The Dems Need to Speak to Progressive Values, or Else Lose Badly Come November
If you have not read Drew Westen's outstanding piece, " What Created the Populist Explosion and How Democrats Can Avoid the Shrapnel in November", on the Huffington Post, AlterNet, and other venues, read it immediately. Westen states as eloquently and forcefully as anyone what he, I, and other progressives have been saying from the beginning of the Obama administration. I agree fully with everything he says. But ...
Westen's piece is incomplete in crucial ways. His piece can be read as saying that this election is about kitchen table economics (right) and only kitchen table economics (wrong).
This election is about more than just jobs, and mortgages, and adequate health care. All politics is moral. All political leaders say to do what they propose because it is right. No political leaders say to do what they say because it is wrong. Morality is behind everything in politics -- and progressives and conservatives have different moral systems.
In the conservative moral system, the highest value is preserving and extending the moral system itself. That is why they keep saying no to Obama's proposals, even voting against their own ideas when Obama accepts them. To give Obama any victory at all would be a blow to their moral system. Their moral system requires non-co-operation. That is a major thing the Obama administration has not understood.
The conservatives understand the centrality of morality. They attacked the Obama health care plan as immoral, violating the moral principles of freedom ("government takeover") and reverence for life ("death panels.") The Obama administration made a policy case, not a moral case. The conservatives have characterized the bailouts as thievery and Obama's ties to Wall St. as immoral -- as being in bed with the thieves. The attacks on government are seen as moral attacks, with government seen as taking money out of working people's pockets and giving it to people who don't deserve it. Whether it is the birthers, or the anti-Muslims, or the anti-immigrants, of the pro-lifers, the attack is a moral attack. The Tea Party cry is moral -- for "freedom" (see my book Whose Freedom?), for God, for patriotism. Even jobless benefits are seen as giving money to people who are not working and don't deserve it. Even social security that workers have earned, that are deferred payments for work, are seen as undeserving people "sucking on the tits of the government."
The moral case is not answered just by good policy that will help people who need help -- as Westen proposed. The good policies -- extending unemployment benefits, help to small businesses, help for teachers and firemen, limits on credit card rates, restrictions on rate increases and service reductions by HMO's -- in themselves fit a progressive moral system, but don't in themselves make a case for progressive moral leadership.
Why are so many people about to vote against their interests? The Republicans are not offering kitchen-table benefits. When people are voting against their interests, more interest-based arguments don't help.
Westen's discussion of "the center" and of populism in general, misses what is crucial in this election. There is no one "center." Instead, a considerable number of Americans (perhaps as many as 15 to 20 percent) are conservative in some respects and progressive in other respects. The have both moral systems and apply them to different issues -- in all kinds of ways. You can be conservative on economics and progressive on social issues, or conservative on foreign policy and progressive on domestic issues, and so on -- in all sorts of combinations.