01 February 2010

Feck! Feck! Feck!

My online dictionary defines 'feckless' as lacking in effectiveness or vitality. This pretty much describes the public image of Congressional Democrats.

From its inception, WoW has urged them to use effective rhetorical framing of the sort advocated by George Lakoff and Drew Westen (full disclosure: a personal acquaintance and professional colleague of Wisdoc). Many felt it was precisely the Obama campaign's and Howard Dean's Democratic Party's campaigns' uses of positive framing that produced their stunning electoral victories in November, 2008.

Now we read that Rahm Emanuel, President Obama's Chief of Staff, who has written an entire chapter of a book criticizing Lakoff, is urging Obama and the Dems to ignore framing issues and concentrate on making Harry Reid-type legislative deals a la Sens. Ben Nelson and Mary Landrieu. This, of course, is the same
Rahm Emmanuel, the man who tried to kill the 50 state strategy before it started, the man who insisted with the DLC that we should ignore the progressive base to try and win moderates, the man who is probably the reason Dean got fired from the DNC.
If the Democrats again choose to make their case like John Kerrys and Harry Reids, they are going to suffer a similar setback as Kerry did in a very winnable 2004 election.

And, guess what? The opposition hasn't stopped trying to frame their way back into power.
Nine months after he penned a memo laying out the arguments for health care legislation's destruction, Republican message guru Frank Luntz has put together a playbook to help derail financial regulatory reform.

Here were Luntz's ten frame points for defeating healthcare:

(1) Humanize your approach.

(2) Acknowledge the “crisis” or suffer the consequences.

(3) “Time” is the government healthcare killer.

(4) The arguments against the Democrats’ healthcare plan must center around “politicians,” “bureaucrats,” and “Washington” … not the free market, tax incentives, or competition.

(5) The healthcare denial horror stories from Canada & Co. do resonate, but you have to humanize them.

(6) Healthcare quality = “getting the treatment you need, when you need it.”

7) “One-size-does-NOT-fit-all.”

(8) WASTE, FRAUD, and ABUSE are your best targets for how to bring down costs.

(9) Americans will expect the government to look out for those who truly can’t afford healthcare.

(10) It’s not enough to just say what you’re against. You have to tell them what you’re for.
Sound familiar?

Now here's Luntz's latest position paper on killing financial reform, along with comprehensive energy reform the next big Democratic legislative push. The idea is to frame the legislation as a big government program, excessive bureaucracy, a give away to special interests, potentially corrupt, full of earmarks and backroom dealing, anti-freedom, anti-populist, anti-small business owner, tax and spend, another big bank bailout, etc., etc. We've seen this approach time and time again by the right. Demagogue the debate. These are emotional issues with many voters. Defending the move with talking points about what it does and doesn't do, what it does and doesn't contain will not work. And that approach very well may have lost health care reform.

Democrats do not seem to have learned: there is a real marketing angle to getting significant legislation passed. Everyone must be on board. Essentially, it takes a movement. Lakoff argues this point here:
the movement must already have:

* A popular base;

* organizing tools;

* an overall narrative, with heroes, victims and villains;

* a generally accepted, morally-based conceptual framing;

* a readily recognizable, well-understood language;

* funding sources;

* and a national communication system set up for both leaders and ordinary citizens to use.

The base is there, waiting for something worth getting behind. The organizing tools are there. The rest is not there.

This is basic Communication 101. To be effective, there must be a moral component: reform is fundamentally right because [...] and its opponents are fundamentally wrong because [...]. And, connected to this, there must be an emotional component; the arguments must touch people where they live; bread-and-butter, kitchen-table, passion-arousing issues. Having logic and facts and good policy on your side is a plus, but it is not sufficient to win the day. You must be persuasive.

Classical, Greek rhetoricians understood this and had a word for it: enthymeme. In the parlance of our times, looking simply at the English cognates, we could translate this as using "memes" which enthuse our audience. Here is an excerpt from my draft, unpublished non-fiction treatise: The Burden of Persuasion.
"According to Aristotle, the basic unit of factual argument is the "enthymeme". Etymology: Gk: en- in, thymos mind. Thus, "to establish in the mind." An enthymeme is an informally-stated syllogism which omits either one of the premises or the conclusion from a standard syllogism. The omitted part must be clearly understood, felt, or believed by the audience. Whenever a premise is omitted in an enthymeme, it is must be either a truism or an acceptable and non-controversial generalization. By making the audience supply the missing premise or conclusion, i.e., work out the syllogism for themselves, you impress the conclusion upon them, yet in a way gentler than if you spelled it out in so many words. The audience must supply the missing term for itself.

Of course, this is the ultimate aim of argument: persuading the audience not only to agree with what you are saying (the point of rational, logical, syllogistic-type arguments), but to actually believe that what you are arguing is what they have been feeling and thinking all along. Not just saying what you feel you need to say (and saying it well)—which often comes across as lecturing or arrogance or talking-down-to-them—but persuading your audience by arguing from a common set of assumptions. When you argue from common ground, you identify with the audience, its passions and beliefs, and they instinctively feel you are one of them and will more easily be led to agree with you."
The Democrats seem not to have learned this lesson in basic communication. They come across as feckless. And so long as they rely solely on Kerry/Reid-esque wonkishness, they will continue to argue amongst themselves about minute and ultimately negligible policy differences, meanwhile losing the larger battle for the hearts and minds of the very electorate they want to rehire them later this year and, again, two years hence, an electorate that is beginning to demonstrate a fair amount of discontent. This article from the BBC, "Why do people often vote against their own interests?" makes this very point: the people do not like being lectured to by people who feel like they know more than them. My response is that 'what we have here is a failure to communicate'—a failure Obama seems to have tackled head on by meeting with the Republican congressional delegation at their annual retreat in Baltimore on Friday.

Here then is a big 'feck you' for the Congressional Democrats: listen to the electorate; identify morally and emotionally with their fears and concerns; don't get defensive, but share their outrage; you don't have to demagogue the issues, but don't lecture them or preach to them or try to tell them what you think is best for them; establish common ground; frame your policies and programs in the terms of what they already feel, believe, and think (in that order!)—because this is what you, too, truly feel, believe, and think; be real: go with what you feel and believe, not with figures and charts (that stuff is back-up support for when you're challenged by knowledgeable opponents; you must have it and you must know it and be able to deploy it appropriately, otherwise you're just demagoging); show how the opposition's policies and programs (to the extent they actually have them) are simply not consonant with what the majority of the electorate truly feel, believe, and think; and, most importantly, don't use Capitol Hill jargon and double-speak and policy-lingo—not only use arguments from common ground, but also use language that shows you share their concerns—that is, be relevant!


Frances Madeson said...

I'm going to be at a meeting with Jim Dean on Wednesday evening and I'm printing this out and handing it to him in an ever-so-lightly perfumed envelope, ccing his brother Howard.

Anonymous said...

Nice brief and this fill someone in on helped me alot in my college assignement. Thanks you for your information.

Jim H. said...


You're an angel. If the good doctor and his brother like, maybe they'll leave a comment.

Jim H.

Frances Madeson said...

Mission accomplished!