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WHO STOLE THE SOUL: Defining the battle for the "soul of the party" for FL Dems

WHO STOLE THE SOUL: Defining the battle for the "soul of the party"
by Brook Hines | nashville_brook


It’s been said of Florida’s highest-profile 2016 Democratic primary races, that they’re battles for the soul of the party. It’s strange nomenclature, even if on the the face it seems clear cut. It’s not obvious what the party’s soul actually is, what it looks like, or how we’d know if was won or lost. Regardless of how vague and ambiguous it is, “The Battle For The Soul of the Party” (BFSP) is compelling. You don’t want to miss a moment of this action, which will continue on for the next eight months, and beyond.

There are certain assumptions that can’t be avoided in this scenario. Even though it’s not made explicit, it’s implied that there’s one candidate who represents The People (the soul) and one candidate who doesn’t. So the BFSP is an epic battle of the little guy trying to win against all odds against the forces of evil. It’s classic comic book stuff.

Political campaigns speak the language of symbols, and the most basic of symbolic gestures is the binary opposition: good or bad, left or right. According to the BFSP metaphor we’ve added a new one: The People or The Party. Everyone wants you to think they represent The People and not the Powers That Be. Thankfully there are voting records and public statements to help us decipher who is on the side of The People and who isn’t.

Writing in The Nation, Eric Alterman observes that the clearest version of BFSP is illustrated in the war between Governor Andrew Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio:

“Cuomo is also a darling of the superrich who has forced through fiscal and financial policies that only a hedge-fund manager (or a campaign-finance chair) could love. To wit, he has capped property taxes, slashed the corporate tax rate, created tax-free zones for start-ups, and extracted concessions on wages and benefits from the state’s largest public-sector union—and that’s just for starters. If the future belongs to Cuomo, then the legacy of the New Deal (and, not incidentally, of his late father, Mario Cuomo) will finally become extinct. The Democrats, like the Republicans, will be a party of the wealthy for the wealthy—more specifically, the pro-choice, pro-gay-marriage, pro-immigration, and pro-science wealthy.”

Alterman is saying that giving lip service to economic justice while delivering only identity politics is the highest form of cynicism.

Progressives pay a big price for steadfastly insisting that The People be treated fairly. Party leaders distance themselves from these champions. They forego easy money from big donors, and they're taunted in the media as chasing unicorns. Alterman points out that “Centrists,” or more accurately, Corporatists, are willing to cut deals that will extinguish the New Deal. Some do it more quietly than others, but all will claim that they’re “the grown-ups” in the room for selling out the interests of the The People.

If cynicism and hypocrisy is the only route to office, then what’s the point of electing these guys? It’s the “Lie Agreed Upon,” that no one will rock the boat when those who sell themselves as Progressive actually vote as Corporatists. The extremes of economic inequality that are plaguing our state are quickly making identity politics and social liberalism luxuries of a bygone era.

What people need right now are fair wages so they can have a roof over their head and maybe see a doctor. Our unemployment rate is low. Workers are more productive than any time in history, and yet families still can’t make ends meet, take a sick day or have the assurance that a medical emergency won’t result in bankruptcy.

Alterman continues: “On the other side is New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, also a social liberal, who has focused on tackling the city’s inequality crisis...he has passed paid-sick-leave legislation and a limited living-wage executive order; and is fighting for a $15 minimum wage in the city, among many other initiatives. But most of his plans have been frustrated by resistance in Albany. This is the case even when such measures would cost the state nothing.”

Progressives know that the battle for the soul of the party isn’t about a left/right binary measured solely on identity politics. It’s about a rich/poor binary — or, rich/middle class, if we’re using approved messaging. That’s why progressives put an emphasis on examining the actual candidates to determine if their actions are consistent with prioritizing the economic interests of everyone, and not just the super-wealthy.

Progressive values are so ascendant in the culture now that even “Centrist” party candidates trade on the idea that a win for the soul implies a win for Progressives. Otherwise they wouldn’t send out fundraising emails claiming to offer “bold, progressive solutions,” and that they’ll win “with grassroots support from thousands of supporters...not just big donations from lobbyists and millionaires.” Which is to say, “this candidate’s base actually comprises lobbyists and millionaires, but won’t you kick in a few bucks so we can also claim to have grassroots support?”

If being a Progressive is so beneficial for garnering votes and small-dollar donors, why don’t these politicians vote that once they’re way in office? If those votes given to Republican causes were so honorable, why not fundraise on them? Why not own your centrism? Elected officials either voted for corporate interests, school privatization and mandatory ultrasounds, or they didn’t. If these were such good votes, what’s the problem in selling yourself based on them?

Why not tell the truth?

The progressive base in Florida is stronger than it has ever been. I don’t know why that is. Maybe it’s because people’s lives have reached a point where they’re looking for real solutions and people with backbone to fight for them. Maybe it’s because Progressives have gotten better at getting our message out. Maybe Floridians are just sick of losing all the time with Republican Lite candidates who promise and can’t deliver.

Whatever it is, no one is breaking out their old DLC t-shirts to head down to the campaign rally. Instead they’re wrapping themselves in rainbows and green signage, while downplaying all the votes that shifted economic burdens from corporations to working and middle class families. Or, required mandatory ultrasounds, or [link:money from public schools to line the pockets of private corporations|took money from public schools to line the pockets of private corporations].

If this election is for the soul of the party, we should at least define what’s meant by that. If cynicism is the only route to office, and “the grown-ups in the room” demand only lip service for issues that are matters of life and death to working families, then what’s the point?

This battle for the soul of party isn’t about symbols — we’re sick to death of symbols. It’s about whether or not anyone in the party actually has a soul.

Posted by nashville_brook | Fri Jul 17, 2015, 05:12 PM (8 replies)

ON MESSAGING: Why FL Democrats Can't Speak Their Truth

ON MESSAGING: Why Florida Democrats Can't Speak Their Truth
By Brook Hines - nashville_brook


A reporter from the Tampa Bay Times asked me recently what I thought Florida Democrats’ message was. Off the top of my head I said, “We stand for values that promote a stronger Florida, like a healthy environment, economically secure families and a brighter future.” Later I added another thought in an email:“Our measure of success is when everyone succeeds.”

In the final published piece titled “Florida Democrats plot a road to relevance,” I was a bit taken aback that some of our party leaders, when asked the same question, couldn’t quite spit out an answer.

Alan Clendenin, vice chair of the Florida Democratic Party, told the reporter, “Our brand is sound,” adding, “Our problem is being able to boil it down into something people can buy into in a guttural way.” I assume he misspoke, but the malapropism gave me pause. “Guttural” refers to a strange, unpleasant, or disagreeable noise made in the throat; an inarticulate growl of sorts.

“An inarticulate growl” is where Democratic messaging stands in Florida right now. I believe this isn’t for lack of talent, even though FDP Communications Director Joshua Karp has departed to the Patrick Murphy campaign. There’s plenty of great communications professionals in the Democratic family, and stacks of research to apply to our project.

The fact is, we can’t have a clear message until we resolve the tension between voter and donor interests. And, there’s no better place to observe this conflict than in the Democratic Presidential primary.

It’s clear that the brand of the Democratic Party is contested territory right now. You’ve got the Bernie Sanders vision, arguing forcefully that Democrats represent average Americans who need leaders to fight for us against Wall Street and other forces economic predation. Great. We can run with that.

But then there’s Hillary Clinton, surrounded by Wall Street insiders, lying low, seemingly focused on not being quoted on anything whatsoever.

Sanders is the rock-star of the two at the moment, rallying stadiums wall-to-wall with cheering fans. That’s no accident. He has the freedom and the courage to lay out specific policies addressing the realities of American households, whose median net worth plummeted by an average of 36 percent, thanks to Wall Street’s pump and dump schemes.

Meanwhile, Clinton is playing defense; keeping it tight; doing roundtables with hand-picked small business owners, trying her best not to outline specific policy positions. A new tactic, perhaps understandably, is to make the claim that she’s the “most progressive” candidate, largely based on her support of gun control. It’s one of the few areas Sanders is weak on, so it makes sense to try and make the most of it. Predictably it’s not catching fire.

For his efforts, Sanders has been rewarded with passion and momentum, while Clinton’s campaign seems increasingly cautious — literally roping off reporters; issuing press releases about how she’ll start doing interviews…”soon.”

We’d be blind not to see this same tension in the Democratic brand — between the energetically aspirational and the cautiously generic — reflected in our state party. Our leaders are vapor-locked, saying little, watching and waiting to see what the Clinton campaign does. Her triangulation is their triangulation.

But why? Why is our old, powerful moral narrative — the one catching the country on fire through Bernie Sanders’ Lollapalooza-like rallies — somehow considered too dangerous by our own leaders? Do they not understand that the message works? Or is it more a problem of not offending the donor class standing in the shadows?

The Messaging section of the LEAD Task Force Report actually recommends a significant pivot in framing. The report suggests that we appeal to an upscale “middle class” mentality, which leaves out low-income and working families who are struggling to make ends meet. This new, wealth-friendly language was in such heavy rotation at the Leadership Blue Dinner that it harkened to the absurd overuse of “September 11,” by Republicans in the 2004 election cycle.

“Middle class” is a poor a place-holder to represent the Democratic base. It’s boilerplate New Democrat Coalition (Wall Street-friendly) messaging that expressly excludes low-income and working-class people, and so implies that Democrats will leave those who can’t make ends meet in the dust when it comes to crafting policy. This is not a message that will fill stadiums — or voting booths.

As a matter of fact, in terms of neutralizing the opposition and energizing our base, research by the Center for Community Change shows that one of our strongest messages is “America has swung out of balance, because economic rules unfairly favor the rich.” According to a recent report, this message, and a handful of others like it that confront economic predation, beat leading opposition arguments by at least 10 points.

What the faux middle class messaging communicates to working families is that if they can’t make ends meet, they don’t matter to Democrats. And worse, it makes it sound like middle class people are somehow turned off by issues pertaining to working class people. These ill-advised assumptions remind us of Bill Clinton’s DLC-inspired policy campaigns of the ’90s, like “ending welfare as we know it.”

That’s the messaging of the past, and Sanders is broadcasting the message of the future. A lot of water has passed under the bridge since Bill Clinton’s time in office. Those, like myself, who were able to reach middle class status during the dot-com boom, have since lost jobs, houses and retirement savings in the Great Recession. Those who returned to jobs or remained employed have seen wages stagnate while productivity breaks records. We’re still scarred by the economic predation, because nothing was done to ensure that it won’t happen again.

This means we all identify with the economic justice message. Fewer people are drowning, but the trauma of The Great Recession still haunts us. And that terrifies Wall Street, as well as other big corporate interests who’d rather not be asked to raise wages or pay their fair share of taxes.

In terms of economic security, Americans are not okay. Not by a long shot. Young people coming out of school face an uncertain future with more debt than we’ve ever seen in the history of, well, debt. Seniors have been waiting for the other shoe to drop on The Grand Bargain to gut Social Security in the form of raising the retirement age, and cutting benefits. Families with children can’t afford day care to keep two incomes, and their public schools are being sold off to private companies.

The next election, and every election after, must address this, and Wall Street lobbyists know it. They’re willing to spend whatever it takes to stop that before it happens.

In the TBT article, 2010 Democratic nominee for Attorney General, Dan Gelber comes the closest to putting his finger on a message: “We’re looking out for you. We’re the ones who have your back.” Much better. Now let’s actually have our voter’s back on issues that matter.

And, let’s not double-down against having any message at all. One political insider shared this thought on Facebook recently: “I am sick unto death with ISSUES…How are we supposed to organize if we spend all our time talking about issues”? He suggests that we instead knock on doors and, I suppose, shame our neighbors into voting.

Please, don’t take this advice. Talking about issues is how we connect with voters. Shame is not who we are. Economic security, racial justice, a cleaner environment, healthy families and marriage equality — this is who we are. If the closest thing we have to a message is, as the joke goes, “the beatings will continue until morale improves,” then we’ve lost before we started.

When our party stops having the voters’ backs on the issues that matter to them, we matter less to voters, and rightfully so. We succeed when we’re working to ensure that everyone succeeds. If our leaders are frightened by this message, and the actions demanded by it, then it’s time to find new leaders.

Posted by nashville_brook | Sun Jul 12, 2015, 08:06 AM (17 replies)
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