Why Have the Democrats Lost Popular Support?

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Tikkun Magazine

Why Have the Democrats Lost Popular Support?

Perhaps the November elections will not be as harsh on the Democrats as the polls predict, but the Dems' behavior in power has decreased their popularity dramatically.

We know, of course, that the Democrats did not have a solid majority in Congress, given Rahm Emanuel's 2006 decision to back the most conservative candidates in the Democratic primaries in order to win in swing districts and take Democratic control of the House of Representatives (a decision he made while serving as chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee). Democrats in the Senate followed a similar path. As a result, they won formal control and hence could be blamed for what ensued, but they did not have the votes to fulfill their promise to the electorate to cut off funding for the war in Iraq.

Democratic primary voters in 2008 enthusiastically supported a presidential candidate who spent much of the primaries reminding voters that he had opposed the Iraq war from the start, and who focused in the general election on conveying that his presidency would be about "change you can believe in" and telling people that his presidency would empower people, as implied in his slogan "Yes, we can." Candidate Obama's success in piling up a significant popular vote majority and an electoral college landslide-a success that indicated that the racism of Americans had receded behind their hopefulness about fundamental change-proved that many Americans yearned for a world of peace, justice, kindness, generosity, and love.

It's easy to blame the Republicans for their "Politics of No" and, indeed, given the fact that de facto Republicans were allowed to run as Democrats and be elected as such, it might have been impossible for either the Congress or the president to pass significant new legislation capable of fulfilling the promise of "change you can believe in."

What the Democrats Could Have Done

The Democrats could (and should) have articulated a positive progressive vision of what was needed, put forward legislative proposals that embodied that vision, and then fought for those proposals not only in the halls of Congress but also in their own districts/states.

It is never as important to win a legislative agenda as it is to convince the American people of a worldview. The reason: if you don't win support for a worldview, the next president of the opposing political party and a Congress that supports that president can dismantle most of what you've put in place. But if, as Roosevelt did in the 1930s and Reagan did in the 1980s, you use your presidency to build support for your worldview, then you find that even when a president and Congress of a different party take control (Eisenhower in the 1950s and Clinton in the 1990s), their options are extremely limited because the previous ideology still has a hold on the consciousness of the American people. Thus Eisenhower kept intact much of the New Deal legislation, and Clinton's policies confirmed Reagan's absolute faith in deregulation, free markets, and the globalization of capital and expansion of the military.

From the start of his presidency, we urged President Obama to use the theme of "The Caring Society"-caring for each other and caring for the earth. And we urged him to insist that he would only support programs that reflected the values of caring, generosity, social justice, peace, environmental sustainability, and corporate social responsibility.

Why "The Caring Society" as the theme? Because most people in this society feel that the other people and huge economic and political institutions that surround them care only for themselves. Thirty years of ruthless self-interest on the part of the wealthy, the banks, the insurance companies, the health care industry, and the major corporations have profoundly affected the consciousness (not to mention the economic security) of most Americans. The insecurities of daily life in this society (and in all the societies in the world that have experienced the impact of global capitalism) have driven many to seek some refuge in strong families, religious fundamentalism, and ultra-nationalism as a way of finding some corner of their lives within which the ideals of caring for each other and being part of some larger community in which "we are all in it together" trump the individualism, materialism, and exhortation to "look out for number one" that suffuse daily life, the media, and the economy. A president who would have explained all this to the American public and then presented policies and legislation that transparently placed these values above the values of market-place "rationality" would have precipitated a huge transformation in the consciousness of American society.

Add to that one other thing that the president could have done: fulfilled his promise to tell the truth. If the president had announced in his inaugural address that each week he would be speaking honestly and revealing what he was up against in trying to bring real change, and that he would name names of those who were blocking efforts to change, and then actually followed through on this, that single act of having a truth-telling president would have changed the whole dynamic of American politics.

Please note that everything we are saying Obama and the Democrats could have done are things they could have done without the consent of the Republicans or the right wing of the president's own Democratic Party.

What the President Could Have Done Without Congress

In addition to all of that, there are other specific things the president, acting on his own, could have done:

1. Challenged the worship of the free marketplace.

2. Refused to fund banks and corporations that were failing and instead proposed to create a national bank offering interest-free loans (as called for in the Bible) to socially valuable projects. The loans could go to small business startups or bailouts, to people seeking college and university educations, and to corporations that increased pay and benefits for any of their employees making less than the national average income.

3. Required that any business getting government support or tax breaks demonstrate that it is creating jobs and making its products far more environmentally sustainable.

4. Articulated to the nation the depth of the environmental crisis facing the world and what steps would be needed to lessen that crisis-including a tax on carbon emissions and proposing other bold steps to save the environment, including a ban on offshore drilling and an excess profits tax on all energy companies.

5. Taught Americans that "homeland security" is not best secured through a strategy of domination but rather through a strategy of generosity. He could have proposed a Global Marshall Plan (www.spiritualprogressives.org/GMP), only sending troops to Afghanistan to build and not to fight, canceling all drone flights, and releasing to the public the classified information that was leaked by WikiLeaks, prosecuting the evildoers instead of the whistle-blowers.

6. Proposed a constitutional amendment such as the Environmental and Social Responsibility Amendment (www.spiritualprogressives.org/ESRA) that functions not only to overturn the Citizens United decision of the Supreme Court but also to require corporate social responsibility.

7. Prosecuted all members of the CIA and the Bush administration, and others who participated in illegal acts of torture or conspiracy to commit torture, and establish the practice of bringing human rights group members to serve as monitoring teams for unannounced visits at every military facility where prisoners are being held around the world and every U.S. prison.

8. Appointed to judicial positions those who are unequivocally supportive of a progressive agenda in the same way that the current Supreme Court majority is unequivocally supportive of a conservative agenda. The president then could have admitted that that was what he was doing, and defended the value of having judges and justices who are empathic to the suffering of ordinary citizens rather than those who twist the law to serve corporate power. No dishonesty please-let's fight for a more humane set of values in the judicial arena.

9. Demanded that the media stop responding to the corporate interests of those who fund them and start responding to the interests of ordinary Americans. The president could have picked one example per week of irresponsible media coverage and taught Americans how that coverage distorts their understanding.

10. Campaigned for a universal and free (single-payer) health care plan, and campaigned for price controls over all pharmaceuticals, rather than for the deeply flawed plan that passed.

Well, I'm sure you can suggest other things that should be on this list.

But you get the central idea: the point is not to win each battle, but to convince Americans of a different way of thinking.

Instead, by abandoning their promises for "change we can believe in," the Democrats have created an electorate that identifies "liberal" and "progressive" with "Obama" and consequently doesn't want to hear anything from liberals or progressives. And most liberals and progressives are so heartsick at having campaigned for a president who turned out to pursue policies almost diametrically opposed to what they had understood him to be promising that they are either in shock, dismay, disillusionment, or denial. Many feel humiliation at having believed Obama and are unlikely to spend much energy trying to back the Democratic Congress that failed to back their ideals.

None of this, however, is a reason to welcome a victory of the Republicans, who meanwhile have acted in an extremely irresponsible and immoral way, blocking anything and everything they could, not because they all believe every measure deserved to be fought, but because they wanted to show that Obama could accomplish nothing. Moreover, the Republican embrace of the racism and "know-nothing-ism" that is part of the ethos of some in the Tea Party movement, and their own embrace of anti-immigrant populism while simultaneously being faithful lapdogs to the wealthy and the powerful corporations, bespeaks a political party that does not deserve to benefit from the screw-ups and betrayals of the Democrats. Had the Democrats been willing to put forward their programs and then force the Republicans to actually carry out their filibusters for weeks on end on each piece of legislation, Americans would likely have become fed up, as they were when Gingrich used the filibuster tactic only to find that grinding the government to a halt created a pro-Democratic backlash that led to the re-election of President Clinton in 1996.

What We Can Do Nonetheless

We need a new political party that advocates for "The Caring Society," but we don't have the financial means to create that. In the meantime, we spiritual progressives need to do the mass educational work at which the Democrats have failed. That's why we've developed the Global Marshall Plan, and the focus of this issue of the magazine: the ESRA. Please read it and become involved with us in these campaigns by joining the Network of Spiritual Progressives at www.spiritualprogressives.org and becoming involved with our work to advance these ideas! The education done on these projects is the best way to create the foundation among Americans for a future political party based on love and generosity.

Michael Lerner

Rabbi Michael Lerner is editor of Tikkun Magazine: a bimonthly Jewish and Interfaith Journal of Politics, Culture and Society. He is chair of the interfaith Network of Spiritual Progressives, author of 11 books including Healing Israel/Palestine: A Path to Peace and Reconciliation, and rabbi of Beyt Tikkun synagogue in San Francisco.

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