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Whistling past four graveyards in a row is probably gonna leave your lips a bit chapped

5 min read

I don't like to argue with people in comment threads. Never have. The first reason for that is that I figure that as a writer, writing a thing means I've said my piece, and if I haven't said my piece clearly enough then that's on me, not on the reader. The second reason is that once you're on staff, anywhere at all, you've got a profile that's high enough that "arguing" could easily be considered "bullying." So my general advice has always been: Stay out of it. Disagreement doesn't mean you suck, and it doesn't necessarily mean you didn't make your point. It means you got people thinking, and thinking hard enough that they want to spend their time poking at what you've said. That's good!

So I don't particularly mind that some folks at Ye Olden Place were pretty put out by the crosspost of my warnings that no, actually, there are a lot of signs to suggest that defeating the Great Fascist Pumpkin in November may not be the walk in the park that many are presuming it to be. I don't see how anyone could walk through the 2016 elections and not be wary of the power of the press to throw races or of the deep, deep public dissatisfaction with politics and politicians in general—but there are a lot of people who don't think it will be a deciding factor this time, and that's something worth having a spirited debate over.

But there are a few alarming trends, and they're the same things I talked about in my previous airing of grievances. There were several folks who declared, in response to a warning that economic frustrations were a real-world thing and not just a made-up right wing talking point, that I was bringing them made-up right-wing talking points. I mean, I don't know what to tell you. I personally know a hell of a lot of people who have been left behind in this Greatest Economy Ever, and if you think all those folks are right wing talking points then I'm gonna need my next post to be an explanation of what the term "median" means. It means half the dots are above the line, and half the dots are below it.

Telling those lower dots that they don't exist or don't count is a very good way to come across as an ivory tower egghead, except ivory tower eggheads do understand what the term "median" means and do understand in statistical survey as large as the Entire United States Population you are going to have big, big pockets of people who aren't seeing the economic windfalls you're telling them about and who think you are lying if you insist to them that actually they're doing just fine. That's the point. That messaging requires a bit more deftness than declaring that everything is Amazing now, full stop, everyone shut up. Biden's team seems, thankfully, to understand that. I'm not convinced that his would-be surrogates do.

That leads to the second alarming trend, an ever-growing notion that well, if these lower-income Americans or rural Americans or working-three-jobs Americans aren't doing as well because inflation is hitting them proportionally harder than increased wages can offset then oh well, they're not gettable anyway. They don't count.

Hoo boy are we in trouble if that becomes conventional Democratic wisdom. We're rapidly running out of constituencies to court if we're tossing "everyone who's currently unsatisfied" into the don't-care woodchipper.

Why does Donald Trump continue to be a public thing? Because the people who keep getting left behind are exactly the sort of people who can be made susceptible to blowhard, hate-filled populism; they're people who are pretty sure that none of the people making government decisions give a damn about them, so why not vote for a raging asshole who promises to tear it all up out of spite. We've been there. Twice. And even among those not willing to go that far, because they're pretty sure the raging asshole is just a racist tax-dodging con artist, those people aren't as eager as you think they are to vote for a party that says they don't count, they don't exist, or that they're lying about their own anxieties.

Democrats should be courting those unsatisfied people like mad. Tell them that prices are high because boardroom ratbastards are gouging people! Tell them rents are high because a bunch of rich people got together to put the screws to the market! Tell angry voters that they are right, they are getting cheated nearly every time a new bill comes in the mail, and that their fake-ass Republican populist leaders have been getting a cut of the take and that's why nothing's getting done! People who are satisfied don't need to be convinced to vote for Biden, they're already likely to do it. It's the unsatisfied people who need a push.

A populist movement is best defeated with a countermovement that successfully undermines its premises and shows an alternate path forward. Where is that countermovement? It's currently huddled in a corner reassuring itself that sure, the wealthy, they press, the Republican Party, and a big chunk of the American population all want democracy to be trimmed for the sake of establishing a pseudotheocratic oligarchy, but women angry about losing federal abortion protections can probably defeat all those foes handily once the campaign really gets cooking so we're probably still good. I mean I hope so but ... yikes.

I will never understand why Democrats are allergic to tapping public anger—except in this one case, where it's obvious. Saying any of those mean truths about who's gouging who will get every billionaire in America dumping money into Republican campaigns while cutting off Democratic ones; it'll be every fascist for himself, if there's a serious chance of returning to Reagan-era tax rates or of making serious consumer-focused reforms. But to me that seems a reason for liberal activists to tread that ground without Democratic support, rather than doubling down on the (irritatingly pretentious) tradition of telling left-behind cities and towns that f'k it, you don't count.

So that's where my alarm is coming from. Among the onliners currently poking at the what the hell are we even supposed to be doing here question, Atrios is probably the closest to my own cranky views—and I haven't seen many others. We're supposed to shut up about mass starvation in Gaza, we're supposed to tell the folks who have been left behind in this economic boom that their anxieties don't count, and we've largely given up on pressuring the press even as they write about Trump's "triumphant" return to the building he almost got Mike Pence murdered in. What's left is a precariously narrow message, and one that that brushes off a lot of Americans who were part of Biden's previous victory.

So yes, to me this feels more like 2016 than 2020. There's an enormous amount of public frustration out there, and voters are notoriously bad at making rational decisions on who to take their anger out on. We seem to be meeting that frustration mostly with insistences that it doesn't matter or isn't real, and ... yeah, I don't think that's a message that a urgently needed Democratic landslide can be built on. We're gonna want to at least focus group that one before sending it out on postcards.


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