Wednesday, April 21, 2004

This Ain't No Soundbite 

Rabbi Michael Lerner has put together an excellent, interesting analysis of both the democrats' hamstrung approach to defeating Bush and the mainstream media's dismissal of supposedly 'unelectable' candidates, before the electorate ever gets to hear from those candidates.

That media 'savvy' creates a vicious cycle, in which progressive candidates are ignored now because they have been in the past. The resulting search for electability weeds out even relatively moderate candidates like Howard Dean (whose alleged anger about Bush made for an 'unelectable' candidacy), and pushes toward the 'political center' occupied by such relatively milktoast politicians as John Kerry.

Now, now, calm down. If you who think this is Kerry-bashing and thus aid to the enemy, give this a read. (It's a long one.) Rabbi Lerner is stepping back and examining a potentially fatal flaw in the progressive approach to this election.

Anyone But Bush?: The Unbearable Lightness of Liberal Politics

"Anyone But Bush" is a slogan based in fear and in the past, rather than a vision for the future.

Yet, instead of speaking to the deep yearning of Americans for a world of kindness and generosity, for moral goodness and spiritual coherence, the Democrats and their supporters have generated (or some might say capitulated to a media-generated) language of technocratic practicality that will dissipate the very support they so desperately seek in the elections of 2004.

The fact is that you cannot win Americans over to an alternative to the radical ideology of the neoconservative Right that has been the foundation of the Bushites' success by providing them with a variety of cautious half-measures lacking any coherent intellectual foundation or vision. The unbearable lightness of the Democrats—their inability to stand for anything at all—has been with us since the 1990s, when Congressional Democrats were unable to construct a liberal or progressive alternative to Gingrich's very effective (though from our standpoint reprehensible) "Contract with America," which boosted Congressional Republicans to majority status in the 1994 elections. Even in 2002 those Democrats managed to take a perfect moment for re-ascendancy and present themselves as the party that had no unifying theme or message.

It was in reaction to that unbearable lightness that many people became excited about the candidacy of Howard Dean. Because he opposed the Iraq war consistently from before it had begun, Dean seemed to be the one candidate who had the antiwar understanding and backbone to challenge the Republicans. Other Democrats pointed out that Dennis Kucinich, Carol Moseley Braun, and Al Sharpton all had these same characteristics—that they too had opposed the war consistently and that they had a considerably deeper understanding of the problems facing the country. Yet, when the media told us that Dennis Kucinich, Al Sharpton, and Carol Moseley Braun were not electable, and that therefore we should stop listening to them, many liberals and progressives did. In fact, the media guaranteed that the non-internet–literate crowd would stop listening to them by simply refusing to report what they said. When, after an eight or nine-person presidential debate, the New York Times, Newsweek, and other media reported only what the candidates they deemed electable were saying, liberals and progressives went along with this because there was no point in fighting to hear the words of the unelectable.

That put most liberals and progressives in the camp of Dean, who had creatively used the Internet in the early buildup to the primaries to avoid these dynamics, until in the two months before the Iowa primary the mainstream media began talking about Dean's alleged angry (and hence unelectable) personality. Once Iowa and New Hampshire voters had been convinced that anger at Bush's policies was somehow a character flaw that would block electability, they responded to the call of Anyone But Bush by voting for candidates that the media had made electable. Distorted by constant replay, Dean's concession speech in Iowa took on the appearance of a (now-famous) self-destructive primal scream or yelp, as the media proceeded to do to Dean what it had been doing to Kucinich et al. Suddenly Kerry became the favorite because of media-generated electability. Many progressives and liberals then felt they had no choice but to jump on board with Kerry despite his vote for the war. Perhaps they privately revived fantasies that his days as chair of Vietnam Vets Against the War in the early 1970s might play some role in his consciousness should he ever become president.

If we are trying to decide whether a candidate believes in a coherent worldview that coincides with our own deepest ethical and spiritual truths, we can make that determination ourselves by listening to what they say and have said and done in their public lives. But if we are trying to decide whether they are electable, we give the power to the media and the pollsters to tell us who we should be backing. The result is that many of the candidates who most closely represent the American people's highest ideals can be pushed out of the race, opening up the way for a candidate who fulfills the ideals of those who own and control the media.


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