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Wednesday, January 26, 2005

PoMo Politics

Matthew Yglesias understands how the game needs to be played. I hope that the Democrats in Washington are listening because this is very important. Regarding this clumsy "reframing" that Luntz and his fellow propagandists are doing with "personal accounts" it should be clear by now to all Democrats that relying on the media to "see though" these gambits if only we present them with the facts is a fools game. This is postmodern media we're dealing with here. We must present an alternate reality, which they can then use as our version of the truth. Only then they can be manipulated into using the correct frame-up:

This calls, basically, for someone at the DNC (or DSCC or AFL-CIO or MoveOn or wherever) to hire someone to do some focus groups and come up with a serviceable term that focus groups even worse than private accounts. Then you send around a memo getting all Democrats to start calling them "X accounts" while the White House calls them "personal accounts." Then "private accounts" will look like a decent compromise and it may well get back in the stories.

It's insane, yes, that the very term invented by proponents of private accounts is now considered to be off-limits. But that's the game. If you want to work the refs, you've got to work the refs. "Forced savings accounts" strikes me intuitively as something that focus groups won't like, but actual research should be done.

I'm sorry it has to be this way. But I'm even sorrier that we still don't seem to get that we have to modernize our strategy in this fundamental way.

It doesn't really matter if the The New York Times understands that the Republicans are changing their marketing slogans. I'm sure it's very edifying to know that some smart people in the press are not impervious to
reason at least some of the time. What really matters, however, is that they use the marketing slogans we want them use.

Once again, the Republicans left us a very useful blueprint for how to derail a major initiative like this. The Clinton Health Care Plan. Their frame was "government run health care", "they want to choose your doctor" "they'll make going to the doctor like going to the DMV or the post office." The took their favorite boogeyman and used it to completely distort the plan in a simple, creepy way.

Is there any reason that we shouldn't use similar scare tactics about taking your guaranteed retirement money and letting Wall Street to play with it? Nope. And once we do that, the press will be obliged by its he said/she said "objectivity" to not only choose the term "private accounts" to split the difference between what the two parties want, they will also be obliged to report our demagoguery along side Bush's demagoguery. Let the best scare tactic win.

Reason, logic and objectivity are required for good governance. In the current environment they are antithetical to good politics. They take up too much time. They lack the sensation and visceral knee jerk identification that's needed to capture the public's attention. We need to be able to explain our positions but we have to be operating on other more subjective levels if we expect to win these things.

Social Security seems to be going our way but I am far from sanguine that we've got it in the bag. Rove is very good at pushing past people's instincts and creating a new reality. He does it by manipulating the media with relentless pressure and exerting a masterful command over the presentation. He succeeds by wearing down both the media and his opponents and tying them up in knots with a cacophany of noise while competing and illogical assumptions are set forth with visual clarity. He knows his optics.

Yesterday he composed a ridiculous but compelling tableau in which Bush was seen showing his compasionate conservatism by illustrating that private accounts would benefit African Americans because they have shorter life spans. Now, anybody with a brain knows that this life span data is based upon the fact that blacks have higher infant mortality and young deaths due to violent causes. In fact, African Americans who reach 65 can be expected to live very close to the same life span as whites. But, who's going to listen to that except a bunch of political junkies who are already convinced? All that mattered was that there was a big picture in the Times this morning showing Bush sitting at a table with a group of black leaders talking about social security. He's reaching out to "the other side."

But it's not blacks he's trying to reach. It's whites who like the idea that privatization is good for poor people but haven't quite found a good argument that supports it. This pitch allows Bush supporters to hoist liberals with their own petard by saying they are racists who want to keep blacks from getting their fair share. This kind of sophisticated obfuscation comes as second nature to Republicans these days. We are seeing it in both the Gonzales and Rice debates on Capital Hill right now.

Dave Johnson wrote a fascinating must read piece today called "How Republicans Win" that addresses some of this:

The Republicans win because the modern Right has developed around the core idea of persuading people to support their ideology, which then leads to support for their issues and candidates. In other words: marketing. The Right developed this persuasion capability in reaction to the dominance of the existing "liberal establishment." Because of this, most of their organizations are designed as advocacy and communications organizations, with the mission of reaching the general public and explaining what right-wing ideas are and why they are better for people. Today's Progressives, on the other hand, think there already is a public consensus supporting their ideals and values, so they have not developed a culture that is oriented around persuading people, and their organizations are not designed at their core to persuade the public to support them.

For example, everyone used to think that it is moral to help the poor or protect the environment, so there are organizations that are designed to do that. Then along comes the right, funding organizations designed to convince people it is wrong to do these things. The result today is that on one side you have organizations trying to help the poor, protect the environment, etc. On the other you have organizations telling people what those organizations are doing is wrong. But now you have no one explaining to people that it is GOOD to help the poor and protect the environment so over time support for helping the poor obviously will erode and eventually the organizations that help the poor will be in trouble and have little public support.

I agree that this is the process and the end result, but I would argue that the right has done this not by persuading people to their ideology but by persuading them that Republican ideology is the one they already have.

They tell people that they are helping the poor more by bleeding government programs. (Remember, faith based programs arebetter at helping those in need because they offer the spiritual dimension.) They call their anti-environmental programs "healthy skies" and they refuse to do more than literally phone in bromides about a "culture of life" to their anti-choice base. This was a lesson they learned during the Gingrich years when they precipitously lost favor when they were honest about their agenda. With Bush, they learned the lesson that they needed to couch their ideas in liberal rhetoric in order to win. I believe this is born out by the fact that the polls show not only that Republican voters have a completely different set of priorities than the president for whom they voted, but they actually believe that the president holds their views even though he clearly doesn't.

The most recent PIPA poll confirms this:

Bush supporters also have numerous misperceptions about Bush's international policy positions. Majorities incorrectly assume that Bush supports multilateral approaches to various international issues--the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (69%), the treaty banning land mines (72%)--and for addressing the problem of global warming: 51% incorrectly assume he favors US participation in the Kyoto treaty. After he denounced the International Criminal Court in the debates, the perception that he favored it dropped from 66%, but still 53% continue to believe that he favors it. An overwhelming 74% incorrectly assumes that he favors including labor and environmental standards in trade agreements. In all these cases, majorities of Bush supporters favor the positions they impute to Bush. Kerry supporters are much more accurate in their perceptions of his positions on these issues.

That takes nothing away from Johnson's larger point about the Republican success at marketing. In fact, it confirms it. The Republicans are so good at this that they've been able to convince large numbers of people that they are something they're not, even in the face of absolute facts that refute it.

This is a masterful use of marketing and it's one that we need to recognise and begin to use ourselves. The good news is that the liberal consensus remains intact (if somewhat tattered) and if we are smart enough to expose the other side for the hucksters they are and reaffirm our committment to the values we and most of the country hold dear it shouldn't be too hard a sell.

We'll have to get past the media, however, and takes us back to Yglesias' point. We won't get there by refusing to play the game. We have to get better at manipulating the press and that means understanding the pressure they are under from the right and giving them something to use as a counterpoint so they can say they are "objective."

Personal Accounts vs Mandatory Gambling = privatization.