Wednesday, November 10, 2004Yet another debate has begun over whether Democrats have lost because the message is wrong (run to the center!) or because the message has been imperfectly presented (we need the uber-candidate!). I think the first position is just incorrect and the second position is too overwrought. If you look at generic issue polls, Democrats win on EVERY issue. That's right- take the partisan labels off and just describe the issues, and voters routinely support the Democrats by large margins. There is no need to change the content of the message- it's been popular since the New Deal and is likely to remain so.
And the presentation of the message? There is far too much knot-tying going on. George Lakoff and John Judis have written very interesting things on the subject of issue framing. Heck, the American Prospect dedicated a whole issue to it! The basic response has been to craft our own sophisticated counter-narrative, i.e. ape the Republicans. If by framing the issue, you mean clarifying where we as Democrats stand in ways that jibe with people's pre-existing beliefs, I am all for it. If it means blurring the differences where we are weak, or accommodating ourselves to beliefs with which we disagree, then this is both unethical and counterproductive.
It has apparently occurred to no one that the reason that Republicans have to use all this massage rhetorical manipulation and framing is because they have unpopular positions. They can't call it "crony capitalism" so they call it "pro-business." They call it "balance" rather than "sell-out." It's just your basic Orwell.
Democrats have no need to adopt Orwellian language in response, because at the level of principle the voters agree with us. We don't need to massage or obscure our beliefs. In fact, doing so is a positive hindrance. What we need to do is forthrightly state our principles and attack our opponents for their actions (thus highlighting their hypocrisy). We don't need to become masters of political jujitsu. Rove does that because he has to. When Democrats try to do the same, they come off as fakes. We are just not as good a liars as the other side because we are not power-hungry ethics-less lunatics. So let's not lie. Let's tell the truth. Sure, we need to do so in simple language. But we will come off as much more sincere, much more authentic, if we articulate our position in a sensitive yet forceful way.
The dirty secret about rhetoric is that it is not about clever tricks with language, but about conviction. The best way to get people to believe you is to get them to believe in you. It is all about credibility. Clinton knew this. When he made nods in the direction of mainstream values, he wasn't flipping his position. He was challenging the caricature of liberalism when it came to crime our big government. We need to do the same on foreign policy and "values."
Furthermore, if we play the Orwellian game we are agreeing to dumb down the political discourse. This will advantage the party that wants to reduce citizens to bacteria reacting the stimuli by playing to their worst impulses (by the way, that is not us). Liberalism succeeds when we speak directly to what is best in people- community, tolerance, hope in the future. If Kennedy had tried to pretend he wasn't a Catholic (and he wasn't much of one) he would have lost. Instead, he dealt directly with the issue of religious prejudice, and won.
So read your Aristotle's Rhetoric and study the speeches of Kennedy. But remember that it is easy persuade people when all you have to do is make them realize they already agree with you.