The Democrats Continued Quest for Electoral Success

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The Democrats Continued Quest for Electoral Success

Post by Corlyss_D » Fri Aug 19, 2005 10:16 pm

Sorry I missed this when it first came out.

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July 19, 2005
Matt Bai
The contributing writer for The Times Magazine answered readers' questions on how the Democratic Party can use language to take better control of the political debate.

Q. 1. What makes you, or anyone for that matter, think that the Democrats are losing because of a lack of communication? The Democrats were the party in power for decades; is it possible that the American people might be too familiar with their politics and are rejecting them in the 21st century?
— Freda Neuwirth, Miami Beach, Fla.

A. Well, Freda, I don't think Democrats are losing because of a lack of communication. My article was a long piece, I know, but if you read the whole thing, you'll see that that's not my point of view at all. I think good communication helps, but ultimately you have to have a strong sense of what kind of argument you want to communicate, and they don't.

Q. 2. Do you see framing as a tool the Democrats can use to bring out a dialogue about the tremendous separation of wealth this country has experienced in the past 20 or so years? If so, do you believe they will?
— Tom Goodell, Minneapolis, Minn.

A. That's an interesting question, Tom. I guess I would say no: I don't think framing is necessarily the right tool to help Democrats address that problem. In my view, the problem you identify is a very serious one for the country, but it represents, on some level, the failure of the entire political process — and by that I mean both political parties — to be sufficiently candid and creative about the decline of our industrial economy and the increasingly precarious structure of the middle class. Before anyone can "frame" an answer to the growing inequity of our society, I think one actually has to have an answer for it, and an answer that acknowledges the complexity of the problem. I haven't heard that from Democrats, though there are certainly plenty of Democrats who would disagree with me about that.

Q. 3. Loved the article — thanks. I was surprised by your last sentence though. It seems that the entire point that's been proven by the success stories you outlined is that you can effectively sell based on the words/delivery if the metaphor is right — regardless of some subjective merit of the actual argument. Right?
— Sean Sullivan, Tampa, Fla.

A. No, I don't think so, Sean. I think what the successes I outlined prove is that if you're trying to oppose someone else's agenda, and if you can tell people a story about that agenda that they already believe to be true (i.e., Republicans wants to dismantle social programs, or that they're abusing their power in the judicial process), then the right images can make a lot of difference. My point at the end of the piece is that putting forward an agenda of your own is much harder, and it requires a greater clarity of thought and purpose. That's not to say that communicating it effectively isn't essential. But you have to know what you intend to do with the country, beyond platitudes, before you can frame it.

Q. 4. Two questions: Do you think the inability of Democratic leaders to define their first principles might have something to do with the very focused and pervasive right-wing framing of the past 30 years? Has Republican framing effectively limited the cognitive range of our political imaginations?

Also, to my dismay, over the past few years I've watched The Times use language like "values" and "activist judges" with neither quotation marks nor irony, and pay undue tribute in column inches to such formerly disreputable groups as the Family Research Council and Concerned Women for America. If Democratic leaders and Lakoff himself are vulnerable to right-wing framing, are journalists as well?
— Edward Cahill, Brooklyn, N.Y.

A. I'll try to nail both of these questions in one shot. Yes, of course, journalists have been vulnerable to linguistic traps (I think we're more aware of that than we used to be), and yes, I suspect that the very effective communication tactics on the right have made it harder for Democrats to define themselves. Just look at the frame of "tax-and-spend." Republicans managed to take what was a very credible governing philosophy for most of the 20th century and skillfully turn it into an epithet. Once Democrats decided they could no longer champion government programs and the taxes that pay for them, it became awfully hard for them to articulate their worldview. And yet, I wouldn't subscribe to the idea that Democrats are simply victims. It seems to me that in American politics, if you have a worldview and an agenda, you have to stand up and make the argument for it, even if that means you lose a few elections, and you have to be adaptable enough to admit when parts of your agenda may not be as relevant as they once were. With some exceptions, Democrats haven't done that.

Q. 5. Can the word "liberal" be effectively redefined to represent what it once did? If yes, how?
— George Hirthler, Atlanta, Ga.

A. Great question. I doubt it, but I don't know. There are a lot of "branding" exercises being done in the party right now, and most of them are focused on getting people to use the word "progressive" rather than "liberal." I still tend to use "liberal" in my writing because I don't like to use somebody else's made-up word. (See Edward's question, above, about journalists getting duped by language.)

Q. 6. What do you think about the Republicans' using the word "faith" instead of "religion"? It seems to me that faith makes people think of a small girl kneeling by her bedside, while religion makes people think of the Catholic Church that Luther wanted to reform. Sort of like Lakoff's nurturing mother vs. strong father argument. The First Amendment says no establishment of religion, not no establishment of faith. So religion is already unconstitutional but faith is as American as apple pie.
— Peter Persoff, Piedmont, Calif.

A. I've never thought of that before. I wonder what Dr. Lakoff would say. Seems to me that "faith" is more universal and accessible than "religion," since anyone can have their own personal faith, while religion feels more institutional.

Q. 7. Do you think this retreat into to binary thinking is a response to global information overload? And to what extent does framing complex issues in an oversimplified way enable world leaders to avoid addressing/educating their public about the actual issues involved?
— Janice, Pennsylvania

A. Yeah, I think you pretty much hit that one on the head, Janice. Some understanding of framing is necessary to communicate your ideas, and this is why Dr. Lakoff's work has real value for Democrats. But in my view, at least, you can't frame your way around complex questions that may have painful answers. Seems to me, taking the long view, that this obsession on both sides with language and imagery is partly a reaction to a lack of substantive explanations for what's been happening in the country and the world. As Orwell once brilliantly put it: "Insincerity is the enemy of clear language."

Q. 8. I believe globalization is the "next big thing" in America's economic future. It has only begun to enter the political landscape, mainly in terms of outsourcing. Yet, I think it's the elephant in the room that nobody is talking about, and eventually it must be confronted. What do you think the framing language around globalization will look like?
— Dave Friedman, New York

A. Yup, I agree, Dave, and I go back to what I wrote in that last answer. Globalization is the central challenge of our time — it is a word, really, that encapsulates industrial decline and demographic upheaval at home, along with rapid technological and economic growth in the rest of the world. Nobody can frame it, in my view, until we are honest about its consequences. My fear is that the emphasis on finding the right words in politics obscures the larger debate we ought to be having about how we are going to adapt as a country.

Q. 9. What do you think about revising the pro-choice rhetoric that Democrats have clung to so tightly? The phrase pro-choice doesn't really convey much meaning and it can't compete with the obvious appeal of pro-life. Why not come up with a catch phrase that makes the point that women must have control over their own reproduction, something along the lines of "A woman is not a slave" or "No coerced pregnancies" or "The Republicans want to force women to have babies."
— Amy Hackney Blackwell, S.C.

A. I don't think I want to wade into that debate. Call me a coward. But I'll bet you'd get a lot of agreement from Dr. Lakoff and others about the need to revisit the language around abortion.

Q. 10. At the end of your article you say Democrats are still unwilling to put their more concrete convictions about the country into words, either because they don't know what those convictions are or because they lack confidence in the notion that voters can be persuaded to embrace them. Did you find that Democratic politicians are afraid of their constituents? On a local and state level, Democratic legislators deal with the mundane issues of our daily lives and become champions of clean air, fresh water, better commuter traffic access, protection against H.M.O. abuses, etc. Many local legislators also champion consumer protection, equal rights for same sex couples, reproductive rights, equal access to quality education. Why won't federal legislators identify with constituents about these concerns?
— Emily Gold, Sacramento, Calif.

A. Well, I think a lot of them do, Emily. I wasn't really talking about specific policy ideas. I was more referring to the broad vision of what kind of government we ought to have. In other words, the House Democrats have come out in favor of "effective government," a "better future," and "broad prosperity." Won't get much argument there. But what kind of government would they create? Would it include more or less federal involvement in our lives? How would it integrate foreign trade without hastening the demise of American industry? Should an American military ever use unilateral force, and if so, when? I think Democrats could probably build a broad consensus within the party around specific positions on these larger issues. But I also don't sense that they're ready to engage in a sustained argument for a worldview that might not be immediately popular.

Q. 11. Do you think any of the Democratic presidential candidates will link effective framing with a policy agenda to break out of the pack? Which one?
— Robin A. Johnson, Monmouth, Ill.

A. I'd bet that the next group of candidates will be more focused on language than previous Democrats have been. I wouldn't begin to guess at which candidate will break out of the pack. All I know for sure is that we never know this in advance, even if we think we do.

Q. 12. Framing is only half of it, getting the word out is the other half. What structure do the Democrats have that even begins to compare with fundamental Christians, who have evangelical churches with congregations numbering in the tens of thousands — per church! — that are used to disseminate through the spoken word, the Internet, newsletters and other mailings?
— Jerrianne Hayslett, Milwaukee, Wis.

A. One word: the Web. (Okay, that was two words, but you get the point.) I went to a Moveon.org house party last weekend and was impressed at the way they can organize people at the grassroots. Having said that, I think we tend to caricature the fundamentalist fervor of Republican voters. First, a lot of big churches today are community hubs whose members reflect a broad range of societal concerns, as my colleague Jonathan Mahler pointed out in a fantastic piece in The Times Magazine a few months ago. And many evangelical Christians are thoughtful voters who are not simply allowing themselves to be used, any more then black voters allow themselves to be used when they go door-to-door for Democratic candidates. I suspect that the premise of your question is part of the problem Democrats have, presuming, as it does, that conservative voters don't think for themselves.


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Post by Ralph » Sat Aug 20, 2005 8:26 am

And the point?
Image

"Only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity, and I'm not sure about the former."

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Alban Berg

Post by Alban Berg » Sat Aug 20, 2005 8:36 am

Ralph wrote:And the point?
The point is to hold up to ridicule the party of which she was a member for 30 years by her own admission. Now that she is a Republican rah-rah Bush supporter and has seen the light and has all the answers (of course, why it took her so long is an unanswered question), she knows Democrats will never hold major elected office again. Of course, no one is as zealous as a convert.

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Post by Corlyss_D » Sat Aug 20, 2005 11:28 am

Ralph wrote:And the point?
Comedy, Ralph. :D
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Post by Corlyss_D » Sat Aug 20, 2005 11:52 am

Alban Berg wrote:
Ralph wrote:And the point?
The point is to hold up to ridicule the party
Only partly, Al. I do have another reason besides that, but I admit it is hilarious to watch them flounder around. I'm a political junkie. What can I say?
which she was a member for 30 years by her own admission.
Never did! Jimmy Carter turned me into a Republican in 1979, for which I'm heartily greatful. My mother too, who was a life-long Democrat since 1936. You can thank Jimmy Carter for a lot of us converts, and the anti-war movement, and the socialist policies, and the arrogance that comes from almost 50 years without serious opposition, just to name a few things.
Now that she is a Republican rah-rah Bush supporter and has seen the light and has all the answers
Not all, Al, only the most important ones. 8)
she knows Democrats will never hold major elected office again.
Not for a long, long, long time unless they learn to walk and quack like the rest of America, the America they hold in such contempt. That's a delicious irony.

I had to chuckle at Bai's sly reference to the Dem's holding onto positions they can't win on. It reminded me of Barry's passionate defense of the same positions a couple of weeks back. In essence, and I hope I'm not mischaracterizing what he thought, he said it was okay with him for the party to go on losing rather than attain political power by matching their policies to what Americans think, but it wasn't okay for me to keep harping on the fact that that is no solution to the Dem's problem.

I was a little nonplussed by that, since it seems to me the fate of the other major party in our political scheme is crucial to the fate of the Republicans and the nation as well. The strength of the nation depends on an effective two party system. The Dems have no adults running the party at this point, no one to uphold their end of the responsibility for running this place. The sooner they start talking and acting responsibly, the sooner they realize it's not about turn out, it's about ideas, the sooner they will start behaving rationally and holding up their end of this governing scheme.

Look what happened in Ohio when there was a one-party majority for so long. Arrogance, indifference to the will of the public, corruption, nepotism, bribery, destruction of an honored family name, and worst of all, stupidity! You should take heart, Al, since as Ohio goes so goes the presidential fate of the Republicans. If Taft & Co., take down the Republican ticket in 2008, there will be hell to pay. Of course, that won't mean the Dems take back Congress, where the real power is . . . .
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Alban Berg

Post by Alban Berg » Sat Aug 20, 2005 12:28 pm

My, Corlyss, you certainly have time to write a lot. Now I agree that a two-party system is essential; there has to be give and take, push and pull. I just don't agree that there are no adult Democrats and that we are being led by an adult Republican. But just answer me this, please: since the President is Republican and so is the Congress, why on earth is it that the President's actually quite reasonable proposal to privatize a portion of Social Security accounts has met with such opposition rather than just sailing through? That's the primary item on his domestic agenda and after all this time he hasn't gotten it enacted. I await with bated breath an answer from a proponent of the party in power. (Well, actually, I won't be back here for a few hours, but you get the idea.)

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Post by Corlyss_D » Sat Aug 20, 2005 12:36 pm

Alban Berg wrote:I just don't agree that there are no adult Democrats and that we are being led by an adult Republican.
If there are any adults in the Democratic party besides Barry, they aren't running the party. So far the only adult I've seen evidence of is Dick Daley when he contacted Durbin to tell him to knock off calling the American soldier the equivalent of the Gestapo and Poll Pot because . . . surprise! . . . it was hurting the party in Illinois!
But just answer me this, please: since the President is Republican and so is the Congress, why on earth is it that the President's actually quite reasonable proposal to privatize a portion of Social Security accounts has met with such opposition rather than just sailing through?
Okay, but first you have to tell me, what's Bush's plan? Where is it? Have you seen it? I sure haven't. Neither has Congress. Nor AEI, nor CATO, nor GAO. If you've seen it, alert the media.
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Post by Barry » Sat Aug 20, 2005 5:00 pm

Corlyss_D wrote: Not for a long, long, long time unless they learn to walk and quack like the rest of America, the America they hold in such contempt. That's a delicious irony.

I had to chuckle at Bai's sly reference to the Dem's holding onto positions they can't win on. It reminded me of Barry's passionate defense of the same positions a couple of weeks back. In essence, and I hope I'm not mischaracterizing what he thought, he said it was okay with him for the party to go on losing rather than attain political power by matching their policies to what Americans think, but it wasn't okay for me to keep harping on the fact that that is no solution to the Dem's problem.

I was a little nonplussed by that, since it seems to me the fate of the other major party in our political scheme is crucial to the fate of the Republicans and the nation as well. The strength of the nation depends on an effective two party system. The Dems have no adults running the party at this point, no one to uphold their end of the responsibility for running this place. The sooner they start talking and acting responsibly, the sooner they realize it's not about turn out, it's about ideas, the sooner they will start behaving rationally and holding up their end of this governing scheme.
. . . .
What can I say? Defense and the economy I look at more as a realist; although I do have a streak of favoring military power to achieve moral ends.
But things like church-state issues, gay rights issues, the right to control one's own body; those are core issues that I decide in accordance with my own moral view of the world. My positions on these issues aren't for sale to try to better my chance to win elections. You've told me yourself how ashamed you were when the GOP sold out on civil rights to win elections (please correct me if I'm mischaracterizing here). That's how I'd feel if my party sold out on these cultural issues.
I hate losing elections regardless of the reason, but I can live with it better if it's because we stood firm on cultural issues on which I firmly believe we're right than because too many moderate swing voters don't trust us to be tough and realistic enough on defense to protect them.
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Alban Berg

Post by Alban Berg » Sat Aug 20, 2005 5:41 pm

Corlyss_D wrote: Okay, but first you have to tell me, what's Bush's plan? Where is it? Have you seen it? I sure haven't. Neither has Congress. Nor AEI, nor CATO, nor GAO. If you've seen it, alert the media.
Welllll . . . I kinda sorta thought I had heard him talk about a plan he had back as early as the State of the Union Address; musta been my imagination.

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Post by Corlyss_D » Sat Aug 20, 2005 7:58 pm

Barry Z wrote: You've told me yourself how ashamed you were when the GOP sold out on civil rights to win elections (please correct me if I'm mischaracterizing here).
You're right. Since I believe in karma, I think that was the first sin the Republicans committed to win power for which they were punished with almost a century in the political wilderness. You won't find that in the history books, but in the moral universe, that was a huge fatal flaw. Abandoning blacks to their enemies in the south is sin for which they can never be forgiven after so much blood was shed in the Civil War to abolish slavery. The other was their woeful indifference to what was happening with the capital and wealth in this country in the post WW1 era. Their profligacy made the institution of stifling controls almost inevitable.
That's how I'd feel if my party sold out on these cultural issues.
I hate losing elections regardless of the reason, but I can live with it better
You are in for some interesting times. People like the Democratic power brokers will not tolerate being out of power for decades in the name of a few stands they have taken in the distant past to win over vocal and photogenic scrapy little interest groups. Right now, they have been able to bollocks up things because of the Senate. But it won't be that way for long. They will have to start talking the talk and if they don't walk the walk, they'll be out on their bums in a heartbeat. The country is in no mood for another Bill Clinton who could talk the talk until securely in office. The Republicans stumbled around from 1936 to 1994 looking for the formula. Are the Dems dumber than the Republicans? (Rhetorical question.) When you read Bai's regular reports on what the deep structure of the party is doing to recover their balance, one wonders. They knock about the margins, tweaking this message, trying to hold that offensive noisy interest group, while all about them the structure is collapsing. The AFL-CIO, ACT - one foot in the grave and the other on the proverbial banana peel. Why is ACT going out of business? Because Democratic money men have decided that the Harold Ickies of the Beltway have lost touch with the electorate and have nothing to offer people who want to be in power.
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Post by Corlyss_D » Sun Aug 21, 2005 4:01 am

Democrats fail to gain traction from Bush slip
By Donald Lambro
THE WASHINGTON TIMES
Published August 19, 2005

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Democrats hoped they would be scoring political points in this year's election cycle as a result of increasing terrorist violence in Iraq and skyrocketing gasoline prices that have combined to send President Bush's job-approval ratings plunging into the low 40s.

But things are not turning out as they hoped. The Democrats are beset by internal division over the lack of an agenda, carping from liberals who say party leaders are not aggressive enough in challenging Mr. Bush's nomination of Judge John G. Roberts Jr. to the Supreme Court, bitterness among abortion rights activists after criticism by Democratic leaders that forced them to pull a TV advertisement attacking Judge Roberts, and complaints from pollsters that they have no coherent message to take into the 2006 elections.

Independent pollster John Zogby says that although Mr. Bush is not doing well in the polls, the Democrats aren't doing any better.

"The Democrats aren't scoring points in terms of landing any significant punches on Bush or in terms of saying anything meaningful to the American people," Mr. Zogby said.

In a slap at his party, Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg said earlier this month that his surveys show that "one of the biggest doubts about Democrats is that they don't stand for anything."

Mr. Greenberg found growing fissures among Hispanics on issues that could cut into the Democrats' vote next year.

"Social issues, like abortion and gay marriage, create a modest crosscurrent in the Hispanic community that contributed, perhaps marginally, to the erosion of the Hispanic vote" in the 2004 presidential election, he said.

Hispanics who voted Republican were "slightly more pro-life and slightly more favorable to pro-life groups," he said. His survey also found significant Hispanic opposition -- 34 percent -- to any new immigration.

Democratic strategists say the abortion rights movement's leading group, NARAL Pro-Choice America, is angry about the way party leaders turned on NARAL's TV ad accusing Judge Roberts of "supporting violent fringe groups and a convicted [abortion] clinic bomber."

"We have to define the reckless left of our party and differentiate ourselves," former Clinton White House adviser Lanny Davis told The Washington Post, calling the ad "smear and innuendo."

Other Democrats, including Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware and campaign strategist Robert Shrum, similarly denounced the ad.

Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean, when asked about the ad, refused to discuss it.

"I'm not even going to get into that," he said.

Eager to show that they can be competitive in congressional races, Democrats are pointing to Paul Hackett, who received 48 percent of the vote in the Aug. 2 special House contest in Ohio's heavily Republican 2nd District.

But analyst Stuart Rothenberg says Democrats have exaggerated the significance of the race, which Republican Jean Schmidt won.

"Hackett's race may well be an aberration rather than a model for the future," he wrote in Roll Call. "Few serious GOP candidates next year will run efforts as inept as Schmidt's."

Other analysts agree.

"Democrats dream of a 2006 turnaround, but the odds against it are daunting," Congressional Quarterly said this month in a state-by-state review of next year's contests.

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