To Win Support In Wiretap Debate, Dems Should Talk about 'Rot at the Top' One of the most important progressive values is 'protection.'The key to winning the debate about the President's illegal wiretapping program could be to shift the discussion...

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Jeffrey Feldman, Editor-in-Chief
Frameshop, 01/25/2006

To Win Support In Wiretap Debate, Dems Should Talk about 'Rot at the Top'

One of the most important progressive values is 'protection.'The key to winning the debate about the President's illegal wiretapping program could be to shift the discussion from the language of 'privacy' and 'The Constitution' to the question of a 'rotten' President who is 'raiding' our lives.

The key to this idea is a wonderful essay written by Robert Reich about the "Four Stories" that Democrats need to reclaim to gain back the majority of the American electorate.

According to Reich, these 'four stories' have been around for a long time in American politics.  I include a few long passages from the Reich piece (emphasis in the text is mine), but encourage everyone to read it in its entirety:

There are four essential American stories. The first two are about hope; the second two are about fear.

The Triumphant Individual. This is the familiar tale of the little guy who works hard, takes risks, believes in himself, and eventually gains wealth, fame, and honor. It's the story of the self-made man (or, more recently, woman) who bucks the odds, spurns the naysayers, and shows what can be done with enough gumption and guts. He's instantly recognizable: plainspoken, self-reliant, and uncompromising in his ideals--the underdog who makes it through hard work and faith in himself. Benjamin Franklin's Autobiography is the first in a long line of U.S. self-help manuals about how to make it through self-sacrifice and diligence. The story is epitomized in the life of Abe Lincoln, born in a log cabin, who believed that "the value of life is to improve one's condition." The theme was captured in Horatio Alger's hundred or so novellas, whose heroes all rise promptly and predictably from rags to riches. It's celebrated in the tales of immigrant peddlers who become millionaire tycoons. And it's found in the manifold stories of downtrodden fighters who undertake dangerous quests and find money and glory. Think Rocky Balboa, Norma Rae, and Erin Brockovich. The moral: With enough effort and courage, anyone can make it in the United States.

The Benevolent Community. This is the story of neighbors and friends who roll up their sleeves and pitch in for the common good. Its earliest formulation was John Winthrop's "A Model of Christian Charity," delivered on board a ship in Salem Harbor just before the Puritans landed in 1630--a version of Matthew's Sermon on the Mount, in which the new settlers would be "as a City upon a Hill," "delight in each other," and be "of the same body." Similar communitarian and religious images were found among the abolitionists, suffragettes, and civil rights activists of the 1950s and 1960s. "I have a dream that every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low," said Martin Luther King Jr., extolling the ideal of the national community. The story is captured in the iconic New England town meeting, in frontier settlers erecting one another's barns, in neighbors volunteering as firefighters and librarians, and in small towns sending their high school achievers to college and their boys off to fight foreign wars. It suffuses Norman Rockwell's paintings and Frank Capra's movies. Consider the last scene in It's a Wonderful Life, when George learns he can count on his neighbors' generosity and goodness, just as they had always counted on him.

The Mob at the Gates. In this story, the United States is a beacon light of virtue in a world of darkness, uniquely blessed but continuously endangered by foreign menaces. Hence our endless efforts to contain the barbarism and tyranny beyond our borders. Daniel Boone fought Indians--white America's first evil empire. Davy Crockett battled Mexicans. The story is found in the Whig's anti-English and pro-tariff histories of the United States, in the antiimmigration harangues of the late nineteenth century, and in World War II accounts of Nazi and Japanese barbarism. It animates modern epics about space explorers (often sporting the stars and stripes) battling alien creatures bent on destroying the world. The narrative gave special force to cold war tales during the '50s of an international communist plot to undermine U.S. democracy and subsequently of "evil" empires and axes. The underlying lesson: We must maintain vigilance, lest diabolical forces overwhelm us.

The Rot at the Top. The last story concerns the malevolence of powerful elites. It's a tale of corruption, decadence, and irresponsibility in high places--of conspiracy against the common citizen. It started with King George III, and, to this day, it shapes the way we view government--mostly with distrust. The great bullies of American fiction have often symbolized Rot at the Top: William Faulkner's Flem Snopes, Willie Stark as the Huey Long-like character in All the King's Men, Lionel Barrymore's demonic Mr. Potter in It's a Wonderful Life, and the antagonists that hound the Joad family in The Grapes of Wrath. Suspicions about Rot at the Top have inspired what historian Richard Hofstadter called the paranoid style in U.S. politics--from the pre-Civil War Know-Nothings and Anti-Masonic movements through the Ku Klux Klan and Senator Joseph McCarthy's witch hunts. The myth has also given force to the great populist movements of U.S. history, from Andrew Jackson's attack on the Bank of the United States in the 1830s through William Jennings Bryan's prairie populism of the 1890s.

Speak to these four stories and you resonate with the tales Americans have been telling each other since our founding

(Read Robert Reich's entire essay here )

The President has become the embodiment of 'Rot at the Top' in his 5 years as President, and the NSA wiretapping problem is part of his decline into immorality.  The strategy of talking about the wiretapping using 'rotten' and 'raiding' is to emphasize this basic American narrative.

It is true that the court proceedings, when they come, will unfold in the more technical Constitutional idioms of 'privacy' and Presidential authority,' but the electorate speaks in a different language.  When they listen to the debate, they are looking for basic answers to basic questions:  Is the President good or bad?  Is American safe or in danger? 

"A rotten President raiding our lives."

© 2006 Jeffrey Feldman

© Jeffrey Feldman 2006, Frameshop

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