Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Message

For left/progressives the line much of the time is, "if we just had the access to the media and money to get the anti-corporate message out there...."

With Edwards we had this.

Here's an analysis that I share:

Weekly Commentary -- Lessons from Edwards' Failure

Despite John Edwards’ talk of going all the way to the convention to take the country back from our corporate overlords, in the end it turned out Eli Manning had more fight in him than Edwards.

Though I personally find this unsurprising, given my perception that Edwards was a poseur and an empty suit, he certainly excited many progressives; it’s worth the effort to try to see what lessons we can learn from his failure.

For a long time, it’s been a majority view on the left that if only someone who had the right opportunities – i.e., had lots of money and mainstream respectability and didn’t believe in UFOs -- would stand up in an election season and promote a strong, anti-corporate economic populist message, the entire game would be changed. Part of the underlying belief was that the masses who don’t vote – usually 45+% of the voting-age population – allow servants of the plutocracy like George Bush to get elected because they are closet socialists and don’t want to sully themselves by voting for a mildly redistributionist pro-capitalist politician. And even for those who end up voting, the reasoning would go, very often it’s like playing eeny-meeny-miny-moe because they don’t get anyone who really represents their interests.

Well, John Edwards raised $44 million in 2007, he’s a former vice presidential nominee of the Democratic Party, and he has excellent hair. Nobody mocked him as a leprechaun or a vegan. And his words – all twelve of them, repeated over and over – were anti-corporate enough that Ralph Nader himself, famous for his claims that there’s no difference between the two main parties, called Edwards a Democratic “glimmer of hope” and said that this was, “the only time I've heard a Democrat talk that way in a long time.”

Well, it’s true that, as his wife pointed out, he had the handicap of being from that ultimate historically disadvantaged group, white males. As politically asinine and overall whiny as her comment was, it wasn’t exactly wrong – Edwards couldn’t really make himself interesting to most, especially when compared with Obama. And it’s true that the mainstream media gave him less attention than the other two – and later panned him for his “divisive” rhetoric.

Even so, he had absolutely the best chance in a long time of catching on with a populist message and it just didn’t fly. In fact, the message did considerably worse than it appears from his vote totals. If you look at exit polls from the primaries, you’ll find that in Iowa and South Carolina those who identified themselves as conservative voted for Edwards at twice the rate as those who identified as liberal, while in general Obama and Clinton spread pretty evenly across the categories. In South Carolina, it was clearest, when white men (the most conservative demographic group overall) voted largely for Edwards.

It’s possible that most of them really weren’t paying any attention to what he said. It’s possible that some of them picked up on his obvious homophobia (which differentiates him from Clinton and Obama). Or, perhaps, just the comforting fact that he was a white man with a Southern accent blinded the conservative voters to all else.

This is not a nicely controlled experiment. Edwards raised money from his hedge-fund cronies to run a populist campaign, he repudiated every single legislative stance he had ever taken, and he generally had difficulty projecting credibility with his new tack. On the other hand, Nader, who had all the credibility in the world in 2000, tried to run outside the two-party system, forgoing the massive institutional support that the system gives by design to the two parties.

Still, put it all together and the results suggest very clearly to me that we should give up on the fetishization of “If we could just get the information/message out” and realize that, even on what ought to be the slam-dunk issue of representing 80% of the people’s economic interests against those of the other 20%, the ground must be prepared.

The right wing has done this so well that even an insane message like “Cutting tax rates always increases tax revenues” seems automatically true to a significant chunk of the population, of media opinion-makers, and of politicians – and even with the rest, it doesn’t qualify you as a wingnut. We have yet to do this with even a much more intuitive message like “When corporations control your health care and are paid with fixed premiums, their profits will be higher the less care they actually allow.”

Until we can do that, we can forget about changing the game of electoral politics in this country.


From Rahul Mahajan's Empire Notes.

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