The Rigged Game, from "In America"

This week, George Lakoff published a piece called “Disaster Messaging” and Eric Alterman penned an essay called “Kabuki Democracy: Why a Progressive Presidency is Impossible, for Now.” Lakoff and Alterman know what is standing in the way of progressive achievement in America. Let’s call it The Wall.

Lakoff speaks of the conservatives’ message advantages. Democrats are constantly playing a game of catch-up to the Right’s framing savvy and a multi-billion dollar media machine decades in the making. With neither the framing smarts nor the message machine, Democrats resort to “disaster messaging,” adopting conservative frames and policies.

Alterman surveys our current political environment — the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, the effectiveness of FoxNews and the spinelessness and waywardness of its competitors and others in the press, regressive parliamentary rules that hand the advantage to an obstructionist and dangerous minority, etc. — and concludes that progressive achievement will take revolutionary changes in our current campaign practices.

Conservatives, of course, know this. And that’s why they’ve built The Wall.  Among its bricks: unlimited corporate campaign spending; regressive, complicated voter ID requirements; xenophobic immigration reforms intended to intimidate all non-white Americans; trashing of public education; trashing of science; regressive tax policies that keep the poor poor while the rich get richer; a health care system intended to cause suffering, death and demoralization; a collapsing infrastructure and the destruction of government oversight and regulation.

It’s callous, inhumane and anti-democratic. But its cruelty is just the conservatives’ means to an end:  their insulation from the will of the people who will, one day, wake up to find themselves powerless to change the punishing status quo.

The Wall is built by sleight of (the invisible) hand. Decades of attacks on government are really attacks on us. In the conservative worldview, the few divine elect are supposed to rule the unwashed. It’s sad that so many Americans don’t recognize this. I’ll never forget the ignorance of the anti-health care reform rallies of August, 2009. People screaming and carrying signs, demanding universal fealty to Big Insurance.

The election of Barack Obama in 2008 seemed to many of us to herald a new era. But it has only served as proof of something many of us have written about for years:  our political practices — the absolutely corrupting influence of money, the dependency upon an out-of-touch political elite, barriers to voting and political participation — are structurally biased against progressive achievement. Here’s how I put it in The Politics of Deceit (2004):

There is something desperate in the way we pin our hopes on political practices we know are harmful to the health of democracy. In this we are like Sarah and Johnny Sullivan, the Irish immigrant parents in Jim Sheridan’s lyrical and haunting film, In America. The Sullivants and their two daughters have come to America looking for a new beginning. After their youngest daughter, Ariel, falls in love with the lovable movie alien E.T., Johnny tries to win for her an E.T doll at a carnival side show. The game is rigged, of course. To win, Johnny must keep doubling his bet until he has tossed enough balls into a can. The sideshow hustle depends upon rubes who underestimate the ultimate cost of doubling bets again and again, and they simply run out of money before winning anything. Soon every cent the Sullivans have, including their rent money, is riding on one last toss. Sarah and Johnny know this is folly, but their motivation is pure. They simply do not want to disappoint the young Ariel.

In just such a way we bet the future of democracy and freedom on political practices that rig the game against our success. We forget that the game is ours, that we make up the rules, and that we can change them if we muster the collective will to do so…we, like the Sullivans, forget there may be much less risky and much more productive ways to secure a future for our children…

We too easily fall for fantasies about a single personality delivering us from evil, or dreams of a sound-bite so brilliant the nation falls at our feet, or hopes that just enough Americans will awaken magically in the nick of time to the disasters ahead.

Since I wrote those words above, much progress has been made. The progressive movement is larger and healthier than, well, perhaps than it has ever been. We know what must be done. As Eric Alterman concludes, “To borrow from Hillel the Elder: ‘If not now, when? If not us, who?’”