Tuesday, September 02, 2008

There is no middle to tack to

I want to make 5 related points about framing.

1.) You can't understand the Sarah Palin pick without understanding the work of George Lakoff. George Lakoff is a cognitive linguist at UC Berkeley who has done pioneering work on framing. Lakoff argues that there are two primary frames that guide how people think about politics -- the strict father model and the nurturant parent model. Republicans tend to be guided by the strict father model of the family and of governance and Democrats tend to be guided by the nurturant parent model.

But here's the important point -- there is no such thing as a "moderate frame. From Lakoff's new book, The Political Mind:
There are no moderates -- that is, there is no moderate worldview, no one set of ideas that characterizes a "center" or "moderation." People who are called "moderates" use conservative thought in some issue areas and progressive thought in others without falling on any linear left-to right scale. Indeed, many so-called moderates have no moderation at all and are quite passionate about both their conservative and their progressive views.
People who are called "moderates" or "centrists" by the traditional media are actually known as biconceptualists -- they use strict father frames (conservative) to understand some issue areas and nurturant parent frames (progressive) to understand other issue areas.

As a result, "tacking to the center" as so many politicians try to do -- is actually political suicide. By tacking to the center -- diluting or watering down your frame -- you turn off your frame, without ever turning on another frame. As Lakoff said, there is no one "centrist" frame to turn on. People either respond to conservative or progressive frames (everyone has both) -- but they are mutually exclusive -- you can't activate them both at the same time (when activated, the one frame quite literally turns off the neural networks in the brain of the other frame).

Part of Karl Rove's genius is that he understands Lakoff. In 2000 and 2004, George Bush didn't tack to the center. Rather, he activated his base through aggressively promoting a conservative frame. There is no middle to tack to -- so the key to winning elections is to activate more of your base than the other side.

The selection of Dick Cheney -- who supported cop killer bullets, and opposed programs like Head Start -- was all about activating the conservative base. So too, selecting gun-toting, choice- opposing, polar-bear hating Sarah Palin is all about activating the conservative base.

2.) George Lakoff has got to be the loneliest fucking guy on the planet. He writes books for Democrats but Democrats (or at least Democratic consultants), don't ever seem to read them. Republicans (either intuitively or through rigorous study, I don't know) seem to understand and act on Lakoff's principles -- much to their benefit.

3.) If you believe that Lakoff is correct (and the evidence is pretty strong that he is) then Hillary Clinton would have been a better choice than Joe Biden as Barack Obama's running mate. Look I get all of the problems with Bill Clinton hanging around trying to steal the show and I get that Hillary Clinton seems to activate the Republican base as well. But if elections really are just a numbers game of who can better mobilize their base (because there is no "centrist" frame to activate -- but you'll still pick up many independents by sticking with your original frame) then Hillary Clinton does a better job of activating the Democratic base than Joe Biden.

4.) I believe most Americans see a political campaign as a metaphor for war. How you treat your political opponent is subconsciously understood to stand in for how you would treat an adversary during war-time. So when John Kerry brags, "Bring it on!" during the primaries and then sits with his thumb up his ass during the general election as the Swift Boat thugs are savaging his military record -- the general public comes to understand that if attacked by a foreign adversary, John Kerry would likewise sit around humiliated and doing nothing.

5.) Postmodernism is absolutely fucking killing the Democratic Party. Said differently, liberals who go out of their way to try to see the relative merits of every possible position are killing progressives who are actually trying to prevent the evil Republican mutherfuckers from taking over the world.

On three four separate occasions during the past year, I've heard liberals talk about their desire to find a way to love Dick Cheney. As I've said before, Dick Cheney is a murderous thug. If self- identified liberals would spend less time working on their own inner peace and more time working to put Cheney in jail, the world would be a better place.

I was trying to understand why both Gore and Kerry ran these ridiculous "100% positive" campaigns -- where they refused to criticize their opponent (an opponent I might add, who was mercilessly mocking them for their own refusal to fight back). I've heard both Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo and Chris Matthews say that the reasoning behind the decision to run a "positive campaign" was because inside-the-beltway Democratic consultants believe that that is how you run a political campaign. More specifically, the reasoning goes -- if you ask focus groups a generic question about whether they like negative ads they will tell you that they don't. [Then evil-Charlie Brown head Chris Matthews will shout, "But negative ads work in real life!!!"]

But the more I think about it, the more I think that the "focus groups told them to" answer is too pat. Democratic consultants are smart enough to see that negative ads work in the real world -- that's not difficult to demonstrate. No I think that what's going on is that Democrats, particularly well educated members of the Democratic political establishment really do love postmodernism. They really do want to honor the relative merits of lots of different viewpoints -- even ones they disagree with. They really do want to transcend partisanship and find a higher synthesis. Which would be great if more than 15% of the population also reasoned as they do. It just seems bizarre to me to see Gore and Kerry run these post-partisan feel good campaigns when 85% of the population is thoroughly partisan.

And therein lies a lesson for Obama. Look, he's absolutely brilliant, the most beautiful and gifted politician in a generation. His rope-a-dope strategy won him a seat in the Senate and it was enough to beat Hillary Clinton too. As a black man in America -- it's an open question as to whether the traditional media would allow him to show anger without instantly leaping up to label him "an angry black man." When he throws elbows he's very effective -- and his poll numbers jump accordingly. John McCain is so thoroughly unqualified to be president that just sitting back and waiting for McCain to self-destruct might be enough. But I can't help but notice a strong undercurrent of Democrats who wish our guy (or even the larger Democratic team) would hit a little harder, a little more consistently -- that we wish we didn't have to just take it on faith that when the moment comes to deliver the knock-out blow that Obama will choose partisanship and winning.

Update #1: Lakoff has a great piece on the Palin nomination over at the Huffington Post.

Update #2: Sure enough, George Lakoff is the loneliest fucking guy on the planet. From his new post on the way the Obama campaign is framing the debate:
Throughout the nomination campaign, I was struck by how well the Obama campaign was being run, especially how sophisticated the framing was. I was heartened that my five books on the subject might have had a real effect. But recently I have begun to wonder. It looks like, in certain respects, the Obama campaign is making some of the same mistakes of the Hillary campaign and the Kerry and Gore campaigns.
Full article here.

Update #3: Is Anne Lamott the one who started this virulent "we have to love Dick Cheney" meme? Look I love Bird by Bird, but it seems bizarre to allow our love ethic to silence our justice ethic. Our love for everyone on the planet demands that we act on our justice ethic by putting murderous thugs like Cheney in jail. I'm happy for anyone to work on loving Dick Cheney after he is in prison but it seems to me that it puts the cart before the horse to grant him pardon before he has been prosecuted for his crimes.

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