Thursday, September 23, 2010

Remobilizing the Demobilized

This is basically a comment I made over at Balloon Juice but as I was writing it I realized it was something I've been meaning to write about for a very long time. The picture to accompany it, oddly enough, was alluded to today over at Atrios' place. I always hated it for what it seemed to be telling the electorate, but I hadn't quite worked out why. But here it is: Obama and the Dems demobilized their troops and sent them home before the job was half done, hell--before it was even begun. And we are paying for it now. Over at BJ the conversation springs off of the question "Tea Party: Real or Fake?" I think that's an interesting question principally because I have wondered for a long time how to get real progressive issues and people in front of the camera long enough for an actual, real, progressive version of a third party--or hell even of the Democratic Party--to get some traction with the media. But it never seems to happen--I mean not since Haymarket or the Wobblies or the old Union strikes. There are a gazillion reasons for this historically having to do both with our media markets, corporate interests, and etc...but at the present moment it definitely arises from two phenomena: the media and the Democratic Party.

Look, its a two way street: on the one hand, the media were desperate to find a counter-wave to the Obama landslide victory, a way to keep the Republicans who they routinely interview, and the money that the Republicans have to offer through think tanks etc…, viable players. On the other hand, Obama and the Dems shut down all attempts by typical Democratic constituencies and agitators to play a more obvious and vocal part in the new legislation and the new post election landscape.

Of course a serious green/gay/union/public option or whatever agitation from the ground up, with hysterical and overthe top August town halls, rallies, and letter writing campaigns would have gotten no traction in the mainstream media. How do we know this? Because it never has. The media has been ignoring and belittling the left as either a) elitist college kids detached from the real working class/blue collar white voter or b) welfare queens with their hands out for ever. From the current coverage of the DREAM act and the Arizona law you’d think that hispanic protests against Republican anti-immigrant stuff just a few years ago hadn’t paralyzed the Bush administration. But its all down the memory hole and as far as the press are concerned the only organized political party today is the Republican Party and the Tea Party.

The Democrats made a stunning error in demobilizing after the election. Its basically the same decision that Bush made in re the Iraqi army and its one that every government faces in a post war period. The Dems and Obama thought that winning the election meant it was time to turn the process of governing over to the governing class. They thought they didn’t need voters and rallies and money and agitation from the bottom up. They demobilized, shut down fundraising and organizing, told lots of funders to take a chill pill and basically, as Atrios observed today, told us all “I got this.”

I thought at the time it was a huge mistake. And it was—because they needed the raw, angry, energy of their voters to push through the health care bill, and now at the midterms. But you can’t tell people you don’t need them and then turn around and two months before a major election tell them you do need them. They get frustrated, complacent, rusty, disconnected. All armies do. You’ve got to keep your people in the game, keep them feeling needed and listened to. If you want them to be there to fight for you when you need their voices and their votes.

What gets my goat--not to wander into Republican fetish territory here--is that this was all totally avoidable. Its very clear from studying what they did do that the Obama team switched their focus from grassroots organizing to a top level governing strategy almost from the get go. Instead of keeping the local groups going and giving them updates periodically, and calls to action, that was all shut down. I think, personally, that Obama wanted to get in and govern like any other President in order to scotch rumors that the black guy was going to be some kind of revolutionary insurgent in the Oval Office. I think he and his team thought they would get some kind of honeymoon and that shutting down all outside agitation was a way of calming Republican fears in the Senate and the House long enough to begin the process of working with the Republicans on legislation.

Of course they failed to realize what anyone with half an eye had already grasped. This wasn't your daddy's Republican party. This was a totally new, take no prisoners, party-with-nothing-to-lose. Governing itself was going to be their target. They would simply block everything until they could get back into power. That has been their obvious plan and they've carried it out with ruthless efficiency. The only thing that could conceivably counteract it was the threat of even bigger losses--permanent minority status--at the midterms. And the only group that could deliver on that threat was the voters. And the only way for the Republicans to percieve that threat would have been to have had a drumbeat of ceaseless voter driven initiatives, rallies, and media events promising just that. Not a Tea Party but a very well organized and clearly respected set of progressive group agitations. But from the get go the Democratic Party discouraged that--they discouraged the rise of difficult to manage interest groups, they refused to "cater" to those special interests or to reward the leadership of those groups (which is one way of building strength for those groups).

So, here we are: a few weeks to go and in the vacuum created by the rise of Obama from insurgent/organizer to leader the Republican Party and the Tea Party and the Corporations are still setting the agenda. And the most progressive and effective Democratic government of the last quarter century is on the ropes. I know we can win this--but the Democrats have to change tactics. They have to stop hectoring their voters, in Digby's words, and start asking them for help and guidance. They have to throw away speeches about how much they've done, as Mondale said recently, and come forward. People need to be needed. They need to be respected. Turning out and voting for a candidate and for a party is a huge thing to do--its not a little thing for most people. It takes time, money, energy, faith,--people already gave that to Obama and the Dems. And in return they got a series of "this is as much as we can do for you, stop whining." But once they are remobilized for the midterms they have to be empowered to keep working for 2012. The Republican "can't do" machine is not going to be stopped until it dies off generationally. However hard we have to fight in 2010 we will have to fight still harder, and on even more fronts, in 2012. Its simply not possible to give up--or to ask our voters to lay back and let the governing class "get this" for them.

But all is not lost. Far from it. Like I said people need to be needed. They need to be asked to do things. They want to do something, anything, to improve their lives and the lives of their neighbors. Obama and Reid and Pelosi need to come forward and say something shocking:

"We screwed up. We took your massive mandate and we came into power and we thought that we would be able to come into Congress and do what you asked. We relied on the good faith of the Republican party, its Senators and its Congressmen to put country ahead of pique. That was a mistake. In all the transitions from Republican to Democrat, and Democrat to Republican in the entire history of this country since we've had parties we have had no experience of the minority party simply being willing to burn down the house rather than permit the majority to do the work of the people. We came in facing two wars, a massive housing crash, skyrocketing unemployment, Bush's deficit spending, tax cuts, years of regulatory neglect of our mines, water, and food supply plus the looting of the treasury for Bush's TARP program and we thought the Republicans would actually let us try to fix a few of these problems for you. We were wrong.

We'll never make that mistake again. Its customary for the party in power to lose a few seats during a midterm election. That's because people often think that the government can get along without their input. They stay home because they are too busy, or they think things are going OK, or they want to punish the government because things aren't going OK. Well--if that's why you are planning to stay home think again. Things are not going OK. If the Republicans get into power in the House and Senate this country will go down in flames. We can't afford them. We can't afford their indifference to your plight, we can't afford their tax gifts to their wealthy friends, we can't afford their borrow and spend policies, we can't afford to let them repeal the health care protections you and your children rely on. We're sorry to have to ask this, we thought we didn't need your help, but if ever we needed you to through your shoulder to the wheel now is it. Come back to the fight with us. After we win we promise to invite you back to the table. We need you."


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