I was trying to figure out exactly why Jon Stewart's “Restore Sanity / Keep Fear Alive” rally in Washington on Saturday made me so uneasy, and then the Daily Beast's Peter Beinart neatly put his finger on it.
On one hand, the good spirits and humor of the rally – look at sideshows to get a good chuckle – were a welcome balm after months of vicious attack ads and years of talk-show venom, most of it coming from an increasingly extreme right.
On the other, it's hard to see how the rally will have much of a political impact beyond making participants feel better. And that, it seems to me, reflects an inherent flaw in the liberal approach to politics, and Beinart seems to agree.
He writes that the rally was a perfect example of why the Democrats are so out of touch with America that they face an electoral disaster tomorrow.
Beinart castigated rally supporters for “ridiculing fear.” Even though “Fox and friends hype the threat from terrorists, illegal immigrants, Christmas haters etc.,...there are quite rational reasons, in America today, to be scared out of your wits.”
Dismissing that fear as the result of a self-serving media reveals a lack of understanding and genuine empathy that may be dooming the Democrats, he suggested
He also rips rally planners for arguing that the divisions that seem to be tearing America apart are largely a chimera, created by the media and the politicians.
“There’s a long history of liberals insisting that if only pundits and politicians would stop focusing on divisive 'wedge' issues like guns, abortions and gays, everyone could come to a reasonable consensus about how to renovate the American welfare state,” he writes.
The problem is, we are deeply divided on a wide range of issues, and those divisions are growing as issues become more complex. Pretending we're not won't help Democrats connect with a volatile, frightened and angry electorate.
He also writes that the rally's talk about “sanity” is “condescending," dismissive of some genuine beliefs that have been entrenched in American politics for a long time.
“The Tea Partiers...are making a serious argument, which the left too often tries to dismiss by calling them nuts. In fact, the haughtiness reflected by such insults conceals the left’s confusion over how to respond ideologically.”
A lot of Tea Party candidates really are nutty, so the movement makes an easy target. But its popularity reflects real fears and a real sense that the government has let ordinary people down.
Beinart is pointing to an issue that has interested me for a long time: liberals so often find themselves on the losing end because they begin with a faulty assumption – that America is, fundamentally, a liberal nation, and that we elect conservatives only because voters are misled by the media and frightened by the politicians.
Our history, on the other hand, suggests we are generally a conservative nation that sometimes – rarely, actually – elects liberals, unless you subscribe to the laughable theory that the fanatically centrist Barack Obama is a “socialist.”
Here's a pop quiz for you: who was the last president who was the most liberal candidate in the running when the race began? Helpful hint: don't say FDR, because Roosevelt was, in fact, a conservative Democrat when he began his 1932 race against Herbert Hoover.
And in some ways we are becoming more conservative. By blinding themselves to that fact and not designing their politics to change those realities, liberals, it seems to me, doom themselves to perpetual loser status.
That's what bothered me about the Stewart rally; it reflected a liberal movement that too often is more interested in making itself feel good, in reveling in its self-righteous apartness, than in actually changing minds.
Conservatives, on the other hand, are very much focused on connecting with voters on a gut level.
Does that mean using scare tactics? Of course it does. Does it mean using misinformation like the cynical “death panels” charge to motivate people politically? You bet.
I'm not saying liberals need to demean politics in the same way; I am suggesting that if they want to stop their downward slide, they need to take a clear-eyed, realistic look at why they've been on the losing side of history for such a long time, and figure out ways to connect with an electorate that may be far more conservative at its core than most progressives want to admit.
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