Americans like to keep things simple. Twitter is the preferred medium of public discourse now – if you can’t distill what you’re thinking down into one hundred forty characters, you’re not thinking clearly, or you’re a tedious windbag who really should be dismissed. Get to the point, damn it. Make it pithy – short but brilliant. You’ll have millions of “followers” – and given that, Americans have decided to talk to each other in short disconnected bursts. It’s not dialog, but this is not four words on a bumper sticker either. You can have your say, and if brevity is the soul of wit, and tediousness its outward limbs and flourishes, you’ll be just fine. Just get to the point, or go away.
It’s the same in politics. You may have brilliant policy positions, carefully thought out, in detail, and subtle and nuanced, which is probably impressive – but voters aren’t going to be impressed. What’s the point? What’s your point? That’s what voters want to know, and in 2008, Barack Obama settled on “Hope” and “Yes We Can” – while John McCain settled on “Country First” – which didn’t work out for him. No one knew what he meant, even if he had been a war hero, for surviving many long years as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam, many long years ago. He chose Sarah Palin as his running mate. The world is a dangerous place, and she proudly knew next to nothing about it. McCain clearly hadn’t put country first, while Obama’s slogans made people feel good, even if they had no time, or patience, for thinking about his policy positions. Extreme simplification is an art. Compression can be a tricky business.
Two years later, the Tea Party got it right. That started off with a rant by Rick Santelli on CNBC about a federal program to help people with their crap mortgages when they faced losing their homes. That would involve federal guarantees, which would mean putting federal dollars at risk, and that was taxpayer money being used to bail out stupid people who actually believed lenders when the clever lenders told those folks they really could afford that amazingly complex mortgage with really low monthly payments, for a few years. Santelli didn’t see the stupidity of those who signed on the dotted line as his problem, or any taxpayer’s problem. The smart and successful people should never have to pay for the stupidity of gullible total losers, and that’s a fairly typical Republican position. This was also a disagreement about a minor government effort, which should have ended there, had Santelli not talked about the Boston Tea Party, which he said was about the same sort of thing, the evil of paying taxes for stupid stuff.
That set things off, because Obamacare was the same sort of thing, using tax money to help total losers, and then things moved to identifying who those total losers were, all of them. They were also gays, and Hispanics, and black folks – and Obama was a total loser too, having been born in Kenya. And he was a socialist too, or one of those Muslims – the ultimate total losers. And he was always apologizing for America. Maybe he was a terrorist himself. He seemed to want to understand them, not just kill them, and his wife wanted junk food off the lunch menus in public schools, which was the tyranny of the nanny state, big time. And the two of them were black, and everyone knows about “those” people.
Things were getting out of hand, until the Tea Party crowd decided it could all be compressed into one simple idea – they wanted their country back. That seemed to have something to do with Ozzie and Harriet and poodle skirts, and wholesome movies and blacks knowing their place, and gay folks hidden away, and the only Hispanics and Asians being the harmless and amusing Ricky Ricardo and Charlie Chan, a world of back-alley coat-hanger abortions only, with Jesus everywhere. That was the golden age of self-reliance, after all, the days before the government was always trying to fix things. The government didn’t take all your money and hand it out to those welfare queens that Ronald Reagan was always talking about. Neighbors helped neighbors. Churches fed the poor. People bought their own health insurance, if anyone would sell it to them. It was lots of things, but it was one thing in general. They wanted that country back. That was that general idea and not the specifics that swept them to power in the 2010 midterms, if power is being able to scare the crap out of the establishment Republicans in the House of Representatives, to keep them from working out ways to keep the government running, with that Obama fellow. They wanted their country back, even if it was imaginary, except for the parts that were awful for women and anyone who wasn’t white and the right sort of Christian.
Those may be quibbles. Their general positon, about wanting their country back, worked well enough, even if Mitt Romney couldn’t use it two years later. He couldn’t say he wanted his country back. His country was one of multimillionaires, like him, and a couple hundred billionaires. He was ridiculously rich, so his talk about the useless and morally reprehensible forty-seven percent, who like a government that does useful things for them, was morally reprehensible itself. That might be compressed into “I’ve got mine so screw you” – which just doesn’t cut it, not in this economy. When he said anyone could start a successful business – just borrow a couple of hundred thousand dollars from your parents – that sealed the deal. He couldn’t talk about taking our country back. He was from another planet.
The phrase does, however, have a compelling ring to it. Others could use it, because, imaginary countries aside, we live in this real one that Aaron Blake identifies:
1) A New York Times poll showed just 64 percent of Americans believe in the American Dream. That’s the lowest that number has been since at least 1996.
2) A Pew Research Center poll showed just under half – 49 percent – of Americans said they expect next year to be a better year than this year. That’s the lowest that’s been since the recession, and a couple years before, too.
3) An AP-GfK poll shows just 13 percent of Americans say they are confident that Republicans and President Obama can come together to address the country’s problems. (A similar question from Pew found just 20 percent expect Congress and Obama to “make progress” on important issues.)
So, to recap, Americans have hit low points on their belief in our country’s main economic principle, their general feelings about life and their faith in our government. That just about covers it.
Paul Campos sees this country:
Once a social system has moved all or nearly all of its members above the level of brute starvation, wealth and poverty soon become inherently relative concepts, but that doesn’t make them any less real. One of the consequences of living in an extremely rich country which features increasingly extreme wealth stratification is that people who would have been considered rich fifteen minutes ago are suddenly part of the “upper middle class.”
Take, for example, what has happened to economic relations within the American university.
It’s well known that American colleges and universities must increase their operating budgets every year at rates faster than inflation because of [many] reasons, and therefore it becomes inevitable, given the contemporary economic structure of the country as a whole, that these institutions will spend enormous amounts of time and money currying favor with super-wealthy potential donors. Giving money to a “non-profit” educational institution provides the masters of the universe with sweet tax breaks, while allowing them to indulge in the ego-gratifying pleasures of plastering their names all over various buildings and centers and even whole schools and colleges.
There’s no taking back the universities now. That will never be “your country” now, and Chris Cillizza adds this:
It’s easy to believe there is direct correlation between people not believing in the American Dream and prolonged periods of economic struggle. Which would explain the downward trend of the numbers in the Times poll over the last decade as the economy has sputtered. The question is whether the slowness of the current recovery is what’s to blame for the extended pessimism about hard work achieving results or whether we, as a country, have simply entered a different stage in our relationship with the idea of the American Dream.
There’s some reason to believe the latter explanation is more correct. Consider this, from the 2014 national exit poll: Almost half of all Americans – 48 percent – said they expected life for “future generations” to be “worse than life today,” while 22 percent said it would be better. Another 27 percent said life would be about the same. Do the math and you see that more than twice as many people are pessimistic about the future that they will leave their kids as those who are optimistic.
Tea Party rants about Obamacare won’t fix that. Obamacare may actually help matters. More than ten million people now have health insurance, who never had it before. You want to repeal Obamacare? You want to say, look, we took away health insurance from more than ten million people, ain’t it grand?
You’d better hope you can take away their votes too. Republicans are working on that of course, but angry people will find a way to vote, no matter how many hoops you decide to make them jump through. You may want your country back, but your country isn’t their country. They have a different idea of the American Dream, something they learned long ago in school, something about how if you work hard you can do well – you don’t have to be rich to get rich, or even survive – there’s a future for everyone in America. That’s the country they want to take back.
All they need is a champion, someone to say let’s take back the actual country, not the imaginary one with the girls in the poodle skirts, where certain people are simply invisible, because they don’t matter, and six rich guys run everything and everyone is happy with that. The message about taking the country back is the same. It simply refers to the real world.
They may have that champion:
For supporters of the $1.1 trillion spending bill that the House narrowly voted to pass on Thursday, Sen. Elizabeth Warren is a force to be reckoned with.
The Democratic senator from Massachusetts took to the Senate floor late Friday in a last-minute effort to prevent the upper chamber from following the House’s lead and voting to pass the so-called “cromnibus” bill, which, Warren warns, contains “a dangerous provision that was slipped [in] … at the last minute solely to benefit Wall Street.”
The provision in question would weaken the Dodd-Frank Wall Street reform law. Still another provision garnering left-wing objection would expand the amount of money rich people could donate to political parties tenfold.
“You know,” Warren said Friday, “there is a lot of talk lately about how Dodd-Frank isn’t perfect. There is a lot of talk coming from Citigroup about how Dodd-Frank isn’t perfect. So let me say this to anyone who is listening at Citi – I agree with you. Dodd-Frank isn’t perfect. It should have broken you into pieces.”
Enough is enough, even if this isn’t going anywhere. Warren filed an amendment to strip the change to Dodd-Frank out of the legislation but Majority Leader Harry Reid would have to accept amendments to the legislation first, which he’d rather not do, and Warren doesn’t seem to want to filibuster the legislation. She just wants to make a point:
Warren moved to gather opposition to the spending bill early on, and not just in the Senate, but in the House as well. Flanked by House members at a press conference, Warren called on her colleagues in the lower chamber to kill the bill. “A vote for this bill is a vote for future taxpayer bailouts of Wall Street,” Warren said Thursday. “It is time for all of us to stand up and fight.”
Fight to get your country back, even if you lose this one battle, and others agree:
More than 300 former campaign staffers and organizers for President Barack Obama have signed on to a letter urging Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren to run for president in 2016, the latest effort to nudge the Democrat into the race.
The Obama alums said in the letter released Friday that they want someone who will “stand up for working families and take on the Wall Street banks and special interests.” The letter was released by Ready for Warren, a grassroots group promoting a potential campaign.
Hillary Clinton hasn’t announced yet, but everyone on Wall Street loves her, as much as they loved Mitt Romney, as she seems to be the sort that would have the government let them do any old thing they want. She doesn’t talk about the middle class getting screwed by them, and they appreciate that. People seem to have noticed:
The letter from dozens of former Obama field organizers and campaign staffers shows the interest in a Warren campaign even though she says she’s not running. Noting the tone of the letter, Warren spokeswoman Lacey Rose said the senator “has been pointedly questioning the Wall Street-centric culture that has existed at Treasury and understands that various insiders find that threatening.”
Some of the former campaign aides who signed the letter include: Rajeev Chopra, the chief information officer for Obama’s 2012 campaign; Stephen Geer, who led email and online fundraising in 2008; and Sam Graham-Felsen, the campaign’s chief blogger in 2008.
MoveOn.org announced earlier that it was starting a draft Warren campaign and promoting Warren in early presidential states Iowa and New Hampshire – they’ve decided to budget a million dollars for that. The middle class wants its country back. They sense it.
Salon’s Joan Walsh is a bit amazed by this:
The House passage of the omnibus spending act is on its face a defeat for the progressive wing of the Democratic Party that fought to block it. In the end, though, risking a government shutdown over the bill’s ugliest provisions – restoring government protection to risky bank maneuvers and raising the cap on party contributions, astronomically – was probably too much to expect. … House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi fought it ferociously, in the end she signaled that members could vote their conscience.
And what did that vote tell us about the Democratic Party? Most of the departing Blue Dogs who lost their seats voted for the bill, predictably. In a break with President Obama, who lobbied for it, most of the Congressional Black Caucus did not. The remaining House Democrats are going to be more reliably critical of Wall Street, and less inclined to bow to the White House. 2015 is going to be interesting.
I admit, for a few hours on Thursday I thought Democrats might be able to win the public relations battle if they blocked the bill. Why should taxpayers protect risk-taking banks? The story of how Citigroup wrote the provision, and Wall Street’s friends snuck it in, is so outrageous I thought it had a chance to carry the day. So Republicans wouldn’t pass a spending bill without this giveaway to Wall Street? That would make them responsible for a government shutdown. But Sen. Ted Cruz and his allies may have thought the same thing about their message when they shut down the government last year.
We’ll never know if Democrats could have mustered populist outrage over Washington catering to Wall Street in the event of a new shutdown. But what else did we learn from the battle?
We learned this:
We now know that Nancy Pelosi is through guaranteeing the votes for ugly messes liberals hate (like the debt ceiling and sequester deals) but that House Speaker John Boehner can’t pass alone. In a new Congress where many Blue Dogs lost their seats, this sets the stage for House Democrats to block elements of the GOP agenda, especially when there can be left-right alliances. Tea Party defenders say it was partly inspired by outrage at the 2008 Wall Street bailout and corporate-government cronyism; it would be nice if House adherents remembered those roots.
The Tea Party folks really should be saying that the government should not exist solely to help the rich guys on Wall Street, but the rich guys on Wall Street, at least the Koch brothers, fund them, because Tea Party folks hate all regulation more than they hate the fat cats always getting what they want, so Walsh can dream on. They’re not coming aboard, but Walsh says we do know this:
We also know that Elizabeth Warren wasn’t tamed by her ascent into Senate Democratic leadership; she was emboldened. While her star turn may increase the pressure on her to run for president… I still hope she doesn’t. A President Warren would lack a Sen. Warren protecting her left flank. Giving Warren more progressive Senate allies would be more politically productive than elevating her to the White House.
We’re also seeing a more clearly defined bloc of Wall Street critics emerge in the Democratic Party, just in time for 2016. The Warren-led battle over Treasury nominee Antonio Weiss is also heating up – and both fights pit the popular progressive against President Obama.
As for that, here’s some background:
Recently, these two sides have been battling over whether President Obama, who is a member of the neoliberal contingent, should withdraw his nomination of Antonio Weiss to be the next undersecretary for domestic finance at the Treasury Department (which is the bureaucracy’s third-most-powerful slot). Weiss is currently an employee of the financial powerhouse Lazard, where he specializes in mergers and acquisitions, and from whom he’s set to receive a $20 million bonus if he takes the government job. Warren has argued that Weiss has no experience with the issues pertinent to the Treasury position in question, and that his selection is yet another spin of the revolving door. Being the fly in the White House’s ointment on this issue has predictably earned Warren some criticism from elites; but the senator seems inclined to escalate the conflict rather than back down.
“We’d all scratch our heads if the president nominated a theoretical physicist to be surgeon general just because she had a background in science,” Warren said… “It’s no less puzzling to nominate an international mergers specialist to handle largely domestic issues at Treasury because he has a background in finance.” More striking, however, was Warren’s decision to transition from defending her stance on the Weiss nomination to criticizing those who have built and maintained the revolving door – Democrats included. “Time after time in government,” Warren said, “the Wall Street view prevails.”
Enough is enough, even in her own party, and Walsh thinks things may change:
Many news accounts have depicted the spending bill battle as Warren vs. Obama, setting up an ongoing clash between the two Democratic leaders. But I think the Warren vs. Obama story line can be overblown. It’s probably too much to expect the president to veto the spending bill and effectively shut down the government – clearly he doesn’t share my optimism that Democrats could win that P.R. battle. But if the noxious measures hidden in the bill came to him as individual pieces of legislation, he’d be under a new level of pressure from congressional Democrats to veto them, and I expect he would. Obama made clear that while he wanted Democrats to support the spending bill he shared their opposition to both provisions.
In fact, the next two years will be a test of who the president really is: the change agent who inspired progressives, or the guardian of Wall Street power that his left-wing detractors claim he is.
Walsh, of course, sees this from her own particular perspective, as a progressive Democrat. She’s pleased, but also seems a little frightened. This could be too good to be true. This could tear the party apart. But that misses the larger picture. Warren may have appeal beyond the Democratic Party. Lots of people want their country back, the real one, not the imaginary one. This could get interesting. What politician wants to support a few hundred guys on Wall Street when everyone else is getting edged out of what used to be the American Dream?