Progressives all recognize the lengths to which the GOP will try to frame their policies as "good vs. evil", "us vs. them", "winning vs. losing", and other variations of zero-sum formulations. But do we recognize how often play along, even as we battle their frames?
More about the War Frame and how Obama is handling it on the flipside...
Deep within all of us, progressives and conservatives alike, reside the competing impulses of authoritarianism and democracy, or rather, of "top-down" and "bottom-up" forms of control.
Most of us, if we are honest with ourselves, hear the siren call of the power-of-being-in-charge from time-to-time. We celebrate when "our guys" are in charge of the government because, in part, we believe that we can effect change efficiently only when we control the levers of power. We believe that the problems we wish to solve stem from the fact that the wrong people are in charge. We fantasize that it would be wonderful and great to pass X set of laws, make Y set of changes, and create Z set of rewards and punishments, believing for a moment in benevolent dictatorship. Even when we don’t pine for actual dictatorship, we demand that our leaders that do control levers of power use them with gusto.
But then there is also in our national mythology an abiding faith in notions of liberty, free will, and the wisdom of the people. On a daily basis, we are free to buy what we can afford, worship or not as we see fit, express ourselves (most of the time) however we wish.
The founding BIG IDEA of our nation--still revolutionary--is that a viable, sustainable, excellent government can be maintained by enabling "bottom-up" control to balance the top-down impulse. Adam Smith’s notion of "the invisible hand of the market" gave voice to a theory of economic power that didn’t depend upon the trickle-down largesse of landed nobility for its function. Several variations of the Reformation reinforced the direct contact the individual soul has with divine power at the expense of ideas of hierarchical spiritual trickle-down. At the founding of our nation, these ideas of spiritual and economic liberty were mingled with an untested theory of government that aimed to weaken unitary, hierarchical power so that it wouldn’t weaken and destroy that liberty.
The Big Idea that is our Constitution depends on balance—the balance of competing institutions of centralized control, all of which are, to differing degrees subject to the will of the decentralized masses. However, from the beginning, political battles have usually revolved on getting "right-thinking" people into power who will manipulate the levers of control in such a way as to benefit the "right" people—a battle of authoritarians. Conservative authoritarians favored the faux aristocrats and the longing-to-be classes; progressive authoritarians favored the spokesmen for "the common man." But both kinds of authoritarians have steadily moved the political balance point of our democracy more in favor of top-down control because it makes compensating for the opposition’s stupidity easier to accomplish. Centralized control makes political change seem quicker and more efficient. (Could FDR have managed the New Deal in antebellum America, or did it need the extra century of concentration of federal power to accomplish?)
Have there been political movements of "bottom-uppers" (call them populists for want of a better term)? Populist movements have tended to be used in service of the out-of-power authoritarians of the moment. As populist movements become organized, then the same top-down versus bottom-up conflict arises between the movement’s leadership and its rank-and-file. Most of us have witnessed or participated in "progressive" groups run in an authoritarian mode that tends to drain its founding energy over time. And we have witnessed or participated in groups whose cohesiveness fades in time because its bottom-up energies had insufficient organization to sustain them in the face of organized opposition. The populist movements that have had a sustained impact on our society have been those that have shifted the actual structural balance point of power toward the decentralized, people-centered end.
How does all of this apply to Obama?
The overarching frame of politics in our country has become one of "war"—the Rethugs vs. Democrat Party, Red vs Blue. The War Frame is perfectly suited to Beltway Politics—a battle between two sets of insiders for authoritarian control of the levers of power. Partisans must pick sides, stay loyal to leadership, focus on ends over means, and use the rhetoric of combat. No matter who wins, it’s likely that, to satisfy the partisans, centralized control will be exercised and the balance point in our government will slip a bit further to centralization control. But the War Frame, which uses fear (of the enemy) to operate, is ideally suited to authoritarians (and has been used for millennia to that effect by the aristocracy to gain and hold popular support for dubious policies). Yes, the pendulum swings between arrogantly authoritarian and defensively authoritarian (even mildly popular) variations, but slowly over time, political power is evermore centralized with each cycle of the pendulum.
The War Frame is very persistent because its obvious alternative is, to caricaturize it, "kumbaya, can’t we all just get along." We’ve been nicely trained to see compromise as capitulation to the enemy and diplomatic rhetoric as weakness in the face of evil. Don’t get me wrong, here. I’m not trying to suggest a moral equivalence between the conservative and progressive movements, just a rhetorical one. There are vast differences between progressive and conservative versions of centralized control in its impact on our country. But the battle between these versions, portrayed as war, will not solve the problem of war, nor will it deliver widespread consensus needed in order to bring sustainable progress in redressing the decay of our democracy, economy, and communal life.
Barack Obama has frustrated many progressives because he steadfastly resists rhetorically drawing lines in the sand—except for decrying the drawing of lines in sand. Is he one of us or not? Will he deliver for progressives or not? Obama is using the rhetoric of hope and trying to embody it in what is going to be a battle. He must defend partisanship without using it too aggressively. He must inspire support for decreasing the centralization of power without alienating those such a change threatens because if he does, the War Frame will be invoked and the opportunity to make sustainable rebalancing changes will be diminished. He must be able and willing to speak in language that doesn’t reinforce the battle lines, but which breaks them down instead. Finally, in what will be the hardest part, he must make his movement about empowering his supporters, not about engendering a cult of personality. The media can only frame his story so far as being about his unique story and his embodiment of the American dream.
Howard Dean played the role of John the Baptist to Obama’s Savior last cycle by articulating the need to take back America using the grassroots, decentralized power latent in our society. When his message started to threaten the concentrated powers that be, he lost his head, in a manner of speaking. The good doctor’s rhetoric, while exactly what was needed to awaken hope again amongst progressives, wasn’t successful at breaking past the War Frame (which the media loves, of course, for its drama). Dean’s electoral failure within the War Frame had the net effect of hiding in plain sight Dean’s larger agenda of decentralizing political power as a means of structurally rebalancing our democracy, to the point where the success of his 50-state strategy surprised the MSM.
Obama has inherited the message of popular empowerment from Dean but has positioned it less as an insurgency and more as a reawakening of dormant democratic principles. He isn’t about "taking back our country" from the evildoers as much as rebuilding and reinforcing the core principles of our country so that all are empowered to hope again.
The time is ripe for a swing of the pendulum—a strong swing, at that. Obama isn’t the only Democrat who would wish to move the balance of political power back towards the people, but he is the only one who can make it happen across the political spectrum, who can deliver a consensus sweeping enough to overwhelm gridlock and introduce sustainability to our democratic and economic institutions. The commons, destroyed in war, needs peace in order to be rebuilt.