Although the Right claims their recent win justifies downsizing government etc., etc., everyone now knows they just plan to stop Obama. Anything else they said is just a big con. But it’s an “American” con. We progressives need to understand this much better over the next two years.
Very often when the public votes the way they did on November 2, we shake our heads about the way they ‘vote against their interests.” The explanations we give for it usually include the following: l. the people don’t have the facts because of Fox, or talk radio, or the captive media; 2. the Democrats talk about policies and programs, not moral values; 3. the people vote for those they identify with most closely, not the Dems; 4. Mr. Obama refuses to fight openly for a progressive agenda, or to demand more than he thinks he can get publically, even as smart public relations. Then there’s the current favorite for number 5: The Dems don’t have a winning ‘narrative.’
Make that “the Dems didn’t have a winning American story,” and you’ll get a lot closer to the whole truth. The subset of voters who turned out for the midterms identified with those who had an American story that matched the times, their feelings, and their beliefs. So let’s look more closely at what that story was. (1)
Two elements of the American identity story were highlighted by the Right this time. The first is the idea of freedom--freedom from any constraints on the action of individuals. This rebellion against any community rules, pressure, or constraint is a founding piece of the American character. Americans can be very easily scared by the idea that someone is going to take away their freedom. And they continue to believe that individual freedom is the key to American prosperity.
The second American story idea the Right used is a little more complex: essentially it’s about being responsible. In this case it involved fear of being controlled by a government that goes into deficit the way the people as responsible individuals don’t dare do, especially now.
In order to regain the lead, we progressives and Mr. Obama too must find ways to tell a different American story about freedom, the deficit, and government. So what would a different American story about these things be? First of all, we need to raise our own red flags about freedom. “Cut taxes for the super rich and then cut Social Security and aid to the states to pay for it? Who is free if that happens? Who is truly free when there aren’t enough government rules or cops to protect us from high-end, white collar crooks stealing from the people and getting off scot free? So we could say, “Real freedom in America right now means freedom from being ripped off by the super rich.”
As for the idea that business should be free (no rules again) to do the job creating, and that tax cuts for the super rich will somehow magically create those jobs, that’s a free lunch for the super rich, at tax payer expense. Mountains of evidence show that only rising consumer demand creates jobs, not tax cuts for the super rich, corporate CEOs, or even for “small” businesses. Give the rich the money, and they are free to pour it into the sea, for all we know or can trace. (A few media events featuring people dressed as top-hatted bigwigs pouring currency-green water into the ocean would be nice right now.) Government-monitored tax credits, incentives, or programs are more accountable and responsible ways to give the economy a leg up. We can follow that money, because it leaves tracks. Even if by the time you read this, we’ve lost the fight to stop the next round of tax cuts for the super rich, we need to keep repeating this message. Let’s demand responsible accounting for the way the super rich actually spend their tax cut money. That would be a nice public education follow up, if it comes out that way.
Now let’s look at the other big con the voting public seemed to buy: the idea that we should bring our federal deficit down right now by shrinking federal employment. But laid off government employees would suddenly have no more money to spend on consumer goods, and they would start losing their houses too. Cut federal jobs and America bleeds faster. When others refuse to hire, government must prime the pump itself. Keeping its own people employed is the first step. That’s the responsiblething to do. Public deficits are temporary; new wage earners fix them.
Of course, the most fundamental problem with the deficit issue is the household finance analogy. Individual voters have a legitimate fear of personal deficits these days. But there’s an American story here too. If as an individual you find your expenses exceed your income, you don’t just cut everything, you look for other sources of income. You get busy and try new things, like the responsible “can-do” American you are. In hard times, as bitter recent experience shows, government is the only reliable backer of the American future, via traceable tax incentives, tax credits, new R & D programs, outright purchases, or direct employment. If the economy stalls, government is the only agent we have with the responsibility to seed American jobs here at home.
Over the next two years, we must push our selfish, irresponsible elite and our wobbly president a lot harder. That means we should be telling our own American stories everywhere: online, offline, in the press, in person, and in the streets.
Susan C. Strong is the Founder and Executive Director of The Metaphor Project, metaphorproject.org . The Metaphor Project has been helping progressive activists frame their messages for mainstream audiences since 1997.
(1) I’m aware that recent post-election polls suggest that many people who voted Republican were not actually voting for the specific measures politicians on the Right proposed. These findings actually strengthen my point that it was the Right’s overall “American” story that made the difference.