Systemic Flaws in American Party Politics: A Facebook Vignette

When Scott Brown beat Martha Coakley in last week’s special election, I was mad. So mad, in fact, that I posted this to my Facebook wall:

Republicans have never truly governed this country: all they’ve ever done is sell failed policies with divisive rhetoric, pass the buck to [Democrats] to fix it, wait for their failures to drown us, and trust the public’s memory to be short enough to let the cycle repeat. All Scott Brown’s election proves is that sometimes, that’s enough.

I stand by the general sentiment. So did a few others. But this “status update” ultimately provoked a debate that endured for more than seventy-five comments. Admittedly, there are probably better venues for this kind of debate. Like Twitter! One comment, though, deserves a wider audience, and a more substantial reply. From “S.R.,” a 2L at Michigan Law:

While the commentary on this post feigns a dialog, it is emblematic of the deeply rooted animosity and lack of honest discussion in American politics. Let’s all take a deep breath and consider the message underlying [the author’s] upset tirade.

I am going to put myself out there and support [the author’s] characterization of the Republican Party (1980-Present). He did something that Democrats do rather poorly: he conjured up a clear archetype of the opposition, used general language to define it, and ran with it. This is a basic rhetorical method which conservative news and radio pundits, political strategists, and politicians do very astutely. What some call fear-mongering, is really just schematizing. Humans think by putting things in boxes. Republicans have discovered that by defining general boxes in an “us v. them” framework, they can develop coherent, persuasive political messaging without proposing policies. This may seem like an attack on the GOP, but I say this with awe and respect. By conjuring up an image of Democrats as liberal spending, taxing, defense-softies, Republicans can literally sit back and watch Democrats manifest these qualities — sometimes at no fault of their own — thereby undermining their ethos. By undermining the appearances of Democrats, the Republican Party can systematically take apart the Democrats and sway public opinion to their favor without doing anything.
Back to [the author’s] characterization, Republicans love to conjure up the image of Reagan, his city on a hill, deregulation, the collapse of the USSR, etc. Truth be told, and please bear with me before lambasting me as a liberal hypocrite, this is mythology. Reagan was the first real master of using rhetoric to frame American reality. For instance, he advocated going back to a time before America knew it had a race problem. The problem with this is that America had a race problem and ignoring it wouldn’t solve it, especially for those who were the victims of pervasive discrimination and extrajudicial violence. Moreover, Reagan escalated the Cold War despite productive efforts under the Carter Administration to develop diplomatic channels between Washington and Moscow. Conservatives argue that this hardline approach brought the USSR to its knees, but it was actually the internal political revolutions and economic failures of the autocracy that brought about its demise.

Moreover, Republicans love to say that the market will fix everything. Unfortunately, the market fails. Deregulation of the financial industry and a lack of oversight under the Bush administration predicated its collapse. While I agree in part that the bailout undermines the odds that bankers will adjust their behavior (e.g. engage in less risk investments) because they will ignore certain risks in anticipation of a safety net, sensible regulation and oversight of business practices is a must.

The point is, Democrats have to coopt the mythology of America from the Republicans. President Obama demonstrated a capacity to do this in his campaign. Democrats, as a whole, need to realize that reason (like the preceding two paragraphs) simply doesn’t work. The public doesn’t want to expend effort to understand the world. It is far easier to have the world put in a box and handed to you. Democrats need to simplify their characterization of the opposition and the world at large. My proposal: Republicans are the modern Sheriff of Nottingham and Democrats are Robinhood. Republicans support a scary establishment that supports corruption, wealth and greed. Democrats, by comparison, fight to ensure that the average American (conservative or liberal, black or white, gay or straight) gets a fair shake and that his or her child has real opportunity to get an education, healthcare.

Yes, it is time that Democrats fight against the Republican unreality by promoting reality through the Republican playbook. An easy place to begin: naming things. Words encapsulate whole ideas, so give ideas single words. Abandon the phrase “Republican Healthcare Plan” and call it “Deathcare.” Why? Because death is the opposite of health and is scary (see, e.g., death panels, death tax, death star). It’s short; it’s catchy. If you’re a middle-class Christian living in rural Missouri, you’re going to die at some point and deathcare is going to make it happen sooner. Furthermore, Deathcare will ensure you can’t see the doctor when you get sick, bankrupt you faster than Democratic “tax and spend” policies, and all your effort towards being a self-sufficient fiscal conservative will be wasted (including any chance of being able to pay for your kid’s college education).

For the noble elite, this seems like dirty tricks — a Machiavellian means to an end. But it isn’t. What it is, however, is how America wants to receive information: in clear, delineated, gut-instinct boxes.

S.R. is right about several things here. Americans prefer their politics quick and dirty, superficial and cheap. Accordingly, that’s an effective way to win voters. And my commentary was a departure from that ignominious norm only in that, for once, it was a Democrat taking the cheap shot. I think my “analysis” was right to the extent that it describes the most vocal elements of the modern Republican Party, but it is an overly simplistic, almost Manichean way of looking at things, one that discounts any real middle ground, and any real clash of ideas.

The question is, is that all that’s left? Political speech in this country is increasingly cheap and exploitative, and after last Thursday’s Supreme Court decision, it’s probably only going to get worse. On the premise that this, finally, could be a way towards bi- or post-partisanship, we elect a well-spoken, moderate President, only to find that given a softer target, the opposition actually gets nastier. The truly disappointing message of the last year has been that even-tempered insightfulness doesn’t seem to pay, whether in politics or in business, for an entire host of reasons. I could offer an inspirational way forward, but I’m not sure there is one anymore. Is there? And if not, how do we respond, except in kind?



  1. I actually don’t see any problem with that framing.

    The key to co-opting what they do well without losing our souls is to stay on message, while keeping a firm grasp on the facts. Just to draw a comparison, what entity is there in the right-wing blogosphere, really, that remotely resembles the interplay between say, Ezra Klein and FDL (even when they’re annoying), etc.? The deep policy discussions that go on there don’t seem to happen on the Right, and that’s because all they know is their messaging.

    The reason a person like Alan Grayson pisses so many people off is that he not only uses the Republican attack dog method, but people also know that he’s right! Because when you get back behind “Die quickly,” you can actually find deep expositions from liberal thinkers on why that is the result of GOP policies.

    So…yeah. It’s definitely something we need to be better at. That’s part of the reason I stopped being nice when it comes to a certain kind of wingnut. And it shocks the hell out of them, which is telling, because they truly aren’t used to hearing liberal ideas sold in the way that they’re used to hearing ideas sold.

  2. At this moment in time, we do need to better frame the debate. I would submit that, where the Republican framing failed is that they let the frame substitute for reality.

    I was a Reagan voter, and I think he had some good ideas. But any idea taken to an extreme goes bad.

  3. Quite frankly, we’re now a society that communicates in soundbites and catchy slogans. We (meaning the educated folks) tend to explain our positions in terms of reason, not catchy slogans. We need a new elevator pitch – a simple statement that can be said between one or two floors of an elevator ride. Not Healthcare Reform – we’ve really hit ourselves with that one. Call it what it is – Health Insurance Reform. We want folks to be able to afford to go to the doctor or the hospital without going into bankruptcy, and we want folks to be able to use health insurance as it should be used. That’s the pitch – we can explain the details once the pitch is understood.

    Keep framing the debate to the simple statement of what we want to achieve – and gear it to a 4th grader.

  4. I think that these comments have zeroed in on what I meant when I wrote the above cited text. The idea is not that Democrats have to resort to mythologizing like Republicans, but to better package their message instead of expounding upon reason. I often get the sense that the success of Republicans is that they don’t appear to lecture their constituents. Instead, they come off as reporters/watchdogs informing their audience and letting them come to conclusions. This leads the audience to feel empowered and more committed to their beliefs because their beliefs are “their” beliefs. Whether this is true in itself, is not the issue (obviously Republicans don’t just report, they use language in persuasive and manipulative ways to lead their audience to a single conclusion), but it demonstrates the difference from trying to convince listeners with reason, and giving them the information they need to arrive at that conclusion on their own.

    I meant my comment to highlight the importance of language as a means for doing the above. In particular, I tried to identify basic ideas that Liberals could use to present their reasoned arguments so as to let their audience conclude what is right — namely through simple messaging and naming things. For example: to give something a name is to give it an identity, and in doing so attach a descriptive moniker to frame the idea for the recipient. There is nothing implicitly deceitful about this. It’s simply about packaging information for consumption by the general population.

    1. We can do this without the namecalling and gutter language that our opponents use. Let the GOP be absolutely inflammatory, we can be pithy and true. But we need to define the ideas and define the terms.

      Robin Hood vs the Sheriff is one way of putting Democratic ideals vs Republican ideals. Responsible Business vs Unfettered Monopolies is one way to describe Democratic business ideals. Compassionate Government vs No Safety Net (maybe a bit too soft) for our community ideals. You get the drift – and these are examples on the spur of the moment.

  5. I think your Facebook commenter oversimplifies things a little, though he is substantially right about the mechanisms responsible.

    We agree that the existence of Americans who want their views handed to them in easily-digestible form is a large part of the problem.

    However… I differ in the following ways:

    1. This is not all Americans, or even necessarily a majority; it is just a significant portion.
    2. Many Americans manifestly do not want their views handed to them this way, and are capable of anything from disgust to outrage when political information is only available in predigested form. They are observers and critical thinkers, who would much rather make up their own minds.
    3. In the Internet Era, these critical thinkers have a disproportionately large effect on the discussion due to their tendency to rant on blogs (and comment sections thereof). Most of the time it’s not enough, but sometimes it is — e.g. electing Obama in a landslide.
    4. This does not in any way represent a call for Democrats to adopt the lying, distorting, frame-driven approach of the Republicans. I have heard this argument before, and the problems with it are: (a) Dem supporters generally do *not* like being spoon-fed, so spoon-feeding would alienate them; (b) Dem supporters have values and principles, and distorting the truth in these ways betrays those principles; (c) the Republicans are the experts on this field — if we move the game there, we LOSE.

    We, as critical thinkers, do need to be aware of the authoritarian followers who are happier being led. We tend to deny their existence because we have been taught that they are a myth, a cardboard stereotype, a misrepresentation of real, multidimensional people who would never do something like that. I think the evidence is in at this point that yes, Virginia, sheep are real — and they vote.

    But we do NOT need to become them, or consider them the primary consumers of our messaging.

    Possibly we need to consider also packaging our messages in an alternate, predigested form (as you did very nicely in your Facebook post), especially in venues where it may be heard by GOP-follower audiences — while still having one major difference with how a Republican would have handled it:

    What you said is true, in all the ways that matter.

    1. Thank you for this thoughtful response. In no way did I intend to suggest that Democrats should abandon principled arguments when speaking to their base. I do think it is important to consider packaging in order to capitalize on fundamental psychological and rhetorical techniques — of course in honest ways. This packaging would help not only persuade people, but frame issues in the public discourse. By framing the issues and grounding them in reality, as opposed to allowing Republicans to create a mythology, I would argue there would be more opportunity for rational arguments as our debates would be increasingly grounded in the real world.

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