Talking to other Kosters has its pleasures, but understanding what "low-information voters" think about politics is as important. The people who don't care much about politics are the ones who decide elections.
After the jump, I'll discuss the concept of "imagining the real." In the political context, it means getting people to accept the reality of a threat so massive and terrifying that it tends to shut down critical thinking ability.
Many current problems -- global warming, looting by the financial services industry -- match that description. I want to focus on just one of them: a reality that does not even plausibly seem real.
It is this: the Republicans want the economy to continue to fail in the hope that this will prevent Obama's re-election. They barely bother to deny it anymore. The political problem is that this betrayal of country is so heinous that simply recognizing it and telling people about it makes one sound like a liar.
I've begun to believe that this could be a deliberate strategy on their part.
Our nearest hurdle and biggest task is simply to get people to imagine the real.
(1) Imagining the real
Let's start with Martin Buber. To oversimplify grossly, he introduced the phrase "imagining the real," in the context of the challenging task of truly learning to take others' perspectives.
The psychologist Robert Jay Lifton, in his and political scientist Richard Falk's great book "Indefensible Weapons" -- a fantastic and still-timely book now available used for essentially the price of shipping -- adapted the phrase to the threat of global nuclear war. It would apply as easily to the analogous contemporary threat of global warming, though from what I can tell the anti-global-warming movement is as yet nowhere near as big as the anti-nuclear movement of the early 80s.
For Lifton, the difficult-to-imagine "real" was the what the consequences of a nuclear war would be -- hint, despite what Reagan said, it was "not winnable" -- and the low likelihood of avoiding it if we remained on our then-current course. (We didn't, of course, because the world lucked into Gorbachev.) The idea is that the more horrific a prospective scenario, the more difficult it is to get people to take even the first step to addressing it: recognizing the threat's existence and scope. Psychologically, some truths are so huge, so horrific, that they don't seem to be plausibly true. And people who argue that they are true, even if they bring the requisite "extraordinary evidence" for their claims, are likely to be considered alarmists and crackpots. (I think most of us here know how that goes.)
For Buber, "imagining the real" meant the difficulty of overcoming subjectivity, the problem that we view reality through the periscope of our own brain. For Lifton, "imagining the real" meant accepting what both physical and social science told us about the physical danger towards which we were hurtling. Our imagining the real is -- to evoke one of the more user-friendly quotes from Karl Marx -- the tragic history of denial of the nuclear threat repeating itself as farce. Our problem involves understanding motivations: taking what others say -- what the Republicans say -- at face value.
(2) Samson with a jetpack
We know pretty much what we have to do to fix the economy: stimulate demand. Stimulating demand requires getting money into Americans' pockets so they can spend it, especially on things that other Americans produce or sell. Greater demand stimulates supply, stimulating supply means creating jobs, which further stimulates demand, etc. Eventually we can run into a problem of inflation, but we can be pretty confident that the Fed and others will step in before that becomes to worrisome. (Well before, most likely.)
So how do we stimulate demand?
For one thing, we extend benefits to the unemployed so that they can spend for their own upkeep (and not impose the higher costs of society doing it for them. Think "doctor's visits" versus "emergency room care.")
The Republicans are against it.
Second, we make sure that the working and middle-classes don't lose more money out of their paychecks -- such as, for example, by losing the tax cut that expires in a manner of weeks. (Reasonable people can disagree over whether a renewal should be temporary or permanent, but to bolster the economy it has to be.) At the same time, we don't need the wealthy to retain their tax cuts. They have shown quite clearly that they're just going to save them or fritter them away rather than using their money to create jobs in the U.S. They will invest overseas where labor is cheaper. (They don't even bother to hide this.) So we need to decouple wealthy and non-wealthy tax cuts and pass only the latter.
The Republicans are against it.
Third, we need to spend on infrastructure. If we're giving money to people, the best way to do it is to get something really useful in return -- like high-speed rail, or repaired roads and sewers, or clearing dead brush for fire prevention. That means spending on capital -- while interest rates are so low -- and on public works jobs.
The Republicans are against it.
I could, but won't, go on. Republicans opposition to these things on policy grounds would be one thing. We could debate that. But they don't oppose these things because they won't work, but because they might work -- and if they do work, then Obama will get the credit and probably win re-election.
It's the same reason that they won't pass the START treaty, even though this failure weakens the U.S. Their strategy is: "no victories for Obama." They say this right out loud.
Why would they be so willing to sink the ship on which we all sail? Well, it turns out that we're not all on the same boat -- or, rather, that they have access to lifeboats that the rest of us can't reach. Individual Republican legislators will survive pretty much any doom that their actions bring upon the country. They are like Samson with a jetpack -- they can tear down the temple of Congress and then fly right out of harm's way, most likely landing in a lovely office on K Street. Failure of the national economic system doesn't matter that much to them in the New Gilded Age.
Even so, it's jarring to see them willing throw the economy to the wolves. It's inconceivable -- humorous reference intended. Why? Because if any party tries this short of stunt, there are supposed to be political consequences. Those political consequences -- a wipeout at the ballot box -- are supposed to deter this sort of anti-patriotic insanity. We don't have to trust Republicans to be good, we're supposed have to just trust them to care about their own fates.
But something has gone very, very wrong with that.
Here's the political consequence the Republicans have faced so far: they picked up over 60 House seats, 6 Senate seats (and they should have had more), and lots of statehouses and legislatures, too. They'd love to be punished again like that in 2012.
So they really are embracing trashing the economy in the short term. They are really doing this. Really really.
How do we get people to imagine the real?
(3) The quarterback has been dismembered, but there is no flag on the play
Someone in my most recent diary asked me why the Obama Administration was not embracing a messaging strategy that most of us on the broad left think is pretty good. The question was, in effect: "Are they intentionally throwing the game, or are they inept?"
I know the dangers of wading into the site's meta wars, so I'm going to ask that people please put down your weapons before entering the comments section. Here's my hypothesis: I think that the Obama Administration made some serious political forecasting mistakes leading up to the 2010 election -- but I also believe that they were reasonable mistakes.
OK, I can hear your breathing rate increasing out there. Hear me out.
As near as I can figure, the Obama Administration knew that the Republicans might try to obstruct them wildly over the past two years (and the next two.) They didn't think that the Republicans were likely to go this far, though, and take this hard of a line. The reason is simple: history suggests that if a political party does what the Republicans have been doing, they are supposed to get absolutely hammered.
I think that the Obama Administration was shocked, and still is shocked, that the Republicans could be complete lock-step obstructionists and not get blasted out of the water as a result.
I like a some political hyperbole about the deficiencies of our political culture as much as the next guy, but seriously -- in your heart of hearts, aren't you surprised that Sarah Palin is taken seriously as a political figure? Aren't you surprised that Erik Erikson could be a teevee news analyst? Aren't you surprised that a major political party could say that it wants to block the President from having successes, and to hell with the consequences, and not be hammered on the news?
If the darkest days of the Revolutionary War were times that tried our souls, as Thomas Paine said, then these are times that try our cynicism. We can't keep up with how low the media will go. The media in 2008 was pretty lousy -- but dammit, Katie Couric did get the fatal interview with Sarah Palin, and the debate coverage was decent enough that Americans could figure out what was in front of their faces, and the Rev. Wright "scandal" did go away and the Bill Ayers "scandal" did never really take outside of the Fox "News" universe.
I think that Obama knew that he had to be somewhat paranoid about the media -- this is part of why I think he swaddled himself in a protective layer of "bipartisanship" for his protection -- but he wasn't paranoid enough. Not being overly paranoid is usually not a bad strategy, if one doesn't want to end up like Nixon, but sometimes it leaves one's guard down. I think that Obama truly expected that, given his conduct leading up to the past election, people would get it before any real damage was done.
But it didn't happen. No matter how many fouls the Republicans committed, the referees of the media just flat out refused to throw the flag. That was not the way to bet. Isn't the media supposed to like conflict, hypocrisy, scandal? Obama was like Wile E. Coyote, watching the Roadrunner disappear into a tunnel painted onto a cave wall, and thinking "I don't care if this is a cartoon, that's still not supposed to happen!" You can't win if the other side can suspend the laws of physics at will.
Right now, the media (and the rest of us) should be asking -- with respect to unemployment benefit extension, tax cut decoupling, infrastructure spending, and much more -- what the hell the Republicans think they're doing. If they claim not to be trying to trash the economy, their noses should be rubbed into the evidence. The Republicans need to experience some fear that their obstructionism will require them to pay a price, that running headlong into a painting of a tunnel on a rock wall only gets one flattened.
If that happens -- Tea Party or no -- the Republicans will back off, knowing that the blame for continuing unemployment will fall upon them. If that doesn't happen, then we are in for horrific times, whether or not Obama capitulates on various items in order to keep the baby from being cut in half.
What will determine whether Republicans stand firm is whether people "get it" and start to put blame where it belongs.
How do we make that happen?
(4) Imagining the real Republican Party
The trap that Republicans have set for us is that most low-information voters can hardly believe -- can hardly be expected to believe -- that the Republican strategy truly is as cynical and irresponsible and destructive as it is. It doesn't seem American. Accusing them of doing what they say they are doing is like accusing them of being unpatriotic -- which, of course, they are.
The point of the Glenn Becks and Rush Limbaughs of the world, in case anyone out there hasn't yet figured it out, is to render this sort of criticism of Republicans inert. If Republicans accuse Democrats of all sorts of wild perfidies, Democrats can either ignore them or answer them. (Well, we can also agree with them, but most of the Evan Bayh-like creatures inclined to do so are now going out of office.)
If we say nothing, then it looks like the Republicans must be telling the truth because we aren't countering them. If we do counter them, then to low-information voters it sounds like "both sides are doing it." They say -- without evidence -- that we're intentionally trying to destroy the economy, and we reply, with evidence, that they're intentionally trying to destroy the economy, and to someone who is not that interested in getting to the bottom of things in the fist place it is tempting to cast a pox on both parties' houses.
Screaming, blistering, over-the-top Republican attacks on Democrats, therefore, are intended precisely to prevent low-information voters from "imagining the real/ about the Republican Party if we respond in kind.
How do we get around this? Well, if it were easy, even the hapless Democratic messaging machine would probably be doing it. Some of it -- being willing to fight, staying on message individually and collectively, etc. -- you already know. (Unfortunately, one summary of such tactics would be: "act like the Republicans." Gulp.) Another strategy is to simplify the message, and that's also worth doing. A final strategy is to -- and forgive me using a bad word like this -- "go meta."
I don't mean "go meta" on the blogs -- I mean doing so with the public. That is, be willing to say "they are counting on you not being willing to believe that they are doing what they are doing, because what they are doing is so far out of bounds." Then one has to put on a poncho, because Republicans tend to spit when they shriek.
I don't have a better idea than that, so I invite yours. I'd like to hear a concerted, coordinated message along the lines that the Republicans want to prevent Obama from fixing the economy because they think it will help them win the next election too. They are -- and I'll stick with anatomical references from the bottom 10% of the body -- ankle-biters and heel-draggers. (Some, like Dick Morris, are also toe-suckers, but that's beside the point.) We need to have our ducks in a row to make this case and we surely do not have to worry about offending someone.
The Republicans think that -- between their preemptive attacks on us and the sheer unbelievability that they could be acting as disreputably as they are without it making the news headlines -- they are safe from criticism. And they are pretty safe, so far, but they do have this tendency to overreach. They will make mistakes -- they already are. We need to be prepared to repeat and repeat and repeat the truth:
the Republicans want Obama to fail so badly that they don't even care if the country fails too, and they're doing everything they can to make sure it happens.
What the Republicans are doing -- letting the ship of state sink unless they get their entire way -- is outside of the normal boundaries of politics. It should be a scandal. It won't be a scandal, though, unless we make it one. It won't happen overnight, but it can happen. So let's collect our facts, hone our arguments, gird our loins, and kick their sorry butts.