The obvious Democratic strategy this year would seem to be simple. Since Dubya’s poll numbers are in the basement, running against Dubya looks like the key to victory. There’s just one problem with that strategy. The last I heard, George W. Bush wasn’t on the ballot, anywhere. That is not to say that there isn’t at least some benefit from running against Dubya — even if somebody else is the actual candidate. Democrats got a lot of mileage running against Herbert Hoover, years after he left office. Similarly, Republicans ran against Jimmy Carter for a good ten years. Bill and Hillary remain good "rally the troops" fodder, even if middle of the road voters aren’t terribly ill disposed toward Bill, in particular.
Unfortunately for Democratic strategists, Karl Rove is no dummy. He can certainly perceive this obvious election strategy as well as the Democrats, and he can be expected to start figuring out how to beat it. In fact, I believe that is what is behind Dubya’s proposal for "immigration reform." After all, it appears to be really stupid to propose "amnesty." I mean, "get out the bigots" is the Republicans one tried and true strategy. "Amnesty" would seem to demotivate the bigot vote, and indeed, Republican bigots have turned on Dubya like a barracuda on a soup spoon.
But like I said, Dubya isn’t running. Republican Congressional candidates wasted no time in "turning" on the Commander-in-chief, denouncing "amnesty" and taking a stand for the "rule of law." Too bad for Dubya, losing all that Republican congressional support. It seems that the Republicans are now running against Dubya on the "amnesty" issue, and the Democrats have no immigration stance available to them — unless you count "open borders" as a viable political position, this year. Rather, the immigration debate is an argument between Republican positions, with Congressional Republicans conveniently on the side of the bigots they’re going to need — taking a "tough stand" against Dubya, doncha know. You will notice that you don’t see any of that famous White House arm twisting on this. Remember, White House apparatchiks are notorious for their demands for "loyalty." And yet, they seem downright passive about all of this mutiny in Congress over "amnesty." So either "amnesty" is an epic blunder, or it’s political genius. Because you see, thanks to "amnesty" you can now vote "against" Dubya, and still vote Republican. Remember, whatever else he is, Karl Rove is no dummy.
Obviously, Democrats don’t need to be allowing rubber stamp Republicans to put any daylight between themselves and the White House. So merely "running against the President" may not be the lead pipe cinch you think it is. You need to run against the guy on the ballot. More specifically, you need to find a way to tie Dubya’s failures around his neck in a way that he can’t shake those failures. In an article published the other day, George Lakoff has suggested the way to do that. Ideology is what unites Congressional Republicans and the White House. It is what makes them "rubber stamp Republicans." They don’t — and haven’t — generally opposed the White House for one simple reason. They all pretty much agree.
Republicans are no stranger to this particular tactic. A regular feature of Republican advertising is two photographs, one of the candidate in question, and one of some liberal icon like say Ted Kennedy. I still remember 1984, when Jesse Helms tarred his Democratic opponent, Jim Hunt, as being a "Mondale liberal." They’re also good at finding some symbolic issue that points to some fundamental "flaw" in the candidate. Michael Dukakis vetoed legislation requiring teachers to lead students in the pledge of allegiance. Why? It was almost certainly unconstitutional, and Dukakis had the good sense to understand that you can’t make people respect the flag. But that didn’t stop Republicans from referring to him as a "card carrying member of the ACLU."
Make no mistake, these are ideological attacks — even if their version of "leftist" ideology is a straw man. As a matter of fact, conservatives have invested millions in their propaganda effort to create this straw man. More to the point, they have invested millions in their think tanks and foundations, attacking social democratic reforms like the New Deal and Great Society. "Welfare" has become the symbol for the entire New Deal liberal regime — even if "welfare" is a tiny part of it. Name your social or economic problem, such as unemployment, declining wages, the export of jobs overseas, or failure to improve infrastructure in places like say, New Orleans. You will hear someone out there ask a simple question. "Why is that any of the government’s business?"
There are tens of millions of people for whom this is a salient question. New Orleans residents, they believe, should "take care of themselves." Manufacturing workers should just "develop new skills" when their plant moves to Mexico. Those millions of people asking, "why is this the government’s business" didn’t just think that question up on their own. Conservative ideologues have postulated a government that has no legitimate business concerning itself with the "private economy" since the days of William McKinley. This is the substance of what their "message machine" communicates, and what their intellectual infrastructure studies at places like the Heritage Foundation. In other words, they have been fighting this ideological war for decades — and the public, including the media, have bought into much of it.
Let me show you another venue where this "less government" ideology has played out. You are no doubt familiar with the mess in Iraq. What you may not know is the full details of how the debacle Iraq came about. It didn’t just happen. In fact, it is yet another example of the failure of rightwing ideology. According to an article in Harpers, the rebuilding of Iraq was conceived as a "free market" demonstration project. Paul Bremer, the US overlord in Iraq, was going to turn Iraq not into a "democracy," but into a minimalist government paradise, where pure capitalism would flourish and prove itself as the ultimate engine of prosperity. To achieve this, he did things like fire a half million Iraqi government employees within weeks of the collapse of Saddam’s organized resistence. He also sought to privatize state owned Iraqi industries — firing more workers, and reducing the wages of those who remained. That is why half the country is unemployed. It is also why the insurgents got a huge boost in guerilla fighters and their supporters. What else were they going to do for a living?
This story isn’t being told. We don’t just have a "mess" in Iraq as some sort of natural outgrowth of conditions as they existed before the war. We made things immeasurably worse than they had to be — and we did so in the name of a conservative ideology that can fairly be said to have been repudiated in the laboratory of history. Except of course, no one is furnishing the American public with the necessary facts and analysis to drive that point home. Let me save you some time, and give you the right-wing response, were you to start pointing out the disastrous application of Republican free market fundamentalism in Iraq. They will simply ask, "what’s the alternative?" Do we promote those "state owned" industries, and keep people on the government payroll, whether we need them or not? They will simply fall back on a phrase you hear around Republican congressional offices. "There is no other alternative." You won’t beat them until you answer that question — and justify it as a "legitimate function of government." Nobody on the left is working on the basic philosophical and ideological questions about what "government" can do, and why.
Once we have addressed those basic questions, then we will be ready to generate our own "message machine" and our bumper sticker slogans. Because their bumper sticker slogans are much more than slogans. They point to an ideology, that is instantly recognizable to millions of Americans. Where is our ideology? The only version of our ideology recognizable to the voting public is the straw man version THEY tell the public about. We don’t tell them ourselves. Because many of us don’t fucking know.
Now let me anticipate, right now, the response to this. We don’t have an ideology, because well, we’re not "ideologues." We’re practical and pragmatic. We appreciate nuance and ambiguity. Having an ideology would turn us into the same kind of stiff necked, willfully ignorant idiots that we oppose.
While that sounds good, it’s wrong. It’s wrong because too many people fail to understand what "ideology" is. Let me give you a simple example. Sir Isaac Newton once postulated three laws of motion, along with a simple equation for force, and the observed laws of gravitation. You say those laws are "science," and you’re right. You would probably recoil were I to refer to those scientific "laws" as an ideology. Nevertheless, that’s what they are. "Ideology" is nothing more than a systematic, theoretical explanation for "how the world works." Isaac Newton didn’t come up with the first "ideology" to account the world we live in. Every culture has a creation story, and a mythology that furnishes a theoretical framework for understanding reality. The conservative "free market," along with the conservative hero known as "economic man" are examples of just such a mythology.
But wait, let’s rescue Isaac Newton from being lumped in with ideologues and the superstitious medievalists. You see, what makes Isaac Newton different from say, Thomas Aquinas, is a small addition to his ideology. He tests his ideology with empirical evidence. That is what distinguishes "science" from superstition. It isn’t the presence or absence of theory. Every culture has various theories that account for reality. Science adds experimentation and verification to those theories. What makes for a Republican ideologue isn’t his theoretical understanding about "how the world works." It is the fact that he maintains his faith in that theoretical framework against all facts and evidence to the contrary. There is even more to it. The conservatives aren’t honest brokers in their quest for their theoretical understanding. They tell you that their policy preferences are driven by "science" — specifically, economics — but that’s a lie. In fact, their ideology is a post hoc justification. Their policy preferences came first. Government "has no business" improving wages and living standards, for example, because conservatives DON’T WANT government doing that. They can’t say that up front, so they stitch up an ideology that says that government "can’t" do it. Large numbers of Americans have bought into that ideology, and you won’t defeat the conservatives until you defeat that fundamental ideology.
You defeat it by offering an alternative ideology. You defeat it by showing people what government can do and why it may legitimately do things that conservatives say it can’t. It just so happens that I have some answers to these fundamental questions, starting with letting the air out of this conservative myth of "self-reliance."
You want "self-reliance?" Read Robinson Crusoe, because that’s what self-reliance looks like. Nobody is self-reliant, and the wealthy are less self-reliant than anybody. You want proof? How many times has Dubya, or Richard Mellon Scaife, or William Buckley, or any other scion of "old money" done something like fix their toilet when it breaks, or replace their brakes pads when they get worn. They don’t do that kind of stuff. They have people do it for them. Get this, the mechanism they use to do that is called "money" — which consists of printed pieces of paper. Obviously, there is a whole lot of social, economic, and governmental infrastructure at work, everytime you whip out a few Benjamins to pay for that head gasket replacement you can’t do for yourself. Did you assemble your car? Did you dig the iron ore out of the ground that went into it? Did you pump the oil you run through it, out of your backyard? Do you have your own oil refinery — that you built yourself, with components you machined yourself, with ore you dug yourself, and smelted into "blanks." No, you didn’t do any of that stuff. Then what is your basis for claiming that you are "self-reliant?" Because you have some nifty pieces of paper in your pocket — the supply of which is regulated by the Federal Reserve, and banking system? Sorry, but you’re not even thinking about being "self-reliant." The idea is a big fat crock of shit — purveyed by people who are more reliant on the efforts of other people than anybody.
Which brings us around to another pillar of the conservative belief system. Society isn’t primarily a competitive struggle for "social position." Society is primarily a cooperative enterprise. Every business, whose profits flow to investors, is a cooperative endeavor, involving a whole lot of people working together to produce whatever it is that business sells. Conservatives postulate that the investor in that business has a god given right to his profits, but the people doing the actual production have no expectation to even earn enough to survive. Do you believe that? I don’t. As for the government’s authority to correct economic injustice in the workplace, conservatives postulate government as something artificial. This is more bullshit. Government is a high level form of social organization. Social organization, far from being artificial, is a fundamental human exercise. It is our evolutionary strategy for survival. We don’t live in the woods as solitary individuals — and we never did, going all the way back to when we branched off from the chimps. We use "teamwork" to defeat predators, to produce what he eat, where we live, what we wear, and in general to protect ourselves from the forces of nature. The conservative notion that we should all be naked against those forces of nature — which include "market forces," which are "natural" in their ideology — is just plain wrong. To quote Thomas Jefferson, "to secure these ends [life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness], governments are instituted among men, deriving its just powers from the consent of the governed." Does government "have any business" improving the levees in New Orleans, providing rescue operations, protecting American manufacturing jobs, protecting American workers from rank exploitation, or generally promoting a healthy and prosperous economy? What other function would it serve??? The conservative view is that government exists to protect wealth and privilege. They don’t tell you that, but that’s what they believe. .
Conservative ideology is pathetically easy to defeat. I have done so by coming up with a handy moniker that summarizes their ideology in a nutshell. They call us "big government liberals." Well they are "cheap labor conservatives.. I have gone on to demonstrate the important relationship between public infrastructure and private fortunes. I have undermined the "less government" meme by showing that conservatives are very particular — and inconsistent — in how they use that meme. What I have failed to do is get progressives to understand that this "war of ideas" is the whole ballgame. We will come up with no "magic bullet" slogan, no set of policy preferences, no list of Republican scandals that will be effective in the long run, until we destroy their ideology. When somebody asks why jobs, wages, living standards, critical infrastructure, and generally promoting prosperity is "the government’s business," we need to be able to tell them. When we can go toe to toe with any conservative — and you can if you know how — on the fundamental questions of what society is, what government is, what it can do, and what it ought to do, that is when our shorthand slogans will start to resonate. That is when our policies will start to make sense to people. That is when the awful record of Republican rule will be seen for the disaster that it is. In short, that is when we will start to win.
Until then, we will continue to lose.