Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Democratic messaging and its sorrows

George Lakoff always has interesting things to say. Although I have to admit, every time I read one of his columns, I find myself wondering how well-founded his theories are. They seem to be substantial. This column illustrates both the strengths and the doubt-producing parts of his approach: Why The Democrats’ Response to the Pledge Has Been Inadequate CommonDreams.org 09/27/2010.

We can now see why the Democrats have been failing in their communications. Their message system is inadequate. They need to build it up significantly, starting as soon as possible. They need to find and address bi-conceptuals [voters with a mix of liberal and conservative values]. They need to speak from their own moral perspective. They need to connect emotionally with voters. The[y] need to stop trying to be bi-partisan; that just helps Republicans, who know enough not to be bipartisan in the current electoral situation. And they need to understand how language activates frames in the brain.

The Democratic strategy so far has been to see each race as separate, with no overall Democratic vision. Bill Clinton sees this as a mistake and I agree. The Republicans have presented a vision, whatever one thinks of the detailed proposals. The NY Times editorial pooh-poohs the pledge’s “breathless mimicry of the Declaration of Independence.” But that is most of what their audience will read, not the 48 pages of proposals.

In his campaign, Barack Obama articulated beautifully the Democratic moral vision of America. America is based on citizens caring about, and for, each other. The values of empathy, social as well as personal responsibility, and an ethic of excellence lead to a government of, by, and for the people, with values like freedom and fairness, and a governmental responsibility to protect and empower the people. That is a Democratic view of America. It calls on Americans to come together in difficult times, and it characterizes the party’s, as well as the President's, moral compass.
Here's the Democrats' awesome communication strategy in action, this one using the let's-insult-and-discourage-our-core-base-voters-as-much-as-possible variant:

My reservations on Lakoff's proposals is that because he focuses on the Democrats' communication strategies, I often wonder if I'm not looking at a spiffy-looking version of the old canard, "What we have here is a problem of communication."

Because what we have here with the Democrats is also a problem of substance. The Republicans have their own problem of substance, in that their actual policy positions are generally either damaging to, or at best unresponsive to, the needs of most people in the US. Their communication challenge is to sell their snake-oil as effective medicine. And they are reasonably consistent in delivering the snake-oil when they get elected: they promise to cut taxes for the wealthy, and they do. They are promising to sabotage health care reform, and they will make a real attempt to do so.

The Democrats are in a different position. They get elected by running on the Democratic program. Then they find excuses for not delivering on them. The Democrats retook Congress in the 2006 elections in significant part over their opposition to the Iraq War, then spent two years doing nothing meaningful to end it. Obama campaigned against Bush's intelligence and executive-power abuses, now he makes even more expansive claims of executive power. (See Radley Balko, Tyranny The Agitator 09/27/2010) The Democrats benefited in 2006 and in 2008 from their defense of Social Security against Republican phaseout proposals, now Obama designed and appointed a Catfood Commission that will recommend Social Security Phaseout.

As Lakoff rightly reminds us in this article, political communication is a complicated thing. But when it comes to the economy, voters have a pretty dramatic and easy-to-understand picture before them: the Obama administration bailed out big banks while imposing minimal accountability. Unemployment and house foreclosures soar, but the administration can't find much of a way to deal with those problems, accountability or not. We must be "fiscally responsible", after all.

Plus, for the last two years the Democrats have controlled the White House and both Houses of Congress. Even when they had a supposedly filibuster-proof 60-vote majority in the Senate, they still couldn't deliver their programs. Why, they wanted that public option in health care reform, but good ole Joe Lieberman just couldn't go along with that. So, no 60 votes, sorry about that. Biden uses the 60-vote excuse in the video clip above. It sounds about as lame as it could possibly be.

That's why the Democrats are left with a core message this year of At Least We're Not As Bad As The Republicans. Because the Republicans pass off their snake-oil as medicine, deliver the snake-oil, and blame the Liberal Press and immigrants and black people when the snake-oil doesn't work. The Democrats do a half-baked job of offering real medicine as real medicine, then make excuses for why they don't deliver. It is a messaging problem, too. But it's a different messaging problem for the Republicans. And solving the messaging problem is not the same as delivering the medicine.

Yes, "freedom and fairness" are great Democratic Party values. But every Taser video and every encounter with the pointlessly surly security officials at the airport and every news report about unprecedented claims for government secrecy and expansive Executive power remind us that the Democrats are less than fully committed to what most people recognize as "freedom". Fairness? Wall Street bailout, tough look for people without work or having their homes foreclosed on. It's a pretty hard sell for the Democrats to pass that off as "fairness".

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"It is the logic of our times
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