The bottom line is that Democrats should stop engaging the far right as equals. Groups such as the Tea Party are not actually mainstream. Their ideology continues to move so far to the right that it is becoming difficult for many Republicans to defend it. We should stop trying to meet them on common ground. You cannot negotiate with someone who holds extreme views and will not compromise. You cannot reason with someone who is unreasonable.
We should stop treating radical ideologues like equal and rational opponents. We debase our ideas and ourselves when we invest our energies in point-by-point name-calling, finger-pointing and obsessive refutation. Worse, by meeting our opponents as responsible peers, we elevate and amplify every lie and damaging policy they mention while signaling their legitimacy. Because they do not expect themselves to be factual, or even consistent, they have mastered the art of twisting language, re-assigning meaning, and persuading the already-faithful with loud voices and repeated talking points.
Imagine a street preacher, shouting to the wind. Imagine the insane raving to their padded walls. Where is the benefit of engaging them as equals? What is the value of giving what is holy to dogs or of casting pearls before swine? When pushed, the radical-right base will only double-down their defensive loyalty. Their base will not be moved just now. These followers will have to see their authorities repeatedly humiliated, ignored and impotent. No amount of appeal to reason will suffice. It is time to lead forward.
Many in the American public fail to differentiate between the noise and confusion of the opposing campaigns. To them, it’s beginning to sound like two primitive tribes, screaming incoherently, and throwing rocks and feces at each other. It is an entertaining spectacle for a short time, but not inspiring. Neither group succeeds in distinguishing or elevating itself.
The Democratic Campaign needs to quickly define and seize the virtuous, emotional and intellectual high ground, rise out of the dust, and reframe debate in terms of liberal values. We must not allow the “better angels of our nature” to be drowned out. Without clearly defining and claiming our virtues, a vast swath of our neighbors will turn away in despair, muttering “a curse on both their houses.”
You see this generalized alienation and indifference all the time and it is growing… and it is a golden, low-hanging fruit of opportunity. You see it in the hunched shoulders of some farmers as they go off faithfully, year after year, to tend their fields, but cannot be persuaded to attend their wives’ churches. You see it in the empty eyes of some people, content to sit, hour after hour, to be entertained, but cannot be persuaded to become engaged in their communities. You see it in the endless hours that entrepreneurs will sacrifice to building a small business that might sustain their families now, but are too burdened down to look up, lock arms, and lead others to a better future.
The American People are not immune to fear, and our times are increasingly fearful and trying. There are several possible responses to fear and no one option is unavoidable or unchangeable. Some may withdraw into personal isolation or the protection of a group of others like themselves. Some may strike out at others who are not like themselves. Yet, others are able to face and transcend their fear. This growth to maturity and strength is an individual achievement, even when it is helped along in a nurturing and supportive environment.
In fact, this individual achievement, united in good works for a common purpose, is the core of the Progressive Vision. We aspire to put aside our fear with all of its baggage of selfishness, hate, prejudice and bigotry. We aspire to empathy, self-control and goodness. We have faith that living such lives will help lift our neighbors out of fearful despair. We believe that, by working together, communities and nations can solve problems that private enterprises can never address. We believe in individual and collective attention to the common good. Progressives (atheists and religionists alike) aspire to the law of love.
Where do you most see fear? You see fear in those who feel, individually and collectively, the most powerless to acquire or create what they want or need. It is natural, under those circumstances to avoid risk, to conserve and defend what you already have, and to seek out strong and authoritative movements and leaders. For some, religion serves the purpose of giving hope – if not now, then in the afterlife. Others see stockpiling wealth, arms, or private political influence as a source of security. Why should I name names? By their works, you will know them.
Perhaps it is an offensive metaphor but, the most loyal dogs have been rescued from the most abject and fearful circumstances. I believe that this principle explains the willingness of so many people in so many times and places act against their best interests. Lacking their own power, they seek authoritarian leaders – sometimes leading their nations to tribal fragmentation, fascist regimes or the impossible promises of “benign dictators.” We must present a better way.
Happily, the cure for such fears precisely tracks the progressive agenda: A supporting hand up for those who need it; public education; improved general economic security; increasing engagement with diverse peoples and ideas; increasing individual participation in civic and social improvement projects.
The Democratic Campaign should still defend itself against the attacks that will inevitably be thrown their way. But, have faith; there are multitudes of progressive supporters who will gleefully throw themselves into the fray. They will take it as their duty and privilege to defend, protect and respond in support of reason, truth, insight and vision. They only need to unite behind clearly articulated purposes to give their work meaning.
The Campaign should continue to release current talking points, produce point-by-point explanations and authorize prominent surrogates to model desired responses. So armed and empowered, supporters will not just have your back; they will swarm in every direction in your service.
Above all, the Campaign should make clear the intellectual framework that underlies progressive ideas. And yes, it is useful to contrast and compare progressive values to limited and self-centered values. But, the point here is to repeatedly stimulate a sympathetic emotional response to the liberal morality and values that promote good will toward our neighbors. The opposition’s selfishness, lack of empathy, and shortsighted vision will obviously lack personal and public value in comparison.
We should point out the cyclic pattern of commercial abuse and progressive response in the history of this country. Sometimes we forget about the public demands for such things as monopoly-busting and voting rights. The Republican slide to the right needs to be publicly exposed as a deliberate multi-decade effort to undermine our government’s capacity to empower its citizens, protect them from private exploitation and increase general prosperity.
More specifically, the systematic efforts of the most-radical conservatives to increase their influence (from public school boards to the Presidency) is more than the usual political maneuvering. Conservatives were stung by their failures to maintain racial segregation and humiliated by the progress of social liberties including the further empowerment of women. Republicans have been engaged in a systematic counter-insurgency that was triggered by the Conservative Coalition’s losing their battle against civil rights. To me, that makes today’s politics a battle against pure evil.
We began noticing “ultraconservatives” and the “radical right” nationally in 1961. Multiple influences have contributed to the effort. These include the religious Moral Majority, the Koch brothers and networks of other wealthy businesspersons, conservative think tanks, and many large corporations acting through lobbyists and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). More recently, the Supreme Court allowed unlimited anonymous contributions to Political Action Committees. These common threads mark the increasing influence of private wealth in corrupting what should be all Americans’ government.
Many of today’s Republicans were more comfortable back in the days when both the Democratic and Republican parties had their liberal and conservative wings… and legislators were expected to represent their constituencies and vote their conscience. Many public servants in both parties are still motivated by a desire to establish a more perfect union and work for the public good. Not every conservative, and not every Republican, is psychically invested with the right wing’s radical fringe.
Now, add the fact that the Democratic Party has moved so far to the middle that they have disillusioned some of their own “loony left,” and you have a situation where they could appeal to a large number of independents and centrist Republicans.
There is hope. However, hope needs the clear light of effective communication and inspired leadership to prevail. We embraced that hope in 2008 and we're alert for that light and leadership to reassert itself, out of the noise and clutter, now.