It's Not Enough to Criticize Obama: Citizens Need to Take Action
In forming his administration, President Obama abandoned the movement that had begun during his campaign for deal-making and a pragmatism that hasn't worked. That movement is still possible and needed now. Here is look at what is required, and how a version of it is forming in California.
We begin with this week's triple whammy.
Freedom vs. The Public Option
Which would you prefer, consumer choice or freedom? Extended coverage or freedom? Bending the cost curve or freedom?
John Boehner, House Minority Leader, speaking of health care, said recently, "This bill is the greatest threat to freedom that I have seen in the 19 years I have been here in Washington. . . It's going to lead to a government takeover of our health care system, with tens of thousands of new bureaucrats right down the street, making these decisions [choose your doctor, buy your own health insurance] for you."
This is exactly what Frank Luntz advised conservatives to say. They have repeated it and repeated it. Why has it worked to rally conservative populists against their interests? The most effective framing is more than mere language, more than spin or salesmanship. It has worked because conservatives really believe that the issue is freedom. It fits the conservative moral system. It fits how conservatives see the world.
The Democrats have helped the conservatives. Their pathetic attempt to make any deal to get 60 votes convinced even Massachusetts voters that government under the Democrats was corrupt and oppressive, not just inept, but immoral.
All politics is moral
All political leaders argue that they are doing the right thing, not the wrong thing, that their policies are moral, not evil.
Conservatives understand this, liberals tend not to. Conservatives know a morality tale when they see it: Greedy Wall Street bankers, who have cost people their homes, their jobs, and their savings get billion-dollar bailouts from the government, while those honest hard-working people get nothing. Corruption. Oppression. A threat to freedom.
The conservatives are winning the framing wars again - by sticking to moral principles as conservatives see them, and communicating their view of morality effectively. In the 2008 election, Barack Obama ran a campaign based on his moral principles and communicated those principles as effectively as any candidate ever has.
But the Obama administration made a 180-degree turn, trading Obama's 2008 moral principles for the deal-making of Rahm Emanuel and Tim Geithner, assuming it would be 'pragmatic' to court corporations and move to the right, in the false hope of bipartisan support. A clear unified moral vision was replaced by long laundry lists of policy options that the public could not understand, and that made ordinary folks feel they were being bamboozled. And in many cases, they were.
Even the language was a disaster. Liberals thought that conservatives would like consumer choice. That's why they used "public option." As Harry Reid said, "It's public and it's an option - a public option." But what did a conservative hear in the words "public option?" Say "public" and he hears "government." "Option" is a policy-wonk term, from the language of bureaucracy. Say "public option" and the conservative hears "government bureaucracy."
The results of deal-making in the name of pragmatism have been considerably immoral, as documented thoroughly by progressives like Drew Westen, Matt Taibbi, Robert Kuttner, and many others. Advice on what to do instead has not been lacking from other progressives. Advice is all over the blogs. Guy Saperstein is an excellent example.
We progressives are long on factual analysis, critique, suggestion - and ridicule. Rachel Maddow is one of the best, and her popularity is well-deserved. What's more fun than ridiculing Tea Party-ers, Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck, and the like, by showing the factual errors, the flaws in their logic, and the cruelty of their positions.
But we have been dealt a triple blow. A year of failed deal-making by our side, the Tea Party win in Massachusetts, and worst of all, the 5-4 Supreme Court decision to turn our democracy into a corporate plutocracy. This is serious.
Democrats still have the presidency and a majority in the House and Senate, but the momentum is on the conservative side. Their victories in the framing wars have inevitably led to a crucial electoral victory and to a Supreme Court death threat to democracy itself, framed as free speech.
Democrats have electoral power, but progressives have not created an effective movement to take advantage of that power.
"Where's the movement?"
In the emerging Obama mythology, this is the question attributed to President Obama whenever he is asked to take the lead on a progressive issue. It is not an idle question. Leaders can only lead if there is a pre-existing movement for them to get in front of.
Moreover, there are other conditions. The idea behind a movement, and the language expressing its goals, must also pre-exist in public discourse. In other words, the movement must already have: