Sunday, October 10, 2010

George Lakoff and value "frames" (2): Al Gore on reason and democracy

Continuing from my post yesterday on linguist George Lakoff's ideas for the Democrats on political communication, my biggest concern about his basic message is the implication of his arguments that reason is largely if not wholly dispensable in democratic electoral politics.

Al Gore titled his 2007 book on his concerns for the present and future of American democracy The Assault on Reason (2007). And he refers back to the Enlightenment roots of the US Constitution to emphasize that democracy assumes and expects that reason can, at the end of the day, form the basis of the voters' choices and their understanding of critical issues. Lakoff argues that this Enlightenment perspective is a disadvantage for the Democrats in politics.

Gore does speak with considerable personal authority on this subject since he won the Presidential election of 2000. And he points out that "unhealthy combinations of concentrated political and economic power" can severely distort the public debate by promoting false but self-interested claim on public policy issues. Gore is emphatic in stating that this confounding of reasonable and factual discussion of important issues goes to the heart of democracy as such:

The derivation of just power from the consent of the governed depends upon the integrity of the reasoning process through which that consent is given. If the reasoning process is corrupted by money and deception, then the consent of the governed is based of false premises, and any power thus derived is inherently counterfeit and unjust. If the consent of the governed is extorted through the manipulation of mass fears, or embezzled with claims of divine guidance, democracy is impoverished. If the suspension of reason causes a significant portion of the citizenry to lose confidence in the integrity of the process, democracy can be bankrupted. [my emphasis]
Gore's level of concern doesn't seem to have diminished since 2007. This past month, speaking at a university Business-School in Iserlohn, Germany, he emphasized against that democracy in America is in real danger from the outsize influence of big money in the electoral and political processes.

Lakoff has been focusing on the immediate partisan communication issues, urging the Democrats to look at ways to market themselves more effectively. But marketing more effectively within a severely corrupted informational environment doesn't solve the problem that Gore identifies: democracy depends of the possibility for reasoned, fact-based discussion and argument. Even if the Democrats can win elections by better messaging within that environment and its constraints, it doesn't save democracy.

President Obama addressed this problem in relation to this year's Citizens United Republican Supreme Court decision opening the floodgates to corporate-funded political advertising in his 09/18/2010 radio address.

After several minutes of searching on the White House site, I was unable to find an official transcript of that speech. The Bush White House website actually was more user-friendly than Obama's in that way.

To his credit, Obama has spoken a number of times about the destructive influence of the Citizens United decision. In his 2010 State of the Union Address (SOTU), he said:

With all due deference to separation of powers, last week the Supreme Court reversed a century of law that I believe will open the floodgates for special interests –- including foreign corporations –- to spend without limit in our elections. (Applause.) I don't think American elections should be bankrolled by America's most powerful interests, or worse, by foreign entities. (Applause.) They should be decided by the American people. And I'd urge Democrats and Republicans to pass a bill that helps to correct some of these problems.
Sadly, his response to it so far has been fairly modest, though the DISCLOSE Act was a first attempt to rectify the damage. It passed the House but was shot down twice in the Senate - because of the filibuster rule that allows the Republicans to block virtually any law with 41 votes out of 100.

I'm not letting the Democrats off the hook on this, though: The filibuster rule is a bad rule, further amplifying the less democratic aspects of the Senate. The Senate can abolish it with a majority vote, and the Democrats have a big majority in the Senate. This outgoing term of Congress would have been an excellent chance to get rid of that rule and pass legislation like the DISCLOSE Act. They didn't even try.

But, as is often the case, Obama's words on this subject are well put.

From January 23, just after the ruling:

But this week, the United States Supreme Court handed a huge victory to the special interests and their lobbyists – and a powerful blow to our efforts to rein in corporate influence. This ruling strikes at our democracy itself. [my emphasis]
This ruling opens the floodgates for an unlimited amount of special interest money into our democracy. It gives the special interest lobbyists new leverage to spend millions on advertising to persuade elected officials to vote their way – or to punish those who don’t. That means that any public servant who has the courage to stand up to the special interests and stand up for the American people can find himself or herself under assault come election time. Even foreign corporations may now get into the act.

I can’t think of anything more devastating to the public interest. The last thing we need to do is hand more influence to the lobbyists in Washington, or more power to the special interests to tip the outcome of elections. [my emphasis]
From July 26:

Because of the Supreme Court’s decision earlier this year in the Citizens United case, big corporations –- even foreign-controlled ones –- are now allowed to spend unlimited amounts of money on American elections. They can buy millions of dollars worth of TV ads –- and worst of all, they don't even have to reveal who's actually paying for the ads. Instead, a group can hide behind a name like "Citizens for a Better Future," even if a more accurate name would be "Companies for Weaker Oversight." These shadow groups are already forming and building war chests of tens of millions of dollars to influence the fall elections.

Now, imagine the power this will give special interests over politicians. Corporate lobbyists will be able to tell members of Congress if they don't vote the right way, they will face an onslaught of negative ads in their next campaign. And all too often, no one will actually know who's really behind those ads. [my emphasis]
And, in fact, groups like the Chamber of Commerce are already drawing on funds that include not only US corporate but foreign donations to run "independent" ads against Democrats in this year's elections.

From August 21:

As the political season heats up, Americans are already being inundated with the usual phone calls, mailings, and TV ads from campaigns all across the country. But this summer, they're also seeing a flood of attack ads run by shadowy groups with harmless-sounding names. We don’t know who's behind these ads and we don't know who’s paying for them.

The reason this is happening is because of a decision by the Supreme Court in the Citizens United case – a decision that now allows big corporations to spend unlimited amounts of money to influence our elections. They can buy millions of dollars worth of TV ads – and worst of all, they don't even have to reveal who is actually paying for them. You don’t know if it's a foreign-controlled corporation. You don't know if it's BP. You don't know if it's a big insurance company or a Wall Street Bank. [my emphasis]
For my January posts on the Citizens United decision with further links, see Activist Supreme Court gives corporations even more power to dominate politics 01/23/2010 and Republican judicial activism in Citizens United 01/27/2010.

Georg Lakoff blogs sporadically at the Berkeley Blog. Recent posts include Why are so many people about to vote against their interests? 09/16/2010 and Obama’s missing moral narrative and the intimidating right-wing message machine 06/01/2010.

Lakoff has some valuable suggestions about Democratic messaging, particularly his cautions against reinforcing Republican frames. But this is only one part of the Democrats' challenge in their political messaging. And it has to be understood in the existing context of the influence of big money in political advertising and propaganda via conservative think tanks, of the hold of neoliberal economic ideology on the Democratic leadership, and the collapse in the quality of mainstream journalism, especially TV news where most Americans get most of their news.

I'm all for the Democrats improving their messaging. But that problem is enough to solve the problems facing American democracy in the current informational environment.

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