Strategies for Underdogs
“The democrats – cowed, confused, incoherent – too often end up speaking, when they speak at all, in the helium voice of Warner Bros. Pipsqueak. They hide, hoping that power, in the shape of a self-revealing grotesque (e.g., Trent Lott), will do all. It’s a tactic of vacuous exhaustion, not a strategy of intellectual energy and moral direction.”
David Remnick, The New Yorker
Why on earth are the Democrats the minority party? It makes no sense. A large majority of American voters favor the Democrats on the issues. The Democrats are “right” with regard to morality, shared American political traditions, and the fundamental facts as disclosed by science and scholarship (as we argued in our previous piece “Taking Stock”). Furthermore, the Republican economic policies plainly stand to benefit less than five percent of the population, to the detriment of all of the rest of us. Indeed, beyond the immediate future, the fortunate five-percent are also likely to lose in the economic disaster which will follow from the reckless and short-sighted policies of the Bush administration..
For their part, lacking morality, tradition and factual truth, the Republicans have money, media, and political offices. And they are using these advantages with devastating effectiveness. They will continue to prevail unless and until the opposition wises up and adopts new tactics. Abraham Lincoln, that revered Republican, had it right: “The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. We must think anew and act anew... and then we shall save our country.”
What, then, is the progressive opposition to do? Military history provides some suggestions:
Do not confront the enemy at his strength. If the enemy fortress is impregnable, it is folly to throw your troops against the wall. But if a frontal assault is bound to fail, that does not mean that the cause is lost. Merely that one must not attempt a frontal assault. Instead, do what Joshua did at Jericho: find some collaborators within that can be persuaded to betray the city. (Never mind the part about the crumbling walls, we’re not relying on miracles here). Or do what Agamemnon did at Troy. Leave a wooden horse at the gate.
Do not fight the last war: After the First World War, the French built the Maginot line, vowing that the Germans would never again march across it. And so they didn't. Instead, they flew over it and drove around it, and France fell within weeks. When the Japanese destroyed the battleships at Pearl Harbor, the United States wisely replaced them, not with more battleships, but with aircraft carriers which, as Billy Mitchell proved, were the weapons of the future.
Use Judo tactics -- use the strength of the opponent to your advantage: King Henry V was outnumbered five to one at Agincourt, and his exhausted army faced that battle “even as men wrecked upon a sand that look[ed] to be washed off the next tide.” (Shakespeare, Henry V). So he enticed the French to charge downhill into a rain-soaked field, whereupon the English longbows brought down the first ranks of French cavalry and the following hordes piled upon them and crushed them into the mud. Far more Frenchmen were killed by the French that day, than by the English.
Use the Arrogance of the Foe to advantage: After the fall of France and the low countries, Hitler believed himself to be a military genius and his army to be invincible. So the Wehrmacht marched straight toward the trophy city of Stalingrad ("City of Stalin"), ill-prepared for the Russian winter. Hitler overextended his supply lines, failed to protect his rear and flanks, and the Sixth Army was cut-off and doomed. This was the decisive battle of the war. Afterward, Winston Churchill wry remarked, “the Chancellor (Hitler) should have known that it snows in Russia.”
No, we can't spend more than the mega-corporations and buy out the networks. So, like Agamemnon, Joshua, Henry, and Zhukov, we use our wits. Here are a few suggestions as to how we might do just that – and save our country, which is now in greater peril than most of our compatriots dare to contemplate.
Take the Initiative: It’s a fundamental rule in virtually all contests: the contestant who takes and maintains the offensive has the overwhelming advantage. In politics, “the offensive” simply means the opportunity to define the opponent and to select the issues. In the 2000 Presidential election, Al Gore (who never claimed to have “invented the internet” or to have “discovered Love Canal”) was successfully slandered as a liar and an egotist, while George Bush’s manifest shortcomings (drug use, insider trading, desertion from military duty) somehow never became significant issues. (See “Post Modern Politics”). In the 2002 election, the Republicans avoided the difficult challenge of defending their economic policies by directing attention to the “threat” of Saddam Hussein, and by defining dissent as “unpatriotic.” And in the latest election, the media amplified the slander of the "Swift Boat Veterans for Truth" that "John Kerry was no hero," while, at the same time, ignoring George Bush's contemporaneous desertion from the Air National Guard during.
To put it bluntly, Democratic strategists need to take a refresher course in Gamesmanship 101.
To be fair, it is difficult if not impossible for a political party to take the initiative when the opposition virtually “owns” the media which, in turn, defines the candidates and formulates the issues. Media bias is by far the most formidable obstacle faced by the Democrats, and thus will be the sole focus of our attention in our next essay.
The Federalism Gambit: When the Democrats held credible power in Washington, the “conservatives” promoted “federalism” (a.k.a. “States rights”), and insisted that political control should be “returned” to the individual states. Now that the Republicans control all branches of the Federal government, we are hearing much less of “federalism” from the Republicans than we did before. Small wonder. For now, a thoroughgoing and independent Congressional investigations of the 9/11 attacks, of stock market manipulation and fraud, and of price gouging by the Enron Corporation, are virtually out of the question. Not so in the states.
It was not the federal government that successfully led that attack against Big Tobacco. It was a consortium of state governments, lead by Michael Moore, the Attorney General of Mississippi. It was not George Bush's Securities and Exchange Commission that uncovered and prosecuted the major brokerage firms on Wall Street, it was New York Attorney General Elliot Spitzer. And for awhile, the greatest legal threat to the Enron bandits came not from Washington, but from Sacramento as an aggressive investigation and prosecution was conducted under the leadership of California Attorney General Bill Lockyer -- until, sadly, it was shut down by the Republican "Governator," Arnold Schwartznegger. It is uncertain whether the State of New York can or will conduct an independent investigation of the 9/11 attacks. But surely it should. And it is up to the states to initiate thoroughgoing investigations into the abuses, potential and actual, of computerized “touch screen” voting systems. (This is a potentially explosive issue which I will soon examine at more length. In the meantime, see “Electoral Integrity” at The Crisis Papers).
The Democrats, having lost control of the government in Washington, still control key statehouses and state legislatures. They can and should use these assets to good advantage.
The “conservatives” gave us “the federalism gambit.” Now let’s use it!
Self-Interest: As the Republicans and their sponsors continue to trash our Constitution, grab ever more of the national wealth, and scheme to extend their Empire to the far corners of the world, we desperately ask ourselves, “what arguments can be bring forth that will curb these reckless and dangerous policies?” Appeals to fair play, rule of law, “a decent respect to the opinions of mankind,” the Constitution and the founding principles of our Republic – all these have proven to be unavailing. The Washington regressives are even unresponsive to their own challenge, “What would Jesus Do? What, then, will encourage them to look down the road they are taking us, before we travel on?
How about rational self-interest – allegedly the engine of their cherished “free market solution” to virtually everything.
Time and again, history has vindicated Harry Truman’s rule: “to live like a Republican, vote like a Democrat.” (Quoted by Joe Lieberman who, as it happens, votes like a Republican). In a recent study, Mark Hulbert of Market Watch reports that during the twentieth century, the stock market has consistently performed better under Democratic presidents and congresses. It happened in the Twenties when, under twelve years of Republican administration, unconstrained and unregulated greed, combined with government corruption, led to the crash of 1929 and the depression which followed.
We’ve all heard the rebuttal: “It can’t happen again – we’ve put in ‘safeguards.’” But those “safeguards” (put in place by the Democrats, by the way), have been dismantled one-by-one in the Reagan/Bush I orgy of “deregulation.”
The most recent application of Truman’s Rule, vivid in the memory of all of us, is the Administration of Bill Clinton, during which the stock market tripled. Under Bush, the Dow has lost 20% and the NASDAC has lost 60% of their value. This means that the wealthy sponsors of Bush II, who made out like bandits under the President they sought to personally and politically destroy, are now losing billions under the maladministration of their selected leader. Go figure!
Clearly, not only does greed corrupt the heart – it also subverts the head. And so, like fruit flies in the laboratory bottle or the deer in the predator-free Kaibab forest, the oligarchs run free and unconstrained, as they destroy their resource base (“nutrients”) and foul their own nests, leading inexorably to crash and collapse.
There is no mystery in this. An economy works best in a society that is integrated rather than exploitative – a society wherein all have a "stake" in its success. In short, the Democrats feed the golden goose, the Republicans cook it. Like it or not, there is but one “economy.” The oligarchs prefer to ignore this simple fact, and so as they rake in their loot at the expense of all the rest of us, they are saying, in effect: “tough luck, serfs, but it looks like your end of our boat is sinking.”
Thus simple, fundamental economic self-interest suggests support of the Democrats. If the public, the media, and a significant fraction of Bush’s corporate sponsors finally come to realize this, they may abandon him.
One of the enduring mysteries, then, is why the Grand Poobahs of Big Business and Finance persists in the belief that their best interests are served by supporting the Republicans. It is a conviction born of dogma rather than intelligent reflection and historical awareness. Thus it is a dogma open for rebuttal and refutation to all who will listen – and more and more will listen, as the economic storm clouds gather.
Reclaim the English Language. The American public is spellbound by the word-magic cast upon them by the PR and advertising geniuses that plan and implement the GOP campaigns. Through this word-magic, divisions are created among those who share common interests, and alliances are formed among factions that, in a rational scheme, should be adversaries. Thus a majority of the public is persuaded to act and vote contrary to their ideals and their interests. For example:
The dominant and ruling faction in American politics is actively dismantling the Bill of Rights (specifically the 1st, 4th, 5th and 8th amendments), it is abolishing the balance of powers by allowing the Supreme Court to select the President, by appointing judges subservient to the executive fiats of the unelected President, and by circumventing the oversight and legislative functions of the Congress. And finally, it is basing political power and privilege, not on “the consent of the governed,” but in the hands of a small band of oligarchs. Amazingly, this faction of literal "outlaws" has successfully appropriated for itself the name of “Conservative,” whereas they would be better described as “oligarchs” and “radical anarchists.” Accordingly, when referring to this faction, we will try to avoid the word “conservative,” preferring the word “regressive.” If unavoidable, the word “conservative,” when referring to this group, will always be used with quotes or prefaced with "so-called."
Among the regressives (self-described “conservatives”) is a coterie of preachers who support undeclared “pre-emptive” warfare, describe other monotheistic religions as “evil,” promote the oppression of women, gays and minorities, support the flow of national wealth from those who produce that wealth to those who own and control it, and oppose government programs that offer aid and comfort to the poor, the sick, the elderly, single parents and children. These preachers insist that they are promoting “Christian principles.” Instead, they have joined the Scribes and Pharisees, and they play golf with Caesar. Jesus wept! (See my "What Would Jesus Do?" and "How Would Jesus Vote?")
These self-described “conservatives” have attached the label “liberal” to their political opponents – a label which they have soaked with connotations of disloyalty and radicalism. Accordingly, decreasing numbers of Americans are willing to identify themselves as “liberals.” And yet, a significant faction of Americans, perhaps a majority, maintains its allegiance to our founding documents, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Thus these citizens take seriously our “inalienable rights” and they believe that the United States government should be “of, by, and for the people.” They believe in the sanctity of the ballot and are outraged when an election is stolen. They affirm a woman’s right to control of her own body, they believe in the rights of workers to collective bargaining and in a fair distribution of national wealth. They endorse Social Security, Medicare, and a minimum wage. They believe that treaties, once ratified, should be observed, and they seek a “world order” in which the United States is not an imperial power, but instead an honorable member of the community of nations. All this describes “liberalism” – properly so called. Thus, amazingly, while a large potion – quite possible a majority – of Americans are “programmatic liberals,” a clear majority of Americans have been conditioned to flee from the label “liberal” as if it were the Devil’s own curse.
The remedy lies in the basic principles of General Semantics: direct the public’s attention away from maps and toward territories – away from words and toward things. The semantic shenanigans of the right-wing Regressives must be publicized again and again, brought to light, criticized and even ridiculed. It is past time for the public to “pay attention to the man behind the curtain.”
Forge Alliances. The “regressives” have successfully divided the opposition and then conquered. The “progressives” must, in retaliation, unite in opposition.
Clearly, “conservatives,” properly so-called, belong to this alliance. They cherish the Constitution and the rule of law, and they shun empire and “foreign entanglements.” They endorse the fiscal responsibility of balanced budgets. They believe in autonomy of the individual and they distrust “big government.” Thus they can only be appalled at the excesses of the “USA PATRIOT” and Homeland Security Acts, and Admiral Poindexter’s “Total Information Access” system must be their worst nightmare.
While there is much common ground between authentic conservatives and liberals, there remain significant differences – in particular, regarding distributive shares of national wealth, the role of government, and legitimate constraints upon property rights and free enterprise. But in the face of the present emergency, liberals and authentic conservatives can agree that these disagreements are of secondary importance and that they can and should be discussed once our constitutional and legal order is restored, and with it the possibility of civil and constructive political debate.
The greens also belong in this alliance. Can anyone really contend today that had Ralph Nader directed his Florida supporters to vote for Al Gore, that “everything would be exactly the same?” True, the Greens have legitimate complaints against the Democrats, which by the way I enthusiastically share. But rather than build a viable third party, their better course of action is to “capture” an existing major party – the Democrats. After all, that is what the radical right did to the Republican Party, with appalling success.
Finally, “moderate Republicans” must ask themselves: “where is my greater loyalty – to my party, or to the founding principles of the United States and, coincidentally, the Republican Party?” The “Republican Party” of Lincoln, Eisenhower, Javitts, and Warren is no more. The “moderate republicanism” of yesteryear is somewhat to the left of today’s “New Democrats.” So why the persistent allegiance to a mere name?
Study the Opposition. Let’s face it: the GOP has embraced completely the Vince Lombardi rule of politics: “winning is everything, and the only thing, in politics.” As Florida 2000 showed us, and as Ohio 2004 remindsus, to the GOP, winning is more important than election law, than the citizens’ right to vote and have their ballots counted, than the integrity of the Supreme Court. And in the 2002 election, we learned that it is not beyond the GOP pale to slander the war hero, Max Cleland, by questioning his patriotism, or to make a national political issue of a memorial service for Paul Wellstone.
In short, the GOP style of campaigning has nothing to do with justice or truth, and everything to do with winning. It is methodology drawn, not from political debate, but from market psychology and advertising techniques (polling, focus groups, "motivation research," etc.). They search out the emotional “hot buttons” (e.g., “compassion”), adopt a familiar words and shape them to the party’s advantage (e.g. “conservative”) and mix them into slogans. Voila! “Compassionate conservative.”
In rebuttal, the opposition must keep “scorecards” of the lies, evasions, distortions, and distractions of the GOP and their captive media. The regressives rely on the rapidly revolving “news cycles” and the resulting collective amnesia of the American public. Was the American public betrayed by the ruthless manipulations of GOP operatives in Florida, and by an intervention of five partisan judges? We wait in vain for a measured and relevant response. Instead, "Get over it!” is the reply.
We must never “get over it.” This was a crime that must have no statute of limitations. The entire dismal record of this regime must be noted, recorded, and recounted over and over until, at long last, the public begins to “get it.” For while it is difficult to sustain public attention to an issue, it is not impossible. Witness the eight-year "run" of the bogus "Whitewater scandal" during the Clinton administration.
At the end of the day, the GOP platform is written and carried out by greedy, self-serving bullies and hypocrites, and it is a message caked over with an empty rhetoric of piety, patriotism and “compassion.” It is a message that is phony to the core. Americans, by and large, despise greed, cruelty and hypocrisy. If and when the public at large finally comes to realize the true nature of (so-called) “conservative republicanism,” the entire edifice will collapse of its own inner rottenness – unless, before then, it evolves into a ruthless and repressive totalitarian regime. And that is the great danger before us.
Exploit the Weaknesses. It is high time that we “disenthrall ourselves” of the GOP juggernaut.
True, the Republicans and their supporters are wealthy, and they are powerful. But they are not invincible. As we argued earlier, the GOP agenda is offensive to our moral sense, contrary to our political traditions, and in conflict with scientific knowledge. With all these disqualifications, it is a wonder that the Republican party is as powerful as it is.
These considerations lead us, at last, to the greatest vulnerability of the Bush regime, and the party that installed it: their dogmatism, self-righteousness and arrogance. And because this dogmatism and arrogance casually ignores and acts in contravention of established scientific knowledge and scholarly expertise, this is a regime without a “reality principle” – without a capacity to “return to Earth” and to deal with the real world.
Examples abound and, since we have expounded upon them a length elsewhere, we will let a simple enumeration suffice (with links to our elaborations):
Global warming. The international scientific community is convinced. Bush’s reply is either to ignore it or consign the question to the black hole of “further study.”
The CIA has failed to find any significant link between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda. Donald Rumsfeld’s response, in effect: we have our policy, don’t confuse us with facts.
Missile defense has the support of almost no independent scientists. Worse yet, even if (however improbably) it were to work, there is no prospect whatever that it would ever be needed.
“Supply side economics,” when adopted by Reagan and Bush-I, turned out to be a spectacular failure. Its abandonment by Bill Clinton led to unprecedented prosperity and a federal surplus. Now “supply side” its back and, not surprisingly, with it has come a repetition of the economic malaise suffered during the administration of Bush’s “Dad.”
In short, “science, evidence and expertise be damned, our minds are made up.” Or, as Todd Gitlin puts it, Bush is a man “with a ferocious will who fumbles in search of reasons to explain why he does what he feels like doing.” (The American Prospect, January-February, 2003, p. 37).
Such dogmatism assures that the Bushistas will not be in close touch with the real world. And so, unfortunately for them and perhaps for us too, in the end they will discover that “reality bites.”
Like most dogmatists, if provoked and challenged, the Bushistas will likely dig in and persist with their policies until the untenability of those policies becomes compellingly obvious even to the Bush regime. Then, it will likely be too late for them to effect a remedy. At this point they will be vulnerable. Unfortunately, they might also become dangerous, if despotism becomes the only means to avoid their ouster. Also, the failed policies may provoke military adventures, or ostracism from the international community, or a collapse of the domestic economy. And that would be bad for all of us.
Before the folly of Bushism leads to such catastrophes, the opposition must proceed immediately, with dedication, vigor, and strategic intelligence. And we must amass an alliance of opposition that will become irresistible. However improbably, this alliance must include, not only progressives, liberals, intellectuals, feminists, greens, and labor, but also those who are now allied with the Bush regime: among them, authentic conservatives, publishers and broadcasters, entrepreneurs, and even corporate officers. To all these, and especially the latter, we must ask again and again:
Wherein lies your fundamental loyalty: to your party, or to your country, its constitution, and its founding principles?
Are you helping to bring about the kind of country and world that you would wish yourself, your family, your children and grandchildren, and your posterity to live in?
The Media Factor is arguably the greatest challenge facing the Democrats and the progressive opposition to the Bush administration. I will devote exclusive attention to this daunting issue in the near future.
These are just a few strategic ideas that come to the mind of this political amateur. Surely the pros must have better ideas than these. Which leads to our final and most urgent questions:
Why haven’t the Democrats put these “better ideas” into play?
Why, instead, has the Democratic “opposition” been so servile, so passive, so unimaginative, and thus so vulnerable?
Why have the Democrats allowed themselves to be ‘suckered’ by the GOP?
Why do the Democrats shun their natural allies and imitate their adversaries?
Why do the Republicans seem to have a corner on tactical smarts? (Not, as we have seen, because they have the better issues).
So when are the Democrats going to wise-up and start to play strategically smart hard-ball?
Copyright 2003 by Ernest Partridge
Conscience of a Progressive: A book in progress.
Partridge's Scholarly Publications. (The Online Gadfly)
Dr. Ernest Partridge is a consultant, writer and lecturer in the field of Environmental Ethics and Public Policy. He has taught Philosophy at the University of California, and in Utah, Colorado and Wisconsin. He publishes the website, "The Online Gadfly" and co-edits the progressive website, "The Crisis Papers".