Tuesday, April 26, 2005

When will we ever learn?

When we learn that fighting the fight on the battleground of the enemy’s choosing is a dumb idea?

Surely Sun Tzu or von Clausewitz or somebody pronounced this idea memorably enough for us to learn it. Grant? Lee? Patton? Ike? Anybody?

Today I read that my friends are fighting the culture wars staged by the Republicans. I think it has something to do with filibustering and judges. Maybe faith, too.

In any case, it is a classic case where we have taken their bait, hook, line and sinker. Maybe even the pole.

The sole discernible purpose of Justice Sunday (or whatever they called their revival meeting this past weekend) was to paint us as Godless, amoral and out of touch with real American values. And boy, have we risen to the occasion!

If I hear one more Air America personality/caller (Randi excepted, of course) whine about how the red-state evangelicals are crazy, I’ll scream. If I read one more post on Kos or Atrios about how the red-staters are crazy because they keep voting against their own interests, EVEN THOUGH WE HAVE PATIENTLY EXPLAINED THIS TO THEM 3,000 TIMES, I’ll scream.

The red-staters, evangelicals, blue-collar voters, etc. (let’s call them swing voters) are not following us because we are not leading. The only people pulling the lever for us are people who aren’t likely to vote for the other team no matter what. Except of course for the future swing voters who will swing away from us if we don’t start to lead.

Today, Kos wonders what’s wrong with the D-Brand of “Democrats are the party for people who work for a living.” In the ad biz, this would be positioned as a campaign tag, not an actual tag line. In other words, it’s the key insight for all our thinking about the brand, but not necessarily the framing that’ll be used in speaking with consumers.

My own view is that Kos’ line is too limiting. It also still resonates in a negative way with now-ancient-but-not-forgotten communist bashing. (Remember, the hatred spewed by the right will be ricocheting around our culture for decades!) I do, however, think the general direction is about right.

We need to come up with an even bigger idea. I’ve been thinking that the campaign tag line is something like “Community. Responsibility. Opportunity.” What’s missing is the emotional subtext to turn this into our equivalent of “smaller government” or “lower taxes.”

I think our framing must tap into our core strength, which is that we all believe that by collective action we can as a society improve our lives significantly. Which includes things besides letting market forces sort everything out. (Every time we try this market-rules-all approach, we get total crap. Like now.)

This is in contrast to the Republicans’ core strength, which is identifying and voicing all of the potential problems of our program for progress. We should never forget that this is a useful and important role, which deserves just as much credit and weight as our “change-or-die” approach. Our society works best when these two forces are in balance. And right now, we are terribly out of balance.

I suspect that the Republicans never dreamed they’d have the kind of success they’re having. In their general tirades about us, they touched on the nerve of taxes being too high. This, despite any evidence to that effect.

But plenty of swing voters bought into it, 100%. Of course, not based on any real evidence, but based solely on the reports of their own two eyes, gazing at their pay stubs every two weeks, with a seeming fortune going to the government. Hell, with that much money most of us could buy a car. (This anecdotal approach to analysis persists, flourishing, in our current society. Terry Schiavo, for example.)

Ben Franklin’s principal objection to a republican form of government was that it would collapse as soon as the people figured out they had the power to raid the treasury. It may be that the Republicans have unleashed that exact genie, never again to be returned.

For my part, I’m with the overwhelming majority of founding fathers who thought the constitution was not worth having for very long. I think many of them thought that whatever they crafted, time and changing circumstance would moot before too long. And I think they were unassailability right in this.

But instead of chucking it out every half century or so, we developed this fluid notion of what the constitution meant, and resorting to amendments from time to time. But as I read the current tea leaves, we are embarked, irrevocably I believe, on a course which will lead us to a new constitutional order.

Republicans (conservatives, really) object that we Democrats have stretched the constitution beyond all recognition in pursuit of our (worthy) goals. There may be truth in this. (There may not.) But I think the right has drawn fault lines in our country that will lead us to re-visit the basic deal on which our civil institutions rest.

We have had small-minded, bible-thumping intolerant jerks from the day after the Mayflower arrived. (By the sheer power of genealogical mathematics, I am a Mayflwer descendant. In a few more generations, every human will be.) They were in Massachusetts Bay colony (Rhode Island, any one?). They were present in Philadelphia in 1775-6. They were certainly around for abolition, and for temperance.

But we have had to, from time to time, re-visit our deal with these (American) folk. I live in New York, which from the start celebrated its diversity (OK, not when it jailed Quakers, but come on), and every day continues to show the inherent strength of the proposition that we are better together.

The time is nigh when we must once again re-new our deal: we let them have intolerant, closed communities where they feel sanctimoniously superior, they let us have the rest as an open, tolerant and secular society.

For us to be able to strike this deal anew, we need to be in touch with our own ideas. Tolerance. Secular government. And right now, we can barely remember these ideas.
So to begin our journey back to our roots, we need to re-visit first principles, convince each other of their continued value, then go about selling them to the swing voters. And all of that is likely to take some time. But to the extent that I am permitted a megaphone for cheerleading purposes (George Buch and Trent Lott, fellow Cheerleaders, of course in college), I urge us to develop a clean emotional pitch for our values. The formula is easy: authenticity + cultural relevance = emotional resonance. But filling in the equation’s values can be daunting. So we better get started.

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