Thursday, November 4, 2010

Moving forward

While I empathize with the palpable anger of Tim Wise's post-election piece, I think anger is not in itself a fruitful emotion and does not need to be cultivated. I am more interested in finding a path on which this country can move forward toward greater democracy, and away from the political, social, and economic dead end to which it seems to be sliding.

Furthermore, by focusing on just the "old, rich white guys," White dangerously oversimplifies the situation. Yes, opposition to the Democrats came from them - but it was not just from them. It is more useful to systematically analyze the causes of the losses this week, determining what Democrats can and cannot affect.

1. Racism.
I agree that part of this election was just pure racist reaction. You will never get the Right to acknowledge this fact, and that's OK. Very few people will openly acknowledge that they are racist. It's not a good political strategy. While progressives might have some very marginal impact on affecting opinions in this area, the reality is that racism is a stubborn phenomenon, and change occurs over generations, not over the course of a couple of years.

2. Youth disengagement.
According to CIRCLE, a non-partisan group that researches political engagement of Americans between the ages of 15-25, young voters preferred Obama to McCain by 68 to 30 percent, the highest percentage received by any candidate since reporting by age began in 1976. But this time - the turnout was 20.4 percent, 2.4 percent lower than that 2006 midterm, when 10 million young people voted. That means about 1 million fewer young people voted this year. You might say - "only one million," but remember that many of the victories won by conservatives were quite close.

Reaching this age group requires new thinking and better research. These are potential voters who grew up under G.W. Bush. For many, "9-11" is the most formative political/social event. They are technologically savvy, but often quite ignorant of history. (I teach at a university, so I have some informed opinions in this area.) They are liberal on social issues such as gay marriage, but almost libertarian in their views about the ineffectiveness of government. And, of course, they are the future. Any successful political strategy must include really listening to their concerns. Personally, I am convinced that there is much commonality between these young voters and the progressive wing of the Democratic party, more commonality than exists between them and the Tea Party/Republican Party. But in order to find and develop that commonality, we need to listen with humility to their hopes and concerns.

3. Bought elections
In some cases, the crystal balls read by analysts in the media are quite accurate. As predicted, the Citizens United case decided by the US Supreme Court earlier this year had a huge impact on the level of funding by outside groups in this election. The liberals were outspent by conservatives by nearly 2-1. Just because liberals were outspent does not mean that the liberal agenda was unpopular in general. It means that it was unpopular with rich people. Rich people, as we know, are a small minority in this country but they own an increasing share of the wealth. Meaningful campaign reform is needed if this country is to develop democratically, but the Supreme Court seems dead set against allowing campaign reform to proceed, even if Congress could find the guts to tackle the issue - an extremely unlikely event.

Unless Democrats are going to abandon all elements that differentiate them from Republicans, they will never be able to match the support that Republicans receive from rich people. But if Republicans are rich in money, then the Democrats might be able to beat them by sheer mobilization efforts. This is difficult, but perhaps it is the only way forward - to build a popular democracy with strong grass-roots organizing. Even this will be opposed by the right-wing, because they know it is threatening. Witness the vicious opposition that groups such as ACORN have faced. Nonetheless, this is an essential element if we are to preserve what is left of democracy in this country.

4. Economic problems
Obviously, economic problems played a critical role in the overall voter anger that caused so many voters to choose Republicans on Tuesday. The fact that the Republicans presented no firm solutions to the economic woes didn't matter. Voters were angry. We would like to think that the economic problems will improve, but in fact the Republican triumph may make that less likely. Many of the extreme Republicans criticize all efforts to stimulate the economy. It is naive to think that things can't get worse.

It is necessary for progressives to persistently make the case that following the policies that got us into this economic situation are not likely to get us out of it. Tax breaks for the rich will increasingly burden the federal budget deficit, but they will not stimulate the economy. Their utility was questionable in the best of times; now, such tax breaks are simply unaffordable.

Conservatives will scream "class warfare!" - but the reality is that class warfare has been ongoing for the last three decades - and the poor and middle-class people are losing. Democrats - in their willingness to be "Republicans-lite," have been timid in pointing out the fact the rich are reaping rich rewards from the policies of Republicans, while the economic status of the country as a whole deteriorates. Progressives have to be loud and proud in pointing out the injustice of the current economic system. Yes, the system should reward effort and merit, but the rich getting richer now are not profiting from their virtue but rather from their connections and inherited wealth.

5. Corrupt Media
The media system is deeply corrupt. One of the largest "news" operations in the country is run by a former Republican media consultant. FOX News is completely honest about its bias, and yet for some reason it continues to be trusted source of information for millions. FOX News, of course, is not the only partisan source. MSNBC occupies the left side of the spectrum. Because of technological changes, greater partisan divides are predictable. The mass media, however, are changing rapidly, and a successful political strategy should consider this fact.

On one hand, according to Nielsen research in 2009, Americans watched 1.9 percent more television last year than the year previous. But there was more than 50 percent increase of Americans watching television on the Internet. (Think about this when you consider the battles that are being fought over Net Neutrality. These are not abstract technical issues. If large cable/media companies are allowed to charge preferential rates for content, what you see on the Internet could be restricted.) While television watching increases slightly, the time spent with social media is increasing dramatically. According to one piece of research, the time spent on iSOS media now rivals that spent on Sunday night football.

What does all this mean for progressives? There is great potential in reaching young people, if we take the initiative in listening to them and addressing their concerns. There are huge opportunities is we aggressively champion the cause of the people who have been steadily losing economic ground and hope for the last 30 years. There is great potential if we aggressively organize minorities who will face even more racism as the Tea Party/Republican Party becomes ascendent.

Hope is an essential element to the progressive philosophy. We focus on the best in our fellow citizens, looking to the future, looking for potential in challenging situations. This is one such situation. Anger is a understandable, but we should not indulge in it. Let's focus now on what we can change - because moving forward is still possible. The only losers are those people who stop trying.

2 comments:

Stuart Holland said...

Totally agree. Very well put.

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