10/08/2010 12:53 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Repubs Winning, Dems Whining

One day back when record stores still towered above the Earth, I was browsing at Virgin and ran into someone I'd fired from a company I used to run. Figuring bygones were by now bygones, I smiled and said "Hi." With the timing of a master conductor, she growled, "I hope you rot in hell" and stormed away.

My first thought was, "What a jerk. She's lucky I didn't fire her ages ago." Then, flashing on how insecure I'd felt when I was later fired from that same company, I realized, standing in the New Releases section of that Virgin store, that perhaps the main difference between us was that I didn't have the guts to tell my boss I hoped he'd rot in hell.

Being unemployed, underemployed or just being unable to pay our bills -- or fear of same -- tends to bring out the worst in us. So it's no surprise that the decimation of the middle class -- beginning, some say, in the early '70s and accelerating right before our eyes -- has the animal part of our brains shifting into fifth gear.

The fact that poverty soars and the gap between rich and poor widens while the Dow posts its most successful September since 1939 -- corporations are booming! -- only stokes the anger.

Neither political party has offered a rational plan to get out of this mess, but since the Dems are nominally in control -- the Republican filibuster guarantees gridlock -- the GOP is poised for massive gains in next month's mid-term elections.

As usual, most Dems are terrified to campaign on even a mildly progressive agenda, so what little debate this fact-free environment allows pretty much ranges from the center to the hard Right to the delusional Right.

Many Repubs and Tea Partyers bask in their issue-free campaigns, betting that the distemper of the electorate will carry them through. When they do venture out to talk policy, they float such anti-middle class proposals as eliminating the federal minimum wage because it's not in the Constitution; paying our workers less and destroying environmental regulations in the name of Globalization; paying even less to teens for equal work; cutting social security benefits for anyone not presently collecting it; upping the retirement age; privatizing social security; eliminating federal disability benefits; eliminating Medicare along with "Obamacare"; and gutting government "social services" expenses to pay for tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires. (Hat tip to Bob Adels.)

Of course, the real Tea Party/Republican agenda is masked by such catch phrases as "big government," "creeping socialism," or even "communism": rage acts like a spark, arcing between the two conductors of personal anxiety and obscene public policy proposals. Right about now, many Americans feel reduced to hoping their political enemies rot in hell.

That a progressive agenda is miles ahead of anything the Right has to offer the non-rich, especially during crisis times like these, ought to be obvious. But as Thomas Frank argued in his 2005 book What's the Matter with Kansas?, the Right's genius for manipulating people's sense of grievance -- combined with liberals' weak brew of tepid policy proposals and corporate coziness -- leads ordinary voters to cast their ballots against their own economic interests time and time again.

So, for instance, Republican support for corporate farming destroys rural communities, which allows the Right to harvest the rural rage by blaming immigrants (or liberals, academics or lesbians) for the decline of Midwestern values.

Rachel Maddow has been hammering away at Dems to run hard on health care, further financial stimulus and liberal social issues -- and pointing out several who've gotten more aggressive. She's a bit naïve -- in some races, this would be disastrous. But in scores of others it may be the only way to get trailing candidates back in the game.

January's Supreme Court Citizens United ruling allowing unlimited corporate campaign contributions -- with new revelations daily about mysterious primary funding sources -- no doubt contributes to the "enthusiasm gap" between Democrats and progressives and their well-heeled conservative opponents. If progressives don't ratchet up the grass-roots pressure on Obama and the Dems to shake their own fears and push for bold economic and social reforms, Thomas Franks will turn out to be more prescient than even he may have imagined.

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