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March Madness: Why Progressives Always Lose

Hurling Hail Mary's -- When is a victory more like a defeat?

At the risk of being churlish, passing this health care bill was the palest of victories.

Yes, it's better than nothing, but as the President himself has pointed out, it's largely made up of proposals the Republicans advocated a little more than a decade ago.

So, while this is certainly a political victory, it is far from a triumph of progressive ideals. Indeed, this Legislation is a sign of how far the political center has drifted to the right in the last three decades.

How did we let this happen?

Well, imagine playing a basketball game in which your team had to stay in the opponent's end of the court on both offense and defense. Your opponent would be shooting layups and slam dunks, while the best you could hope for in terms of scoring would be one of those Hail Mary hurls from half court.

Think you'd win? Of course not.

Yet that's precisely what Democrats and progressives have been doing for going on 30 years now. We've allowed conservatives to set the terms of the debate and shape the national dialogue.

For three decades, pundits and progressives have been struggling to explain why popular and much needed programs like health care, financial reform, and climate and clean energy bills keep getting scuttled, or compromised into inanity.

Let's start with the health care legislation. As late as June of 2009, more than 70% of Americans still favored including a public option, and 66% favored Medicare for all. Yet after progressive compromises and an extensive "debate" over the summer, we were reduced to pursuing anemic health insurance reform. The one thing everyone seems to agree on is that we got beat at "messaging", and it was this defeat that led to us celebrating passage of an essentially Republican proposal.

But we didn't simply get beat; we refused to show up.

Or take financial reform. Here again, progressive are losing the debate on what is a popular idea - fix the system that brought on the Great Recession and that continues to take our collective money and shuffle it up to the top 1% of the economy. What's not to like? Yet even a watered down version of financial reform - one that doesn't fix "too-big-to-fail" or restore Glass-Steagall protections -- is floundering in the Senate, and the House passed a tepid version that can only be called reform lite.

Pundits point to the corrosive effects of money in politics, the failure of the Obama administration to advocate clear and specific objectives, and the difficulty of selling the idea when you've set up Goldman Sachs South in Washington with Summers and Geithner at the helm. While there is some truth in each of these explanations, the one area everyone seems to agree on is that we're failing miserably at messaging. Again.

Clean energy and climate change? Same deal. Start with a broadly shared sense that a changing climate represents a clear and present danger, and that the solution - clean energy policy supported by a market friendly cap and trade system - will improve the economy, create jobs, and bolster national security and after years of debate, end up on the defensive. We're losing ground on the science; on the economics; and on the kind of fix we need. The Obama administration and the House have been relatively decisive and clear on the dangers and opportunities inherent in an overheated world, but as usual, the one culprit everyone agrees on is that we're getting our butts kicked in the messaging department and that we need to reframe the debate.

The Three Great Myths - Why progressive end up spitting into the wind

The thing that each of these issues shares is that they are symptoms of a much larger problem, and until we address that problem head on, we will be playing basketball on the wrong end of the court and tossing up Hail Marys while the Republicans and blue dogs shoot layups and slam dunks.

Since Reagan, Republicans have run their campaigns on three myths. The Myth of the Magic Markets: the Myth of the Bumbling Bureaucrats; and the Myth of the all-purpose Bogeyman.

Progressives, behaving like deer in the headlights, never confronted these myths and cringed in the face of accusations about being "tax-and-spend liberals," or "soft on defense." In fact, DLC Dems essentially endorsed the myths. The press, for its part, stopped analyzing the truth behind each party's assertions and started acting like stenographers. As a result, the myths have never been challenged and they have dominated political discourse in this country for 30 years.

They can be summarized succinctly: Myth 1) the free market, left to it's own devices, will solve all our problems and make us all rich; Myth 2) Gubmint' can't do nothin' but take your money and waste it while destroying the entrepreneurial spirit of everyday ‘Mericans; and Myth 3) there's really scary stuff out there (Commies and socialists, terrorists, black people, immigrants, gays, flag-burners, gay flag-burners, black gay flag-burners - whatever it takes to keep us from examining the other myths).

Even George Lakoff (Try Not to Think of an Elephant) of Rockridge institute, who has been giving Democrats good advice on messaging for years, most of which has gone unheeded, doesn't address the need to shatter these myths. His premise is that we need to better frame the issues we talk about and make use of contextual metaphors

But allowing these Myths to stand makes any attempt to improve our argument or "reframe" our issues around specific issues futile. The Myths are the cultural milieu in which all other ideas are assessed. They are the soil and seed of our national intellectual ecosystem, the core of our national zeitgeist.

Small wonder we fumbled an attempt at real health care reform, even though private insurers are adding an overhead of nearly 30% for the privilege of cutting coverage, raising prices, withholding care, and distributing huge bonuses to CEOs. Getting for-profit insurers out of the system should have been the easiest sell in history, but rather than worrying about corporate tyranny and corporate hegemony, and vicious cartels and monopolies, the debate was shaped by hysterical fears about socialism, dead grannies and government takeovers.

Why? Progressives were and are afraid to champion government and refute the Myth of the Bumbling Bureaucrats. We're also forced to pay homage to the Magic Market, fashioning all manner of market mechanisms, while refusing to acknowledge that as long as we rely on the private sector for health care, corporate interests will override the public interest every time - indeed, it is a conflict of interest to put for-profit- private organizations in charge of public health. Their job is wealth creation, and the less they invest in health, the more wealth they can create.

Progressives have reality on their side. We have the examples of successful government-run Medicare, Medicaid, and Veteran's Health care which have a 2-4% overhead, better outcomes and higher satisfaction rates than private insurance with it's 30% overhead, and yet we lost the debate on Single Payer and the Public Option. Indeed, the sign that sticks out from this summer's "debate" is KEEP YOUR GOVERNMENT HANDS OFF MY MEDCARE. Astounding.

The Myths hamper the debate about financial reform, too. Even after the financial sector revealed itself to be both criminally greedy and slow-witted as a sloth, one hears Republicans issuing vague warnings about putting the bumbling bureaucrats in charge of the markets, and no one rebuts them. And Summers and Geithner, among the architects of the system that caused the collapse, are our go-to guys on financial reform. When Paul Volker is your in-house rabble-rouser, you know progressive values have been abandoned in the face of the Myth of the Magic Markets.

We hear the same thing with regard to climate change and clean energy. We are warned about government controls, and de facto taxes, and all manner of un-American restrictions. As if the fossil fuel industry hasn't been gouging us for decades, along with OPEC. Good god, we're losing an argument in which big oil is being portrayed as the friend of the little man, and government the problem. Peabody coal and friends strip another mountaintop, let lose another million tons of toxic tailings waste, and cook our atmosphere another few degrees and government is the problem. It's enough to make a sane person's head explode.

Or take national security. We now spend 30% more on Defense than we did at the height of the Viet Nam War. Does anyone really believe that a few thousand extremists dressed in rags with no army, navy or air force; equipped with aging Kalashnikovs and scavenged ammunition requires us to spend more than we did to confront the Soviet Union? More, in fact, than the next 45 nations combined? No. Indeed, it is entirely plausible that we remain in Iraq, and have increased our presence in Afghanistan not because anyone really believes there is any likelihood of an existential threat or a good outcome there, but because it has become politically impossible to confront the Myth of the Scary Stuff and the American uber-alles response it creates.

Beyond the Lizard Brain - Confronting the fear machine

It is this reliance on fear that has made the Conservative talking points so effective. They have created an all-purpose bogeyman - big Gub'mint - and wielded it with great skill.

Fear, it turns out, trumps reason every time. Fear messages are handled differently by the human mind - they are processed in the primitive lizard portion of our brain and they form more powerful memories in a much shorter time than messages based on reason do.

Frank Luntz has been issuing his Words that Work memos to Conservatives for years, and a central part of his message has always been to push the Myth of the Bumbling Bureaucrat, Washington's incompetence , and the efficiency of the Market - often wrapped in the holy shroud of small business owners. Note the cleverness: large corporations that are buying elections, controlling the regulatory environment and screwing the vast majority of Americans become "small business owners."

Luntz is literally the purveyor of fear, doubt and unreason disguised as hope, and Republicans follow his advice religiously. They will continue to have success in doing so until and unless we change the fundamental premises that underlie all the issues we are debating. No amount of "reframing" individual issues will work until the Myths are confronted and vanquished.

How? We must counter their fear with reason and continuously rebut Reagan's Deadly Myths with our own truths 1) Corporate Tyranny is the most serious threat we face; 2) Government is the solution, not the problem - it allows us to reap the best of capitalism without its excesses, it is the way we as a people have accomplished most of what has made America great, and when the public interest is at stake, public programs outperform private ones; and 3) Fear is not an answer -- when a Party spends most of it's time trying to scare you, hold onto your wallet, your freedoms and your reason.

The first part should be easy. We can make people more afraid of corporate tyranny than they are of government tyranny because in the real world, it is much scarier - people have some control over government but none over the Exxons and Goldman Sachs of the world, and the consequence of that has been devastating to the middle class. A critical element of this effort is to get the money out of politics. Period.

The second part will require courage, and it will force us to risk losses while the message is repeated. We have two things going for us. First, cognitive studies show that repetition of arguments based on reason can trump fear arguments eventually (that's the basis for cognitive therapy, which has stood the test of innumerable clinical trials). Second, it's been done before. Roosevelt named the corporate beast for what it was and then went about the business of convincing people that government was on their side and could be effective. We had 40 yeas of steadily increasing prosperity with a rapidly expanding middle class as a result. And unmatched political success.

Eisenhower raised the role of fear in his famous speech on the military industrial complex and suggested ways of avoiding the trap it posed for a civil society. The attendant splinter issues used to stir fear and divisiveness - abortion, gay marriage, flag burning, birther nonsense, dead grannies etc -- flourishes because it occurs in a political vacuum , a phenomena that exists because we're playing on their side of the court.

The consequences of cowardice

Since Reagan, the Defense budget has been sacrosanct, wealth has trickled up, the economy has been volatile and uncertain, and the nation and the states have become bankrupt because taxes have become a dirty word, even if applied to the rich (who have received the most cuts and the most benefits under tax cuts). The full destructiveness of Reaganism becomes more obvious by the day, and yet none dare mention that naked truth. Instead, we go about naming more and more stuff after him, even as the public debt explodes, public services erode and military misadventures rob us of both our wealth and our standing as a moral leader.

This must change. The Myths must be confronted and vanquished.

We have no choice, really. If we don't confront Reagan's Myths, we will continue to lose debates even when we hold the winning hands; the country will continue to wrack up crippling debt; corporate control of our lives will accelerate; and we will continue to exist in a country in which fear and divisiveness dominate our political landscape. We will win elections only when Republican overreach is so obscene that the stench of scandal, hypocrisy and incompetence is sufficiently strong to force voters to turn to us. And even then, if the Myths stand, we will be forced to govern from the right - tossing Hail Mary's up from their side of the court, passing woefully inadequate health care, financial reform and climate bills and calling it victory.

It takes only three attributes to lead us across the center court line: eloquence, courage, and conviction. We know President Obama is eloquent, but the jury remains out on the other two.

We are at a turning point. A game played on the opponent's end of the court will ultimately be lost. We made a timid approach toward the center court line with health care. But if the promise of America embedded in our Constitution and the Declaration of Independence is to be salvaged, we must have the courage and the convictions to cross the center line and play our game. And that means confronting the Myths.

The time is now, the game is nearly over, the tournament is at risk. As Churchill said, "If not us, who? If not now, when?"

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John Atcheson

John Atcheson

screen_shot_2017-07-26_at_9.09.47_pm.pngJohn Atcheson is author of the novel, A Being Darkly Wise, and he has just completed a book on the 2016 elections titled, WTF, America? How the US Went Off the Rails and How to Get It Back On Track, available from Amazon. Follow him on Twitter @john_atcheson


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