Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Call Out the Fire Brigades: The DNC, Town Hall Thugs, and Progressive Bloggers

Jeffrey Feldman has important advice for the Democratic party, vis-a-vis the health care reform process. Feldman specializes in analyzing the kind of rhetoric that moves people, in processes of political reform. His 2007 book Framing the Debate argues that, if the progressive movement wants to gain people's attention and motivate them, it needs to shift from cool, rational terminology to engaged, emotive frames for political analysis.

It needs to do, in other words, what the right has done adroitly for some time now. It needs to stop yielding terms like "moral," or "family," or "compassion" to the right, and begin claiming those terms for itself, using them to frame national discussion. As Feldman notes, in the health care debates, the Democratic National Party should be telling stories of how lack of health care coverage affects individuals and families. It should be speaking with passion, not in dispassionate statistical terms.

Feldman offers Democratic strategists a list of point-by-point suggestions about how to accomplish that broad goal. These include the following:

Fourth, Democrats need to enlist and energize the grassroots of their party. After the election, the Obama campaign left one of the greatest legacies in political history: hundreds of thousands of Americans centrally organized via the internet and willing to turn out to push for real change. These people need to be mobilized with the same passionate arguments that got them to turn out to walk door-to-door in cold weather to elect a President.

But there's the rub. I noted (here and here) back in May how the penchant of this administration for cool, calculating pragmatic deliberation and consultation, rather than engaged, morally driven action for political change, was undermining its effectiveness. I noted that the energy of many of us who had been among the new president's most passionately committed supporters was waning, as he stalled, back-stepped, and did not move forward to fulfill his campaign promises.

I have noted on this thread the persistent tendency of the Democratic party to take its progressive supporters for granted. We are welcome during election cycles. We're encouraged to speak out, to blog, to bring in the vote.

But having helped our candidate win, we're then told that we're not welcome at the table, that our expectation of substantive progressive change is naive. We're told to stop pressing for change and to keep quiet. Post-election, when our blogging centers on calling those we've elected to accountability, we're told that it has become problematic, a challenge for the administration to overcome rather than a valued ally in the movement for progressive change.

As a result, now, when our passion is needed again in the health care debate, when the administration is facing angry crowds organized by powerful, wealthy interest groups intent on blocking health care reform, when our energy could do much to move the reform process forward, many of us are simply no longer available. One can be told only so often that she or he is not wanted.

I agree with Feldman. The Democratic party would be wise to enlist and energize its grassroots, which--outside the moribund circles of power in D.C.--are generally progressive. But if it expects us to keep on speaking out, it has to find ways to assure us that our voices count, period--not just when more hands are needed to douse the fires of the right.

Moral imperatives just don't come and go, as it becomes expedient to attend to them (or, more to the point, to ignore them). For many of us, they remain powerfully important even after election promises have been made and election cycles are over.