Opinion Editorial: How to Win Politically as Artist-Progressives in the United States by Cara Ober
Way to go, America. You’ve finally done it.
You’ve elected a president worthy of H.L. Mencken’s famous 1920 quote:
“On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.”
Mencken (1880–1956) was a Baltimore-based journalist, satirist, critic, and lifelong Democrat. The quote is part of an editorial he wrote for the Baltimore Evening Sun published July 26, 1920, about strategic problems with presidential elections. Reading it now, all you have to do is insert the names Trump, Clinton, Obama, and Sanders instead of Harding, Roosevelt, Cox, and Jenkins. It’s chilling to discover how relevant Mencken’s political analysis is to our current situation.
More from the same essay:
“The first and last aim of the politician is to get votes, and the safest of all ways to get votes is to appear to the plain man to be a plain man like himself… To be filled to the brim with the flabby, banal, childish notions that challenge no prejudice and lay no burden of examination upon the mind.”
Act like a regular guy. Talk like a regular guy. Make voters feel smart. Offer entertaining and shallow platitudes. Sound familiar? Here’s some more. I promise this is leading somewhere.
“Of the two candidates, that one wins who least arouses the suspicions and distrusts of the great masses of simple men. The plain people are not hostile to shysterism, save it be gross and unsuccessful… They shy instantly and inevitably from the man who comes before them with notions that they cannot immediately translate into terms of their everyday delusions; they fear the novel idea, and particularly the revolutionary idea, as they fear the devil.”
Don’t introduce new or complicated ideas. Glorify the past as better times. Selling snake oil is totally fine. You should read the entire essay, but here’s my last quote.
“When a candidate for public office faces the voters he does not face men of sense; he faces a mob of men whose chief distinguishing mark is the fact that they are quite incapable of weighing ideas, or even comprehending any save the most elemental—men whose whole thinking is done in terms of emotion, and whose dominant emotion is dread of what they cannot understand.”
The mob needs an emotional slogan. They will mistrust anything they cannot immediately understand. Focus on simplicity and feelings. Fear is a base emotion.
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In his day, Mencken was a staunch progressive, a defender of the First Amendment and civil liberties. Mencken serves as a model for the kind of journalism our country needs right now, one that looks deeply into the underlying issues and isn’t afraid to call foul and explain why. This is the exact opposite of what we mostly received during this political campaign. I can understand why most of our established news media focused on the daily barrage/smoke screen of ignorant comments from our President-Elect, rather than the actual ISSUES that prove him, at his core, unfit for the Presidency. They wanted clicks and eyeballs. And they got them.
And now it’s too late. Media credibility is waning. Their soft-touch questions have given us little insight. Our large, established newspapers chose click-bait and sexy controversy over substance—basically following Trump’s every move—over that which is complex, serious, and ‘boring’ for readers. They also ignored a large swath of the voting population and gave everyone, including Trump, a false sense of inevitable success for Hillary Clinton. Big media is supposed to be a watchdog and they let us down. They basically offered the knee-jerk, emotional response to Trump that Mencken described.
I know it’s not completely their fault. The American populace overwhelmingly, on both sides, chose to read and believe fake news that reinforced their own prejudices over the actual facts that challenged it. In order to compete in a face-paced, no-fact-check media landscape, publications have to produce sensationalized headlines and shallow reporting to keep up.
Journalists with integrity, we need you now more than ever. Please stand up and give us the truth, no matter how boring or unsexy. I beg of you: please be boring and unsexy and please, readers, read every word, think carefully, and fact check.
Now that we are living in a new America, one where a reality TV star who never actually wanted to be president and made zero plans for the most important job in the world is now being forced to attend “boring” meetings and make detail-oriented decisions he appears to have little interest in.
Drawing by Jim Abts
Trump voters, you surprised all of us. You overwhelmingly chose style over substance, inexperience versus politics as usual, and hateful speech over… what? Bad emails? You evangelicals say you can forgive Trump for his nasty racist and sexist rhetoric, but you couldn’t forgive Hillary Clinton for being a woman in politics for 30 years.
I suspect you will not be happy in this new world where Paul Ryan is given free latitude to gut your Medicare, to take away your health insurance, to block all of Trump’s proposals on investing in infrastructure (same ones Obama has proposed for the past four years if you paid attention), and to take away the rights of your gay and brown friends and family. I hope it was worth it.
Although it is your fault for choosing the worst, potentially most corrupt (where are those tax forms?), and most unqualified candidate we’ve ever had, I realize that this is also the Democratic Party’s fault as well.
The Democrats did not pay enough attention to you. They didn’t come to your towns, visit your homes, or ask you what you needed. They didn’t bother to make you feel included in a progressive America that seemed to favor people who seem radically different than you.
Democrats are supposed to protect the little guy, but the neoliberal policies they supported have hurt you. It’s become increasingly apparent that many Democratic senators and congresspeople are bought and sold by big banks and businesses to the same degree that the Republicans are. The Clinton Foundation accepted millions of dollars from foreign governments, including a reported $10 to $25 million from Saudi Arabia, a country that gives women no legal rights and executes political dissidents, gay people, and non-violent criminals. It’s fair to ask why Saudi Arabia gave so much to the Clinton foundation and what they expected in return.
I get it. You chose Trump because he “couldn’t be bought” by foreign or special interests or the Koch brothers. He says he is beholden only to the American people and maybe he will choose his country over his personal business interests, but he hasn’t given any indication of this yet especially in his refusal to place business interests in a blind trust or release his taxes.
Whether it is true that Trump is independent and “un-bought” by special interests is irrelevant–it worked. The Democrats need to get a clue that this matters to voters. They should have listened when many of you supported the populist views of Social Democrat Bernie Sanders and said you didn’t trust Clinton’s political and foreign connections.
I’m still trying to understand how he won, and it’s more nuanced than this, but basically–Donald Trump made a big show of saying he’s got your back when the Democratic party seemed to ignore you. He offered you a scapegoat to blame for your frustrations and you allowed irrational suspicions to turn you against your fellow Americans.
You felt taken for granted and disrespected while the Democratic Party assumed that you knew that their policies are responsible for your healthcare, education, clean water, transportation, equal rights, protection from predatory business practices, and the government services you depend upon. In this campaign, the Democrats’ message was opaque and suspicious whereas the Republican’s message was simple. Democrats didn’t make enough effort to PROMOTE their true values and when you looked deeper, many of the top leaders in the Democratic party found ways to favor the interests of big business over yours. They didn’t take you seriously as voters.
Instagram photo by @weloveoakland
Those of us who are members of the Democratic party are to blame as well. We want radical and meaningful change, we want social justice, yet many of our elected leaders act against our interests, aligning with special interests and personally benefitting from them.
It’s our responsibility to choose new leaders with clean, clear voices, those who are not aligned with lobbyists and foreign entities. If our party continues to favor one presidential candidate over another during the primary season (this happens locally as well as nationally), instead of allowing for a healthy and unfettered primary contest, we are ignoring a process designed to select the strongest candidate in the current election cycle. We will keep losing. We have to hold the Democratic Party accountable.
The good news: Once we acknowledge culpability, we can be pragmatic and take ownership of the solution. Our future as a party and a political force of change sits squarely in our hands. The good thing is we have truth and actual progress on OUR side. It should be an easy sell, but it wasn’t this time. This is a wake up call!
All progressives should pay close attention to Mencken’s quotes about sending a clear, plainspoken, and compelling message to voters because the problem is (mostly) NOT our policies. It is many of our leaders who are corrupt. It’s also our messaging, branding, and communication which is, clearly ineffective, obsolete, elitist, and uninspiring.
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As an artist, I don’t have answers. I have a ton of questions and ideas though. I can offer limitless creative thinking, especially after drinking a lot of coffee, and a whole variety of communication slogans for ALL voters and so can you. The Democratic side needs fresh, clear messages. I’m going to throw out a few simple ideas in the hopes that other artists do the same.
AIR. WATER. JOBS.
How about that for a clear message? Does that work? How about just: JOBS? This is a slogan the American people will support. Can the Democrats or a strong third party candidate support this in a credible way? Can they step away from the neoliberal policies that have taken away American jobs and favor populist ones instead?
FUCK WALL STREET.
or, nicer version:
MAKE WALL STREET PAY THEIR FAIR SHARE.
How about that one?? Too many politicians in both parties sit in the pocket of Wall Street, lining their own bank accounts at the expense of the common folk. Can we get behind this movement, clean up corrupt banking systems, and get rid of any Democrat who chooses big banks over the people? The Democratic Party has sponsored Dodd-Frank and other new banking regulations after the financial collapse and Republicans are about to get rid of all of them. This constitutes a lot of research, possibly supporting grass roots candidates against established ones.
MAKE EACH VOTE COUNT.
Can we get behind Barbara Boxer’s petition to eliminate the Electoral College?? It’s a system designed to make presidential votes in small red states worth more than those in blue states. It was founded to convince slave-owning states to join the republic of the United States and the reason so many of our early slave-owning presidents came from Virginia. It’s only purpose now appears to be to dis-empower individual voters.
Republicans claim that “everyone should be equal” in attempts to get rid of affirmative action, so, in theory they should have no problem supporting this. The EC is the only vestige of a representative republic system we have left. All our other elections are democratic and count each vote equally.
For those who think the Electoral College is a benign balancing force that keeps red states in play against more populous blue states, I say this: If no one wants to live in your state, that’s no reason for your vote to count for more than mine. That’s like doing a terrible job on a homework assignment and being given an A while a perfect paper is given a failing grade.
Fix your problems, red states, and give people reasons to live there and then you’ll be an electoral force. Also, please stop building prisons as a solution to a lagging job market and using incarcerated people to increase your electoral votes. This is completely unethical.
EQUAL RIGHTS EQUAL OPPORTUNITIES.
Liberals and progressives have been on the right side of history for every major social ethical change—from slavery to Jim Crow to women’s rights to marriage equality. Why do Trump supporters feel they have not been treated equally in Obama’s America?? Why do they want to go back in time?? Why do they think the past was better than the present? How do we make them realize that we are the only party that will fight for them?? The first step is to actually do that instead of just saying it.
NATION OF IMMIGRANTS.
Why haven’t Democrats reached out to ALL kinds of Americans and asked them to tell their family’s immigration story? Every family (except Native Americans) has one. Why isn’t this a source of unity and pride among white and brown and asian Americans?? Can progressives and Democrats turn this narrative around to bring a majority of Americans together?
MAKE AMERICA KIND AGAIN.
FREE COLLEGE. NO STUDENT DEBT.
I BELIEVE IN SCIENCE.
HEALTHCARE IS A HUMAN RIGHT.
PEOPLE NOT CORPORATIONS.
THIS LAND IS OUR LAND.
CLEAN ENERGY=LESS CANCER.
STOP MASS INCARCERATION.
UNISEX BATHROOMS. END OF STORY.
MARRIAGE IS FOR LOVE.
DRAIN THE SWAMP. (oh wait. that one’s taken…)
I’m sure that most of you can come up with better slogans than me, but you get the idea. As Mencken said, it’s clear that American voters need simple and clear ideas that are compelling and emotional, without being too radical. Slogans need to be true, but more importantly need to be emotive. Who better than artists, designers, and creatives to conceive these ideas and design them SPECIFICALLY for Trump voters with a mob mentality?
This is the challenge. We’ve all been preaching to the choir for too long. We liberal blue-staters have insulated ourselves too much, been too comfortable, and the result is Donald Effing Trump as President. We don’t need to convince ourselves—we need to convince those who voted against us and their own interests that we want them to join our side, the good side.
I’m not saying that I’m not mad as hell and completely resentful of those who picked Trump over their own moral compass and better judgment… What I am saying is I WANT TO WIN NEXT TIME.
For this to happen, we have to play the game better than the other side. This means we cannot lock ourselves in a blue bubble. We have to engage. We have to reach Trump voters in respectful, empathetic, and compassionate ways. We have to ask them what they want and convince them that our side is on the right side of history—and honestly, this shouldn’t be that hard considering it’s the truth.
This isn’t fair. The ship of fairness has sailed. We live in a country where one candidate received 1.4 MILLION more votes for president than the other and was declared the loser. Fair is irrelevant. We have to be pragmatic because there is too much to lose.
Artists, how can you craft a message that can reach into the hearts of emotional and suspicious Middle American voters? How can we reach the mob that forms much of our electorate and give them a resounding chant that we can be proud of??
What can you do to simplify, emotionalize, and energize a progressive message in a way that unites, rather than shames or divides? We clearly need to start a revolution, but we are not going to win if we don’t evangelize the non-believers.
Art and design have an awesome responsibility in this game. Our country needs us.
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Author Cara Ober is Founding Editor at BmoreArt.
Trump drawing by Jim Abts, a 94-year old retired Army Colonel who fought in WWII, Korea and Vietnam. He is also a political cartoonist and author. More at www.jimabts.com.
Posters by ForFreedoms, an artist-based Super PAC founded by Hank Willis Thomas and Eric Gottesman.
Collages by Barbara Kruger and courtesy of Wiki-images.