The Democrats Can’t Win If They Won’t Fight

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i. The Day After the Day After

ENOUGH ALREADY WITH THE hand-wringing and recriminations. The only time Democrats love firearms is when they enter a circular firing squad. The only time they embrace religion is when they reenact the Stations of the Cross.

Fuck that shit. Not me, not this time.

I mean, don’t misunderstand: there’s tons of blame to go around, and I dread the impending days (months? years?) of analysis, self-pity and castigation as part of the psychoanalysis liberals engage in after every excruciating setback. Since this latest one is the worst kind imaginable, it’s no surprise the predictable sites are piling up with the predictable screeds. You know, if only we tried harder to engage with good old country folk who just want to get their racist on, we’d…what, exactly? Understand their rage? Reconcile? Get them to consider voting for a Democrat?

Please give me the largest possible break, and super-size it.

First and foremost, the big lesson to be learned here is not that Hillary (or any of us) were deluded or nonchalant. I think, misleading polls aside, the reason victory seemed imminent was not because of Democratic overconfidence, but rather a genuine faith in the collective wisdom of the American people. Hillary Clinton, for all her faults (the handful of genuine ones and the myriad manufactured ones), had every reason to believe there was no way enough people—whatever their racial, misogynistic or authoritarian hang-ups might be—could pull the lever for the most spectacularly ill-suited know-nothing to con his way into contention.

And so, shame on all of us, myself very much included, for not doing more to scare the bejesus out of anyone willing to listen about what true monsters Mike Pence and Paul Ryan are. Maybe, and I know I’m going out on a limb here, it may have been useful for Team Pantsuit to make a slightly bigger thing out of Pence’s record, (still and for now) freely available online. And double-fuck the MSM for giving Hillary’s emails approximately one million times the attention they paid to Pence’s role in legislation that obliges aborted or miscarried  fetuses to be either cremated or buried. The revolution, it turns out, was televised. At once explanation and epitaph, the soulless Les Moonves predicted the (final?) nail in the coffin of America’s Empire, in February of this year: “For us, economically, Donald’s place in this election is a good thing. It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS. The money’s rolling in….This is fun.”

With enemies like that, why would Donald Trump need friends?

As for the execrable Ryan, can someone help me understand why (how) he’d already be calling his shot on privatizing (eradicating) Medicare before Trump is even fucking inaugurated? I know these true believers have perpetual hard-ons for all things privatization, but don’t they know this is a non-starter with seniors? Or are they sufficiently cynical and cocky to think being able to tie plundering Medicare with repealing Obamacare (you can practically envision Ryan’s crocodile tears as he solemnly announces that as much as it pains him to do this…) will give them sufficient cover? I’ll concede we liberals have turned the Chicken Little act into performance art, but once we start talking about necessary (and popular!) programs getting gutted before anyone wakes up, shit has officially gotten way too real.

Listen, I expect (and look forward to) the inevitable blowback from the diehards who’ll abandon Trump once beautiful walls aren’t built, millions of men and women aren’t magically deported, and draining the so-called swamp means infesting it with the worst sorts of insider reptiles, etc. And I’ll relish the shit show of that shit stain Reince Priebus having to lock horns each day with Bannon (and Trump)…but I guess I hoped the GOP doesn’t literally bring us back to 1898 before there’s some (thanks again, MSM!!) intelligent and organized resistance.

ii. Those who cannot remember the past… 

To understand where we are, it’s imperative to review where we’ve been. In some ways, confronting the ways this is on us might prove the unkindest cut, but perhaps a full and tardy assessment will ensure we finally learn our lesson.

Certainly, it sucks to see a party whose signal accomplishment the last eight years was acting petulant and saying no like a paroxysm rendered Reductio ad absurdum, (and who all but ran in the opposite direction of the thug who hijacked their party) so smug and certain, all of a sudden. It’s not just that the Dems snatched defeat from the jaws of victory, once again, but that this was at once predictable and preventable. My concern is—and has been for some time—the ways in which Democrats are congenitally incapable of articulating their achievements, and crafting a message that is either compelling or consistent. The shame of it is, all they have to do is tell the truth and it would set them free.

My biggest beef with Obama’s tenure (one that we’ll miss and appreciate with greater urgency in a couple of months) is, aside from his not being a more vocal and triumphant advocate about providing health care for millions of Americans, the once-in-a-generation opportunity he wasted in 2009. With a country still smoldering from the predictable catastrophe eight-plus years of free market fetishism wrought, the time was at last ripe to make a case why a no-tax/no-regulation-on-steroids approach never works. More, it was a historical occasion screaming for a straightforward yet forceful defense of Government-with-a-capital-G. This was a gift to grab from the despair: with things bottomed out due to unconstrained conservative rule,  history practically pleaded with sensible leaders to reclaim the word and the concept, not to mention rebrand it.

It’s not so difficult to imagine, and this stuff practically writes itself. One speech, early in ’09, wherein Obama declared: “not only am I going to fund these projects, no American who wants to work will go without on my watch. I’m going to spend this money, because it is an investment on people, and you will be able to measure the results immediately. This is a mission on behalf of our well-being, and if you want to judge me in four years, I will take those odds. And if I’m wrong, the worst case scenario will be an early retirement where I can drive across this great nation over new roads and rebuilt bridges, and take advantage of the radically improved infrastructure that these projects made possible. I’ll walk away from the Oval Office happy and proud, because I’ll know we made a difference, and that is what I was elected to do.”

(He also could, and should, have continually invoked FDR’s famous—and quite effective—“I welcome their hatred” mic drop.)

Obama was either too credulous or (worse) haughty to believe he actually needed to make a case, and be prepared for the full-scale war the GOP declared on him the second he was elected. (His refusal to bother himself getting involved in the health care brawls all summer of 2009 is the second largest blunder of his presidency: he not only allowed the malevolent Republicans to define the narrative (wrongly), he let the Tea Party lunatics get a foothold and, with the absence of any consistent, intelligible message, determine that opposing government—instead of the Masters of the Universe, and the Republicans who serve them—was the correct, patriotic thing to do. By the time he saw the grammatically-challenged writing on the signs, it was arguably too late. Meanwhile, against all probability, the masses with their pitchforks and flames, had—for lack of a tangible target for the ire—latched on to the Fox-spewed propaganda filling the inexplicable vacuum of what passes, these days, for political discourse. Put simply, the health insurance industry and the pols they have in their pockets are cartoon villains and the Democrats still were unable to game out an effective strategy to expose them as such.

Aside from Obama’s (take your pick) naïveté, arrogance or indifference, it shouldn’t have taken him well into his second term to think about messaging. Priority number one for Democrats, effective immediately, is not rolling in the hay with Br’er Redneck, but crafting a story that’s consistent and, as no less a salesman than Henry Kissinger once said, has the added advantage of being true. Any introductory class in marketing or communications (or English Literature for that matter) will emphasize the importance of narrative; the necessity of telling the story you want to tell.

The reason this is crucial is because the Republicans already did it and, aside from a few hiccups and intrusions of reality, it’s worked swimmingly ever since. In an exploit that still resonates for its audacity, once upon a time Ronald Reagan drew a conservative line in the sand, assailing the presumption of government as a constructive agent, not by nitpicking but taking aim at its raison d’être. With a country still reeling from the apathy and cynicism of the post-Nixon nadir, he pre-empted that anger and uttered the immortal words: “Government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem.” And for the first time in half a century the Republicans steadily assumed control of a new storyline. It was simple as it was shameless; it was the most facile strategy fathomable, and the GOP finally had a patron saint to render it sacrosanct.

The Reagan Revolution built its momentum on a shameful vilification of America’s poor and lionized (some would say fetishized) the wealthiest percentile and transformed them into folk heroes. In less than two terms, Reaganomics and Wall Street vandalism laid waste to the working class and put us on a path where the richest of the rich were entitled, by Divine Right, to pay ever-smaller tax rates. Meanwhile, young pillagers in training, like Mitt Romney, perfected the business acumen of bankrupting companies for profit into a repugnant performance art. This reached its apotheosis when truth Trumped reality (in every sense of the word) and we ended up electing an actual Gordon Gekko, sans charisma and liquidity.

(That the media, and the Dems, got rolled so historically, by letting Trump get away without releasing his tax returns, is something we should neither forgive nor forget.)

Incidentally, and depressingly case in point: If Trump is smart, he’d insist he is going to repeal and replace Obamacare. The second he’s inaugurated, “replace” it with “TrumpCare” which is the exact same thing as Obamacare. All of his voters, and a vast majority of Republicans, will embrace it and love it. You own the narrative, you own reality.

iii. The Power of Political Narrative, Revisited

In a piece entitled The Power of Political Narrative, I wrote the following:

After the disgust and disbelief settles, one feels obliged to give props to the Republican ratfuckers. Over the last few decades while they have dabbled in the vicarious thrill of foreign occupations and the odious gutter-dwelling of racial and sexual identity politicking, the cretins behind the curtain have focused on some tactical battles in which they have more or less achieved their ends. This strategy has many moving parts, but can be boiled down to a series of inviolable commandments, the enforcement of which ensures that no one is ever off script. And make no mistake, this script is like religion—except belief is not optional.

The fifth, final and most audacious (of these commandments) involves the mantra that government does not work. It’s a neat trick in which, when Republicans take power, they spend their time ensuring this assertion is true, all while consistently expanding the size of government along with the size of the national debt. Then, like clockwork, once the people have finally seen enough, a Democrat comes in with the thankless task of cleaning up the mess, and the disloyal opposition becomes a cadre of small government deficit hawks. That this same farce was pulled off so spectacularly after our recent recession says as much, if not more, about the aforementioned media and the supine Democrats as it does about the unabashed GOP.

Of course, in Democrats’ defense, a reasonable person understands that actually attempting to govern is messy, difficult and frustrating. Particularly as our nation has become increasingly ignorant, self-absorbed and childish: we don’t want any government interference, we don’t want to pay taxes and we demand to see all of these pesky problems go away and take care of themselves. We have become a country of children who want to skip the main course and go directly to dessert, every meal, and then complain that we’ve gotten fat. And that in itself is a problem: it allows Republicans to continue to frame the idea of shared accountability and responsibility as an inherently negative or intrusive notion.

Back in 2014, as the Dems, running away from Obama’s accomplishments (obviously) and downplaying the demonstrable good Obamacare had already done (naturally), I wrote the following:

During the Tea Party shenanigans in ’09, I kept asking myself: when is Obama going to start reminding everyone that this Big Bad Government has historically been the bulwark between our people and an Industrial Revolution lifestyle? Does it need to get to the point where the Republican Party literally says “let them eat cake” before people start to realize wages are stagnating, prices are rising and the only people getting fat are the wealthiest one percent? Apparently it does.

Which brings us to today.

The Republicans have won a huge battle, to be certain. But there’s a larger war to be fought, on both literal and figurative levels. In terms of the former: life goes on; we live to fight another day, another cycle, another generation (You know, “Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor?”). With regards to the latter: there’s a longer game the Republicans would like to win, and that involves impeding a progressive alternative by any means necessary. This is why you have to choose sides. This is why you can ill afford to let current circumstances lull you into a state of impotent rage or, worse, apathy. Because aside from the ceaseless corporate welfare they’ll fight for, their ultimate ambition is to render the actually literate and sentient amongst us fed up and indifferent. Without awareness, and with no resistance, they can more easily continue their unchecked assault on our collective well-being.

Get angry. Get involved. Do what you have to do.

*This piece originally appeared at The Weeklings on 11/15/16.

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The Power of Political Narrative: Part Two, The Dems (Revisited)

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i. Ridic, Redux

LAST MONTH I WROTE about the Power of Political Narrative and the ways Republicans have kept it simple (stupid) and mostly stuck to an inflexible script for the last thirty years. No matter how flawed that script is, in reality, and no matter how many times reality makes a point of pointing out that virtually every talking point—taken as Gospel and enforced as Scripture—results in the opposite of what it claims (Clear Skies Act, etc.), a reckoning never occurs.

As such, we saw austerity when we desperately needed stimulus, coddling of Wall Street cretins when perp walks were well-warranted, craven acquiescence on the Guantanamo catastrophe, “Death Panels” instead of a public option, et cetera. Not that these are the results Obama (or the left) wanted or predicted, but because of—at least in part—the ability of the other side to sling the same excrement at every policy, proposal or achievement, defying a twice-elected leader to bring about change we can believe in. Or pocket change for the middle class. Or something.

Certainly, it sucks to see a party whose signal accomplishment the last two years (doubling down what they did the previous four years) was acting petulant and saying no like a paroxysm rendered Reductio ad absurdum, smug and certain they are about to retake the Senate. By refusing to govern they are likely to be rewarded, not because anyone (even Fox viewers) particularly likes the results, but because they have stuck so steadfastly to the scheme: lay blame on Obama, Democrats, and Government, respectively. At best tolerated (at worst abetted) by a degraded mainstream media they have done this repeatedly, and mostly with impunity.

And because we expect less than little from the intransigent GOP, how can we resent them for proving the cowardice of their convictions? Particularly when the profiles in courage not on display by their political opposition is so…typical. My concern is—and has been for some time—the ways in which Democrats are congenitally incapable of articulating their achievements, and crafting a message that is either compelling or consistent. The shame of it is, all they have to do is tell the truth and it would set them (and the rest of us) free.

I’m not suggesting it’s easy, or that it would be embraced—at least initially. As I argued last month, it’s a hell of a lot less demanding to pick a handful of platitudes and recite them like zealots at a Sunday service. But this is not a matter of formulating counterpoints or rebuttals; it’s about crafting a narrative that is consistent and, as no less a salesman than Henry Kissinger once said, has the added advantage of being true. Naturally, telling the truth does not come naturally to elected officials who are often paid for before they take the oath of office, and this circumstance is further complicated by the question of how many of them really believe in left-of-center principle in the first place. Still, any introductory class in marketing or communications (or English Literature for that matter) will emphasize the importance of narrative; the necessity of telling the story you want to tell.

It’s not that difficult to imagine, and this shit practically writes itself. One speech, early in ’09, wherein Obama declared: “not only am I going to fund these projects, no American who wants to work will go without on my watch. I’m going to spend this money, because it is an investment on people, and you will be able to measure the results immediately. This is a mission on behalf of our well-being, and if you want to judge me in four years, I will take those odds. And if I’m wrong, the worst case scenario will be an early retirement where I can drive across this great nation over new roads and rebuilt bridges, and take advantage of the radically improved infrastructure that these projects made possible. I’ll walk away from the Oval Office happy and proud, because I’ll know we made a difference, and that is what I was elected to do.”

Obama was either too clueless or (worse) haughty to believe he actually needed to make a case, and be ready to fight back against the full-scale war the GOP declared on him the second he was elected. (His refusal to bother himself getting involved in the health care brawls all summer of 2009 is the second largest blunder of his presidency: he not only allowed the malevolent Republicans to define the narrative (wrongly), he let the Tea Party lunatics get a foothold and, with the lack of any consistent, intelligible message, determine that opposing government was the correct, patriotic thing to do. By the time he saw the grammatically-challenged writing on the signs, it was arguably too late. Meanwhile, against all probability, the masses with their pitchforks and flames, had—for lack of a tangible target for the ire—latched on to the Fox-spewed propaganda filling the inexplicable vacuum of what passes, these days, for political discourse.

sean-connery_richard-harris_the-molly-maguires

ii . Coal Mines, Sean Connery and (of course) George Orwell

In The Road to Wigan Pier, George Orwell’s masterful investigation of the English working class, he makes the following observation: Watching coal-miners at work, you realize momentarily what different universes people inhabit.

That succinct, typically clear-eyed assessment has stuck with me because, like so much of what Orwell wrote, it is not tied to any particular period of time. As I get older, I realize this quote can be applied to any number of professions. Put simply, money and means enable certain people to reside in entirely different realities. After one has read Orwell—hopefully at an early enough age that it makes one allergic to relativism and libertarianism—one can’t help but view the world through a sociological lens.

Quite by chance, I just watched an old classic that had been languishing in my Netflix queue: like St. Peter allowing a purgatoried soul into heaven, I finally brought it to metaphorical salvation via my DVD player. It’s one of those movies I’ve heard about many times and hear referenced often enough that I’ve had it on my to-do list for entirely too long. Plus, the notion Richard Harris sharing screen space with Sean Connery was, suffice it to say, enticing. The movie in question, The Molly Maguires, did not do well upon its release and has become something of a cult classic—with an emphasis on the cult.

The story, in a nutshell, involves the gruesome exploitation suffered by Irish immigrants (and workers in general including, of course, young children because this was before Teddy Roosevelt, horrified by the depictions in books like Sinclair’s The Jungle, got inspired to seize some manner of control from Big Business and introduce those quaint concepts of regulation and workers’ rights: in other words, this story takes place precisely in the era that today’s GOP is aggressively working behind the scenes to bring us back to) toiling for paltry pay in the coal mines.

If you are imagining an environment where safety was tenuous and the conditions were barbaric at best, you are not incorrect. It is also a workplace where the owners controlled everything, including the breaks not given and the payment not rendered. In one illuminating scene the new employee (Harris) stands in line to get his weekly wages: the boss adds up the coal collected and announces the amount; Harris smiles. Then the boss subtracts the damaged tools, the wear-and-tear (a 19th C. version of “administrative fees”) and the final amount is reduced from nine bucks and change to just change. As Harris stands in disbelief the boss, flanked on either side by police officers, glowers at him and says “Next!” If that sounds too much like a bad out-take from It’s A Wonderful Life, check yourself: these are the conditions that absolutely existed, as men like Sinclair (and later, George Orwell, of course) observed and reported.

The reason the movie was probably unsuccessful, and the reason the timing of my first viewing is serendipitous, is because of the subject matter: way before unions existed; circumstances were suitably dire that the use of drastic measures were required, and understandable. As a result, a group of protestors (or terrorists, depending on what century you live in and what newspapers you read) took to undermining the mine’s profitability by using incendiary tactics, literally. Harris, the “good guy” is a paid detective assigned to infiltrate this mob and help the honchos crush the uprising by killing the culprits. If this sounds a bit familiar, the story is based in large part on true events inspired by the reprehensible actions of the Pinkertons, who operated kind of like union busters before unions existed.

The movie is clever: by making Connery grim and uncharismatic (no mean feat considering this is Mr. Shaken, Not Stirred we are talking about) and playing up Harris’s roguish charm (yes, that is a cliché but if anyone could ever be said to possess roguish charm it’s the ever-ebullient but burly Harris), the viewer is almost conned into empathizing with, and rooting for the putative protagonist. Only after the film concludes does it finally—and fully—occur to the viewer: if the movie had been shot, or written differently we would be pulling for the “bad guys” all along. And that is the point. If the movie was told from the alternate point of view, it would have been preachy, unconvincing and free of emotional conflict. Which is exactly why it’s a good movie and most likely why it did not set the box office on fire. It also might make one recall the other chestnut (speaking of clichés) about history being written by the victors, the power of language to shape story and the mechanisms always at work to manufacture how reality is perceived.

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iii. The Medium Remains the Message

As we stare down the ignoble specter of the GOP taking back the Senate next month, it is at once exasperating yet simple to see how we got here. Yes, the Democrats’ incompetence at crafting an actionable narrative has, at best, enabled the Republicans to proselytize their fealty to an ever-more-free market. But at least when they try (see: Clinton and Obama in campaign mode), they can compete, and occasionally win (!). The deeper and more disturbing issue is the way they’ve abandoned the very middle class their policies demonstrably support.

What has long befuddled me is that, even if you can cynically concede that even Democrats tread lightly before their corporate masters these days, it makes political sense to maintain a healthy relationship with unions. During the Tea Party shenanigans in ’09, I kept asking myself: when is our chronically aloof commander-in-chief going to start reminding everyone that this big bad government has historically been the bulwark between the people and an Industrial Revolution lifestyle? Does it need to actually get to the point where the Republican Party literally says “let them eat cake” before people start to realize wages are stagnating, prices are rising and the only people getting fat are the wealthiest one percent? Apparently it does.

Feel-good (or, feel-bad) lip service is paid to the undeniable, growing discrepancy of salaries paid and taxes not collected on the makers vs. the takers, but the song remains the same (see: a dose Romney, a dash of Ayn Rand and an unhealthy smattering of Religulous paranoia to expedite a state like Kansas acquiescing itself into fiefdom). And we’ve not come to terms with the fact that the wealthiest percentile don’t just look down on—or worse, ignore—their lesser brethren. They neither understand nor want to understand: they contemplate the impoverished the way many of us might ponder serial hoarders: we see it, are disgusted by it, and wouldn’t ever want to be like them, but we simply can’t fathom how they got to be that way; what happened to make them so unreasonable.

What Orwell articulated so well, in part because it was (is?) so stark and systemic across the pond, is the way class is at once an explanation and excuse for imbalance—not only in practical and political terms, but as ingrained disposition: things are this way because they’ve always been this way. After a while, injustice just seems to be the natural order of things. Okay, but it’s supposed to be different in America. We ostensibly have laws and systems in place to prevent unchecked stratification. That we can’t quite challenge—or even believe—what our lying eyes tell us is, again, what the Reagan Revolution has wrought. However much he has disappointed, it’s certainly not (only) Obama’s fault that his party has generally avoided the entire issue of class for practically half-a-century.

But even if the seemingly unsophisticated battle to prove the relative benevolence of government (or compassionate conservatism—ha!) seems a non-starter in 2014, it should not require too much PowerPoint proficiency to compile a quick commentary about what unions have wrought: minimum wage, forty-hour work weeks, health insurance, pensions, vacations, sick-leave, etc. All of the things people assume exist as an evolved conciliation, or were always just sort of there; or best of all, were the inevitable rewards of laissez-faire philosophy until big government came along and screwed everything up.

Regardless of her short-term political (e.g. presidential) aspirations, Elizabeth Warren—and the Yes-We-Can-type approbation she’s accruing—is, if nothing else, an indication that at least one notable liberal understands the power of going back to the future. The fact that someone like her (or Bernie Sanders, for that matter) exists is encouraging, but the fact that people are responding to this message should translate to a broader game plan, the sooner the better.

No matter what happens next month, it can hopefully provide sufficient momentum for the marble-mouthed Democrats to cobble together some cohesive messaging en route to 2016. One would think the mere act of pointing out the truth would not require heavy-lifting and soul-searching (but those without souls, admittedly, can have difficulty here). Again, I do not count on any of these center-left pols to suddenly find religion, so to speak, but presumably they can grasp that there is a purely political advantage to being on the right side of the middle class, not to mention history.

This piece originally appeared at The Weeklings on 10/22/2014.

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The Power of Political Narrative: Part One, The GOP (Revisited)

** FILE** Actor Ronald Reagan loads his gun in the 1953 western film "Law and Order", in which Reagan plays a retired U.S. marshall who can't hang up his holster. It is reported that Reagan died on Saturday, June 5, 2004 at 93. (AP Photo)

LIKE MOST EVERYONE ELSE I know, I grew up—really grew up, if I’ve ever actually grown up—in the Reagan 80’s. Take my childhood, please. Actually, it wasn’t all that bad, at least for the middle class kids. During the extreme periods of Boom and Busted, Pro and Convicts, the majority in the middle seldom feels the pain; they rarely see the cocked fists and hoisted heels. It’s the people on the poles playing out cause and effect: the haves doing things the have-nots don’t have the voice or power to protest. The have-lesses can afford to ignore the news or else lay back like so many frogs, believing the boiling pan is actually a Jacuzzi.

Question: How else can you get people to consistently vote for policies that devastate them, counter almost each admonition of the (white, muscle-bound) Jesus and stagnate growth for every sector except, of course, the obscenely wealthy who rewrite the rules as they go along?

Answer: The power of magical thinking. It’s the fulcrum upon which most religious and political momentum swings: all it requires is uncritical, unblinking fealty and it’s amazing how simple, and ceaselessly restorative this exercise can be for the unenquiring mind. All of a sudden the world shrinks, Santa Claus exists, America is God’s favorite country, regulation is anathema, raising the minimum wage kills job creation, et cetera.

Capitalism isn’t wrong, but neither is intelligence: you cannot spend money and make money; someone is always paying the tab (and it’s usually the poor suckers who can’t spend it who take it in the you-know-where so that anonymous, ancient board members can pulverize their portfolios). It’s all about numbers. Like an army, like America. Whether you’re a company or a cult (like an army, like America), you simply want to amass enough affluence that nothing else matters.

Which brings us to the looming midterm elections. If Obama has been sufficiently underwhelming to induce depression, at least he staved off a Depression. If we have nothing else going for us, no one wants to return to the bad old days when W. took us on a (dry) drunk drive into the ditch, right? The silver lining of falling so far is the full and final repudiation of a greed-first ethos so aggressively sold for thirty-plus years. Isn’t it? Oh…

Instead of putting his boot on the squirming corpse of Reagan’s revolution, Obama postulated that we should heal. Instead of accountability for the Masters of the Universe who insisted the ensuing debacle was not possible even as they gorged at the trough, Obama appointed some of them in charge of the clean-up. Instead of a reckoning—and the welcome spectacle of some well-warranted tar and feathering on Wall Street—we suffered the indignity of a gigantic reset button, paid for by the taxpayers whose 401(k)’s got fucked. The super-connected swindlers whose idea of trickle-down economics is pissing on the collective heads of the middle and lower classes bounced right back into the saddle. Check them out: their fattened wallets broke their falls.

The Democrats, who had a once-in-a-generation opportunity to rebrand (reestablish?) themselves as the party that not only cared, but governed for the 98%, snatched defeat from the jaws of victory as only Dems can do. More egregiously by far, the GOP, who have dedicated six years to temper tantrums and intransigence, stand poised to retake the Senate and retain the House.

How did this happen? How is it possible? The power of political narrative.

 

ii. The Power of Political Narrative

Understanding, and exploiting, the power of Narrative is the impetus that unites such unlikely—and antithetical—endeavors as Art, Business and Politics. The ones that can tell a story about what you need to know are important; the ones who tell you a story about what you want to hear can become immortal.

Our country was founded on the Narrative of The Future (City upon a Hill, anyone?): always looking toward what we could be, collectively, if we appealed to the better angels of our Nature, our Natural State being invariably democratic, tolerant of disparate faiths—including those without faith—and apparently unperturbed by the genocides inflicted upon our Native and African American brethren. Some eggs, after all, had to be broken in the service of this great experimental omelette called America.

Eventually, it required a Civil War to determine if we would keep looking forward or be cleaved forever into (at least) two countries, one peering over its shoulder, pining to preserve a way of life that never existed in the first place, at least for the majority of the people. (Sound familiar?)

Flash forward one hundred years to the Civil Rights Movement: a generational and geographic divide that once again found us at a crossroads of progress and reactionary segregation. History, as the cliché goes, is ghost-written by the winners. Looking at American history, for good or ill we’ve tended to define our triumphs as events that unified us, moving us along a progressive path from there to here, consistent with the founding notion—however fanciful—that we were collectively edging toward improvement and inclusion.

Two of the big “wins” of the 20th Century involved presidents named Roosevelt. First, Teddy, who took on Big Business and monopolies, instituting some overdue governmental oversight. His Square Deal regulated out-of-control American industry in the name of safety. A few decades later, his cousin Franklin ushered in The New Deal, ensuring that, for the next several decades government would, on balance, be seen as an institution that did more good than ill. Until the ‘80s, both of these developments were generally considered positive for all citizens, regardless of their political affiliation. Books like Sinclair’s The Jungle or indelible memories from the Great Depression reminded people—and their heirs—that government was the last thing standing between them and unfettered market forces. The notable exception, as ever, being the wealthiest percentile, whose disdain FDR all but celebrated (“I welcome their hatred”), a provocation Obama might wish he’d emulated in 2009.

In an exploit that still resonates for its audacity, Ronald Reagan drew a conservative line in the sand, assailing the presumption of government as an constructive agent, not by nitpicking but taking aim at its raison d’être .With a country still reeling from the apathy and cynicism of the post-Nixon nadir, he pre-empted that anger and uttered the immortal words: “Government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem.” And for the first time in half a century the Republicans steadily assumed control of a new narrative. It was simple as it was shameless; it was the most facile strategy fathomable, and the GOP finally had a patron saint to make it sacrosanct. Needless to say, it worked brilliantly.

 

iii. The Ill Communicator

The greatest trick the devil ever pulled, Baudelaire once wrote, was convincing the world he doesn’t exist. Well, the greatest trick the GOP ever pulled was convincing its flock that the devil does exist. The way to keep the Evil One at bay is to close your eyes and never, ever question The Man—unless he happens to be a Democrat.

All some Americans need is a person to play the part and tell them how great they are, how amazing we are, and then, no matter how much the unemployment rate and the deficit spike, it’s all good because we feel good. It is too easy and that is too simple. But the more one looks at Reagan (the man, the myth, the legend—literally), the more difficult it becomes to reach any other conclusion.

Along came St. Ronnie, the actor who made a fortune making awful movies, parlaying this into a career that put his acting ability to the summit of its purpose, circa second-half century America. Rich, he became a lot richer turning his back gleefully on his past, transmuting from an admirer of FDR to a True Believer who hit the trail for the repugnant Barry Goldwater. From a man who saw the country ravaged by the Great Depression, and therefore endorsed the New Deal, he subsequently did more than any president to undo the legislation that helped stave off a genuine catastrophe and fortified the middle-class for decades.

Now it’s an open competition to see which Republican can invoke him most often and they can’t name buildings after him quickly enough. Reagan has become the conservative alternative to Che Guevara. As we’ve seen in the short time since his death (indeed, in an initiative that kicked off years before he even kicked the bucket, by those who stand to profit most from his hagiography), a very intense and deliberate effort was undertaken to beatify and whitewash a legacy that was far from undisputed in the late ‘80s.

The Reagan Revolution built its momentum on a shameful vilification of America’s poor and lionized (some would say fetishized) the wealthiest percentile and transformed them into folk heroes. Because Michael Douglas turned in such an effulgent performance (in a rather mush-mouthed, typically ham-fisted Oliver Stone screenplay), few people—then; now—understood that Gordon Gekko was not “merely” a bad guy; he was a sociopath. In less than two terms, Reaganomics and Wall Street vandalism laid waste to the working class and put us on a path where the richest of the rich were entitled, by Divine Right, to pay ever-smaller tax rates. Meanwhile, young pillagers in training, like Mitt Romney, perfected the business acumen of bankrupting companies for profit into a repugnant performance art.

Despite an inconvenient eight year blip on the radar, where taxes were raised and the economy soared, the GOP, led by Dick “Deficits Don’t Matter” Cheney, had eight years to use the country as a demented sort of lab experiment. The result: 2008 and the cratered economy Obama inherited.

 

iv. The Five Commandments

After the disgust and disbelief settles, one feels obliged to give props to the Republican ratfuckers. Over the last few decades while they have dabbled in the vicarious thrill of foreign occupations and the odious gutter-dwelling of racial and sexual identity politicking, the cretins behind the curtain have focused on a handful of tactical battles in which they have more or less achieved their ends. This strategy has many moving parts, but can be boiled down to a handful of inviolable commandments, the enforcement of which ensures that no one is ever off script. And make no mistake, this script is like religion—only belief is not optional. The first and foremost commandment, propagated to the extent that it’s literally received as gospel—no matter how repeatedly disproven it is in practice—is that any taxes at any time are always a deplorable idea.

The second is that the mainstream media has a liberal bias. They’ve succeeded so thoroughly in this monomaniacal mission that once first-rate newspapers like The Washington Post now police their content excessively enough to render them neutral, if not neutered. The Op-Ed page has for more than a decade been patrolled by whacked-out hardliners who would have been laughed out of conservative circles only twenty years ago; back in the days when the GOP was devising health care reform that is now successfully considered socialism.

The third, which has been accomplished with considerable assistance from an increasingly reckless, ambitious and soulless Democratic party, is the demonization of unions. Long, sad story in one sentence or less: during the last half-century—but with a vengeance beginning in the ‘70s—unions lost influence while Democrats simultaneously abandoned them to court wealthy financiers to fund their increasingly lavish campaign expenses. Why the Republicans want to eradicate the same movement that helped bring us regulation, forty hour work weeks, overtime and collective bargaining is beyond no-brainer. Why the Democrats have allowed this to happen, abetting it more often than not, is owed to an opportunistic cynicism that has gutted the sensible and effective backbone of the Progressive cause in ways both myopic and tragic.

The fourth is that public education fails us, that teachers are overpaid and underachieving, and that while no cuts to any military spending are conceivable, all manner of funds and aid to public schools are forever on the table.

The fifth, final and most cheeky involves the mantra that government does not work. It’s a neat trick in which, when Republicans take power, they spend their time ensuring this assertion is true, all while consistently expanding the size of government along with the size of the national debt. Then, like clockwork, once the people have finally seen enough, a Democrat comes in with the thankless task of cleaning up the mess, and the disloyal opposition becomes a cadre of small government deficit hawks. That this same farce was pulled off so spectacularly after our recent recession says as much, if not more, about the aforementioned media and the supine Democrats as it does about the unabashed GOP.

 

v. Faith in Something Bigger than God

To see the full flowering of this psychosis, one needs look no further than the recent passing of James Brady.

Brady, for those who weren’t alive in 1981, is the unfortunate aid who had the bad luck of being mortal, and getting in the way of some bullets that could never have killed Reagan anyway. Before Brady died I might have been embarrassed to write something so churlish; a cursory glance at the comments section of any of the Brady obits confirms that there are a lot of people out there spouting shit like this, if even sardonically. Don’t kid yourself, beneath the sarcasm is a sincere reverence, the type of veneration we typically reserve for saints (and members of the Kennedy clan).

It’s a matter of Faith: Reagan wasn’t meant to be assassinated. And by Faith, of course, I don’t mean God (Reagan didn’t need God), I mean the Free Market. If the Free Market had wanted him to die, he would have died.

Speaking of faith, freedom and folly: the only force of nature more powerful than any of the fixations previously mentioned is that of the gun fanatics. Maybe, maybe—coming as it did less than half a year after John Lennon was murdered—if Hinckley’s assassination attempt had been successful, we might have had a national consensus of sorts. This, after all, was the moment, where we could—and should—have rallied around sensible gun control. It was the moment when all forces came into focus; it was, after all, their hero in the crosshairs.

Naturally, nothing of the sort happened. Brady became an advocate for a more sane approach to gun ownership, earning him the enmity of idiots who should have never ceased appreciating him. These, after all, are the same sorts who will swear up and down that Reagan did as much as anyone not named Rocky Balboa to defeat the Evil Empire.

How then, was any of this possible and how can such farce still hold sway over a sizable portion of our populace? The same technique that ensures certain stories get told and taught centuries after they are composed: the power of good narrative. That the Iran-contra affair is glossed over the way we never talk about our drunken uncle in the retirement home, or that taxes are actually lower during Obama’s tenure than Reagan’s, or that the First Couple regularly consulted an astrologist never tends to come up in not-so-casual conversation is part and parcel of the almost entirely successful enterprise to consecrate The Gipper.

The moral, as it applies to our contemporary political scene, is straightforward as it is distressing: risible dialogue delivered by a screen-tested salesman will always win more votes than substance offered up, however earnestly, by a substitute teacher. This helps explain the (mostly) refreshing phenomenon of Bill Clinton and underscores the inestimable potential squandered by Barack Obama: when the Democrats have a personality commensurate with their common-sense policies, they have half a chance.

There have, of course, been elections won and lost by both parties, PR initiatives shifting momentum (and money, always money) from the haves to the have-mores and there is little new under the sun. But if we look back at the last three decades, the Biggest Victory—transcending all the skirmishes fought during the last several presidential terms—and the enduring legacy of the Reagan Revolution, is the impervious story it continues to tell, and sell. It informs our craven political discourse; it intimidates an increasingly incurious media and bulldozes an ever credulous Republican base.

Data, facts and near-depressions be damned, we have seen one side nominate a succession of buffoons who should only have inspired bad fiction instead of engineering ever-more-implausible reality. Against all probability, that’s their story and they’re sticking to it.

Against all tolerability, the rest of us might remain stuck to it.

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The Power of Political Narrative: Part Two, The Dems

obama_superman_statue_by_kindlepics-d5ju8nl

i. Ridic, Redux

LAST MONTH I WROTE about the Power of Political Narrative and the ways Republicans have kept it simple (stupid) and mostly stuck to an inflexible script for the last thirty years. No matter how flawed that script is, in reality, and no matter how many times reality makes a point of pointing out that virtually every talking point—taken as Gospel and enforced as Scripture—results in the opposite of what it claims (Clear Skies Act, etc.), a reckoning never occurs.

As such, we saw austerity when we desperately needed stimulus, coddling of Wall Street cretins when perp walks were well-warranted, craven acquiescence on the Guantanamo catastrophe, “Death Panels” instead of a public option, et cetera. Not that these are the results Obama (or the left) wanted or predicted, but because of—at least in part—the ability of the other side to sling the same excrement at every policy, proposal or achievement, defying a twice-elected leader to bring about change we can believe in. Or pocket change for the middle class. Or something.

Certainly, it sucks to see a party whose signal accomplishment the last two years (doubling down what they did the previous four years) was acting petulant and saying no like a paroxysm rendered Reductio ad absurdum, smug and certain they are about to retake the Senate. By refusing to govern they are likely to be rewarded, not because anyone (even Fox viewers) particularly likes the results, but because they have stuck so steadfastly to the scheme: lay blame on Obama, Democrats, and Government, respectively. At best tolerated (at worst abetted) by a degraded mainstream media they have done this repeatedly, and mostly with impunity.

And because we expect less than little from the intransigent GOP, how can we resent them for proving the cowardice of their convictions? Particularly when the profiles in courage not on display by their political opposition is so…typical. My concern is—and has been for some time—the ways in which Democrats are congenitally incapable of articulating their achievements, and crafting a message that is either compelling or consistent. The shame of it is, all they have to do is tell the truth and it would set them (and the rest of us) free.

I’m not suggesting it’s easy, or that it would be embraced—at least initially. As I argued last month, it’s a hell of a lot less demanding to pick a handful of platitudes and recite them like zealots at a Sunday service. But this is not a matter of formulating counterpoints or rebuttals; it’s about crafting a narrative that is consistent and, as no less a salesman than Henry Kissinger once said, has the added advantage of being true. Naturally, telling the truth does not come naturally to elected officials who are often paid for before they take the oath of office, and this circumstance is further complicated by the question of how many of them really believe in left-of-center principle in the first place. Still, any introductory class in marketing or communications (or English Literature for that matter) will emphasize the importance of narrative; the necessity of telling the story you want to tell.

It’s not that difficult to imagine, and this shit practically writes itself. One speech, early in ’09, wherein Obama declared: “not only am I going to fund these projects, no American who wants to work will go without on my watch. I’m going to spend this money, because it is an investment on people, and you will be able to measure the results immediately. This is a mission on behalf of our well-being, and if you want to judge me in four years, I will take those odds. And if I’m wrong, the worst case scenario will be an early retirement where I can drive across this great nation over new roads and rebuilt bridges, and take advantage of the radically improved infrastructure that these projects made possible. I’ll walk away from the Oval Office happy and proud, because I’ll know we made a difference, and that is what I was elected to do.”

Obama was either too clueless or (worse) haughty to believe he actually needed to make a case, and be ready to fight back against the full-scale war the GOP declared on him the second he was elected. (His refusal to bother himself getting involved in the health care brawls all summer of 2009 is the second largest blunder of his presidency: he not only allowed the malevolent Republicans to define the narrative (wrongly), he let the Tea Party lunatics get a foothold and, with the lack of any consistent, intelligible message, determine that opposing government was the correct, patriotic thing to do. By the time he saw the grammatically-challenged writing on the signs, it was arguably too late. Meanwhile, against all probability, the masses with their pitchforks and flames, had—for lack of a tangible target for the ire—latched on to the Fox-spewed propaganda filling the inexplicable vacuum of what passes, these days, for political discourse.

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         ii . Coal Mines, Sean Connery and (of course) George Orwell

In The Road to Wigan Pier, George Orwell’s masterful investigation of the English working class, he makes the following observation: Watching coal-miners at work, you realize momentarily what different universes people inhabit.

That succinct, typically clear-eyed assessment has stuck with me because, like so much of what Orwell wrote, it is not tied to any particular period of time. As I get older, I realize this quote can be applied to any number of professions. Put simply, money and means enable certain people to reside in entirely different realities. After one has read Orwell—hopefully at an early enough age that it makes one allergic to relativism and libertarianism—one can’t help but view the world through a sociological lens.

Quite by chance, I just watched an old classic that had been languishing in my Netflix queue: like St. Peter allowing a purgatoried soul into heaven, I finally brought it to metaphorical salvation via my DVD player. It’s one of those movies I’ve heard about many times and hear referenced often enough that I’ve had it on my to-do list for entirely too long. Plus, the notion Richard Harris sharing screen space with Sean Connery was, suffice it to say, enticing. The movie in question, The Molly Maguires, did not do well upon its release and has become something of a cult classic—with an emphasis on the cult.

The story, in a nutshell, involves the gruesome exploitation suffered by Irish immigrants (and workers in general including, of course, young children because this was before Teddy Roosevelt, horrified by the depictions in books like Sinclair’s The Jungle, got inspired to seize some manner of control from Big Business and introduce those quaint concepts of regulation and workers’ rights: in other words, this story takes place precisely in the era that today’s GOP is aggressively working behind the scenes to bring us back to) toiling for paltry pay in the coal mines.

If you are imagining an environment where safety was tenuous and the conditions were barbaric at best, you are not incorrect. It is also a workplace where the owners controlled everything, including the breaks not given and the payment not rendered. In one illuminating scene the new employee (Harris) stands in line to get his weekly wages: the boss adds up the coal collected and announces the amount; Harris smiles. Then the boss subtracts the damaged tools, the wear-and-tear (a 19th C. version of “administrative fees”) and the final amount is reduced from nine bucks and change to just change. As Harris stands in disbelief the boss, flanked on either side by police officers, glowers at him and says “Next!” If that sounds too much like a bad out-take from It’s A Wonderful Life, check yourself: these are the conditions that absolutely existed, as men like Sinclair (and later, George Orwell, of course) observed and reported.

The reason the movie was probably unsuccessful, and the reason the timing of my first viewing is serendipitous, is because of the subject matter: way before unions existed; circumstances were suitably dire that the use of drastic measures were required, and understandable. As a result, a group of protestors (or terrorists, depending on what century you live in and what newspapers you read) took to undermining the mine’s profitability by using incendiary tactics, literally. Harris, the “good guy” is a paid detective assigned to infiltrate this mob and help the honchos crush the uprising by killing the culprits. If this sounds a bit familiar, the story is based in large part on true events inspired by the reprehensible actions of the Pinkertons, who operated kind of like union busters before unions existed.

The movie is clever: by making Connery grim and uncharismatic (no mean feat considering this is Mr. Shaken, Not Stirred we are talking about) and playing up Harris’s roguish charm (yes, that is a cliché but if anyone could ever be said to possess roguish charm it’s the ever-ebullient but burly Harris), the viewer is almost conned into empathizing with, and rooting for the putative protagonist. Only after the film concludes does it finally—and fully—occur to the viewer: if the movie had been shot, or written differently we would be pulling for the “bad guys” all along. And that is the point. If the movie was told from the alternate point of view, it would have been preachy, unconvincing and free of emotional conflict. Which is exactly why it’s a good movie and most likely why it did not set the box office on fire. It also might make one recall the other chestnut (speaking of clichés) about history being written by the victors, the power of language to shape story and the mechanisms always at work to manufacture how reality is perceived.

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iii. The Medium Remains the Message

As we stare down the ignoble specter of the GOP taking back the Senate next month, it is at once exasperating yet simple to see how we got here. Yes, the Democrats’ incompetence at crafting an actionable narrative has, at best, enabled the Republicans to proselytize their fealty to an ever-more-free market. But at least when they try (see: Clinton and Obama in campaign mode), they can compete, and occasionally win (!). The deeper and more disturbing issue is the way they’ve abandoned the very middle class their policies demonstrably support.

What has long befuddled me is that, even if you can cynically concede that even Democrats tread lightly before their corporate masters these days, it makes political sense to maintain a healthy relationship with unions. During the Tea Party shenanigans in ’09, I kept asking myself: when is our chronically aloof commander-in-chief going to start reminding everyone that this big bad government has historically been the bulwark between the people and an Industrial Revolution lifestyle? Does it need to actually get to the point where the Republican Party literally says “let them eat cake” before people start to realize wages are stagnating, prices are rising and the only people getting fat are the wealthiest one percent? Apparently it does.

Feel-good (or, feel-bad) lip service is paid to the undeniable, growing discrepancy of salaries paid and taxes not collected on the makers vs. the takers, but the song remains the same (see: a dose Romney, a dash of Ayn Rand and an unhealthy smattering of Religulous paranoia to expedite a state like Kansas acquiescing itself into fiefdom). And we’ve not come to terms with the fact that the wealthiest percentile don’t just look down on—or worse, ignore—their lesser brethren. They neither understand nor want to understand: they contemplate the impoverished the way many of us might ponder serial hoarders: we see it, are disgusted by it, and wouldn’t ever want to be like them, but we simply can’t fathom how they got to be that way; what happened to make them so unreasonable.

What Orwell articulated so well, in part because it was (is?) so stark and systemic across the pond, is the way class is at once an explanation and excuse for imbalance—not only in practical and political terms, but as ingrained disposition: things are this way because they’ve always been this way. After a while, injustice just seems to be the natural order of things. Okay, but it’s supposed to be different in America. We ostensibly have laws and systems in place to prevent unchecked stratification. That we can’t quite challenge—or even believe—what our lying eyes tell us is, again, what the Reagan Revolution has wrought. However much he has disappointed, it’s certainly not (only) Obama’s fault that his party has generally avoided the entire issue of class for practically half-a-century.

But even if the seemingly unsophisticated battle to prove the relative benevolence of government (or compassionate conservatism—ha!) seems a non-starter in 2014, it should not require too much PowerPoint proficiency to compile a quick commentary about what unions have wrought: minimum wage, forty-hour work weeks, health insurance, pensions, vacations, sick-leave, etc. All of the things people assume exist as an evolved conciliation, or were always just sort of there; or best of all, were the inevitable rewards of laissez-faire philosophy until big government came along and screwed everything up.

Regardless of her short-term political (e.g. presidential) aspirations, Elizabeth Warren—and the Yes-We-Can-type approbation she’s accruing—is, if nothing else, an indication that at least one notable liberal understands the power of going back to the future. The fact that someone like her (or Bernie Sanders, for that matter) exists is encouraging, but the fact that people are responding to this message should translate to a broader game plan, the sooner the better.

No matter what happens next month, it can hopefully provide sufficient momentum for the marble-mouthed Democrats to cobble together some cohesive messaging en route to 2016. One would think the mere act of pointing out the truth would not require heavy-lifting and soul-searching (but those without souls, admittedly, can have difficulty here). Again, I do not count on any of these center-left pols to suddenly find religion, so to speak, but presumably they can grasp that there is a purely political advantage to being on the right side of the middle class, not to mention history.

This piece originally appeared at The Weeklings on 10/22/2014.

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The Power of Political Narrative: Part One, The GOP

RONALD REAGAN

i. Magical Thinking and the Memory Hole

LIKE MOST EVERYONE ELSE I know, I grew up—really grew up, if I’ve ever actually grown up—in the Reagan 80’s. Take my childhood, please. Actually, it wasn’t all that bad, at least for the middle class kids. During the extreme periods of Boom and Busted, Pro and Convicts, the majority in the middle seldom feels the pain; they rarely see the cocked fists and hoisted heels. It’s the people on the poles playing out cause and effect: the haves doing things the have-nots don’t have the voice or power to protest. The have-lesses can afford to ignore the news or else lay back like so many frogs, believing the boiling pan is actually a Jacuzzi.

Question: How else can you get people to consistently vote for policies that devastate them, counter almost each admonition of the (white, muscle-bound) Jesus and stagnate growth for every sector except, of course, the obscenely wealthy who rewrite the rules as they go along?

Answer: The power of magical thinking. It’s the fulcrum upon which most religious and political momentum swings: all it requires is uncritical, unblinking fealty and it’s amazing how simple, and ceaselessly restorative this exercise can be for the unenquiring mind. All of a sudden the world shrinks, Santa Claus exists, America is God’s favorite country, regulation is anathema, raising the minimum wage kills job creation, et cetera.

Capitalism isn’t wrong, but neither is intelligence: you cannot spend money and make money; someone is always paying the tab (and it’s usually the poor suckers who can’t spend it who take it in the you-know-where so that anonymous, ancient board members can pulverize their portfolios). It’s all about numbers. Like an army, like America. Whether you’re a company or a cult (like an army, like America), you simply want to amass enough affluence that nothing else matters.

Which brings us to the looming midterm elections. If Obama has been sufficiently underwhelming to induce depression, at least he staved off a Depression. If we have nothing else going for us, no one wants to return to the bad old days when W. took us on a (dry) drunk drive into the ditch, right? The silver lining of falling so far is the full and final repudiation of a greed-first ethos so aggressively sold for thirty-plus years. Isn’t it? Oh…

Instead of putting his boot on the squirming corpse of Reagan’s revolution, Obama postulated that we should heal. Instead of accountability for the Masters of the Universe who insisted the ensuing debacle was not possible even as they gorged at the trough, Obama appointed some of them in charge of the clean-up. Instead of a reckoning—and the welcome spectacle of some well-warranted tar and feathering on Wall Street—we suffered the indignity of a gigantic reset button, paid for by the taxpayers whose 401(k)’s got fucked.  The super-connected swindlers whose idea of trickle-down economics is pissing on the collective heads of the middle and lower classes bounced right back into the saddle. Check them out: their fattened wallets broke their falls.

The Democrats, who had a once-in-a-generation opportunity to rebrand (reestablish?) themselves as the party that not only cared, but governed for the 98%, snatched defeat from the jaws of victory as only Dems can do. More egregiously by far, the GOP, who have dedicated six years to temper tantrums and intransigence, stand poised to retake the Senate and retain the House.

How did this happen? How is it possible? The power of political narrative.

 

ii. The Power of Political Narrative

Understanding, and exploiting, the power of Narrative is the impetus that unites such unlikely—and antithetical—endeavors as Art, Business and Politics. The ones that can tell a story about what you need to know are important; the ones who tell you a story about what you want to hear can become immortal.

Our country was founded on the Narrative of The Future (City upon a Hill, anyone?): always looking toward what we could be, collectively, if we appealed to the better angels of our Nature, our Natural State being invariably democratic, tolerant of disparate faiths—including those without faith—and apparently unperturbed by the genocides inflicted upon our Native and African American brethren. Some eggs, after all, had to be broken in the service of this great experimental omelette called America.

Eventually, it required a Civil War to determine if we would keep looking forward or be cleaved forever into (at least) two countries, one peering over its shoulder, pining to preserve a way of life that never existed in the first place, at least for the majority of the people. (Sound familiar?)

Flash forward one hundred years to the Civil Rights Movement: a generational and geographic divide that once again found us at a crossroads of progress and reactionary segregation. History, as the cliché goes, is ghost-written by the winners. Looking at American history, for good or ill we’ve tended to define our triumphs as events that unified us, moving us along a progressive path from there to here, consistent with the founding notion—however fanciful—that we were collectively edging toward improvement and inclusion.

Two of the big “wins” of the 20th Century involved presidents named Roosevelt. First, Teddy, who took on Big Business and monopolies, instituting some overdue governmental oversight. His Square Deal regulated out-of-control American industry in the name of safety. A few decades later, his cousin Franklin ushered in The New Deal, ensuring that, for the next several decades government would, on balance, be seen as an institution that did more good than ill. Until the ‘80s, both of these developments were generally considered positive for all citizens, regardless of their political affiliation. Books like Sinclair’s The Jungle or indelible memories from the Great Depression reminded people—and their heirs—that government was the last thing standing between them and unfettered market forces. The notable exception, as ever, being the wealthiest percentile, whose disdain FDR all but celebrated (“I welcome their hatred”), a provocation Obama might wish he’d emulated in 2009.

In an exploit that still resonates for its audacity, Ronald Reagan drew a conservative line in the sand, assailing the presumption of government as an constructive agent, not by nitpicking but taking aim at its raison d’être .With a country still reeling from the apathy and cynicism of the post-Nixon nadir, he pre-empted that anger and uttered the immortal words: “Government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem.” And for the first time in half a century the Republicans steadily assumed control of a new narrative. It was simple as it was shameless; it was the most facile strategy fathomable, and the GOP finally had a patron saint to make it sacrosanct. Needless to say, it worked brilliantly.

 

iii. The Ill Communicator

The greatest trick the devil ever pulled, Baudelaire once wrote, was convincing the world he doesn’t exist. Well, the greatest trick the GOP ever pulled was convincing its flock that the devil does exist. The way to keep the Evil One at bay is to close your eyes and never, ever question The Man—unless he happens to be a Democrat.

All some Americans need is a person to play the part and tell them how great they are, how amazing we are, and then, no matter how much the unemployment rate and the deficit spike, it’s all good because we feel good. It is too easy and that is too simple. But the more one looks at Reagan (the man, the myth, the legend—literally), the more difficult it becomes to reach any other conclusion.

Along came St. Ronnie, the actor who made a fortune making awful movies, parlaying this into a career that put his acting ability to the summit of its purpose, circa second-half century America. Rich, he became a lot richer turning his back gleefully on his past, transmuting from an admirer of FDR to a True Believer who hit the trail for the repugnant Barry Goldwater. From a man who saw the country ravaged by the Great Depression, and therefore endorsed the New Deal, he subsequently did more than any president to undo the legislation that helped stave off a genuine catastrophe and fortified the middle-class for decades.

Now it’s an open competition to see which Republican can invoke him most often and they can’t name buildings after him quickly enough. Reagan has become the conservative alternative to Che Guevara.  As we’ve seen in the short time since his death (indeed, in an initiative that kicked off years before he even kicked the bucket, by those who stand to profit most from his hagiography), a very intense and deliberate effort was undertaken to beatify and whitewash a legacy that was far from undisputed in the late ‘80s.

The Reagan Revolution built its momentum on a shameful vilification of America’s poor and lionized (some would say fetishized) the wealthiest percentile and transformed them into folk heroes. Because Michael Douglas turned in such an effulgent performance (in a rather mush-mouthed, typically ham-fisted Oliver Stone screenplay), few people—then; now—understood that Gordon Gekko was not “merely” a bad guy; he was a sociopath. In less than two terms, Reaganomics and Wall Street vandalism laid waste to the working class and put us on a path where the richest of the rich were entitled, by Divine Right, to pay ever-smaller tax rates. Meanwhile, young pillagers in training, like Mitt Romney, perfected the business acumen of bankrupting companies for profit into a repugnant performance art.

Despite an inconvenient eight year blip on the radar, where taxes were raised and the economy soared, the GOP, led by Dick “Deficits Don’t Matter” Cheney, had eight years to use the country as a demented sort of lab experiment. The result: 2008 and the cratered economy Obama inherited.

 

 iv. The Five Commandments

After the disgust and disbelief settles, one feels obliged to give props to the Republican ratfuckers. Over the last few decades while they have dabbled in the vicarious thrill of foreign occupations and the odious gutter-dwelling of racial and sexual identity politicking, the cretins behind the curtain have focused on a handful of tactical battles in which they have more or less achieved their ends. This strategy has many moving parts, but can be boiled down to a handful of inviolable commandments, the enforcement of which ensures that no one is ever off script. And make no mistake, this script is like religion—only belief is not optional. The first and foremost commandment, propagated to the extent that it’s literally received as gospel—no matter how repeatedly disproven it is in practice—is that any taxes at any time are always a deplorable idea.

The second is that the mainstream media has a liberal bias. They’ve succeeded so thoroughly in this monomaniacal mission that once first-rate newspapers like The Washington Post now police their content excessively enough to render them neutral, if not neutered. The Op-Ed page has for more than a decade been patrolled by whacked-out hardliners who would have been laughed out of conservative circles only twenty years ago; back in the days when the GOP was devising health care reform that is now successfully considered socialism.

The third, which has been accomplished with considerable assistance from an increasingly reckless, ambitious and soulless Democratic party, is the demonization of unions. Long, sad story in one sentence or less: during the last half-century—but with a vengeance beginning in the ‘70s—unions lost influence while Democrats simultaneously abandoned them to court wealthy financiers to fund their increasingly lavish campaign expenses. Why the Republicans want to eradicate the same movement that helped bring us regulation, forty hour work weeks, overtime and collective bargaining is beyond no-brainer. Why the Democrats have allowed this to happen, abetting it more often than not, is owed to an opportunistic cynicism that has gutted the sensible and effective backbone of the Progressive cause in ways both myopic and tragic.

The fourth is that public education fails us, that teachers are overpaid and underachieving, and that while no cuts to any military spending are conceivable, all manner of funds and aid to public schools are forever on the table.

The fifth, final and most cheeky involves the mantra that government does not work. It’s a neat trick in which, when Republicans take power, they spend their time ensuring this assertion is true, all while consistently expanding the size of government along with the size of the national debt. Then, like clockwork, once the people have finally seen enough, a Democrat comes in with the thankless task of cleaning up the mess, and the disloyal opposition becomes a cadre of small government deficit hawks. That this same farce was pulled off so spectacularly after our recent recession says as much, if not more, about the aforementioned media and the supine Democrats as it does about the unabashed GOP.

 

v. Faith in Something Bigger than God

To see the full flowering of this psychosis, one needs look no further than the recent passing of James Brady.

Brady, for those who weren’t alive in 1981, is the unfortunate aid who had the bad luck of being mortal, and getting in the way of some bullets that could never have killed Reagan anyway. Before Brady died I might have been embarrassed to write something so churlish; a cursory glance at the comments section of any of the Brady obits confirms that there are a lot of people out there spouting shit like this, if even sardonically. Don’t kid yourself, beneath the sarcasm is a sincere reverence, the type of veneration we typically reserve for saints (and members of the Kennedy clan).

It’s a matter of Faith: Reagan wasn’t meant to be assassinated. And by Faith, of course, I don’t mean God (Reagan didn’t need God), I mean the Free Market. If the Free Market had wanted him to die, he would have died.

Speaking of faith, freedom and folly: the only force of nature more powerful than any of the fixations previously mentioned is that of the gun fanatics. Maybe, maybe—coming as it did less than half a year after John Lennon was murdered—if Hinckley’s assassination attempt had been successful, we might have had a national consensus of sorts. This, after all, was the moment, where we could—and should—have rallied around sensible gun control. It was the moment when all forces came into focus; it was, after all, their hero in the crosshairs.

Naturally, nothing of the sort happened. Brady became an advocate for a more sane approach to gun ownership, earning him the enmity of idiots who should have never ceased appreciating him. These, after all, are the same sorts who will swear up and down that Reagan did as much as anyone not named Rocky Balboa to defeat the Evil Empire.

How then, was any of this possible and how can such farce still hold sway over a sizable portion of our populace? The same technique that ensures certain stories get told and taught centuries after they are composed: the power of good narrative. That the Iran-contra affair is glossed over the way we never talk about our drunken uncle in the retirement home, or that taxes are actually lower during Obama’s tenure than Reagan’s, or that the First Couple regularly consulted an astrologist never tends to come up in not-so-casual conversation is part and parcel of the almost entirely successful enterprise to consecrate The Gipper.

The moral, as it applies to our contemporary political scene, is straightforward as it is distressing: risible dialogue delivered by a screen-tested salesman will always win more votes than substance offered up, however earnestly, by a substitute teacher. This helps explain the (mostly) refreshing phenomenon of Bill Clinton and underscores the inestimable potential squandered by Barack Obama: when the Democrats have a personality commensurate with their common-sense policies, they have half a chance.

There have, of course, been elections won and lost by both parties, PR initiatives shifting momentum (and money, always money) from the haves to the have-mores and there is little new under the sun. But if we look back at the last three decades, the Biggest Victory—transcending all the skirmishes fought during the last several presidential terms—and the enduring legacy of the Reagan Revolution, is the impervious story it continues to tell, and sell. It informs our craven political discourse; it intimidates an increasingly incurious media and bulldozes an ever credulous Republican base.

Data, facts and near-depressions be damned, we have seen one side nominate a succession of buffoons who should only have inspired bad fiction instead of engineering ever-more-implausible reality. Against all probability, that’s their story and they’re sticking to it.

Against all tolerability, the rest of us might remain stuck to it.

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