By Michael Friedman
I don’t know what they have to say
It makes no difference anyway
Whatever it is, I’m against it
Your proposition may be good
But let’s have one thing understood:
Whatever it is, I’m against it
And even when you’ve changed it or condensed it
I’m against it
— Groucho Marx, from the film “Horse Feathers.”
The most fundamental division for how the Republican and Democratic parties project themselves to the public — for how they strive to be the more popular populists — is whether the driving goal is to do something to make life better, or avoid something so as to prevent life from getting worse.
The Democrats sell themselves for what they are for, and the Republicans for what they are against. Optimists and pessimists.
In the current election cycle — both state and national — the Republican strategy is to emphasize being against inflation, crime, and high gas prices, implying that voters who are also opposed to such things (which in fact would be nearly everyone) should naturally ally with them.
They do so with little, if any, argument about the approaches they would take to accomplish improvement in these areas. A generally uncritical media, which quotes but rarely challenges, furthers the subconscious messaging that if Republicans are against inflation, crime and high gas prices, their opponent, the Democrats, must be for those things.
Republican candidates avoid delving deeper, but when pushed their backers point to things they previously were against. For inflation, they cite Democratic bills aimed at being for the economic protection of those harmed by the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. Implying that such was solely responsible for inflation, while disregarding that countries all over the world unaffected by this legislation also suffered the inflation spike.
Meanwhile, there’s no word on what Republicans are for to reduce inflation during 2023-24 that is within the control of Congress. (Or, for that matter, the Minnesota Legislature and office of the governor.) No policy to debate. Enough to imply that whatever the Democrats may come up with, like Groucho Marx, they’re against it.
With crime, Republicans similarly emphasize the past, their chief talking point being that they are against defunding of police. No matter that crime has risen across the country irrespective of local politics, and that despite some radical Democratic rhetoric, there simply has not been any political action that succeeded in defunding police, locally or nationally. Ignored as well is that the current talk about defunding comes as frequently from radical Republicans concerning the FBI. (Again, only with rhetoric and not to this point through proposed legislation.)
Beyond that, Republicans seem to be against all criminal justice reforms, implemented or proposed, that have followed the mass incarceration spike of the 1990s.
What they are for can best be inferred as some sort of return to former strategies, a reset to undue changes they were against. Nothing new has been brought forth about what they are for. (Interestingly, a similar dynamic is playing out in the non-partisan Hennepin County attorney race, in which Martha Holton Dimick is promoted as the candidate against crime, subverting that both she and her opponent, Mary Moriarty, in fact reasonably differ about best prosecution practices for reducing the long-term potential for further crime.)
As for high gas prices, the Republicans do not even attempt to pretend they could have done something differently to avoid the run up. Now that prices have dived back below $4 per gallon, there are questions they would not be able to answer, such as: What governing approach from President Joe Biden allowed that? What was his earlier mistake that should not be repeated? (What Gov. Tim Walz could have done to influence the world oil market is an even bigger mystery.)
But let it be known that when it comes to high gas prices, (sing it) they’re against it!
It is fair to acknowledge that Republicans for many years have tended towards emphasizing the against — and not limited to issues for which agreement is near universal. Namely: opposition to reforms that Democrats have been for on the belief something better could be achieved.
Examples abound, but include: Enhanced consumer protections; more restrictive environmental regulations; better access for health insurance, a higher minimum wage. All things which carry costs and involve expanded public power, and therefore may reasonably be debated for overall cost/benefit.
The against emphasis holds even when it is Republicans who most seek change. Being for reduction in taxes is fully premised on being against a strong and deeply staffed public sector. Republicans favor school reform not because they have concrete ideas for how education approaches can be improved as much as that they are against the so-called monopoly of public education.
The tactic of always being against something appears to have made strong inroads. It is far less complicated to state what you are against than persuasively explain the new things you are for. The status quo, a known, can feel safer than change, an unknown.
It is certainly more common for a group to have a fun time bonding over criticism than over praise. In our current social media landscape — one in which both Republicans and Democrats rigorously seek to build strong feelings of in-group tribal loyalty — criticism, far more than praise, finds itself benefitting from the exponential echoes.
The current era is notably one of increasing anxiety and pessimism, reflected by a generational decline in the standard of living, reduced social interactivity, growing economic inequality, persistent racial, cultural and gender hostility, momentous environmental impacts from climate change, and so on — all on the heels of widespread damage caused by opioids and other abused drugs. Our time seems to be more conducive of pessimistic fears than optimistic hopes.
That’s not to say that Democrats can’t prevail in current or future elections, especially given widespread dislike of former President Donald Trump and the repugnant threat to democracy a component of his followers bring forward.
Beyond Trump, being the party always against carries risks when there are strong feelings for. Most recently demonstrated by Republicans struggling to defend reduced access to abortion and birth control. Or risks from the against wandering into conspiratorial extremes such as with vaccinations, COVID-19 safety measures, or honest education about racial history.
Still, it’s hard not to be pessimistic.
Michael Friedman is is the former executive director of the Legal Rights Center. He previously served as chair of the Minneapolis Civilian Police Review Authority, serving in that capacity for three years. He wrote this piece for the Minnesota Reformer, a sibling site of the Pennsylvania Capital-Star, where it first appeared.
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