Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

When you don't have a narrative, run on crime

By Jonathan Simon

As the U.S. heads toward its mid-term congressional elections next month there is not much evidence of national anxiety about crime, or even, despite recent government announcements about undefined threats to Europe, about its close cousin terrorism. With the nation still struggling through the worst employment market in decades and crime rates still quite low but modern standards, it is perhaps not surprising that neither party is making much noise about capital punishment, tough prison sentences, or new sex offender legislation.

Yet a closer look at the Democratic campaign, especially President Obama's recent forays into college campuses and unionized labor strongholds in an effort to excite his base, shows that the metaphors of crime continue to do much of the work of narrative. Case in point this week were the President's sustained attacks on the secret money being channeled into Republican campaigns almost certainly coming from large corporations hostile to his administration's recent regulatory efforts on Wall Street and beyond. The donors for those ads are now allowed to spend unlimited amounts of money on the campaign without any requirement of disclosure thanks to the Supreme Court decision last year striking down provisions of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law.

Watch the crime metaphors at work in the latest national Democratic party television advertisement, as reported by Peter Baker in the NYtimes [link not available yet].

The commercial calls Mr. Rove and Mr. Gillespie “Bush cronies” and says the chamber “shills for big business,” then shows a woman having her purse stolen by a mugger in a parking garage. “They’re stealing our democracy, spending millions from secret donors to elect Republicans to do their bidding in Congress,” the narrator intones. “It appears they’ve even taken secret foreign money to influence our elections.”>

If the Republicans had put up an add implying that stimulus spending to fight the recession was "stealing our democracy"and showing muggers (they would not even have to be African American) attacking a vulnerable woman in a park or parking garage, critics would have no problem seeing the crime metaphor as outweighing the headline policy issue- campaign finance- in its power to motivate voters. Race, of course, would be at work in such an anti-Obama advertisement; but it does not have to be, as here, rich and especially foreign criminals have just as much power in the American political imaginary as young African American males to scare citizens into wanting action. Of course they are a lot less available for being rounded up by the police, so you do not see many of them in prison (but when they show up, they serve long times, just ask Manuel Noreiga or Jonathan Pollard).

The point of such an ad is to motivate the voter with a blast of anger, disgust, and fear, that runs against the President's enemies, and roughly in the direction of his policy goals. But as decades of crime-based politics has already demonstrated, this kind of blast is remarkably unproductive in terms of governing. No doubt its purpose is to minimize what are almost certain to be big Democratic losses and thus retain the voting power in Congress necessary for President Obama to have any hope of moving a legislative agenda. Perhaps such a desperate move is all that remains this late into the campaign. But it did not have to be this way. President Obama and the Democrats in Congress this session, launched a new wave of regulatory law making as big as anything since the 1960s or the 1930s. The present economic crisis has brought out the need for innovative and determined regulation in a way not seen for decades. Americans got it (largely because Obama chose not to run primarily on fear and anger against the Republicans), and in 2008 gave the Democrats a real mandate to get started. In the face of a disciplined (one might have to say Leninist) opposition, they enacted major if flawed pieces of legislation to regulate the insurance industry, the financial industry, and got at least a start on energy laws that would regulate the oil industry. A reading of any history of the New Deal will demonstrate its first 2 years were just as flawed (and with much bigger, albeit racist Democratic majorities in Congress).

But the flaws were inevitable given our corrupt political campaign system, what is damning is the absence of a sustained effort to provide a positive narrative about these regulatory efforts that could have gone with a campaign to give us the Congress capable of completing the job. As Paul Krugman, Robert Reich, and many other liberal columnists and bloggers have repeatedly pointed out the President decided not to mount a major White House base campaign to support the idea of regulation after decades of the public being told by both parties that it was ineffective and inefficient, leading to perverse consequences and job losses. Not that the President has lacked moments and sound bytes, but no sustained campaign. Where was the Oval office speech on why a new generation of regulation, and getting that regulation right, was absolutely vital to creating good sustainable jobs for Americans?

The absence of that counter-narrative to the prevailing one laid down in the 1970s by both conservative Democrats like Jimmy Carter (yes, on economic policy) and Republicans like Ronald Reagan, meant that the legislation passed is now a weight around the necks of Democrats rather than momentum they could run on. The political losses for the President's program that we are likely to see on November 2 were forecast far earlier this summer when the nightmarish Gulf oil spill sunk Obama rather than unregulated global capitalism. The oil spill should have been a three-month infomercial on the dangers of unregulated global capitalism, instead it was taken as an example of how government always fails.

In the absence of that narrative, Obama's program is now a problem for his candidates, leaving corporate champions of unregulated capitalism, like Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina, to be within reach of beating solid Democrats like Barbara Boxer and Jerry Brown in liberal California. We know the President can speak to Americans of every education level about these kinds of deep structural issues. It will not be heard at this point in noisy and mostly loathsome campaign. I'm hoping for some version of it as a Hannukah (or early Christmas) present.

Cross-posted from Jonathan Simon’s Governing Through Crime.