If you read any political commentary this week, read this piece [h/t GMH]. A 30-year GOP Hill staffer throws in the towel:
While Democrats temporized, or even dismissed the fears of the white working class as racist or nativist, Republicans went to work. To be sure, the business wing of the Republican Party consists of the most energetic outsourcers, wage cutters and hirers of sub-minimum wage immigrant labor to be found anywhere on the globe. But the faux-populist wing of the party, knowing the mental compartmentalization that occurs in most low-information voters, played on the fears of that same white working class to focus their anger on scapegoats that do no damage to corporations’ bottom lines: instead of raising the minimum wage, let’s build a wall on the Southern border (then hire a defense contractor to incompetently manage it). Instead of predatory bankers, it’s evil Muslims. Or evil gays. Or evil abortionists.
How do they manage to do this? Because Democrats ceded the field. Above all, they do not understand language. Their initiatives are posed in impenetrable policy-speak: the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. The what? – can anyone even remember it? No wonder the pejorative “Obamacare” won out. Contrast that with the Republicans’ Patriot Act. You’re a patriot, aren’t you? Does anyone at the GED level have a clue what a Stimulus Bill is supposed to be? Why didn’t the White House call it the Jobs Bill and keep pounding on that theme?
The article is a thoughtful, impressive take on what’s gone wrong with the modern GOP, but it appeals to my parochial interest in left-wing political rhetoric as well. As a dissatisfied Republican, Lofgren is particularly adept at pointing out the Democratic Party’s ineptitude. After all, he’s trying to write an essay on how the Republican Party has become unserious. The subject begs—even demands—that he explain how a “party full of lunatics” is somehow still a dominant, viable governing party in the United States. If the Republicans have become “sociopathic,” how do they still win so many elections? (A hint: their competition is Easter-Bunny-soft.)
I’ve made this same point a number of times. How is it that progressives end up arguing AGAINST forces that call themselves “pro-life?” How did we get outmaneuvered into arguing against “pro-business” interests? (This isn’t a matter of whether or not the current iteration of “pro-life” or “pro-business” groups is true or good or right or wrong. This isn’t about content; it’s about rhetorical strategy.) Leftists aren’t ANTI-life, nor are they ANTI-business…but that’s the position they occupy in the argument. I’m seriously stumped by this—any thoughts?
What’s (tragically, I think) funny about this is that leftists tend to be the over-educated types that have read and understood various modern and post-modern linguistic analyses. Most of the cosmopolitans are on our team. If you’re talking intelligently about Wittgenstein, Heidegger, or Foucault with an American voter, you’re probably talking to a lefty. We have academic linguists who have built their entire careers around analyzing the structure of left-wing rhetoric, yet somehow we’re still getting crushed both in terms of rhetorical content and messaging strategy. As Lofgren points out in a matter of a few sentences, it’s not even close.
Perhaps this is further proof (as if more was needed) that Aristotle understood human knowledge best of all. While it’s interesting, and occasionally helpful, to have a deep theoretical understanding of politics, this isn’t the same thing as knowing how to win political arguments (and elections, etc). In other words, if you’re hoping to win more often, it’s not necessary to have sophisticated theories of the relationship between language, power, and history. It IS necessary to have a message that meets your audience at the point of their current problems and predilections…and indicates a way forward.
If you’re interested in a phenomenal book on this mechanism, take a look at Bryan Garsten’s Saving Persuasion. It’s academically weighty, but definitely accessible to non-academics. Here’s a passage from the introduction that hits on some of what I’ve discussed above [emphasis added]:
When we try to persuade, we use the arguments, images, and emotions most likely to appeal to the particular audiences in front of us. Rhetoricians who teach the art of persuasion have always instructed their students to treat different audiences differently, to study their distinctive and peculiar passions and their particular commitments, sentiments, and beliefs.
Persuasion can thus be distinguished from the mode of discourse that has been identified as central to much liberal political theory, that of justification. Justification treats different audiences similarly, in deference to the ideal of equality. When we justify a course of action, we argue that it is just, legitimate, or reasonable. We ask for our listeners’ consent insofar as they take on the role of impartial or reasonable judges and adopt the shared public perspective that John Rawls and others have called the standpoint of “public reason,” but we do not ask for more than that. We stop short of what persuasion might require. We show why any reasonable person should accept our view but not necessarily why these particular people listening here and now should do so.
Then again, as I just argued, it’s not so important that we get all leftists (or leftist intellectuals or leftist rhetoricians, etc) on the same linguistic-theoretical page. I guess it’s a bit of self-parody to decry theory right before recommending a book of political theory.
So maybe read Garsten’s book…OR maybe just spend some time thinking about how to persuade the guy at the end of the bar that we need to get serious about protecting the middle class, getting a great teacher in every American classroom, and addressing climate change.