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David Sirota

David Sirota

Posted: January 19, 2010 09:44 PM

It's Not Mere Cynicism or Demoralization - More Likely, It's Humiliation and Alienation

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Let me interject something in the midst of all the finger-pointing about the unfortunate results of the Massachusetts senate race tonight - something that I think has been missed in all the media punditry, activist Twittering and netroots blogging.

Various polls (here and here, as examples) have shown that a good chunk of the opposition to and/or frustration with the health care bill that played such a central role in the Massachusetts race comes from a progressive perspective - namely, a perspective that says the bill doesn't go far enough. How much that precise kind of opposition/frustration played a role in the Massachusetts race is anyone's guess - but among those that it did, my guess is that the feelings of demoralization are particularly intense, because those feelings are rooted in the most powerful emotion of all: humiliation.

After a 2008 campaign that saw Democrats promise to genuinely take on the health care and financial industries, we've seen a 2009 that has asked Democratic voters to fight for extremely small, extremely modest scraps. We've been relegated to having to mount fierce campaigns to keep things like the public option in the debate and not to stop trillion-dollar bailouts - but just make sure they have one or two flimsy strings attached to them.

We've loyally mounted these campaigns. They haven't been fun, and worse, they haven't been legislatively successful (at least not yet). But beyond the substantive failure is the embarrassment that comes with even having to mount such campaigns in the first place.

There is something deeply embarrassing about Democratic voters/groups having to fight with Democratic leaders to get those leaders to even seriously try (much less pass) even the smallest, most modest shreds of their promises. Having to do that evokes feelings of genuine shame - shame in front of the other voters we told to vote for Democrats because it supposedly "mattered," and shame when we look in the mirror at a self that may have allowed itself to be unnecessarily duped.

I feel this sense of humiliation every day I am talking to regular folks here in Colorado on the radio. As a single-payer guy, I feel embarrassed that I've been relegated to fighting for the fulfillment of as modest a campaign promise as the public option. Likewise, as a person who opposed the bailouts from the get-go, I feel embarrassed to be relegated to simply asking for a bit of transparency and regulation from a party that promised tough New Deal-like measures against Wall Street. And my guess is that - whether consciously or not - many people who voted for Democrats in 2008 feel that same sense of shame as well.

Again, I don't know if this deep sense of humiliation is what drove down Democratic performance in Massachusetts tonight, or is driving down President Obama's numbers as a whole. But my bet is it has at least something to do with it, especially because the 2008 campaign had so much to do with raising people's expectations.

That wasn't a normal election - many of us who had stopped believing in the possibilities of American democracy said we'd be willing to believe one last time. And now, seeing that perhaps we shouldn't have relented in our (rightful) cynicism, we are completely mortified.

Undoubtedly, Democrats and progressive media will attempt to make us ignore these feelings of humiliation by simply vilifying the extremism of Republicans (predictably, we are already seeing this rather pathetic tactic from various Democratic voices - save the always honest Howard Dean - on television tonight). And it is all but guaranteed that in typical blame-the-victim fashion, some lockstep Democratic activists and Obama supporters will find a way to blame progressives - rather than the politicians who broke their progressive promises - for the Massachusetts loss and the Democratic Party's flagging poll numbers. Those are the tried and true formulas to stir up the base and manufacture a supposed "united front."

But I don't know if it will work this time, unless it is coupled with - finally - a serious effort by Democratic lawmakers to legislate their promises. And even then, I still don't know if it will work. I don't know because maybe it's too little, too late - maybe the humiliation has already transformed cynicism into total and complete alienation.