Browsing the blog archivesfor the day Sunday, April 25th, 2010.


Changing the Public Debate

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Obama Administration

I was reading “Lessons from the Health-Care Wars” by Peter Dreier at The American Prospect, and this sentence just about jumped off the page at me: “The job of a social movement is to change the public debate so that progressive reforms become politically viable.”

Let me provide a little bit of a larger context:

Reform activists sometimes disagreed on tactics. Some hoped to gain leverage by explicitly criticizing Obama. Others, particularly the major unions, MoveOn, and consumer groups, believed that attacking the newly elected president, already under siege from the right, was counterproductive and wanted to focus public ire on the insurance industry and its allies in Congress.

But this argument misses the point. The job of a social movement is to change the public debate so that progressive reforms become politically viable. Activism on the ground creates pressure for bolder reform and gives liberal elected officials more room to maneuver.

See, this is exactly what all of us smartypants liberal bloggers and activists are not doing — trying to change the public debate.

For example, during the protracted health care fight there were endless arguments about whether we liberals should support the bill with a watered-down public option, or no public option, or with or without mandates, and whether President Obama was fighting hard enough for a public option, or whether he never intended there to be a public option and that the plan all along was to kill the public option and mandate that people purchase private insurance, etc. etc.

And then there were frequent updates on which congresspersons were going to vote for what, and which ones might be persuadable, and which ones needed to be “primaried.”

But we did not do a good job changing the national debate to make the public option important to a broader swatch of the public. And because we didn’t do that, the public option was politically expendable.

It didn’t help that some activists claimed support for the public option in Congress that probably was never there. Those claims quickly hardened into Accepted Fact by many on the Left, who then felt “sold out” and blamed the White House when the public option disappeared.

Like it or not, the Tea Baggers were more effective at setting the terms of the nation’s health care discussion, if only as plants in the right-wing echo chamber. Yeah, they went off script a lot, but they helped reinforce what the medical-industrial complex wanted people to think — that the Democrats’ bill would be too expensive, would raise their taxes, would disrupt the patient-doctor relationship, is mostly an entitlement for poor people, and is somehow taking us down the road to socialism.

Of course, it’s also true that in our current twisted media-political climate, the truth carries a greater burden than propaganda, and teaching the public about how a complex policy might actually work is darn near impossible. Yet that is what we must do if progressives are ever going to stop playing defense.

I’m not entirely sure how to go about changing the public debate, but here are some tactics that won’t work:

Building alliances with Tea Baggers. You’ve heard the story about the scorpion and the frog? ‘Nuff said.

Tea Party-Progressive Dialogue. Annabel Park’s “coffee party” idea was well intentioned, but it was doomed from the beginning. And that’s not just because one cannot have a rational conversation with someone who sincerely thinks the new health care reform law is “socialism” and that the President is a secret Muslim from Kenya. It’s because there is also an element on the Left more interested in acting out and “self-expression” than in doing anything useful. Think Code Pink.

Public Demonstrations Featuring Giant Puppets, Vulgar Signs, Young Men With Megaphones Who Don’t Know When to Shut Up, and Stupid Costumes. I’ve complained about this before. But, folks, people who marched with Gandhi and Martin Luther King managed to be effective without the giant puppets, etc.

I continue to hope that only about 20 percent of the American public is completely unreachable. I’d like to think that there’s a large portion of the American electorate that maybe aren’t as well informed as we’d like, but who are capable of learning if we could find a way to reach them.

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