The current poor ratings for Bush and the Republican Congress represents an underlying reality, one that gives the Democratic Party and the Progressive movement an opening to halt, and reverse, the reactionary move in American politics. These openings will not, if left unexploited, give the Democratic Party real power to reverse the corrision of American values and American government. However, the represent a moment of very powerful weakness in the current governing coalition, which can be used to undermine and overturn what has occured over the last 25 years, and most specifically in the last 5 years.
What are those openings? Cleaving Americanism from Conservatism, the revolt of the periphery against the Republicans, and a new politics.
The Three Openings
I. Cleaving Americanism from Conservatism
One of the most important developments of the last 35 years has been the creation of an ideology of conservatism, and wedding that ideology in the American mind to patriotism and the health of America.
The purpose of the Conservative ideology and the creation of the Conservative movement was to create a rhetoric which would make it so that Americanism would express itself in reactionary terms, and thus side with the reactionary party. This is particularly important in cases where the public cannot decide between reactionary and progressive ideas - ties go to the Reactionaries.
The Conservative movment is built on associating the health and strength of America with ideas that point towards the reactionary side, and to make "unAmerican" progressive ideas. This is accomplished by "bashing", and particularly by demonization and marginalization of certain visible aspects of the Progressive movement and progressive agenda. Once the alienation of Americanism from Progressivism is accomplished, the second step is to give Americanism terms which point towards the reactionary strong holds of religious extremism, and concentration of wealth. Even such seemingly value neutral ideas as "a balanced budget" are part of this process, because a "balanced budget" is a measure of health of the country.
Now what is important is that the reactionaries are not, and never were conservative. This can be seen by their time in power: they have not pursued balanced budgets, they do not preserve existing legal structures, nor do they believe in "being conservative" in the sense of avoiding large risks. Iraq is a prime example: it is a deficit activity, it required the corruption of checks and balances to accomplish, and it is an enormous risk.
As a result, there is an increasing cleavage between the Americanist who thinks of himself as "conservative" and the Republican Party.
II. The revolt of the periphery
Through much of American history, the populist periphery has been the most powerful center of Americanism. Americanism is important to the periphery, because they live in a highly cyclical and high risk economic environment. The nation represents the defense of their position against outside and inside forces. Which ever party captured this sentiment was a large step towards a governing majority, particularly because the Senate and Presidential election are tilted towards representing the periphery.
The three fold cleavage of economic integration: metropolitian, exurban and peripheral is visible in British politics by party: the reactionary party, the Tories, dominates English exurban politics. It does not dominate the peripheries - instead, increasingly, it is the Liberal Democratic party that does. A party of the left.
In the United States, there are growing signs of a revolt of the peripheries against the Republicans. In some measure this is the fracturing of the Americanism/Conservatism rhetoric, and as well the fracturing of Conservatism and Reactionary politics. The challenges is to promote both: to split conservatism from being the natural rhetoric of America, and to increasingly emphasize that conservatism is not aligned with reactionary policy.
That the Republicans do not deliver for the periphery has created this cleavage, and we can see it in Montana, Arizona, Wyoming, New Mexico and even in the Great Plains states. To convert these states to reliably Democratic states at the local and statewide level means to emphasize that reactionary politics are not conservative. To win them at the national level means to emphasize that conservatism is not the only language of Americanism - without disrupting the delicate balance of the first.
One crucial "periphery" demographic is the rise of the Latino and Hispanic vote. Many of the people who will decide elections in the states of the periphery will be from this demographic, and their outlook, not only economic, but social and political, must be integrated into the outlook of the Party. Just as individuals from agrarian states came to Washington to form the new Deal, so too must young, bright and ambitious young people from this group see the Democratic Party as one that is advancing their vision of a better America.
Taking advantage of this is crucial as soon as possible, for example by projects such as John Edwards' Raising the States.
III. The New Politics
As Simon Rosenberg observed in his New Politics Institute conference call, the Democratic party must have a different way of campaigning, one that is "built into the DNA" of the party. The Democratic Party needs to have, not only policy ideas, but political ideas. It must be a party which reflects passion at every level and in every part of its operation.
This means that a spirit of progressive passion and persuasion must be woven into the entire fabric of both the movement and the party. It also means that the kind of communication, both in its substance, but also in its manner, be geared to the new ways that people receive their news, form their personal connections, gain employment, and pursue their goals in life. People will trust information that comes to them through the same channels that other information comes from, they will trust people they meet in the same way they meet other people.
That the way people communicate, form bonds, and gather news, has changed can be seen from the changes in newspaper and magazine readership - the internet is now as important a source of news as periodical magazines in terms of frequency of reference and readership. That people are increasingly leveraging the internet, in the same way that people leveraged the road system in the early 20th century, is a basic movement which, in its nature, does not favor reactionary politics.
The challenge is to exploit all three in combination. And right now there is a long way to go before that is being done. To take an example from recent debates on the Daily Kos itself. The DSCC is chosing candidates that take "the conservative/progressive" social issue off of the table - particularly privacy rights. This is designed to appeal to the bloc of voters which are conservative, but are being told that conservative doesn't mean reactionary. At the same time, this alienates people who believe in themselves as civil libertarians, many of whom also think of themselves as conservatives, but who are, in fact, "Americanists". It gains seats, but at the cost of alienating both base progressives, and failing to make headway among the other half of the challenge of prying the center out of reactionary rhetoric.
At the heart of this lies a demographic reality: for a very long time the Democratic Party has been moving to being the metropolitan party. Privacy rights are framed in terms of privacy issues that are most important to metropolitan areas, abortion being one example. It is not that access to reproductive freedom and liberty of fertility is not important everywhere, but it is seen as a metropolitan way of addressing the problem. Gun control is an even clearer example. The road forward is to drop the shibboleth, while not reducing the real effective freedom. The reactionaries want people to attack the symbolic issue, in order to reduce liberty.
But to do this requires a broader conversation within the Democratic Party so that individual groups do not pursue goals which work for them, but come at the cost of hindering other parts of the larger Democratic Party agenda.
And it is here that there is both the weakness and the strength of the Progressive way of doing politics. The Republican Party is the party of top down. There is no discussion in a general sense about how to accomplish these ends, ideas are presented to their center, the center makes decisions, and their outlets, proxies and salesmen toe the company line. The progressive mechanism has no such arbiter of central party dogma. This is a weakness in that it makes coordination harder. It is a strength in that top down, when it fails, produces disaster. Schiavo is a perfect example: project decided upon, forced through, and into a public storm of rejection.
The identification of conservatism and Americanism has tremendous advantages for the Republicans politically: it means that when Democratic politicians want to establish themselves as "American" they do so by crossing, attacking or even betraying the fundamental progressive tennets of the Democratic Party. The "kick the base" or vote for a bankruptcy bill, or for large revenue reductions because "small government is American".
The three openings that we can exploit - and which will pay dividends starting in 2006, rather than at some far future date - can be backed by solid demographic and polling analysis. However, to exploit them is not through number crunching, but through reëstablishing the process by which the Democratic Party is trusted. The recent attacks on FDR by the right are an attempt to break another bond of trust, and another symbolic form of Americanism being a liberal Americanism.
"Don't burn the flag, wash it"
To change rhetoric begins every day.
One way is to constantly remind elected leaders to never "kick the base" as a way of gaining street credibility as an American. It is something we see every week or so, and some political figures have created their public image around it. It is important to never let such "kick the base" tactics go unnoticed, and to make sure that elected leaders who enage in them hear about it. But to do this requires changing some of the rhetoric that the left all too often falls into. I speak, of course, of Anti-Americanism, of identifying America as the problem.
It is important to remind people using tropes of unAmericanism, in the same way one reminds a "kick the base" Democrat, that this rhetoric is also out of step with the direction of the progressive movement. Americanism is not the problem, it is the solution to the problem. The challenge is to get Americans to live up to the ideology upon which our political system rests.
Cleave the hypocrisy of Republican actions, and make it clear that "Americans don't behave like that". Americans are hungry for reasons to reject Iraq, and they dislike how the War on Terrorism has been handled. They want to know why things have gone wrong, and will listen to reasons that flow from basic American principles. Iraq was a corrupt war that has created a weak and corrupt state. "Americans", we must say, "do not make mischief abroad." That we have in the past is something that the otherside then has to bring up in defense, and each and every specific action can then be criticised, without questioning the moral fabric. The key is to always speak in terms of how Americans see themselves, even if we have not always lived up to that self image.
Americans don't waste, therefore wasteful vehicles are unAmerican. Americans don't destroy the wilderness, therefore strip mining the country for the last drop of oil is unAmerican. Americans do not run large deficits for the future, leave those who have worked their lives in poverty, or break promises. And the Republicans and the reactionaries stand for all of those things.
In the short term it is absolutely essential to continue to press challenges to the Republicans in the peripheries. In 2004 a host of exciting candidates became visible in these states, and while most of them lost, they came closer than people expected. 2006 can be the break out year, where it is clear to the public that rural America is not with a policy of high energy prices, foreign wars, depression economics, deficit culture and reactionary social engineering. They have faith, and they love God and Country, but they do not believe that it is a theocracy. They believe in frugality and personal responsibility, but not in niggardliness and holding others personally responsible.
Reconnecting the conversation between the peripheries and the center has been a bedeviling problem for an urban based Democratic Party. The trap was that cities drew people in for the intellectual stimulation and "hothouse" effect. Now with electronic communications, it is possible to again decentralize the conversation, and integrate the rhetoric of rural America and urban America - because, as politicians such as John Edwards keep pointing out, the problems of rural and urban America are more alike than different.
There are, therefore, three kinds of conservatives: reactionaries, conservatives and Americanists. It is important to cleave the reactionaries out by hammering how reactionaries are out of step with basic conservative principles. It is also important to cleave Americanism from conservatism by relentlessly connecting a rhetoric of an Open America, with progressive values.
The reactionary masquerading as a conservative will attempt to do so, not by argument, but by stance. He will take a hard, even bitter, stance of dogged stubbornness, and therefore establish in the minds of his listeners that he is "a real conservative". It is important to goad him into attack. Because while stubborn is good, close minded and nasty is not. While dogged and rugged are good, abusive is not. In almost all cases it takes very little to get the reactionary to boil over.
The conservative, in the sense of having a conservative outlook, needs to be appealed to by showing how progressivism values the same things that he does: thrift, hard work, maintaining continuity, tradition, community and earning one's place. Most real conservatives would be progressives if they thought it could work. By showing them that the threat isn't cheating poor people, but people being poor because they were cheated, it changes the dynamics of the equation: most conservatives feel that they have been cheated by the outside. That's why the are conservatives.
It is with the Americanist who has been persuaded that he is conservative because conservative means strong, that the greatest challenge lies, and the greatest need for transformation. Ham handed attempts to appeal to strength generally fail, because they leave open the counter attack from the right of the smear. Destroy trust, and all that is built on it crumbles.
It is for this reason that we must pursue a new politics, because the tropes of "Americans are conservative" are built into broadcast politics and media. Top down wants people to be fundamentally accepting of the present circumstance, even as it encourages them to be profligate. Reactionaries are better consumers, because they are neither as dissastisfied with the current social arrangements as progressives are, nor are they as careful as conservatives are. Hence, reactionaries are cultivated as good targets for advertising. This is why cable news constantly looks for them, since they are the "swing" audience that must be attracted.
Finding means to overturn the "Americans are conservatives" meme is one of the central projects of Democratic Politics. It will, at a stroke, hobble the Republican smear machine - since smearing icons that people believe in and identify with creates backlash - and it will end the circumstance where "ties go to the right" which has been so crucial in the politics of the last 15 years.