Saturday, April 30, 2011

Weekend Rerun: The Liberal Obsession with Messaging

Now that we're starting to gear up for the 2012 election, this (slightly edited) 10/7/10 post seems relevant:

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.

Liberals think that's the height of hypocrisy because they can't imagine that conservatives don't think of voter preferences the same way they do, as an artifact of adroit messenging.  If Democrats really have a messaging problem, it might be because their messages too audibly transmit the sound of professional messengers plying their trade.

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