Thursday, October 7, 2010

The Liberal Obsession with Messaging

Have you ever noticed that asking a liberal why the present electoral prospects of Democrats are so bleak invites a disquisition on Obama’s limitations as a messenger? Listen, for example, to Michael Tomasky, one of the most perceptive liberal pundits out there (my emphasis):
My own answer to the question of how things got this bad has less to do with whether Obama should have been more liberal or more centrist than with his and his party’s apparent inability, or perhaps refusal, to offer broad and convincing arguments about their central beliefs that counter those of the Republicans. This problem goes back to the Reagan years. It is a failure that many Democrats and liberals hoped Obama could change—something he seemed capable of changing during the campaign but has addressed rather poorly once in office. . . .

"One result is that we have a new faction, the well-financed Tea Party movement that has been able to arrogate to itself practically every symbol of Americanism and to paint the President, his ideas and policies, and his supporters as not merely un-American but actively anti-American. In a Newsweek poll released in late August, nearly a third of Americans actually agreed that it was “definitely” or “probably” true that Obama “sympathizes with the goals of Islamic fundamentalists who want to impose Islamic law around the world.”2

"In the face of all this, it seems not to have occurred to a single prominent Democrat, from Obama on down, to say something like: We love our country every bit as much as they do, and we believe patriotism means expanding access to health care, protecting the environment, and imposing effective new rules on Wall Street.”
I always presume that there’s something to what a smart guy like Tomasky says—although, in this case, his messaging strategy sounds to me a lot like the one that didn’t work for Democrats in 2004 when they were ranting on about John Kerry’s war record and how Karl Rove should be ashamed for questioning their patriotism. But I’m more interested in the fact that smart liberals contemplating Democratic electoral defeats always seem reach for an explanation that turns more on how Democrats sell their agenda to voters than on what the content of their agenda is.

Conservatives are different. Ask them what went wrong in 2006 and you’re likely to hear a lot about how George Bush and Tom DeLay lost their ideological bearings. Bush could barely put a sentence together in public, yet conservatives don’t tend to put much explanatory weight on his limitations as the Republican spokesman-in-chief. They’d rather focus on the content of the message than shoot the messenger.

When Democrats do poorly in elections, however, you always hear a lot from liberals like George Lakoff about how badly Democrats framed the issues. The best evidence that liberals care more about messaging than conservatives is the comparative status of messaging gurus in liberal and conservative circles. Can you imagine a prominent conservative politician describing someone like Lee Atwater as “one of the most influential political thinkers of the conservative movement”? Substitute “progressive” for “conservative” and those are the very words Howard Dean used, at the height of his influence in liberal circles, to describe Lakoff (in a blurb on Lakoff’s best-selling book Don’t Think of an Elephant).

The difference between liberals and conservatives in this respect is symptomatic of a broader difference in outlook. Liberals tend to think of voter preferences as psychological responses to the stimuli generated by competing campaigns. Conservatives tend to think of voter preferences as a more or less accurate expression of the voter’s real interests and ideals. That makes for a systematic difference in liberal and conservative takes on a whole range of political issues.

The ideological contest over the Citizens United  decision is a case in point. Liberals were apoplectic when the Supreme Court struck down the provisions of McCain-Feingold that prohibited corporations from financing speech about political candidates in the run-up to an election. From their standpoint, all other things being equal, more professionally crafted stimuli generate more positive voter response. So allowing moneyed interests more opportunities to finance political speech gives them an unfair advantaged in elections over interests with less money behind them.  Limits on corporate political speech are the only available remedy.

Even conservatives who deplore the influence money exerts on public decision-making by means of lobbying or direct campaign contributions, couldn’t get that worked up over Citizens United because the only way it increased the influence of money on elections was through the medium of speech. Conservatives don’t deny that voter-preferences can be mistaken when they’re formed under conditions of imperfect information or distorted by partisan disinformation. But since political speech is an essential medium for conveying politically relevant information and exposing partisan disinformation, conservatives figure that, all other things being equal, more speech is better than less speech regardless of who finances it.

If Democrats really have a messaging problem it might be because their messages too audibly transmit the sound of professional messengers plying their trade.


KenB said...

Offhand I'd guess the liberal response would be that conservative policies are simplistic and appeal to the baser instincts of the middle class and thus sell themselves, whereas the benefits of liberal policies require more sophistication and/or compassion to recognize and thus must be properly "framed" for the average voter.

Scrooge McDuck said...

Hmmm... I'm a liberal, and even I find that a little self-serving. (It is tempting, though...)

I think that something happened--since the 70s-- in the liberal mindset. Conservatives are able to make a full-throated defense of their views on purely normative terms. I don't believe in the conflation of markets and freedom, but I fully understand how someone could.

Liberals don't defend liberalism any more, as a world view: they defend policies. And if, in defending policies, they undermine liberalism, they seem to be able to live with that.

I don't know if this is true, but I suspect that if the Health Care Reform Act was sold only as a way of guaranteeing closer-to-universal access to health care, it would have done much better in the political sphere. But the variety of arguments offered in support of the bill included: access, cost containment, insurance company regulation, etc.

The truly great liberal politicians built policies that were simple in concept, and culturally attuned for resonance: the Social Security Act, WPA, moon shot, civil rights. Today's Democrats build camels: jerry-rigged crap collections with a thousand superfluous features thrown in; each designed to appease a particular constituency.

This may be good short-term politics, but I think it has killed the liberal "brand." My sympathies are much more aligned with liberal goals than conservative ones; nevertheless, it seems like conservatives have the heat, the moral fervor, and ethical conviction that people want to see in their politics.

In the mid-80s, partly in response to Reagan, a "neo-liberal" movement was nurtured, encouraging a wonkier, more market-oriented, "centrist" approach to politics. I was one of them. But in retrospect, I think that we have harmed, more than helped, liberal goals in America.

Ron Replogle said...

"Liberals don't defend liberalism any more, as a world view: they defend policies. And if, in defending policies, they undermine liberalism, they seem to be able to live with that."

That's something I've wanted to write but couldn't find the words (or perhaps wished I'd written as soon as I read your words).

One observation: I think that one of Bill Clinton's unappreciated gifts was his ability to marry New Democratic wonkiness with the grand egalitarian tradition of American liberalism. When he said that the "age of big government is over" it didn't sound to me like he was compromising his liberal ideals. He was telling liberals that if they really want serve their core values, they'd have to find new (and less self-defeating) ways of doing it.

Scrooge McDuck said...

That was indeed one of Clinton's great talents.

Have you read Rick Perstein's "The Stock Ticker and the Superjumbo"? It is on this very theme--the decline of liberalism is America as it privoted to a tactical approach--and I think you'd find it useful in your thinking.

It's short, and it's a great read.

Scrooge McDuck said...

It's available online!