The Campaign Spot

How Many Americans Like a Message of Pity?

Dan Riehl waves a red flag, warning that the public at large may be much more receptive to Michelle Obama’s “every woman I know… is struggling to keep her head above water” lament: “If the GOP doesn’t understand how these themes resonate with the middle class, particularly women in this case – they’re doomed come November.”
Dan may be right. But we’ve heard similar messages from John Kerry. And John Edwards. And Al Gore. And a lot of other Democrats running for a variety of offices, sometimes successful, sometimes not.
Many people like to whine. But very few like to hear other people whine.
Americans may nod in agreement when somebody tells them they’ve never had it so bad. Nostalgia may obscure the memories of times of higher unemployment, higher interest rates, higher crime rates, more widespread drug use, gas lines, welfare unrerformed, social upheaval, riots, shorter lifespans, higher infant mortality rates, higher divorce rates, and so on.
But when someone whose household income was $980,000 the previous year tells them that she’s never had it so bad, I’m not so sure they’ll nod in assent.
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Though I have no doubts in the power of the siren’s call of self-pity:

When chief executives are routinely paid tens of millions of dollars a year and a hedge fund manager can collect $1 billion annually, those with a few million dollars often see their accumulated wealth as puny, a reflection of their modest status in the new Gilded Age, when hundreds of thousands of people have accumulated much vaster fortunes.

That’s from an article on ‘single digit millionaires in Silicon Valley,’ which the Times notes, “Certainly their numbers reach into the tens of thousands.”
But even if someone concludes that the economy of 2008 is the hardest ever (a claim that ought to bring slaps of rebuke from survivors of the Great Depression), there’s a second part of that’s needed to close the deal, and I think it’s a harder sell: ‘Everything’s going to hell in a handbasket, but my husband can fix it.’
Beyond that, we ought not forget the people who may not find this ‘things are the worst ever, and only my husband can help you’ message so stirring. This message encapsulates a lot of the left’s worst traits – the victimology, the promotion and teaching of learned helplessness, and ironically the refutation of self-help and empowerment, which are supposed to be Obama’s themes.
This perennial Democratic message, that only electing their guy can bring back opportunity and the chance for the good life, has to essentially argue that anybody else’s messages of optimism, opportunity, and don’t-fence-me-in freedom are lies for the naïve.
This argument is essentially, ‘you can’t get ahead, and the reason why is because George W. Bush has been in office the past seven years.’
Will some people find that reassuring? Sure. This message tells them whatever is dissatisfying about their life, it isn’t their fault. It’s not that they didn’t work hard enough, or apply themselves, or learn the right skills in a changing economy. It isn’t that they didn’t look for a better job, or see what was required to get that better job, or set out with determination to make a better life for themselves. It’s not that they made bad decisions with an adjustable rate mortgage, or that they brought more house than they could afford, or ran up credit-card debt they couldn’t pay.
But a lot of Americans will know better, and they’ll know it when they look into the mirror. And if Americans were really enthusiastic about government-sponsored pity, we would have had a taxpayer-funded bailout for folks defaulting on their mortgages by now.
And what’s more, that ‘you can’t achieve without Obama’ message is refuted every day by the experiences of ordinary Americans. Who go out and start their own businesses. Who strive and take risks, who do not mistake delays in their goals for denials, who know how to bounce back from setbacks and frustrations and failures, who get back up when life kicks them off the horse.
I mentioned my writings of Thursday to Mrs. CampaignSpot, who’s inclined to disagree with me from time to time (but only on days ending with a ‘y’). Initially, I heard quite a bit about how I didn’t get it, how she and her girlfriends were just talking about how they never seem to have enough time in the day, how women experience a thousand little worries, doubts, and anxieties on a daily basis.
Then I asked if she would ever speak before an audience and tell people about how she was ‘struggling to keep her head above water.’ She recoiled and said never; the Mrs. is a proud woman with a spine of steel; she doesn’t run around bewailing her problems to anyone who will listen.
This year, one side of the aisle is offering a pity party. Some Americans may wish to partake. But I’m not

sure you get to 270 electoral votes with a message that is really the inverse of his slogan: “No, You Can’t, At Least Not Without Me.”

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