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Learning The Lessons Of Republican History, And Fighting Back

[I’m making a plea today on behalf of more and better Democrats:  we need more of them in office shaping the policies and actions of the Democratic party.  Let’s call this another $10 day — pick a Blue America candidate of your choice and make a donation.  Call up their election HQ and volunteer to make calls or stuff envelopes or knock on doors.  Do something to help get better people into office in November.  And do it today!  — CHS]

I love this clip with Rick Perlstein and David Frum. David posits a need for a more authoritarian hand, and Rick appeals to historical accuracy and to reason. And through this very short clip, you see the differences between Democratic and Republican worldviews — and how failing to learn all of the lessons of our history can distort your present view of politics. And I find that fascinating. (You can watch the Bloggingheads debate in its entirety here.)

We did an extended book salon on Rick’s superb history on Barry Goldwater and American politics a while back (Part I and Part II). And something that Digby said in her introduction to the discussion in Part II has stuck with me:

Before the Storm does have a lot to say about movement politics. It’s not Goldwater who’s the main protagonist in Perlstein’s account; it’s the conservative activists who used his candidacy to rebuild American politics from the grassroots. But Perlstein also is interested in ideas – as the subtitle says, the book is about the “Unmaking of the American Consensus.” Perlstein wants to know how the smug liberal consensus underlying the Affluent Society of 1960s America was shattered, and replaced by a new, conservative-friendly, set of received wisdoms. “Before the Storm” only begins to describe how this happened, but suggests that it surely had its origins with Goldwater’s supporters. In short, Perlstein tells us that you have to understand both movement politics and ideas if you want to understand why the conservatives won.

Ideas are at the fore of Perlstein’s pamphlet The Stock Market and the Super Jumbo, where he draws out the lessons of the conservative movement for today’s Democrats. Perlstein argues that the Democratic party’s key problem is that it isn’t prepared to commit to a long-term political vision. Goldwater’s conservatives “made sure everyone knew what it meant to be a Republican” by committing to a set of ideas which were pretty unpopular at the outset. They pushed these ideas again and again until they gained legitimacy, and finally became received wisdom among the political classes. They spent sixteen years in the wilderness before they won; but when they won, they took the prize. They were able to reshape the political consensus in their image.

This is the reason why ‘centrist’ and ‘bipartisan’ pundits like David Broder are so damaging to the Democratic party. They’ve internalized Republican talking points about where the political center of gravity is, and how to enforce the boundaries of ‘acceptable’ debate. Progressives are at a perpetual disadvantage, because the terms of political argument are rigged against them. Perlstein’s solution is for the Democratic party to reconnect with the core interests of its voters by “making commitments that do not waver from election to election.” Specifically, they need to commit irreversibly to economic liberalism, and “stick with it even if they lose, in order to win big.”

The Democratic party establishment has forgotten how to effectively fight back, as Rick so effortlessly does in the clip. Refutation of false narratives requires advance preparation and a willingness to stand up and say "wrong" when one is confronted with an ideological or factual falsehood.

But the mumbled responses of the party elites have been ingrained over years of loud, rampant buffoonery by the Newt Gingriches and the bombastic stylings of Rush Limbaugh and his ilk. Democratic party elders never understood that a response was needed — that simply ignoring the loud goobers in the corner was not nearly adequate. And the media — suffering from Battered Press Syndrome — simply wants the meanness to stop, but fails to understand that until they start doing their jobs and being skeptics instead of perpetuating the self-created Republican myths, it is they who have backed themselves into corners of their own making.

Those of us who have spent the last few years doing progressive pushback saw that immediately. Jane’s series On Image (Part I and Part II) is seared into my brain precisely because it was so clearly needed — and because the only folks who learned these lessons were the ones who don’t make money perpetuating the status quo of political consultancy and meme-repetition.

Which is why the recent conservative whining about the vast resources of the message machine on the left (HA!) is so supremely satisfying — and humorous. The right has an enormous web of monetary support and institutionalized perpetuation machinery. But what they have failed to do with all of those resources is to learn the lessons of their own conservative history — failed to take note of the bad, and to change it rather than simply screaming they were right at the top of their lungs until everyone else just agreed so they’d shut up.

The sole reason the right’s message machine is failing is because their lies aren’t working any longer. Because people are too worried about affording necessities and keeping their jobs and their homes to shell out for some snake oil falsehoods on the side.

But that tiny group that is still buying it, including GOP stalwarts and party elders? They’ve either bought into the lies altogether, or they are too steeped in them to ever publicly admit they are part of the problem because it would ruin their reputation and their access to all that wingnut welfare fundage.

As a result, they replicate these failures over and over again. And we are all reaping what they’ve sown with George Bush and Dick Cheney, who have so run the Republican brand into the ground that, as Sidney says, their candidates for President this year tried to avoid mentioning him at all costs. With a media which is more suited to repetition of the prefab narrative PR image of John McCain, we are all going to have our hands full from here to November if we want to see any change in the status quo.

Here is what I know: people are hurting right now, and our political and social structure is so off kilter that we could have started rectifying problems years ago and it still would not have been soon enough.  What we need is real leadership on a whole host of issues.  And we need it now.  Would that the leadership were coming from those we elect as our representatives.

To that end, I’m making a plea today on behalf of more and better Democrats:  we need more of them in office shaping the policies and actions of the Democratic party.  Let’s call this another $10 day — pick a Blue America candidate of your choice and make a donation.  Call up their election HQ and volunteer to make calls or stuff envelopes or knock on doors.  Do something to help get better people into office in November.  Let’s get to work… 

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Christy Hardin Smith

Christy Hardin Smith

Christy is a "recovering" attorney, who earned her undergraduate degree at Smith College, in American Studies and Government, concentrating in American Foreign Policy. She then went on to graduate studies at the University of Pennsylvania in the field of political science and international relations/security studies, before attending law school at the College of Law at West Virginia University, where she was Associate Editor of the Law Review. Christy was a partner in her own firm for several years, where she practiced in a number of areas including criminal defense, child abuse and neglect representation, domestic law, civil litigation, and she was an attorney for a small municipality, before switching hats to become a state prosecutor. Christy has extensive trial experience, and has worked for years both in and out of the court system to improve the lives of at risk children.

Email: reddhedd AT firedoglake DOT com