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The Language of a Democratic Realignment: Reality Is the New Morality

Jimmy Stewart as Mr. Smith

(Note:  This is the sixth part of a seven-part series on Democratic reframing of issues for 2006 and beyond, Part 2 of which previously appeared at FDL.)

With the barrage of good-news polls for Democrats that Christy celebrated this morning, it's easy to forget that only a few months ago, Democrats and other progressives were flagellating themselves to the tune of Jamison Foser's lament that "the defining issue of our time is the media" — specifically, the media and its seemingly intrinsic deference to Bushite dishonesty, leaving us with a scenario (described by Peter Daou) that even Beckett would have considered a bit of a downer:

Progressive bloggers and online activists — positioned on the front lines of a cold civil war — face a thankless and daunting task: battle the Bush administration and its legions of online and offline apologists, battle the so-called “liberal” media and its tireless weaving of pro-GOP narratives, battle the ineffectual Democratic leadership, and battle the demoralization and frustration that comes with a long, steep uphill struggle.

Even if you're a determined pessimist like Markos, you have to admit that things don't seem quite so bad now.  What happened to undo the seemingly indestructible Bush PR juggernaut?  Reality happened, that's what.  Karl Rove and his minions can build the Shrub-in-Chief up as a king all they want, but ultimately he can’t command the waves of reality — and whether those waves erode his sand monument to himself slowly (as in the agonizing, gradual disintegration of Iraq) or suddenly (as with Hurricane Katrina last year), eventually people can see for themselves how little substance is really there.

Over the past couple weeks, a perfect storm of reality — the Mark Foley page-stalking scandal, the official National Intelligence Estimate that we're losing ground against terrorism due to the Iraq debacle, and the revelations of Bob Woodward's book State of Denial — came together so fiercely that even largely inattentive Americans couldn't shut it out, and the Bushites' grotesquely fabricated celebrations (ghastly as it sounds, that's what they were) of the fifth anniversary of September 11th were washed away. 

This turn of events is both a lesson and a (hopefully) unique opportunity.  On the one hand, we've discovered our ultimate weapon against the forces of mendacity, if only we can learn to make the best use of it.  On the other hand, we'd best master it quickly, since it's horrifying to think how much worse things would have to get for Democrats to win if reality doesn't do the job on its own this time. 

Moreover, since even the most optimistic projections give Dems narrow-at-best control of both houses of Congress — against an assuredly slash-and-burn opposition and a White House still in the grip of the dark side — we'll have to win a few more elections to really start undoing the damage of the Bushian nightmare.  So how can we turn a possible fluke into a long-term trend?

The solution is to make voters aware of the choice they're making — that is, reality over myth-making — and to make this preference into a core part of the Democratic party's identity.

The Republicans certainly know where the strength of their brand is, which is why they try to denigrate the very concepts of reality and pragmatism at every turn.  The "Republican war on science" isn't an accident; it's of a piece with debasing the concept of a fair press via Fox News (adopting slogans such as "fair and balanced" and "no-spin zone" so as to corrupt them), ridiculing intelligent and articulate Democratic politicians as morally dubious girlie-men, and ignoring the foreign-policy arts of intelligence and diplomacy in favor of blustering threats and military force.  In each case, moral and ideological certainty is portrayed as the highest ideal, and the willingness (or — gasp! — desire) to adapt to a changing reality is depicted as a sinful, deadly weakness.

The fatal vulnerability of this Death Star-like approach to politics, though, is that it only works as long as it seems to provide what I referred to two weeks ago as "a sense of stability in a chaotic, threatening world" … in short, the peace of not having to think about things.  If instead the Republicans deliver nothing but chaos and a wide trail of fundamental trusts they have betrayed, then the door is open for some other party (hint, hint) to explain why their approach can provide that sought-after stability.

Where the jujitsu — and the genuine reframing — of the opportunity lies is in Democrats' ability to portray their unique values of pursuing real solutions to real problems, for the common good and with genuine accountability, as being the morally grounded source of security that sanctimonious Republican posturing promises to be, but isn't. 

As I've noted previously, an article by Jonathan Weiler and Marc J. Hetherington posted at the Democratic Strategist argued that "When people say Republicans have better 'moral values' than Democrats, they mean that Republicans reflect traditional, time-honored, simple, common-sense understandings of the world."  That would be a difficult bar to clear if progressives tried to persuade voters to "join the reality-based community," with its implied notes of ironic elitism.  

Fortunately, though, being "reality-based" translates into a simple phrase with much stronger connotations of traditional morality: common sense, the very words Weiler and Hetherington use.  If you think of Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, you've got exactly the kind of identity that Democrats should be projecting — not ideologues wanting to revolutionize the world with grandiose schemes, but honest, morally centered men and women who want to do the right thing and are smart and determined enough to get it done. 

That's the Democratic version of morality.  And it may not pull in the wingnuttiest of the fundies, but if you ask me, it's got enough of a traditional, grounded strength to be the basis of a progressive political majority.

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Swopa has been sharing prescient, if somewhat anal-retentive, analysis and garden-variety mockery with Internet readers since 1995 or so, when he began debunking the fantasies of Clinton-scandal aficionados on Usenet. He is currently esconced as the primary poster at Needlenose (