A different approach to navigating political dynamics
It was a brilliant political maneuver — and few Democrat learned from it. In 1994, Newt Gingrich’s innovative “Contract With America” made the Republican Party appear serious, pragmatic, reformist. No matter that every decent promise in the Contract later wound up neutered or betrayed. The electoral triumph that Gingrich wrought with this bait-and-switch was a historic phase change, demolishing what remained of the Roosevelt-era social and political compact.
The aftermath was even more tectonic. Even under Ronald Reagan, legislators assumed that their mission was to stake bargaining positions, then negotiate and ultimately legislate, adjusting our laws for changing times and needs. Gingrich retained that tradition for one more year — the anno mirabilis 1995 — making deals with Bill Clinton to get budget surpluses and welfare reform. Foreign policy was a collaborative neutral zone.
Revolutions often eat their own. Soon Newt was toppled by Dennis Hastert, whose eponymous “Rule” threatened political extinction for any Republican who dared to discuss tradeoffs or common ground with any Democrat, ever. Across America, “Tea Party” movements enforced the Hastert Rule on representatives with fervent passion. As a result, every following congress — except for the brief, Pelosi-led 111th (2009–2011) — would be among the most rigidly partisan in U.S. history. Also the laziest, holding among the fewest days in session, or bills passed, or hearings (except those spent fruitlessly pursuing Clintons), but setting all-time records at fund-raising.
Oh, about the central architect of this era that bears his name — Dennis Hastert, chosen by his party to be Speaker of the House and top Republican in the nation? Hastert later served time in federal prison for lying about decades of grotesque, serial child predation.
Yet - the key feature from that entire era was not Republican canniness, or laziness or turpitude; it was Democrats’ obstinate inability to learn anything at all. What Newt Gingrich’s “Contract” and the “Hastert Rule” illuminate is how liberals, moderates and Democratic politicians keep getting out-maneuvered, time and again, refusing ever to understand their mistakes — like Barack Obama attempting for eight years to negotiate across party lines with opponents who had literally and explicitly banished that phrase from their caucus. Yes, it was wise and mature to keep trying. And yet there are reasons why Obama failed.
Consider the Democrats’ two lonely triumphs, across the last 30 years. In both 1992 and 2008, frustration with Republican misrule boiled over. Massive outpourings of activism led to registration and get-out-the-vote campaigns, bringing millions to the polls who formerly sat out elections. In each case, the Democratic-controlled legislative and executive branches got busy, trying to steer the ship of state… only to lose control of Congress just two years later, in 1994 and 2010, when those new voters stayed home.
Is history repeating, yet again? Are the chess-masters already planning for 2022?
Repeatedly, Democrats and their allies are lured onto battlegrounds of the enemy’s choosing, as Donald Trump tweet-controls every news cycle. Sure, talk show hosts mine each day’s outrage for humor, indignation and ratings. But it’s rare to find even a single pundit (other than cognitive linguist George Lakoff) asking: “Hey, what actually happened, just now?”
What’s happened? It’s increasingly argued that we’ve entered a crucial new phase — so far, not hot — of America’s 250 year old civil war, a battle for survival of the Enlightenment Experiment. Moreover, we’ve been tricked into fighting chest-to-chest, grunting and shoving, in the polemical equivalent of trench warfare. Or else Sumo wrestling.
David Axelrod, author of Believer: My Forty Years in Politics — put it well, citing how we respond to every Trumpian or Fox News provocation with righteous indignation.
“My advice to the Democratic nominee next year is: Don’t play…. Wrestling is Mr. Trump’s preferred form of combat. But beating him will require jiu-jitsu, a different style of battle typically defined as the art of manipulating an opponent’s force against himself….”
Absolutely. Moreover, it must begin with un-learning our most comforting — and futile — reflexes.
Politics is a competitive process — often cutthroat — but also cooperative when we use it to negotiate. It is politically that we define policy, which can either hinder or unleash the fecundity of science, amateurism, volunteerism and philanthropy, as well as markets that address new needs through enlightened self-interest. Using many tools and a broad stance, we know how to do those things! We used to do it more.
Getting mired in trenches while extending repeatedly a bloodied hand of negotiation is not working. Nor am I the only one demanding tougher, more agile tactics. Presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke, as of July 2019 started using “foul language” to describe the Trumpists. (Gosh.) David Faris, author of It’s Time to Fight Dirty: How Democrats Can Build a Lasting Majority in American Politics, says Republicans have all but destroyed democratic norms in America, and it’s time for Democrats to take on the mantle of procedural warfare. Faris’s concepts include deliberately breaking up big states like California so that blue populations can match red citizens in “Senator Power.” I have many doubts. But as Abraham Lincoln said about U.S. Grant, we can’t spare fellows like that. They fight.
This battle can only be won with agility. With maneuver. By using the adversary’s ponderous momentum against him. By appraising the advantages and weapons of those who hijacked American Conservatism, transforming it into a shambling zombie that would appall Barry Goldwater, William F. Buckley, or even Ronald Reagan — a tool of foreign tyrants, casino moguls, coal barons, petro-princes, Wall Street cheaters, tabloid pimps, mafiosi and resurgent Nazis — a cabal of forces who will end free enterprise as surely as they aim to finish off Enlightenment democracy and the impartial rule of law. Toward this goal they have refined a daunting array of effective tactics…
… that might yet be overcome and even turned to our advantage, with the political equivalent of judo, the art of using your opponents’ own aggressive momentum against them.
- By slashing the bonds (or lies) holding their coalition together. (The very thing they do to us.)
- By confronting our neighbors not with familiar chasms, but commonalities. Things you and they both know to be true.
- By understanding how so many basically decent people insulate themselves against appeals to compassion.
- By going to the root of their own catechisms, like Make America Great Again.
- By making explicit what the Fox News hosts and fellow travelers never say aloud, like their open war against all fact-using professions.
- By using actual outcomes to destroy their comfy narratives — like the claim that conservatives are the practical ones — by proving Democrats are vastly better against deficits, at engendering a healthy economy and even at fostering open-creative-competitive enterprise.
- By proving there is common ground, e.g. showing your neighbors that we were all raised by Hollywood themes like suspicion of authority and individual autonomy, even if we disagree over which authorities are trying for Big Brother.
- By going directly after the two traits they find so appealing about Donald Trump — first his brash bully-bravado and appearance of macho “strength”…
- … and second the way he enrages the same people who red-hat-wearing Americans hate most.
- By developing the one method that always corners them. A trick that makes a few opponents stop, think and reconsider… while sending the rest fleeing in panic and shame.
Oh, the list goes on and on. In Polemical Judo, I’ll shine light on not one, or ten, but as many as a hundred memes and counter-memes, tactics and stratagems, polemical riffs and/or smart missiles that have nearly all been ignored by our ‘generals’ — the candidates and consultants and commentators who we count on to confront this madness. I’ll suggest ways to counter effective cult catechisms like “fake news” and “deep state” and the blatant, all-out war against every fact-using profession.
If even one of these tools or tricks winds up being used well by some effective public figure, then this effort will be worthwhile.
An excerpt from the recently released Polemical Judo: Memes for Our Political Knife Fight. A brazen guide for sane Americans to bypass trench warfare and win our life and death struggle for civilization, by David Brin