15 March 2012

Persuasion Nation

WoW favorite, George Lakoff, has a new piece about the current state of the 2012 election campaign: "Why the GOP Campaign for the Presidency Is About Guaranteeing a Radical Conservative Future for America."

According to Lakoff, much of the Liberal community (media, blog, print, commentariat, punditocracy, pols, etc.) is on about how Santorum is a whack job, his policies irrational, anti-woman, etc. About how the State legislatures are engaged in a rear guard action against the inroads made in civil, feminist, and gay rights over the last couple decades. And about how gasbags like Rush Limbaugh are engaged in a 'war on women' and should be banned from the airways. All true enough.

The way this is conveyed, though, is by repeating their outrageous statements and 'gaffes', often in tones of outrage and incredulity, then refuting them in piecemeal fashion. This, Lakoff, argues merely 'catapults the propaganda' (to borrow George W. Bush's immortal phrase): it repeats and even boldfaces the Conservative point then goes small print point by point to refute it. It has the effect of reinforcing the underlying Conservative moral values without asserting any counterbalancing Liberal/Progressive morality.

Moral values, he asserts, are more powerful in the public discourse than political or policy points. They are loaded. They carry emotional heft. Intellectual arguments, logic, do not move people politically. Appeals to the emotions do.

For example, President Obama and his allies argued that Health Care Reform would benefit people with pre-existing conditions and children in college, etc. Again, all true. His opponents, meanwhile, were railing about the intrusion and even the takeover by big government of our freedoms, about the assault on our very souls by 'Obamacare's' contraceptive requirements, about 'death panels'. Bogus, I know. But they appeal to people's gut. "Hey, I don't want BIG gov'mint intruding in my life, taking away my freedoms. Why do they hate my religion? Is some faceless Washington bureaucrat gonna' kill my granny?" When it's Big Heartfelt Values vs. insurance policy regulations who's going to carry the day?

As long as liberals are arguing about the absurdity or inanity of Conservative values, they are fighting on alien territory, accepting the Conservative 'frame'. Lakoff identifies the Conservative frame as 'authoritarian' ground: the province of the "good father" who must discipline us for our transgressions but who, in the end, knows what's best for us.

Lakoff suggests that communication matters and that Liberals must not simply reject Conservative arguments, they must re-frame the debate and assert their own countervailing moral values, the values of empathy and responsibility—and, I would add, fairness. Arguing piecemeal against a coherent worldview (however inane or repellent) can never prevail.

The Santorum Strategy is not just about Santorum. It is about pounding the most radical conservative ideas into the public mind by constant repetition during the Republican presidential campaign, whether by Santorum himself, by Gingrich or Ron Paul, by an intimidated Romney, or by the Republican House majority. The Republican presidential campaign is about a lot more than the campaign for the presidency. It is about guaranteeing a radical conservative future for America.
I am old enough to remember how liberals (me included) made fun of Ronald Reagan as a not-too-bright mediocre actor who could not possibly be elected president. I remember liberals making fun of George W.Bush as so ignorant and ill-spoken that Americans couldn't possibly take him seriously. Both turned out to be clever politicians who changed America much for the worse. And among the things they and their fellow conservatives managed to do was change public discourse, and with it, change how a great many Americans thought.
The Republican presidential campaign has to be seen in this light.
So, sure, let's have at it with the goons and thugs on the Right who are attempting to rewind the feminist revolution back to the 1950's 'Father Knows Best' era and roll back civil and voting rights to the pre-Johnson era and stick all you gays back in the closet. At the same time, it's important to boldface the values we hold and share with our fellow Americans and our fellow human beings.

Every person should have the same opportunity as every other person to pursue happiness in our society; the playing field should be level in every instance. If people, through no fault of their own, fall behind, we as a society stand ready to give them a hand. If people cannot afford healthcare or food or housing, we as a society will make sure they will not starve or suffer needlessly. Everyone is entitled to be treated equally before and as a matter of the law. No one is entitled to preferential treatment. Corporations and the phenomenally wealthy, say, are not entitled to more rights than a pregnant woman or a gay person or minority member of society and should not be allowed to buy political power against the will of the people.

Another way of stating Lakoff's point: it isn't enough to be critical and argue negatively, Liberals must be seen to stand for something, not nothing. Progressives aren't nihilistic, but they come across as such if they don't have a positive point of view—and by that I don't mean a Pollyanna-ish, pie-in-the-sky, glass-half-full idealism. I mean a forthright, articulable set of values. Liberals must also establish an emotional connection with the people who make up this country. Sure, policy and politics need to be intellectually coherent and consistent (something that doesn't trouble many Conservatives, it seems). But they must also adhere—and be felt to adhere—to people's sense of fair play, honest dealing, and, yes, compassion. And be passionate about them. Often, it seems, Liberals are ashamed to be seen as such, adopting an attitude of irony. Irony, however, simply will not close the deal.


Randal Graves said...

Damn postmodernism's everything's ironic shtick. I don't like Electric Wizard ironically, I like them with a fiery gusto. You were talking about tunes, right?

Jim H. said...

I dare say irony is way the hell older than postmodernism. If anything, pm is simply too sincere—my group, my group, my interests, my group. Uber alles.

Hey I wasn't just talking about tunes, I was talking about Electric Wizard. No really. How did you know?