Over fall break I spent two hours watching Daniel Craig (a.k.a. James Bond) go toe-to-toe with an egomaniacal killer bent on world domination. In Bond’s universe, this is standard fare, but I didn’t think the overblown evilness of a 007 villain existed in reality until a day or two later, when I read a piece in The New Yorker entitled “Covert Operations: The Billionaire Brothers Who are Waging a War Against Obama.” The article, by Jane Mayer, is an exposé of Charles and David Koch, libertarian brothers who are using innocent-sounding organizations like “Americans for Prosperity” to funnel massive sums toward a Republican victory on Nov. 2. Their overall goal, as an anonymous supporter tells it, is to “tear government out at the root.” Beyond their anti-government mission, the Koch’s are wacky extremists who think that global warming benefits humanity by causing longer growing seasons in the Northern Hemisphere. They’re also dangerous hypocrites: David, for instance, sits on the National Cancer Advisory Board even as his company lobbies the U.S. government to keep the cancer-causing chemical formaldehyde on the market. In short, the Koch’s are perfect villains. And unlike James Bond’s enemies, they’re meddling in the midterm elections, which makes them targets for a lot of anger from Democrats looking at increasingly grim polling reports.
After all, in less than a week Nancy Pelosi will most likely get tossed from the speaker’s chair, Washington, D.C. will be returned to the throes of divided government, and glum Democrats will be looking for someone to blame. Who could be better scapegoats than the Koch’s and other powerful corporate special interest groups whose funds and fear-mongering propaganda are propelling a Republican resurgence? This is the type of plot that James Bond writers rehash every four years or so. Karl Marx would also recognize this story, though he’d couch it in different terms (“The Story of How the Ruling Class Obscured the Proletariat’s True Economic Interests by Manipulating its Consciousness”). Bond plus Marx offers a catch-all explanation for the conservative resurgence and draws a nice clean line in the sand between manipulated masses and shadowy supervillain. Unsurprisingly, pundits from the left are already jumping on the bandwagon, claiming that the Tea Party is not really a populist movement but actually a corporate one. In the words of New York Times columnist Frank Rich, the “populist surge” is actually a “billionaire’s coup.” Expect the Rupert Murdoch-bashing to begin soon.
But this storyline—that revived conservatism is a product of elite manipulation—flies in the face of facts. Yes, corporate interests have joined forces with the Tea Partiers, holding information sessions across the country to give protestors “talking points” and teach them to stay “on message.” But this does not mean that Charles Koch and his friends started the movement or provided the preconditions for its existence. Crazy claims about impending socialist doom don’t take root unless there’s a gaping message vacuum. This points to an uncomfortable truth for Democrats: despite passing the most impressive legislative agenda since the Great Society, they’ve been unable to sell that legislation compellingly to the public.
This failure is not, as so many people claim, because Republicans play dirtier politics, though they often do. It’s because, for better or for worse, conservative economic principles resonate more with what most Americans understand to be national values. For instance, consider the oft-quoted line from the Declaration of Independence: that all people have the right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” This is pretty individualistic stuff, and it fits right into the platform of a party whose current message to government is “don’t tread on me.” Democrats, on the other hand, might prefer the last sentence of the Declaration, in which the signers “mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.” These closing words recognize the importance of dependence and self-sacrifice, the idea that to thrive collectively we must each contribute something to the general welfare. They’re also a lot less famous than the first lines.
Abstract as it may seem, ideology—the strands that are emphasized and those that are ignored—has concrete effects on Americans’ views of how their money should be spent. According to sociologist Everett Carl Ladd, only 23 percent of Americans (compared to 57 percent of British respondents) believe it is the government’s responsibility “to take care of very poor people who can’t take care of themselves.” Additionally, Ladd finds that Americans are “much less disposed than Europeans” to believe that “it should be government’s responsibility to … provide a decent standard of living for the unemployed.” It’s clearly a tough sell for Nancy Pelosi to persuade U.S. citizens, who don’t take kindly to the thought that they’re supposed to part with their hard-earned dollars for less-fortunate compatriots, to pay for 30 million more people to receive health care. It’s a lot easier to wave the bloody flag of socialism, tyrannical government, and individual rights, Glenn Beck-style.
This is the turf on which the support of the American electorate will be won or lost—it’s a war over values and worldview. Changing the focus from the right to pursue life, liberty, and happiness to a focus on our natural interdependence and duties toward one another is no easy task, but the Democrats have been blessed with opponents who are stretching the language of individualism to its breaking point. And they’re about to receive the unlikely gift of two years of divided power during which major legislative accomplishments will be scarce. In other words, liberals will have time to refine their message. But Democrats must first recognize that their current predicament does not result from supervillains poisoning the cultural waters. The Tea Party movement isn’t actually a “billionaire’s coup.” It’s a product of pre-existing norms and conventions, which are far more challenging enemies than Dr. No.