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The Road To a New Progressive Narrative, Part Three: White House Shameless in the Rust Belt

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With no sign of chagrin, President Obama and Vice-President Biden paused briefly in Kokomo, Indiana on Tuesday, November 23, 2010 to magnify the success of the Recovery and Reinvestment Act. This visit is likely to further aggravate the un- and under-employed throughout the Rust Belt. Obama's administration appears to have learned little since its demoralizing election defeat.

However, Obama and Biden do have something to brag about. With the aid of $89 million from a Recovery Act grant, Chrysler has diverted $300 million dollars to retain more than 1000 workers this year at a Kokomo transmission plant. Unemployment in this Indiana town has fallen from a high of 20.4 percent in June 2009 to a vastly improved, but still not praiseworthy, 12.7 percent.

The Understandably Wary Working Class

Many Americans are suspicious of positive economic news. To Indiana's working class, Obama and Biden seem like students drawing attention to the lone A on a report card otherwise littered with Fs. Residents in towns from Gary to Evansville hesitate to cheer for jobs that can vanish without notice. They became victims when corporations shuttered factories and shuttled jobs to Mexico in the wake of NAFTA. Today, the state is a veritable wasteland of low-paying retail and service sector jobs.

Somehow, America's eviscerated working class hobbles onward. The first decade of this century saw the culmination of trade and economic policies that led to wholesale rape and pillage: The gap between the wealthiest and the poorest Americans grew substantially while the growing financialization of America's economy catapulted consumer debt from $355 billion in 1980 to a staggering $2.5 trillion in 2009.

That said, Obama's policies have spurred economic growth, and Americans have begun to dig themselves out of this mountain of consumer debt. However, the tangible results of Obama's policies will not be felt in American homes for some time. Meanwhile, Republicans garner public support by complaining that the recovery is a fiction and that the administration's economic policies are dangerous. How can Obama and progressives overcome these talking points and reconnect with embittered Rust Belt voters who are integral to a 2012 victory?

A New Narrative and Symbolic Acts

For two years, the administration and progressives have tried to foment populist outrage against corporations, wealthy Americans, and Wall Street. Republicans seized on this to cast Democrats' populism as anti-Capitalist, and hence, a root cause of the economic malaise. Consequently, Republicans have been able to convincingly argue that the Obama administration is a direct threat to working families.

To combat this, Progressives must acknowledge, appreciate, and appeal to the experiences and motivations of these voters.

First, class arguments are ineffective -- even destructive -- because most Americans want to become "rich." To tax or criticize the wealthy is to tax and criticize the daydreams of the working class.

Second, vilifying corporations and Wall Street alienates voters. Most Americans work for corporations and know that Wall Street success could one day enable their retirement.

Third, cultural and religious beliefs are sacrosanct to those who hold them. Many feel that government intrusion threatens their beliefs and cultural practices. As the Tea Party's victories demonstrate, today's spurned and excluded constituency becomes the demographic vital to tomorrow's electoral success.

If they wish to remain in power, Democrats and their progressive supporters must visibly demonstrate a shift in tone and tact.

Step 1: Admit Mistakes and Indict Culprits

Narrative: Publicly admit that the federal government has been complicit and short-sighted by allowing irresponsible corporations to exploit and abuse the American family and undermine the American economy.

Symbolic Act: Fire Goldman Sach's employees from key positions at the Federal Reserve and indict corporate officials who brought America's economy to the brink of a Depression. Americans want to see individuals held accountable for the suffering of their families.

Step 2: Ask Citizens to Help Police Corporations and the Government

Narrative: Explain that corporations, like children, must learn how to become good citizens. The government has behaved like a parent who fails to discipline his/her child, and as a result, the nation's corporate children have run wild--making credit default swaps, destroying our coasts with oil, et cetera. Remind the American people that they have a duty and an obligation to help the government become better parents so that our corporations can become better citizens.

Symbolic Act: Progressives should provide and promote outlets where all citizens can publicly shame corporations and the government when necessary.

Step 3: Praise Good Corporations and Reward Them Financially

Narrative: Underscore how corporations (small businesses, local, national, multi-national) have created an era of prosperity for the American people unparalleled in human history. Rather than characterizing corporations as inherently bad and voicing outrage at inequities present throughout our system, hold up particular corporations as model citizens.

Symbolic Act: Legislate benefits to those corporations that keep jobs in America, pay adequate wages, offer good benefits, and serve their local communities. Praise the good. Shame and regulate the bad.

Republicans may have temporarily articulated the frustration of Americans better than Progressives have. However, McConnell and Boehnner's daily rhetorical gymnastics underscore that they are long on platitudes and short on solutions.

If nothing changes in the tenor of American political discourse, Rust Belt Americans will quickly become disillusioned and their fury will live on. A century ago, a similar passion as that which has propelled Tea Party candidates to power was effectively channeled by American Socialist leaders to lobby for an eight-hour work day, higher wages, and protections for all laborers. Today, it remains unclear who will ultimately harness this fury and to what end will it be harnessed.