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Hullabaloo


Monday, January 31, 2005

 
The Framers

Along with Mark Schmitt, I'm not a big fan of Lakoff's new book. As I've written many times, I think his analysis of the art and science of framing is right on the money, but I think his actual frames are just terrible. He's an idea man, not a political strategist. I'll repeat what I've said before. The mere fact that he frames the Democrats as "nurturant parents (mommies)" disqualifies him from political action. That frame is exactly what's killing us. It may be sexism or it may just be the times in which we live, but we should drop it like a hot potato.

The Republicans have an economic framing model that's very successful and we can learn from it. They sell an optimistic, simple philosophy of "if only the government would get out of the way you can be successful." This means that if you aren't successful it's the government's fault. (And Democrats believe in government so they are actively working to keep you down.) Their frame is always, entirely, the frame of self reliance and self interest. They preach it as a moral good no matter what the situation. This is a notion that has a very long history in American culture and it's one that appeals to a very basic aspect of human nature. It has become the dominant strain in political discourse over the last thirty years.

However, they know that Americans are not that simple minded about their own personal self interest. Even if they sign on to the philosophy of self interest it doesn't mean that they don't understand that they have much to gain with a generous redistributional government. (Hence the "lucky ducky" strategy.) Americans like certain things the government provides. So, the Republicans hire guys like Frank Luntz and spend millions of dollars polling and focus grouping to find out how to market this "you're on your own" philosophy to make it sound as if they will be guaranteed a better result if they do it the GOP way. They choose words and phrases that denigrate government, make Democrats appear to be corrupt and enslaved by "special" interests and make it sound as if people will be giving nothing up and gaining much by signing on to the Republican philosophy.

But, even with all that they have not been able to completely destroy the liberal consensus. Therefore, they are forced to do things like sell social security destruction on two tracks. They are simultaneously trying to "save" something that poeple obviously value while at the same time convincing people that they will benefit far more if they sign on to the privatization bandwagon. But we have recently found out that after all this time they can't use the word "privatization" because people aren't buying it. People know enough to know "privatization" means they might lose money.

This is very telling It says that while the Republicans have been able to move self interest to the front and center of political discourse, displacing the values of community and altruism as things people feel they ought to say when quizzed about such things. But they haven't managed to make people believe that government is their personal enemy or that it is in their self interest to reject all redistribution of wealth so that they might have more "opportunity." Self-interested people aren't ideologues. They'll take the best deal from wherever it comes.

Therefore, I would submit that our rhetorical frames should begin to speak to the fact that properly run government is a good deal. Social Security is a guaranteed check that is always on time and comes every single month no matter how long you live. That's a good deal.

And I think that we have to acknowledge that the altruistic, moral case for government is (temporarily, hopefully) on the decline and we need to argue in a way that accomodates that. On a separate track we must enlist the liberal clergy and others to begin to build the progressive values arguments back up, just as the Republicans continue to build their case for laissez-faire. But in the meantime, we need to realize that we are in an era of marketing to people's individual wants and desires and needs. This is how they view the world.

I don't think we need to be dishonest, but I fear that we are going to be bulldozed over and over again, even if we win the battle for social security, if we try to hang our hats on the moral case for good government. Someday, perhaps, we can get there. But today I think that the singular success of the Republican era is persuading people that selfishness is a positive good. Little Aynnie Rand must be popping a Dexie and lighting a cig with satisfaction down in the third circle right now.





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