For 2012, Democrats need to recapture fun from the right.
Despite the grim nature of the extended "jobless recovery," reverberating declarations of the need for cuts and sacrifice, and the depression-inducing depths of gray February, America is primed for a return to fun. The natural condition of a recession is individual restraint and caution. But as the third law of political motion holds, an equal and opposite reaction is rising. As the economy recovers, the natural desire of people will be to emerge from the gloom, looking for enjoyment and feeling a bit rambunctious. The political party that best reflects this desire will be rewarded in 2012.
Since their banner victories in 2008, Democrats have lost touch with these themes. Obama and Democrats swept to victory in a movement that was admittedly vague, but undeniably optimistic and fun. Taking the reins of government during a recession quickly buried the poetic language of the 2008 campaign in the plodding prose of bureaucratic reform. In short, in 2008 Obama fought against "the man," by 2010 he was "the man." Enter the tea party, admittedly vague and contradictory, but undeniably rebellious and fun. I mean, what's more fun than packing heat at an anti-Obama rally, carrying a sign depicting Obama as the Joker with a misspelled caption equating him with Hitler, while dressed in a Paul Revere costume?
Tapping into the anger and fear of folks hitting the bottom of long recession, Republicans capitalized for a sweeping midterm reversal. But these victories haven't salved the raw feelings of Americans. One measure of the low mood of the country is the fact that more Americans believe that our best days are behind us, rather than ahead of us. Another is the incredibly low 27% who believe "America on the right track." The mood of the American body politic at the end of a long recession is a paradox. We want better, but don't know how to get it. We don't trust "the man." We believe that government and Wall Street are conspiring to maximize profits at our expense. And despite all this, two of three among us believe America is a fair and decent place.
In the wake of their midterm victory, the policy prescriptions of Republicans are deep cuts to programs that are the centerpieces of American economic mobility and security. The State of the Union address was depressing enough, but the Republican response from Rep. Galt, er, Rep. Munster, uh, Rep. Ryan was enough to drive most into a deep state of despondency.
Austerity is not fun. Americans are willing to defer gratification, but not indefinitely. Once it's apparent that the sacrifices that Republicans are calling for will be borne by the same middle class that's been slammed by the recession, the game will shift. If there are two times in American life that are supposed to be fun, they are college and retirement. Both are squarely in the sights of budget hawks, who think we can no longer afford to provide health care and a minimum of retirement security to anyone under the age of 55. Higher education has been one of the first targets of machete-wielding Minnesota Republican leaders.
The Republican narrative is of an America waking up from a wild spending bender with a big hangover. In other words, we've just been having too much fun, and now's the time for the sour task of cutting back. For middle-class Americans this is the opposite of their lived experience. Over a decade of static or shrinking paychecks despite more hours worked, a collapse in confidence in homeownership and retirement savings, rising energy costs - these are the underlying causes of middle-class melancholy.
So far, the middle class has internalized the calls for sacrifice, but it can't go on indefinitely. It never does. Americans have never truly embraced austerity, whether it's in the form of President Carter's sweaters or Rep. Ryan's Roadmap. This is not a call for profligate spending, but for Democrats to lighten the mood and let Republicans obsess over doom and gloom. It's a call for reasonable solutions to the long-term stability of the Social Security system as opposed to gutting it. Above all, it means articulating a vision of a better America, a better Minnesota, against a sad narrative of inevitable decline.
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