Elections happen very quickly when they come, but they are not won, or indeed lost, simply in the moment of voting. Winning and losing elections is the business of the space between elections. We are in such a space now; and if we are not careful, the business we are now in will prove to be the business of losing.
Why? Because progressive forces in the United States currently face an unusually coherent and assertive conservative opposition — one that cannot readily be pushed back by politics as usual. It can only be restrained by the assertion of an equally cohesive and assertive liberalism. We do not live in an age of consensus. We live in an age of profound ideological disagreement. The kind of conservatism currently on offer in Washington DC is built upon a qualitatively different view of the role of government to that prevalent in liberal circles. Because it is, the arrival of so many Tea Party-influenced Republicans in Congress precludes any possibility of meaningful bipartisan politics there. Meaningful bipartisanship is not possible between competing ideological positions because what is at stake in the conversation between them is not just the detail of policy. What is at stake is the entire relationship between the public and the private in America’s future. The way to win the progressive case in the context of ideological differences of this sharpness is not to deny the fundamental disagreements in play. It is to make a more powerful case than that of our conservative opponents, the better to win genuine and large-scale support for the creation of a future that we think worth winning.
Ideas and framing are therefore critical at such moments of ideological rancor, as the more intelligent of our political opponents know only too well. This month’s offerings from the Conservative Book Club, for example, includes three new attempts at a right-wing framing of the problems and politics currently before us: a new volume by Mike Huckabee entitled A Simple Government; one from Thomas E. Wood Jr., Rollback: Repealing Big Government Before The Coming Fiscal Crisis; and a third from Rand Paul, The Tea Party Goes to Washington. In each of them, the conventional wisdom of the conservative rank and file are everywhere center-stage: that federal spending is the single major source of our problems, rather than a crucial part of any civilized solution to them; that federal spending is too high, and that it and taxes must be cut; that public sector unions are holding the states to ransom and must be brought to heal; that Social Security must be pruned back and health care reform reversed; that the federal reserve system should be abolished, and that an older Constitutional balance between states and the federal government must be restored.
Conventional wisdom of this kind, so extensively canvassed by a richly-supported conservative media machine, must inevitably become the dominant understandings of the day unless they are challenged with equal potency by a conventional wisdom of the Left. Indeed, they are rapidly becoming the conventional wisdoms of the day. E.J. Dionne is quite right: for all the fun poked at them by liberal commentators, the reality on the ground is that “the Tea Party is winning” command of the political agenda, and that more progressive voices, not least that of the President, are currently “in danger of losing control of the national narrative again.” Given the imbalance of resources between conservative and liberal causes in this country, that loss of control is always a potential reality.
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