As autumn descends on the nation's capital, I guess you could say there's a darkness on the edge of town. It's born of the fear, pessimism and uncertainty which have become the Republican political brand. And if the polls are right, there's every chance that it will fall upon Capitol Hill and envelop both Houses of Congress.
Here Comes the Night
This onrush of conservative gloom was featured prominently this week in the New York Times, in language so shadow-haunted it could've come straight from the pen of the 1980s-era Springsteen.
"Darkness is enveloping American politics." That was the first sentence in an article entitled "Cry of GOP in Campaign: All is Dismal," which lays out the GOP strategy in all its ghoulishness.
The signs of darkness are everywhere. Lindsay Graham says we have to stop ISIS "before we all get killed here at home." Republican pundits and politicians speculate on the possibility that Ebola will mutate and cause millions of deaths. "Evil forces around the world want to harm Americans every day," says an ad meant to make voters frightened of illegal immigration.
Day in and day out, the Republican drumbeat of horror and fear continues. The new Republican campaign mantra seems to be "It's midnight again in America."
In campaign ads, on Fox "News," and in speeches around the country, Republicans are laying out visions of America that sound more like scary campfire stories. Your next cough could be a sign of your imminent, eye-bleeding doom. Scimitar-wielding Islamists in black hoods are just a few blocks away from the local 7-11, where they'll murder a few shoppers, veil the women, and forbid us from buying Lotto tickets or cigarettes. And a blundering Secret Service will soon bring on a catastrophic fate for the President.
That last one is a particularly puzzling concern, given the GOP's penchant for hinting that Obama isn't a legitimate president in the first place. But there is the hint of an outline behind the remaining menu of dangers we're being offered this year: A Muslim threat. A cross-border threat. An African threat. Each represents something the Right has tried to associate with Democrats in general and this (supposedly Kenyan, Muslim, foreign-born) president in particular.
In a year when "protest votes" against the incumbent president can be decisive, what better way to stir up their own base than to tell them that they're taking over? Sure, it's a racist strategy, but that doesn't mean it's not working.
Thomas Carlyle called economics "the dismal science." But then,he never met a GOP campaign consultant.
The Only Thing We Have to Fear
The question is, What are Democrats doing about it? If the Republicans excel at sowing fear, the Democrats have often shown a gift for optimism. "Yes We Can." The "audacity of hope." Before that it was the "Great Society" and the "New Frontier," visions of a nation which can overcome any obstacle and reach any goal.
FDR, the prototype of the ideal Democrat, coined a phrase that would provide the perfect counter to the GOP's shadow-haunted campaign: "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself."
Where are those Democrats in this year's campaign?
The Republicans have unified around their Stygian themes of despair and terror. But Democrats seem divided, scattered, fending for themselves. Worried by the President's low job approval and lacking a unifying theme of their own, many candidates are emphasizing local issues and their own personal qualities instead.
The Art of Warren
The greatest exception to that rule is Sen. Elizabeth Warren. The Massachusetts progressive has been asked to campaign in 14 separate races this year, according to one count. There's a reason for that. In addition to her own relentless optimism and seemingly boundless store of cheer and energy, Warren has a message which resonates: The game is rigged.
That may not sound optimistic or positive, but it is. People know they're being cheated. They know that the big banks are above the law. They know that unemployment and under-employment are still high and that their wages keep falling, even as corporations and the ultra-wealthy get richer and richer. They know the game is rigged. They just don't hear anybody in politics talking about it.
That's why Elizabeth Warren energizes voters. People understand that you can't cure something until you've given it the proper diagnosis. They also know that Warren and a handful of other progressives are also offering cures. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau which Warren created is one. So are the regulatory reforms and Big Bank breakups she and other Senators are advocating.
Student debt relief is an urgently-needed cure. So is the expansion of Social Security benefits which she and other Senators have endorsed. And so are the millionaire taxes and increased estate taxes proposed by Bernie Sanders.
A Winning Agenda
There's a word for this agenda. It's called "economic populism," and it's extremely popular. The polls are clear: Voters in all age groups, across party lines, overwhelmingly support the populist agenda, whether it's expanding Social Security, raising the minimum wage, taxing millionaires, or reining in the big banks. (See this essay and PopulistMajority.org for more on the public's populist opinions. Pollster Celinda Lake discusses her findings on Social Security in greater detail here.)
So why aren't Democrats pushing it? That's a hard question to answer. It's true that President Obama has too often offered the wrong rhetoric. Encouraged by Bill Clinton and other corporate-friendly "centrists," he placed too much emphasis on the national deficit, which is now falling but for which (as progressives warned) there will be no reward at the polls. The reason for that is simple: voters, like most economists, believe that pulling the economy out of a slump is more urgent than addressing the national debt.
In addition, it's likely that some politicians have been influenced by the corrupting power of "dark money." But that's far from the entire story. A far bigger problem is the fact that populist opinions have been marginalized as "far left" inside the Washington Beltway, despite the fact that many of them are held by large majorities of Republican as well as Democratic voters. As a result, politicians who could run and win on populist themes are hewing instead to unpopular (and mislabeled) "centrist" themes. As a result, some of them will probably lose in November.
Shine a Light
It's clear that Dems need to do something. A recent Gallup poll showed low voter engagement, coupled with higher turnout expectations for the GOP base. That spells trouble for a number of Democratic races. A populist agenda could excite key elements of the Democratic constituency, while at the same time luring independents and a few persuadable Republicans.
If you see a Democratic political consultant, tell 'em: There's a darkness on the edge of town. But also be sure to remind them that there's a light which can dispel that darkness. It's called "populism," and it's exactly what their party needs to save itself in November.