An occasional blog about populist politics and popular music, not necessarily at the same time.
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Sunday, May 14, 2017
Arthur Protin asked me to comment on a recent interview with linguist George Lakoff: Paul Rosenberg: Don't think of a rampaging elephant: Linguist George Lakoff explains how the Democrats helped elect Trump. Lakoff has tried to promote himself as the liberal alternative to Frank Luntz, who's built a lucrative career polling and coining euphemisms for Republicans. I first read his 2004 primer, Don't Think of an Elephant! Know Your Values and Frame the Debate, which consolidated ideas from his earlier Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think -- a dichotomy he's still pitching as "the strict father/nurturent parent distinction." I've never liked this concept. I'll grant that conservatives like the flattering "strict father" construct, not least because it conflates family and society, in both cases celebrating hierarchical (and, sure, patriarchal) order, and there's something to be said for recognizing how they see themselves. But the alternative family model isn't something I'd like to see scaled up to society, where nurturing morphs into something patronizing, condescending, and meddlesome, and worse still that it grants the fundamentally wrong notion that what's good for families is equally good and proper for society and government. This is just one of many cases where Lakoff accepts the framing given by Republicans and tries to game it, rather than doing what he advises: changing the framing. I don't doubt that his understanding of cognitive psychology yields some useful insights into how Democrats might better express their case -- especially the notion that you lead with your values, not with mind-numbing wonkery. But it's not just that Democrats don't know how best to talk. A far bigger problem is that Democrats lack consensus on values, except inasmuch as they've been dictated by the need to collect and coalesce all of the minorities that the Republicans deplore.
You see, back in Nixon days, with Kevin Phillips and Pat Buchanan doing the nerd-work, Republicans started strategizing how to build a post/anti-New Deal majority. They started with the GOP's core base (meaning business), whipped up a counterculture backlash (long on patriotism and patriarchy), and lured in white southerners (with various codings of racism) and Catholics (hence their about face on abortion), played up the military and guns everywhere. The idea was to move Nixon's "silent majority" to their side by driving a wedge between them and everyone else, who had no options other than to become Democrats. The Democrats played along, collecting the votes Republicans drove their way while offering little in return. Rather, with unions losing power and businesses gaining, politicians like the Clintons figured out how to triangulate between their base and various moneyed interests (especially finance and high-tech).
Lakoff is right that Clinton's campaign often played into Trump's hands. While some examples are new, that's been happening at least since Bill Clinton ran first for president in 1992. Clinton adopted so many Republican talking points -- on crime and welfare, on fiscal balance, on deregulating banks and job-killing trade deals -- that the Republicans had nowhere to go but even further right. For more on Clinton and his legacy, see Thomas Frank's Listen, Liberal! Or, What Ever Happened to the Party of the People? The key point is that Clinton almost never challenged the values Republicans tried to put forth. Rather, he offered a more efficient (and slightly less inhumane) implementation of them. Indeed, his administration oversaw the largest spurt of growth in the wealth of the already rich. If the rich still favored Republicans, that was only because the latter promised them even more -- maybe not wealth, but more importantly power. That Clinton left the rich unsatisfied was only part of the problem his legacy would face. He also left his voters disillusioned, and his post-presidency buckraking left him looking even more cynical and corrupt, in ways that could never be spun or reframed.
So Hillary Clinton's own political career started with two big problems. One was that she was viewed as a person whose credentials were built on nepotism -- not on her own considerable competency, except perhaps in marrying well -- and even when she seemed to be in charge, he remained in her shadow. The second was that she couldn't separate herself from the legacy of ashes -- the demise of American manufacturing jobs, the concentration of wealth for a global financial elite. Indeed, with her high-paid speeches to Wall Street, she seemed not just blind but shameless. Her husband had refashioned the Democratic Party into a personal political machine, both by promoting personal cronies and by losing control of Congress (a source of potential rivals), leaving her with a substantial but very circumscribed fan base.
As for Hillary's campaign, as Lakoff says, the focus was against Trump:
Lakoff doesn't say this, but the lesson I draw was that Clinton's big failure was in treating Trump as an anomalous, embarrassing personal foe, rather than recognizing that the real threat of a Trump administration would be all of the Republicans he would bring into government. She thought that by underplaying partisan differences she could detach some suburban "moderates" to break party ranks, and that would make her margin. Her indifference to her party (and ultimately to her base) followed the pattern of her husband and Barack Obama, who both lost Democratic control of Congress after two years, after which they were re-elected but could never implement any supposed promises. You can even imagine that they actually prefer divided power: not only does it provide a ready excuse for their own inability to deliver on popular (as opposed to donor-oriented) campaign promises, it makes them look more heroic staving off the Republican assault (a threat which Republicans have played to the hilt). When Harry Truman found himself with a Republican Congress in 1946, he went out and waged a fierce campaign against the "do-nothing Congress." That's one thing you never saw Clinton or Obama do.
So, sure, you can nitpick Clinton's framing and phrasing all over the place. A popular view in my household is that she lost the election with her "deplorables" comment, but you can pick out dozens of other self-inflicted nicks. I saw an interview somewhere where a guy said that "everything she says sounds like bullshit to me" where Trump "made sense." Maybe she could have been coached into talking more effectively, but the subtext here is that the guy distrusts her and (somehow) trusts Trump. Lakoff is inclined to view Trump as some kind of genius (or at least idiot savant) for this feat, but my own take is that Hillary was simply extraordinarily tarnished goods. Democrats have many problems, but not recognizing that is a big one.
Lakoff has a section on "how Trump's tweets look":
The three things may have some validity, but Lakoff lost me at "very, very smart." Much empirical observation suggests that he's actually very, very stupid. Indeed, much of the reason so many people (especially in the media) follow him is that they sense they're watching a train wreck. But also he gets away with shit because he's rich and famous and (now) very powerful. But can you really say tweets work for Trump? As I recall, his campaign shut down his Twitter feed the week or two before the election, just enough to cause a suspension in the daily embarrassments Trump created.
Lakoff goes on to talk about how advertisers use repetition to drum ideas into brains, giving "Crooked Hillary" as an example. Still, what made "Crooked Hillary" so effective wasn't how many times Trump repeated it. The problem was how it dovetailed with her speeches and foundation, about all the money she and her husband had raked in from their so-called public service. It may have been impossible for the Democrats to nominate an unassailable candidate, but with her they made it awfully easy.
For a more detail exposition of Lakoff's thinking, see his pre-election Understanding Trump. There is a fair amount to be learned here, and some useful advice, but he keeps coming back to his guiding "strict father" idea, and it's not clear where to go from there. As someone who grew up under a strict (but not very smart or wise) father, my instinct is to rebel, but I wouldn't want to generalize that -- surely there are some fathers worthy of emulation, and I wouldn't want to condemn such people to rule by the Reagans, Bushes, and Trumps of this world. The fact is that I consider conservative family values as desirable, both for individuals and for society. On the other hand, such family life isn't guaranteed to work out, nor is it all that common, and I've known lots of people who grew up just fine without a "strict father." But more importantly, the desired function of government isn't at all analogous to family. This distinction seems increasingly lost these days -- indeed, important concepts like public interest and countervailing power (indeed, checks and balances) have lost currency -- but that's in large part because the Democrats have followed the Republicans in becoming whores of K-Street.
Still, I find what Lakoff and, especially, Luntz do more than a little disturbing. They're saying that we can't understand a thing in its own terms, but instead will waver with the choice of wording. It's easy to understand the attraction of such clever sophistry for Republicans, because they often have good reason to cloak their schemes in misleading rhetoric. Any change they want to make is a "reform." More underhanded schemes get more camouflage -- the gold standard is still Bush's plan to expedite the clearcutting of forests on public lands, aka the "Healthy Forests Initiative." Similarly, efforts they dislike get labels like Entitlement Programs or Death Taxes or Obamacare. And so much the better when they get supposedly neutral or even opposition sources to adopt their terminology, but at the very least they make you work extra hard to reclaim the language.
Republicans need to do this because so much of their agenda is contrary to the interests of many or most people. But I doubt that the answer to this is to come up with your own peculiarly slanted vocabulary. Better, I think, to debunk when they're trying to con you, because they're always out to con you. Even the "strict father" model of hierarchy is a con, originating in the notion that the social order starts with the king on top, with its extension to the family just an afterthought. But they can't very well lead with the king, given that we fought a foundational war to free ourselves from such tyranny. Indeed, beyond the dubious case of "strict fathers" it's hard to find any broad acceptance of social hierarchy in America -- something Democrats should give some thought to.
On the other hand, Democratic (or liberal) euphemisms and slogans haven't fared all that well either, and to the extent they obfuscate or distort they undermine our claims to base our political discourse in the world of fact and logic. Aside from "pro-choice" I can't think of many examples. (In contrast to "right-to-life" it actually means something, but I believe that a more important point is that entering into an extended responsibility requires a conscious choice -- pregnancy doesn't, but the free option of an abortion makes parenthood a deliberate choice. But I also think that deciding to continue or abort a pregnancy is a personal matter, not something the state should involve itself in. So there are two reasons beyond the frivolous air of "choice.")
There is, by the way, a growing body of literature on the low regard reason is held in regarding political matters. One book I have on my shelf (but somehow haven't gotten to) is Jonathan Haidt's The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (2012); another is Drew Westen's The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation (2007). These books and similar research provide hints for politicians to try to scam the system. They also provide clues for honest citizens trying to foil them.
The big news story this week was Trump's firing of FBI Director James Comey. This has forced me to revisit two positions I have tended to hold in these pages. The first is that when people would warn of some likely coup, I always assumed they meant that some organization like the US military might step in to relieve Trump of his power. This, pretty clearly, was not going to happen: (1) the US military still has some scruples about things like this; and (2) Trump is giving them everything they want anyway, so what reason might they have to turn on him? Trump's firing of Comey isn't a coup, because Trump was already in power. It was a purge, and not his first one -- he fired all those US Attorneys, and several other people who dared to question him. But those were mostly regular political appointees, so to some extent they were expected. As I understand it, the FBI Director enjoys the job security of a ten-year term, so Trump broke some new ground in firing Comey. It seems clear now that Trump will continue to break new ground in purging the federal government of people he disagrees with -- to an extent which may not be illegal but is already beyond anything we have previously experienced.
Second, I tended to disagree with the many people who expected Trump not to survive his 4-year term. I would express this in odds, which were always somewhat a bit above zero. I still don't consider a premature termination of some sort to be likely, but the odds have jumped up significantly. I don't want to bother with plotting out various angles here. Just suffice it to say that he's become a much greater embarrassment in the past week. In particular, I don't see how he can escape an independent prosecutor at this point. Sure, he'll try to stall, like he has done with his tax returns, but I think the Russia investigation will be much harder to dodge. Also, I think he's dug a deeper hole for himself there. It seems most likely that Comey would have done to him what he did to Hillary Clinton: decide not to prosecute, but present a long list of embarrassments Democrats could turn into talking points (after all, he's a fair guy, and that would balance off his previous errors). Hard to say whether an independent prosecutor would do anything differently. Probably depends on whether he draws some partisan equivalent of Kenneth Starr.
Meanwhile, some links on the purge:
Some scattered links this week in the Trumpiverse:
Also a few links less directly tied to Trump, though sometimes still to America's bout of political insanity: