When Scott Brown beat Martha Coakley in last week’s special election, I was mad. So mad, in fact, that I posted this to my Facebook wall:
Republicans have never truly governed this country: all they’ve ever done is sell failed policies with divisive rhetoric, pass the buck to [Democrats] to fix it, wait for their failures to drown us, and trust the public’s memory to be short enough to let the cycle repeat. All Scott Brown’s election proves is that sometimes, that’s enough.
I stand by the general sentiment. So did a few others. But this “status update” ultimately provoked a debate that endured for more than seventy-five comments. Admittedly, there are probably better venues for this kind of debate. Like Twitter! One comment, though, deserves a wider audience, and a more substantial reply. From “S.R.,” a 2L at Michigan Law:
While the commentary on this post feigns a dialog, it is emblematic of the deeply rooted animosity and lack of honest discussion in American politics. Let’s all take a deep breath and consider the message underlying [the author's] upset tirade.
I am going to put myself out there and support [the author's] characterization of the Republican Party (1980-Present). He did something that Democrats do rather poorly: he conjured up a clear archetype of the opposition, used general language to define it, and ran with it. This is a basic rhetorical method which conservative news and radio pundits, political strategists, and politicians do very astutely. What some call fear-mongering, is really just schematizing. Humans think by putting things in boxes. Republicans have discovered that by defining general boxes in an “us v. them” framework, they can develop coherent, persuasive political messaging without proposing policies. This may seem like an attack on the GOP, but I say this with awe and respect. By conjuring up an image of Democrats as liberal spending, taxing, defense-softies, Republicans can literally sit back and watch Democrats manifest these qualities — sometimes at no fault of their own — thereby undermining their ethos. By undermining the appearances of Democrats, the Republican Party can systematically take apart the Democrats and sway public opinion to their favor without doing anything.
Back to [the author's] characterization, Republicans love to conjure up the image of Reagan, his city on a hill, deregulation, the collapse of the USSR, etc. Truth be told, and please bear with me before lambasting me as a liberal hypocrite, this is mythology. Reagan was the first real master of using rhetoric to frame American reality. For instance, he advocated going back to a time before America knew it had a race problem. The problem with this is that America had a race problem and ignoring it wouldn’t solve it, especially for those who were the victims of pervasive discrimination and extrajudicial violence. Moreover, Reagan escalated the Cold War despite productive efforts under the Carter Administration to develop diplomatic channels between Washington and Moscow. Conservatives argue that this hardline approach brought the USSR to its knees, but it was actually the internal political revolutions and economic failures of the autocracy that brought about its demise.
Moreover, Republicans love to say that the market will fix everything. Unfortunately, the market fails. Deregulation of the financial industry and a lack of oversight under the Bush administration predicated its collapse. While I agree in part that the bailout undermines the odds that bankers will adjust their behavior (e.g. engage in less risk investments) because they will ignore certain risks in anticipation of a safety net, sensible regulation and oversight of business practices is a must.
The point is, Democrats have to coopt the mythology of America from the Republicans. President Obama demonstrated a capacity to do this in his campaign. Democrats, as a whole, need to realize that reason (like the preceding two paragraphs) simply doesn’t work. The public doesn’t want to expend effort to understand the world. It is far easier to have the world put in a box and handed to you. Democrats need to simplify their characterization of the opposition and the world at large. My proposal: Republicans are the modern Sheriff of Nottingham and Democrats are Robinhood. Republicans support a scary establishment that supports corruption, wealth and greed. Democrats, by comparison, fight to ensure that the average American (conservative or liberal, black or white, gay or straight) gets a fair shake and that his or her child has real opportunity to get an education, healthcare.
Yes, it is time that Democrats fight against the Republican unreality by promoting reality through the Republican playbook. An easy place to begin: naming things. Words encapsulate whole ideas, so give ideas single words. Abandon the phrase “Republican Healthcare Plan” and call it “Deathcare.” Why? Because death is the opposite of health and is scary (see, e.g., death panels, death tax, death star). It’s short; it’s catchy. If you’re a middle-class Christian living in rural Missouri, you’re going to die at some point and deathcare is going to make it happen sooner. Furthermore, Deathcare will ensure you can’t see the doctor when you get sick, bankrupt you faster than Democratic “tax and spend” policies, and all your effort towards being a self-sufficient fiscal conservative will be wasted (including any chance of being able to pay for your kid’s college education).
For the noble elite, this seems like dirty tricks — a Machiavellian means to an end. But it isn’t. What it is, however, is how America wants to receive information: in clear, delineated, gut-instinct boxes.
S.R. is right about several things here. Americans prefer their politics quick and dirty, superficial and cheap. Accordingly, that’s an effective way to win voters. And my commentary was a departure from that ignominious norm only in that, for once, it was a Democrat taking the cheap shot. I think my “analysis” was right to the extent that it describes the most vocal elements of the modern Republican Party, but it is an overly simplistic, almost Manichean way of looking at things, one that discounts any real middle ground, and any real clash of ideas.
The question is, is that all that’s left? Political speech in this country is increasingly cheap and exploitative, and after last Thursday’s Supreme Court decision, it’s probably only going to get worse. On the premise that this, finally, could be a way towards bi- or post-partisanship, we elect a well-spoken, moderate President, only to find that given a softer target, the opposition actually gets nastier. The truly disappointing message of the last year has been that even-tempered insightfulness doesn’t seem to pay, whether in politics or in business, for an entire host of reasons. I could offer an inspirational way forward, but I’m not sure there is one anymore. Is there? And if not, how do we respond, except in kind?