Allow me a bit of an anecdote. When I was 16 I was fortunate enough to spend my summer in Ghana as part of a program with the American Field Service (great people by the way, you should check them out). Anyways one of the (many) cultural differences that I had to adjust to involved the practice of bargaining for the whatever I wanted to buy when shopping in the open-air markets. While this sounds easy, actually setting a price for my chocolate bar or a local trinket proved to be kind of impossible for me. Eventually I got the hang of the practice, to the point where I successfully negotiated to purchase of Kofi, my nail-covered personal demi-god, for two t-shirts and $12. Kofi’s threatening demeanor now sits proudly in my house as the embodiment of two principles:
- Don’t steal from me or Kofi will murder you
- When negotiating, start with an unreasonable bid in your favor.
The Commonwealth of Virginia decided in 2009 to loose their collective shit. Instead of continuing their tradition of electing lame-ass business whoring Democrats, the fine people of the former Confederate Capital brought us Governor Bob McDonnell (he of the thesis defending a theocratic American government) and Ken “I want to bang Osama Bin Laden” Cuccinelli as their Attorney General. These two wingnuts proceeded to pursue the normal assortment of wignutty ideas, and after the 2010 GOP onslaught where the Democrats lost literally all power in the State Government these ideas started to crystalize into the wing-nuttiest pieces of legislation of any state in the country.
One of these pieces of jackass policies included taking advantage of Justice Kennedy’s idiotic reasoning in Gonzales v. Carhart where he allowed states to “educate” women about the imagined dangers of having a medical procedure. This “education” is really the legal justification of state sponsored terror tactics against women through the use of “TRAP” laws. In Virginia they upped the usual subtle paternalistic acts (waiting periods, repetition of legislatively created warning statements, right to life literature, etc) and decided to also force doctors to rape their patients with a dildo-based sonogram if they dared to have an abortion.
In the face of the obvious shitstorm that this law stirred up, McDonnell announced yesterday that he would not sign it. The outrage over this law was deserved, and it would probably not have survived any legal challenge. But actually implementing this statute was not the point. This was a not so subtle message concerning the lengths to which Republicans are willing to go in order to win on policy issues. The GOP wants those who dare reinforce (or even expand) what society considers to be the basic necessities of women’s health to know what they will do to them.
Unfortunately the “victory” of killing this bill is really just another example of liberals failing to effectively dictate what a “consensus” should look like in terms of policy. It is our side that continues to prove that we are more than willing to equivocate and give in to the craziness. This equivocation then predictably pushes the the accepted “middle ground” into the realm where siding with fascists like Santorum is seen as the “civil” option.
All social debates in this country follow a familiar media cycle. For example, last week’s “contraception battle” (like the past controversies over gay marriage or the HPV vaccine) is at its core nothing more than a nasty distraction from the massive economic inequality existing in this country. Whenever the political or economic power of the aristocracy is challenged, these sorts of policy debates come up. Once people start talking openly about increasing taxes on the wealthy, the religious nutbag segment of the conservative movement (the foot soldiers for those who bankroll the party) curiously grab the attention of the media by pursing some blatantly unconstitutional law on an issue that should have been settled when the Warren or Burger Courts first addressed it. Before you know it the term “transvaginal” is being mentioned on prime time tv.
The next step in the cycle involves a female Democratic congressperson going on the record detailing the cynical nature of the controversy. This person and her passionate message will be completely ignored. Next come the dueling op-eds from the opposing sides of the issue, or perhaps a contentious appearance on “Morning Joe”. Then the angry men of FOX News say something terrible and provocative. The next step involves Jon Stewart conveying the message that the administration should have communicated on day one of the controversy. After about two weeks Obama decides that he is tired of the ridiculousness and offers some sort of well intentioned compromise and an accompanying “hey guys chill out” paternalistic chastising to both sides. Then the right summarily rejects this compromise and the cycle starts again. If we are lucky Daryl Issa provides us with a bonus round of wasting our time with some bullshit “oversight” hearing.
We should not be surprised that issues concerning “social morality” keep coming up. The economic right wing of the country does not believe that the government has any responsibility to regulate the fraud and economic crimes of the elite, or provide the disadvantaged with any form of public assistance. This of course means leaves officeholders with a decent amount of time on their hands, and the Koch’s won’t mind if the John Boehners of the world use their legislative power to throw some red meat over to the religious base.
Throughout these controversies the media has repeated the same right wing platitudes concerning “religious liberty” without ever challenging the actual motives behind the legislation, or calling out their proponents for their transparent sexism. The actual people affected by whatever non-sensical policy is being pushed are never sufficiently interviewed, and no one from the Democratic Party dares to scream at these assholes (perhaps out the fear of appearing “shrill”). Meanwhile even if the right-wing position loses in the short-term, the effect of its repetition virtually guarantees that their reasoning will become an accepted part of the general consensus, despite its obvious bat-shit insanity.
Democrats have yet to discover that they are enabling this sort of reprehensible behavior by offering any sort of compromise. They are the proverbial Charlie Brown at the end of Lucy pulling the football for ever believing that they are negotiating in good faith. Making things even worse, whenever someone offers a traditional liberal policy “pivot”, they are immediately maligned by their own party for no conceivably good reason. How exactly do leaders of the party wonder why voters are not exactly enthused to vote for the supposed defenders of progressive values?
This does not need to keep happening. When Catholic organizations start whining about having to cover their employee’s birth control, kindly remind the Bishops that the government has the power to take away their tax exemptions. Bob Jones University learned about this power when they refused to allow interracial dating. If they are still hesitant, offer a compromise: support for a public option. It is absurd that we allow employers to dictate health coverage, and given the supposed Catholic commitment to social justice this should be a no-brainer.
The same tactic could be employed during these asinine debt-limit raising or budget passing battles. The GOP desperately wants to make the Bush tax cuts permanent, and their desperation forces them to start using laughable phrases like “punishing success” or “wealth creators”. Every time the GOP is painted into the corner where they trying to justify rich people welfare, the Democrats should respond by floating a 90% tax rate on Capital Gains, or the estate tax as punitive as a zombie on the Walking Dead. It is not exactly hard to make John Boehner cry, but an offer to give the SEC the same resources and agency support of the FBI should cause the orangeman to cry uncle and give in to some serious reforms.
We almost saw an example of this form of strength when Congressman Ryan was trying to pass his hilarious budget not too long ago. Democrats looked at the proposal, and quickly saw that it was nothing less than a destructive piece of shit designed to gut Medicare and Social Security and then funding the remaining shell of the government with the most regressive tax model ever proposed. Despite the fact that David Brooks and his ilk were claiming the “genius” and “courageousness”, liberals somehow found their voice and coalesced around pointing out how insane the Ryan plan would be if implemented. Meanwhile the GOP for some reason started to hold this failed piece of legislation as a litmus test for their presidential candidates, forcing every one of the potential nominees to pledge their support for it. Why the DNC is not repeating the “he wants to kill medicare” fact over and over again is beyond me, but the public ass-whupping of Ryan and his Randian Cronies should serve as an example of how we can reframe the message in our favor.
But most of the time the Democrats have been more than willing to cave on an issue even before the other side has offered their usually crazy policy suggestion. It was the Obama administration that offered cuts to Social Security during the debt celling negotiations in anticipation of an eventual GOP request. After Gabrielle Giffords was shot in the head by a lunatic using a weapon modification that was illegal to possess until just a few years ago, only one lonely Democrat was left to advocate for a ban on high capacity magazines. Only one person was willing to stand up for literally the least restrictive gun law that should have been passed in the wake of the tragedy that killed a small child and gravely injured an elected member of our party (among many others).
At the end of the day I am simply pessimistic about the party and the moral compass of its leadership. The narrative behind the resurrection of the Democratic Party starts with centrism of the DLC supposedly acting as the savior of the party back in the 1980’s and 1990’s through abandoning the left and its New Deal Era policy positions. What this account forgets however is the fact the DLC drew much of its support from the monied interests that the Democratic party used to attack, and has used that money to compete with the GOP’s monetized election contest. When we befriended these people we lost the moral imperative as well as the ability to properly speak with the necessary populist tone that a party must use when attempting to keep a coalition of minorities, young people, old people, and workers all working towards the same goal. Embracing the money of the 1% meant that Democrats could no longer understand who they actually represented, something that voters also perceived.
Again the major solution comes with following the path of the right wing. Howard Dean might have been a terrible presidential campaigner in some ways, but his strategy to engage in the states and to organize on the micro level is necessary in a time where the outsized voice of unrestricted corporate influence in elections has virtually guaranteed that conservative voices will dominate radio and TV during campaign season. We should also be willing to use legislation on the local and state level as tools to affect the national consensus. It was the famously liberal Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis who spoke of states existing as the “laboratories of democracy”. I guarantee you that allowing gay marriage, legalizing pot, or providing single payer health insurance will be much better received on the national stage than a state funded dildo of punishment for trying to get an abortion.
It might seem crazy (especially with many in the media claiming that both sides have forced the supposed polarization of our political system) but reframing the tone and policy positions of the party to the left will help recapture independent voters. Bidding high, using the vapid power of the media (and its tendency to repeat platitudes) to our advantage, and then forcing a consensus that (unlike the other side) actually benefits a broad segment of society will prove politically advantageous. Treading water while refusing to passionately defend your own side is only guaranteeing the atrophying of your support base while leaving independents to vote with the side that seems to actually care about what they are advocating (even if it is insane).