First of all, I stand by my title fully and totally. I know that coming off of the Venezuela is the Lady Gaga of the United Nations article that I run the risk of overloading on pop culture references far too early in this blog’s life. But I have an article on China’s potential naval future that’s almost done, and I wanted something light before I drop that heavy knowledge on you.
Onward. Before continuing with this post, if you have never listened to mashup artist Greg Gillis, BKA Girl Talk, stop reading. Go download his albums right now. I’ll wait. I don’t care if you don’t think you like mashups, you’ll love this. Girl Talk’s music consists almost entirely of samples of another songs, that have been spliced and remixed and blended together into all new songs. Over the years he’s gotten tremendously good at it, to the point that I can’t listen to some of the songs he samples with then immediately progressing on to the next few bars of his version.
When listening to all this though, all you hear is great music. When you listen to it on somewhere like Mashup Breakdown that actually details all the pieces that went into the work, you start to get a better understanding of the parts that make it up, things that you never would have thought would go together, like Queen and the Jackson 5.
All of this is to say that this seemingly effortless blending of what were once unrelated into something new and lasting is something that the Democrats as of late have been horrible at. I don’t just mean their general messaging, which is always rocky at best. I’m specifically talking about their foreign policy messaging.
Take for a starter yesterday’s killing of US-born cleric cum al-Qaeda frontman Anwar Al-Awlaki in Yemen. No matter how you stand on the matter, the fact is that his death is something that in the past Republicans would base whole campaigns around. The 2004 presidential elections were based almost entirely on national security matters, with the view that Republicans absolutely trounced the Democrats when it comes to protecting the country. Now with yet another terrorist leader on the big “We Got ‘Im” board that I’m sure exists on the Situation Room’s wall, posted right under Osama bin Laden, President Obama can be seen as a true leader when it comes to keep us safe, right? Nope.
Like it or not, the Democrats have had a very difficult time of connecting their myriad policies into anything cohesive. What they need to get much better at is taking areas where they have traditionally been strong and blending them with where they have been seen as weak, using the former to bolster the latter and give new credence to their ideas overall. A policy mashup, if you will.
But how could this be done, you ask? What are some areas that would be an ideal testing of this notion? I’m glad you asked. What really got me thinking about this as a whole is the stunning inability of the Democrats to reframe the climate change debate. For the last decade, the overarching narrative of the green movement has been the case of hippies who care more about owls than people versus businesses that just want to keep Americans employed and can’t do so under tons of environmental regulations. This is an extremely stupid narrative, one that denies that climate change even exists, but it’s latched onto the American psyche like a bear trap.
Attempts by the Democrats to take this movement and mix it with their strength on the economy has failed, as a case where two positives somehow make a negative. Yes, the Democrats have had a traditional advantage on economic issues, and yes, there is no disputing the Democratic leadership on climate matters. Democrats pushed hard on the notion that investment in cleaning up the environment would produce more jobs and help pull the US out of recession. The two strengths in tandem, however, only led to an easy opening for Republicans to tar the Waxman-Markey bill as more Democratic tax and spending, playing right into their trap of allowing the right to claim that there were no good ideas for the recovery of the economy.
I think that a new approach is needed. The Democrats have to find a way to take traditional policies and ideas and intertwine them in areas that President Obama is seen currently as virtually unassailable: foreign policy. Absolutely nobody thought that this would be the conventional wisdom a little over a year out of the 2012 election, but here we are. The Republicans are inevitably going to nominate someone with little foreign policy experience and, odd as it may seem, they are going to take a pounding for it. More to come on that in pending posts.
So we have President Obama speaking from a place of strength on national security, but where does that leave economic measures and environmentalists? This is where the Girl Talk model comes in. Economic issues are often spoken of by Democrats as a matter of fairness and equality, breaking down barriers, and a society where everyone is looking out for everyone else, which I totally agree with. But that message is just is not hitting home for voters right now, no matter how basically it is stated. What needs to happen is a greater emphasis on the economic state of the United States as a national security issue. This has been done in fits and starts such as by now-former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, and more often by Republicans like Jon Huntsman, but these statements tend to indicate that the size of the national debt is the only piece that actually counts against us in security terms. In reality, the United States’ greatest strength lies in its economic potential, not its military resources, because without the former we find ourselves as a much larger version of the DPRK, all muscle with no skeleton to back it up.
Obama’s American Jobs Act has been said to have the potential to forestall another recession and raise the the country’s GDP by at least a small amount in the coming year. All of this puts the US in a much safer position in security terms than if we were to enter another period of negative growth. President Obama’s barnstorming across the country, though, has been couched in the language of Democrats in the past: “It isn’t class warfare, it’s math”. Which is great and all, but doesn’t have the same impact as “this bill will keep us all safe”.
The same thing can be said of the environmental movement. If you really want to jump-start efforts towards climate change legislation, it needs to be played up as a matter affecting our national security. The fact of the matter is that as climate change alters environments around the world, we are going to see a massive amount of migration and shifting of state borders, as some states such as the Maldives are set to disappear all together as waters rise. Rising temperatures also forewarn of more desertification and greater food insecurity. These things lead to greater instability and increase the very factors that make extremism and terrorism appealing to youth across the globe. When everything is awful, why not use violence to attempt to make things better, especially violence against the place that seems like it managing to be the greatest contributor to but least affected by climate change. Forestalling climate change needs to be rightly labeled as a top security concern.
Finally, education reform could also stand with being remixed and advanced in a national security light. The US still has the greatest number of top institutions of higher education in the world. But the country is continuing to drop lower and lower on scales of countries with students that excel in math and science. The system has been broken for years, but education has been and remains a top concern for Democrats. What needs to be said to really drive this home would be something along the lines of: “America has succeeded because America has long had the smartest people, the most able people, working diligently to further our advances in the sciences and in turn making life better for us all. Without American advancing in computing, the smartphone in your hand would not exist. Without the men and women of the Manhattan Project, there would have been no atomic bomb, preventing the deaths of thousands of soldiers in World War II. The United States remains the most advanced technological society on earth, and for us to continue to our way of life against those who would do us harm, we must retain that position”. To allow our students to stagnate should be seen as a risk that the United States simply can’t take.
This new approach wouldn’t be a magic bullet to Democratic messaging woes, obviously, and could be met with calls of “fear-mongering” by the right, which I would find a delicious irony. In my view, investing in ourselves and our future has to be considered of the utmost priority to any real US security strategy. I further think this blending of ideas is a way that could get the Democrats to finally achieve some of what both liberal and moderate members of their party have been craving for the last three years. In turn, foreign policy and international security need to be viewed in a broader framework than the bombs and bullets dominated work of the past.
Granted, there are some Democrats working in foreign policy that believe this as well and are working on their own innovative ways to make this happen. Alec Ross’ work at the Department of State comes to mind, using social media as a way to make foreign policy operate better. But Mr. Ross works more in the background; you don’t really see him on the Sunday morning talk shows. Further, what I’m thinking is less operational and more big picture, the sort of thing that we saw in the development of the Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review under Secretary Clinton to match up with the Quadrennial Defense Review over at DoD, but with a greater public face to it.
So where does that leave the Democrats? As of this moment, nowhere. Instead of finding new mashups to put out and make into earworms, enticing people to view their ideas from a new angle, we see them playing their Greatest Hits collection. Unfortunately, fewer and fewer people seem to be listening, and rehashing the same old songs just make it easier for their sounds to be cancelled out by the GOP. All of this spells trouble not just for Democrats but the United States as a whole.