Lakoff and Krugman on not doing the other Party's work for them
Linguist Georg Lakoff seems to be taking his own advice, constantly reinforcing his "framing" of his advice to the Democratic Party. In What the election pundits missedBerkeley Blog 11/05/2010, he gives a good summary of that advice:
First, conservatives have an extensive, but not obvious communications system, with many think tanks, framing experts, training institutes, a system of spokespeople linked by talking points, and bookers booking their people not just on radio and TV, but in lots of civic venues. This system is active not only in elections, but 24/7/365. Democrats have no comparable system.
Second, demographers report that the big swing in this election was among "independents." What are called "independents" are actually bi-conceptuals — people who have both conservative and progressive conceptual systems in their brains, each inhibiting the other and usually applying to different issues. When such voters hear messages from one side but not the other, that side’s moral system becomes active and is made stronger. That happened all over the country in this election.
Third, voters vote on the basis of their morality and their sense of self, which is a reflection of their moral values. In this election, conservatives reached the bi-conceptuals over the past year and a half preaching their morality (e.g. freedom — government takeover; life — death panels). The Obama administration only countered with policy, which goes in one ear and out the other. No moral leadership via messaging. [my emphasis]
My main difference with Lakoff on this is that his presentations downplay the link between messaging and real policy. The Democrats' messaging problem is linked with the Party's thoroughly unhealthy attraction to the neoliberalsim of "free trade", deregulation and financial buccaneering. The Republicans sell their Predator State policies with false advertising, but they implement the Predator State policies they promise.
The most significant part of Lakoff's theory is his analysis of the "bi-conceptuals", aka, independent voters. The conventional wisdom that sees the swing voters and/or independent voters as "the center" is more of a sign of hardening of the arteries in the brains of our star pundits and reporters that it is real political analysis. Lakoff's approach is a way of understanding the perspectives and behavior of the so-called "independent voters" without using the dogmas of High Broderism.
He includes in that summary another critical part of his advice to the Democrats, "When such voters hear messages from one side but not the other, that side’s moral system becomes active and is made stronger." He calls it framing, which is a very useful term. But you can also call it setting the terms of the debate. He warns the Democrats to avoid reinforcing Republican terms of the debate (framing) by using notions such as "entitlements" for Social Security and Medicare, because they terms is used by the Republicans to suggest that they are welfare programs for the undeserving, lazy and non-white.
Paul Krugman in The Focus Hocus-PocusNew York Times 11/04/2010 gives a current example of the Democrats making that mistake.
I felt a sense of despair during Mr. Obama’s first State of the Union address [in 2010], in which he declared that "families across the country are tightening their belts and making tough decisions. The federal government should do the same." Not only was this bad economics — right now the government must spend, because the private sector can't or won't — it was almost a verbatim repeat of what John Boehner, the soon-to-be House speaker, said when attacking the original stimulus. If the president won’t speak up for his own economic philosophy, who will? [my emphasis]
That Obama quote comes from this passage in the 2010 SOTU, in ehich he builds up the announcement of the Catfood Commission, which is due to report this December 1 and will almost certainly recommend the phaseout of Social Security, though they will use a different marketing label for it:
At the beginning of the last decade, the year 2000, America had a budget surplus of over $200 billion. (Applause.) By the time I took office, we had a one-year deficit of over $1 trillion and projected deficits of $8 trillion over the next decade. Most of this was the result of not paying for two wars, two tax cuts, and an expensive prescription drug program. On top of that, the effects of the recession put a $3 trillion hole in our budget. All this was before I walked in the door. (Laughter and applause.)
Now -- just stating the facts. Now, if we had taken office in ordinary times, I would have liked nothing more than to start bringing down the deficit. But we took office amid a crisis. And our efforts to prevent a second depression have added another $1 trillion to our national debt. That, too, is a fact.
I'm absolutely convinced that was the right thing to do. But families across the country are tightening their belts and making tough decisions. The federal government should do the same. (Applause.) So tonight, I'm proposing specific steps to pay for the trillion dollars that it took to rescue the economy last year.
Starting in 2011, we are prepared to freeze government spending for three years. (Applause.) Spending related to our national security, Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security will not be affected. But all other discretionary government programs will. Like any cash-strapped family, we will work within a budget to invest in what we need and sacrifice what we don't. And if I have to enforce this discipline by veto, I will. (Applause.)
We will continue to go through the budget, line by line, page by page, to eliminate programs that we can't afford and don't work. We've already identified $20 billion in savings for next year. To help working families, we'll extend our middle-class tax cuts. But at a time of record deficits, we will not continue tax cuts for oil companies, for investment fund managers, and for those making over $250,000 a year. We just can't afford it. (Applause.)
Now, even after paying for what we spent on my watch, we'll still face the massive deficit we had when I took office. More importantly, the cost of Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security will continue to skyrocket. That's why I've called for a bipartisan fiscal commission, modeled on a proposal by Republican Judd Gregg and Democrat Kent Conrad. (Applause.) This can't be one of those Washington gimmicks that lets us pretend we solved a problem. The commission will have to provide a specific set of solutions by a certain deadline.
Now, yesterday, the Senate blocked a bill that would have created this commission. So I'll issue an executive order that will allow us to go forward, because I refuse to pass this problem on to another generation of Americans. (Applause.) And when the vote comes tomorrow, the Senate should restore the pay-as-you-go law that was a big reason for why we had record surpluses in the 1990s. (Applause.) [my emphasis]
Instead of framing his economic program as a determined effort to create jobs and pull the economy out of a terrible recession that threatens to turn this decade into a Japanese-style "lost decade", Obama preached the Republican doctrine of budget-balancing - which the Reps preach but neither believe nor practice - and made a pitch for the bipartisanship he could already see the Republicans had no intention of practicing in domestic affairs:
Now, I know that some in my own party will argue that we can't address the deficit or freeze government spending when so many are still hurting. And I agree -- which is why this freeze won't take effect until next year -- (laughter) -- when the economy is stronger. That's how budgeting works. (Laughter and applause.) But understand –- understand if we don't take meaningful steps to rein in our debt, it could damage our markets, increase the cost of borrowing, and jeopardize our recovery -– all of which would have an even worse effect on our job growth and family incomes.
From some on the right, I expect we'll hear a different argument -– that if we just make fewer investments in our people, extend tax cuts including those for the wealthier Americans, eliminate more regulations, maintain the status quo on health care, our deficits will go away. The problem is that's what we did for eight years. (Applause.) That's what helped us into this crisis. It's what helped lead to these deficits. We can't do it again.
Rather than fight the same tired battles that have dominated Washington for decades, it's time to try something new. Let's invest in our people without leaving them a mountain of debt. Let's meet our responsibility to the citizens who sent us here. Let's try common sense. (Laughter.) A novel concept. [my emphasis]
How about, let's try fighting for the Democratic program you got elected to implement?
For the White House at the moment, that unfortunately seems to be not just a novel but downright bizarre concept.