My previous post endorsing the politics of blame—whereby Democrats would win not by talking up “practical solutions” but by calling out those responsible for current problems—ended with a whimper where I said I wasn’t sure and would think about it. I still regret that I originally tied my opinions to my academic status, an attempt to pull rank that wasn’t appropriate. But on substance, two posts at the Democratic Strategist have provoked further thought. And they’ve cemented my belief that I was right the first time.
One post, by Robert Creamer, builds on the politics of blame approach. The Democrats, on his view, must stay on offense, mobilize seniors and Hispanics (sic: around here we say Latinos) by reminding them of real, demonstrable parts of the Republican program that take direct aim at them, point out that Republican rule wrecked the economy, and above all frame the election “as a struggle between everyday Americans and corporate special interests”—in which struggle Democrats can tell the hopeful story of “battles won.” Overall, it’s a message that seems very persuasive and has the advantage of being completely true.
An earlier post, by James Vega, advocates mobilizing the Democratic base by selling fear of what Republicans might do if elected. What should we be afraid of? Endless subpoenas of Clinton Obama aides; “a vastly increased range of attacks against liberal and progressive organizations modeled on the attacks on ACORN,” and a radical policy agenda including
• Requiring all elementary and middle school teachers to report suspected illegal aliens to the INS
• Opening congressional investigations into the research of climate and environmental scientists whose work has been challenged by conservatives with the goal of damaging their academic reputations and “defunding” their research.
• Radically downgrading the role and stature of Thomas Jefferson in American history curriculums nationwide and revising textbooks to deny that the founding fathers supported the separation of church and state.
• Revising the Civil Rights act to allow private businesses to discriminate against blacks and other minorities (Of course, only for the most completely noble and altruistic reasons of libertarian ethical philosophy).
• Encouraging the “open carry” of guns in public places across the nation, and especially at political events.
• Opening impeachment proceedings against Obama on grounds of his ineligibility for office or his conduct as president.
With due respect to Vega, whose work I’ve liked a lot in the past, I think this message is completely wrong.
I realize that Vega’s aim is different from Creamer’s. Vega is talking about how to mobilize base voters, and extreme, partisan accusations work better with them than with the median voter. Still, even as partisan appeals go, this one falls short.
First, it’s insider-ish. If Republicans won, vindictive investigations of the Obama administration and progressive activists would certainly occur, but why should the average voter, or even the average non-activist Democrat, care deeply about that? This is a strange kind of partisanship, calculated to stoke the fears of the party in government and of organized movement progressives, not the party in the electorate.
Second, it’s patently alarmist. I have no doubt that many Republican radicals would propose some of the things Vega lists, but am 100 percent sure that none of them would pass the House, get sixty votes in the Senate, and be signed by the President. The chance that these proposals will end up affecting people’s lives approaches zero. (Birtherist impeachment proceedings would not require the President’s signature—but it’s lunacy to think they would succeed.) If Republicans did try to pass such things, they’re so deeply unpopular—attacks on Thomas Jefferson? “Open carry” at political events?—that they would guarantee a landslide defeat for Republicans at the next election; for that very reason, the leadership would be likely to bottle them up. I don’t think even having teachers report illegal eight-year-olds would be at all popular outside very few states. As for the libertarian challenge to the Civil Rights Act, we’ve already seen that Rand Paul’s proposals met with the frostiest of responses from none other than Mitch McConnell; even white Southerners who hate Affirmative Action and welfare have no desire to end formal prohibitions on workplace discrimination. That prediction comes close to being an outright slander as applied to the intentions of congressional Republicans as a whole, and some of the others come close.
Finally, it’s the opposite of populist. Vega’s list make Democrats look exactly as our enemies portray us: a collection of special interests who care about speculative threats to narrow communities (climate scientists, illegal immigrants, atheists like me) while ignoring the near-certainty that a Republican Congress would transform national policy on economic issues: health care, taxation, stimulus spending, financial reform, corporate regulation, job creation. I’m not saying that Democrats shouldn’t care about the issues Vega names. I’m saying that if they’re all we care about or talk about, we’ll look narrow.
The politics of blame, as my original post noted, is a way of mobilizing Democrats and our sympathizers against corporate wrongdoers who deserved to be named, while telling a sound, accurate story about the threats to our future prosperity and safety. Vega’s politics of fear would, I’m convinced, do the exact opposite on both counts.