells them what Democrats will do to make their lives better. That's what the party didn't do in 2010. It had better learn that lesson in one damn hurry, or 2012 will be a much worse experience than what we've just gone through.
We Democrats who are not party leaders can't wait for our leaders to realize these truths or tell these stories. We have to agree on what our story is and start telling it ourselves. We have to look for and support candidates for office who are willing to tell a coherent story along these lines. Our leaders have proven themselves -- in important ways -- feckless and incompetent at leadership. They are craven in the face of the powers arrayed against them. They don't appear to know where to go or what to do. In times like these we can't rely on them to lead. We must lead. We have to learn how to form ourselves into a parade and march to our destination. "Leaders" will either scramble to the front or get left behind. It's a parade we must all join, liberals and moderates, critics and defenders. The time for electing Democrats has for the moment passed. It's time we all got together and created a party worth voting for. That's what will win the next election.