Conservatives love a parade. Liberals all want to lead one.
The basic political equation I learned over 40 years ago remains M x V = P. Myths times values equals power. Old values are understood more easily than new ones. Myths are more easily created around old ideas than new ones.
America has, on the whole, been a liberal nation because our leaders have been able to wrap new values in the colors of old myths in order to achieve power.
The Founders wrapped the ideas of the Declaration of Independence around English common law, drawing a clear line from the Magna Carta of 1215 to their own struggle, and relying on contemporary philosophers like Locke, Burke and Montesquieu to explain them. The Constitution was negotiated, then explained in terms of democratic frameworks dating to Greek and Roman antiquity.
Lincoln turned the clock back on the Republic’s founding, from the 1789 inauguration under the Constitution to the Declaration of 1776, in order to wrap his “new birth of freedom” in older clothes his audience would understand and fight for. Theodore Roosevelt hearkened back to Lincoln in building Progressivism, and Franklin Roosevelt hearkened back to the industrial actions of T.R.’s era in building the New Deal.
While Barack Obama has created a coalition on behalf of more liberal values, just as Lincoln and the Roosevelts did, his success in getting the economy back on track makes it harder for his successors to build a compelling case for further change.
It’s much easier to stir passion on behalf of what exists. Confederates had an easy rhetorical time of it. That’s why Lincoln’s words resonate today, after the change of his time, than those of his opponents. Yet even though their cause was historically unjust, founded on slavery and racial prejudice, Confederate ideals easily drew people willing to kill and die on their behalf.
They still do.
Conservatives today are adept at causes. They create daily outrage, sometimes out of whole cloth. This maintains cohesion within their coalition, the commitment that allows even a minority within a democracy to overcome a majority.
In order to overcome this, liberals have to create their own life-or-death causes that will activate their majority views. This was, during the last decade, the triumph of the Netroots. The problem is that many of the issues on which the Netroots organized, especially the War in Iraq, have been settled.
That’s why Black Lives Matter. That’s why the Dreamers matter. It’s why gay rights matters. It’s why the 99% matters. What all these movements have in common is that they activate liberals, not just on behalf of an individual cause, but in common effort. And against a common enemy.
The problem is that they don’t activate people in the direction they must go in order to achieve and maintain power, which is the voting booth. Progress for Dreamers has been achieved by executive order. Progress on gay rights was made through the courts. Progress for the 99% just hasn’t happened. The same is true with the environment. Netroot sites like DailyKos try to activate outrage daily, and to channel it, but online activism remains, even now, a peculiarly elite activity.
This is why Republicans seem so strong in 2016. They know what they’re doing. They may be a collection of minorities but they have been winning for a generation now, and they seem to own the levers of power – the statehouses that define electoral boundaries, the Congress that makes the laws, the media that defines power relationships.
What liberals need, more than anything, is for young people to step up toward power. One of my daughter’s classmates is on our local school board, and he made an impressive presentation to my community meeting this week, but we need a whole host of millennial politicians, 20-somethings and 30-somethings inspired by the movements of the moment to do the hard work needed to gain political power.
Conservatives retain what power they have, almost 8 years into the Obama Era, because they can activate minorities, because they’re incredibly well-funded by an oil industry fighting for its life, and because they are ruthless.
Ruthlessness in the pursuit of power appeals to conservatives as it does not appeal to liberals. Ruthlessness keeps people who want to stay in line, in line. Conservatives also benefit from the fact that we just live a long, long time, as the Democratic Presidential field demonstrates better than anything. Hillary Clinton would be Reagan’s age once in office, and Bernie Sanders is 5 years older still, yet neither seems at all ready for a rocking chair or retirement.
We desperately need younger politicians with that same kind of fire. If Barack Obama is looking for a post-Presidency career, he can do worse than to recruit such people, starting right now. And if Markos Moulitsas really wants to be useful, and not just rich through the sale of Vox, it may be time for him to step up to the plate as well.
If you want to be a democrat, and not just a Democrat, now is the time to come to the aid of the party. Run for something.