"Slarrow" refers to the "slings and arrows of outrageous fortune" from Hamlet's soliloquy. Here are the chronicles of such darts and whatever attempt there may be to take arms against such a sea of troubles.

Location: Ozarks, United States

Monday, December 06, 2004

Silk Purses and Sow's Ears

Rush alerted me to this story (more on it here). Apparently the Democrats are having a Berkeley professor named George Lakoff come speak to them about the importance of "framing" their issues the right way to make more palatable to the populace. Lakoff claims the Republicans have essentially won through a thirty-year program of clever marketing, good storytelling, and message discipline. (Michael Moore thinks much the same thing when he claims that Republicans just told a better story than Democrats did.)

If this is the way the Democrats plan to regain political power, it's doomed to fail. Short answer: you can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear.

The long answer goes something like this. What Democrats are having difficulty coming to grips with is the fact that their ideas are old and tired, the implementation of those ideas usually falls short of the mark, and that people have been rejecting their ideas as a result. The other fork of this dilemma is that some of their ideas worked so well that they solved the bulk of the problem; instead of moving on, though, the ideas lingered past their prime. In either case, their ideas do not offer solutions for today's and tomorrow's problems.

Yet Democrats fail to recognize this. Rather, they dwell on past glories, plump up the same old stuff, and get angry when today's electorate doesn't care about their solutions any more. Part of this, I think, is generational, stemming from the extraordinary narcissism of the public face of the Baby Boom generation. To accept that the civil rights and women's rights movement have served their purpose, that well-meaning attempts to end poverty and war were dangerously flawed and destructive, and that sexual policies that seemed right at 20 are ridiculous at 50...well, to accept that, a number of them will also have to accept that their youth is gone and that they are growing old. That's especially telling if one's hopes for redemption and purpose are limited to this world, and there's not enough time to try new stuff if they want to see the Promised Land before they die.

Another aspect, of course, is that to rethink the ideas and calibrate them to the actual needs of constituents means two admissions. It means that Democrats must acknowledge that they are the minority party and must take some risks to get back into power. Institutionally and structurally, this is devastating because so much of the Democrats' infrastructure and power blocs are based on having the power to get things done. To admit their minority status is to fracture their basic coalitional nature.

It also means that some of them must admit that some of the things they believe are wrong. This is troubling because for many liberals (that are Democrats), they seem to have the notion that what they believe makes them better than other people. I think this is a major source for the vitriol and condescension that can come from the Left. To be shown that something they believe in strongly is false or counterproductive is to diminish themselves in their own eyes. Conservatives, by and large, do not suffer from this. If they're shown to be wrong, they chalk it up to experience and move on. (Their vitriol stems from other motivations.) Thus while George W. Bush could shrug off his youthful indiscretions as being "young and irresponsible", John Kerry just could not repudiate his statements before the Senate, despite the extant evidence and the political pressures.

So this is the Democrats' challenge. Their solutions are geared toward old problems. Some of those problems have largely been solved; in the last 40 years, the air and water have become a lot cleaner, and most of the artificial obstacles in the way of blacks and women got knocked down. Others got worse because of the old solutions; not only did poverty not go away, the effort to fix it essentially destroyed the inner-city black family, leading to poor schools, crime, and illegitimacy. Finally, the old solutions were built around a different world with different rules. There was a Soviet Union, it was East v. West in Europe, Asia meant Vietnam, and terrorism hadn't yet emerged. Those solutions cannot be "adapted" to today's circumstances; they have to be thrown out and reformulated from first principles. They need new solutions to today's challenges.

Yet with this Lakoff attempt to rebrand the Democratic party using new terms, the Democrats show they still don't get it. They think dressing up the old stuff in new clothes will do the trick. They ignore two realities here. First, this has already been tried. Using language to frame the issues in the most advantageous way was the secret of Bill Clinton's "success." When it comes to terminology, does this professor have anything better than calling tax increases "contributions", government spending "investments", and lying under oath "protecting the Constitution"? Bill Clinton was great at "framing the issues", but his party still lost Congress and governships by the boatload. There are all kinds of examples over the past 12 years of Democrats aggressively defining terms and framing issues their own way, and it still hasn't worked.

The second and most critical reality they ignore is the good sense of the voters who get impatient and irritated when politicians try to pull the wool over their eyes. In a longer interview from 2003, this Lakoff guy seems to think that people will buy into whatever side has the cleverer slogans or more compelling story; it's just that the Republicans have been more clever lately. Not only does this show disrespect to folks' ability to decide something based on the merits, it also confuses effect with cause. It's not the crafted delivery that make the message popular; it's the people who make the message popular because they like and believe it.

For instance, Lakoff says that the conservative position on taxes is, "So, add 'tax' to 'relief' and you get a metaphor that taxation is an affliction, and anybody against relieving this affliction is a villain." The other position, he claims, should be, "Taxes are what you pay to be an American...[A]re you paying your dues, or are you trying to get something for free at the expense of your country?" I'm sure he'll be surprised when people continue to support a lower-tax position instead of one that tells people that they're freeloaders for wanting a tax cut. (Of course, this guy also thinks that calling trial lawyers "public protection attorneys" and replacing environmental regulations with "poison-free communities" is the way to go. Has this man ever left California?)

Apparently what's going to have to happen for the Democrats to succeed is for a new generation of leadership to arise who have respect for regular people in their gut (and for the old generation of leadership to get out of the way--both tall orders.) More Ivy League grads won't do it; Berkeley professors can't do it; pollsters with focus groups can't do it. It's gonna take new blood and new ideas. The folks running the Democrats may have deluded themselves into thinking all they handle is silk, but the American people know pigskin when they feel it.

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