Life Sentence

Random thoughts about publishing, stamp collecting, politics, popular music of the 60s and 70s, mooses, and my motley other obsessions.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005


This is in response to something on This Crazy Industry. Read the "A Flotsam's-Eye View" posting, then the comments to it. Rather than respond at length there to the first comment, I thought it more courteous to post a link there and the reply here.

It's not like past years when (say) Reagan or Bush Sr. were in office, when their policies might be wrongheaded but at least you knew they wouldn't be in office forever. Since before the first inaugural, Bush & Co. have been acting like they don't expect that they and their buddies will ever go out of power. They're going after long-term control, and they're going after it in a coordinated fashion.

It would be difficult to find a political party in power -- or a major party trying to get into power -- that hasn't functioned that way. Politicians in power try to hold onto that power or pass it onto chosen successors. They try to alter both the political landscape and the rules of the game to make it more likely for their power to continue. That is, they go after long-term control. When they do so successfully, that control can last for generations. (Check out the histories of the Canadian and Australian Liberal parties to see how successfully it can be done.)

Ballot tampering has been a major multi-year project. Another project has been putting heavy pressure on established lobbying concerns, threatening them with zero cooperation -- which is death to lobbyists -- if they don't get rid of or refuse to hire lobbyists who aren't right-wingers. That'll be a lasting change. And right now they're threatening to do away with the Senate filibuster -- a very startling change -- so that it can't be used to hold up the appointments of a raft of scarily evil-minded ideologue judges.

Ballot tampering has a long, disreputable history, and it follows a pretty familiar pattern. (Yes, the "good guys" have been known to do it too. Think Boston and Chicago.) To make the discussion unpartisan, think of two parties, the Ins (the party currently in the ascendency) and the Outs (the party that has recently tended to lose).

The Ins tend to use their power to maintain their hold on power. They manipulate electoral boundaries -- for example, see how the electoral boundaries in Canada follow seemingly illogical paths, ignoring natual neighbourhoods. The boundaries are designed solely to maximize the number of seats won by the Liberal Party. The Ins also manipulate the voting process. Pay attention to where people have to join long lines to vote, and where they walk right up with no lines. Voters in the Out areas line up. Voters in In neighbourhoods don't have to. And in some cases the Ins manipulate the vote-counting process. That's been measured in simple ways. For example, more votes tend to get rejected by officials in In-controlled areas than in Out-controlled areas. The vote tampering in recent US elections is vile but it is hardly unprecedented.

And yes, politicians tend to hire their own, and tend to not co-operate with the other guys. The whole point is lasting change -- making sure the Outs stay out.

Go google up "astroturf" plus "social security" or "tort reform" to see how long they've been going after some of their pet issues, how much big-money backing they've had, and how comprehensively they've been lying to their Joe Average supporters.

Yep. The Republicans been really focussed and really organized. The Democrats have been neither, and it has hurt them. The Republicans have been better at staying focussed on a smallish number of manageable issues, ones that will make a long-term difference. They've lined up lots of support and money for those issues. And yes, they've lied to their supporters. Republicans lie. It is part of the political landscape. In Canada and Australia, Liberals lie. (In Canada, the Conservatives lied too, during their brief ascendency.)

The Republicans have been more organized at identifying their supporters, giving them reasons to vote, and making sure they get out and vote. The Democrats' relative disorganization hurt them in 2004. A couple of my political hack friends from Canada went down to help the Democrats in 2004, and came back complaining that the Dems weren't sure who their voters were, and were ineffectual at getting them out to vote. The Republican organization was like a Ferrari compared to Democrats' Ford Pinto.

The Democrats need to get down to basics: identifying their voters; knowing what will motivate them to get out and vote, and making sure every one of them does so; and getting control of every possible elected local position, both to start to get some control of local voting offices, but more importantly to start the careers of the next generation of politicians. Way too many local governments are in Republican hands.

That takes money. The Democrats have been catching up to the Republicans in fundraising, but they still have far to go. The Center for Responsive Government site has lots of info on fundraising, and if you compare 2000, 2002 and 2004, you can see the Democrats catching up. But they are still quite a way behind.

The Democrats are also missing the boat on another fundamental level of politics. Most people vote not on real issues but on symbolic ones. And the Republicans have been defining the symbols of US politics for a generation now.

I wish I could get the Democrats en masse to read the works of Murray J. Edelman. Edelman showed how politicians manipulate symbols to get voters onside. In another series of papers, he showed how they use vocabulary to manipulate the political landscape. (Iraqi "insurgents," anyone?)

The Democrats have powerful ammunition against this Republican regime. They need to focus their approach -- get the public using their vocabulary, not the Republicans' vocabulary, and get them thinking in terms of symbols the Democrats define, not the ones the Republicans have created.

At the moment, the Democrats are thinking like losers, looking like losers, and for the most part losing. Yes, Bernie Sanders' speech at BookExpo was brilliant. I was moved and motivated by it, and was on my feet applauding as soon as he was done. But think about his message: we need to rally all of our forces to be able to perhaps change one part of the Patriot Act? All that is in our power, if we try as hard as we can, is to change one part of one bill? And the Republicans are so powerful that they will get the rest of it through -- and they'll probably steal away our victory even if we do get that one part changed? What does that say about the power balance in Washington? Republicans = all-powerful; Democrats = pathetic (if well-motivated) wimps.

Al Franken hit a different nerve with his schtick on liars -- and I think that's one place where the Republicans are vulnerable. Bush came to power determined to find a reason, any reason, to go after Saddam Hussein. Rather than focussing on making sure 9-11 never happened again, he lied to the American people and went after Saddam rather than after the perpetrators. Bush used 9-11 as an excuse to even an old score. Isn't that pretty fundamentally betraying the people who died that day? How hard can it be to get that message across to the American people? And how rarely has it actually been presented to them that baldly?

But the target, from here in, can't be Bush. He's a lame duck. The criticism has to be focussed on those around him as a group, to discredit them all. It won't be Bush running for president next time.

Basically, these guys don't believe in democracy or the Constitution. I'm not sure they even believe in the social contract. I keep telling my friends who live outside the States that what's happening is nothing they've seen before. I'm telling you the same thing now.

Well yes, of course. But we've seen it before. I've lived through it before. Think Richard Nixon -- who was brought down, in the end, by his lies. That's the way to bring these guys down too. But you can only do so by being fanatically, dogmatically focussed. Al Franken is showing us their vulnerable spot, but he's going off like a catherine wheel, spraying accusations at too many targets -- and mostly at other journalists. That won't work; it never does. The attack has to be focussed, in terms of who is being attacked and in terms of concentrating on a small number of especially vulnerable points.


At 11:17 a.m., June 21, 2005, Blogger jennie said...

O.k., I have only one quibble, for the moment. There's a lot here, and I may have more later:

Pay attention to where people have to join long lines to vote, and where they walk right up with no lines. Voters in the Out areas line up. Voters in In neighbourhoods don't have to.

I'm in an Out area—everyone knew the Lib. candidate was a no-go in my riding. Everyone knew the NDP guy would have to be caught on National TV lounging around on piles of unfairly awarded government contracts and registered firearms, and shoplifted Swiss watches, naked, being rubbed down with kittens dipped in petroleum jelly, while shouting "Vive le Quebec libre! Down with Rosedale and all the little dogs!" in order to lose that riding.

I live in the most NDP-favourable part of that riding. And I waltzed right into my polling station, which is located about thirty steps from my house, right by the local shopping centre, showed my ID, and placed my ballot in about fifteen minutes.

So I realise one person doesn't make a statistical universe, and that my riding had been a Liberal one before. So maybe we were treated like and In riding. And I'm an urban voter, which makes many things easier for me. But the Libs would have to have been stupider than a box of hammers not to know which way things were going to go, and they didn't make it at all difficult for me to vote.

At 9:03 p.m., June 22, 2005, Blogger Greg said...

You're right -- I sort of said it backwards. What I meant was: if you see a long line of voters, you can be certain they are voting for the Outs.


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