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Sunday, January 31, 2010

How Progressives Can Start Winning Again By Renaming Their Opponents and Reframing The Debate

What's In A Name? Everything.
How Progressives Can Start Winning Again By Renaming Their Opponents and Reframing The Debate
by David Michael Green

Progressives are losing the war for America. At every level nationally - and, via disastrous foreign policies, across much of the world as well - we are in retreat. The country lurches further to the right every day, and every election cycle, because we on the left sorely lack ideas, the outlets to express them, quality candidates, compelling leaders, conviction, message and strategy.

But more than anything, progressives are getting creamed where it counts the most, and where small successes at little cost produce the largest dividends. We are losing the battle of framing. When it comes to the portrayal of issues, the contestants fighting those issues, the moral choices at stake, and the consequences of those choices, we are being severely outgunned on every front.

There are so many ways in which this is true that the magnitude of our drubbing is quite staggering. On at least four levels of political discourse we are losing badly before the fight even begins, because of our inattention to the overriding importance of framing.

At the most basic of these levels, the right has claimed a litany of successes across a wide range of specific issues, in large part just by reframing the debate. For example, by construing Iraq as an urgent threat to American security and a front in the 'war on terrorism' (itself a major frame), they handily won the domestic political struggle leading to war. (Though, of course, it would appear that the Iraqi insurgents didn't get the message. "If only", the White House must be thinking, "they could somehow be made to watch more Fox...") The right is now doing precisely the same thing with Social Security. If they can frame the system as 'in crisis', they have a far better chance of fooling the public into supporting its dismantling and privatization.

We are also losing the framing war, secondly, at the campaign level. In 2004, to choose only the most prominent and proximate example, the Rove Machine miraculously redefined a disaster of a president as some sort of steadfast war hero, and his real-life war hero opponent as a flip-flopping Milquetoast who could never be trusted with the reins of national security. A breathtakingly remarkable double departure from reality, this campaign strategy was as stunningly successful as it was brazen. That John Kerry was complicit in the process should hardly make us feel better. Indeed, it only further underscores the extent to which we are battered and hemorrhaging in the framing war. It is so bad that we have all too frequently now become 'participant-enemies', contributing to our own defeat.

Third, progressives are losing the framing contest at the long-term, grand strategic level as well, as the right has stage-managed another miraculous accomplishment by successfully portraying their broad movement as a people's populism, hiding its true purpose of engorging the gluttonous economic elite it actually serves. However invidious this 'achievement' (and it is extremely so), one still has to admire its sheer audacity, and its success to date. Imagine being handed the responsibility of convincing America that up is really down and down is up, and the magnitude of this project begins to come into focus. Finally, we come to the highest level of framing accomplishment achieved by the right, and the most powerful. So successful have they been in their deep propaganda efforts, they have reframed the very categories employed in the discussion and consideration of political questions, as well as the labels and the meanings of those labels, used in such discourse. If, for example, they can cause negative images and sentiments to be associated with the very word 'liberal', they have won half the battle before it ever begins. And this, regrettably, is precisely what has transpired.

Consider the trajectory of the words and categories 'liberal' and 'conservative' over the past three decades. At the beginning of this period, liberal was far less the dirty word than it is today, and conservative far more so. Perhaps it was my age then, or the particular crowd with which I ran, but it seems to me that for many at that time, 'conservative' meant Nixon and lies and war and greed and uptight attitudes toward life's pleasures. Meanwhile, ideas like helping the poor, and the government functioning as a successful proprietor of solutions to societal problems, were broadly accepted as conventional wisdom.

To say that those latter notions are now ancient history for most Americans today is to be overly generous to the status of contemporary liberalism. The ultimate goal of skillful framing is to marginalize hostile concepts completely, optimally to the point of being forgotten and then actually inconceivable, and the right is now well down that path in the United States. Of course, this was precisely the core genius of Orwell in 1984, and why he was at such pains to portray in his totalitarian dystopia the government's efforts at reinventing language for the purpose of rendering certain ideas quite literally unthinkable.

Perhaps, then, the most profound - and subtle, and therefore little remarked upon - legacy of the Reagan years was to reverse those liberal notions embedded in 20th century conventional wisdom, turning Americans against their own government (notwithstanding the logical absurdity of such a notion in a democracy) and promoting the grandeur of what can only be described as greed. By the time we get to the era of Clinton and the Bushes, the poor and working class have fallen entirely out of sight, and politicians begin catering in their rhetoric only to the middle class. Meanwhile, being labeled 'liberal' becomes a political kiss of death, only slightly more attractive than 'pedophile' or 'terrorist' (just ask Mike Dukakis, who lost an election on almost entirely on the basis of this one-word albatross). Though the liberal-as-pejorative theme was less prominent in the most recent election than it has been previously, John Kerry lost the contest more than anything because he allowed Karl Rove to frame it, and him.

In all these ways we are, in short, losing the battle for America's heart and soul, often before we've even begun to engage it. What is to be done? The obvious answer is that progressives will never win as long as we continue to play on the right's home field, according to rules devised by them. We must start doing what they have done so successfully these last decades, and reframe everything in sight in the most advantageous way possible. To give but one example of a winning approach at the level of issues, some smart folks have now begun to refer to Bush's 'tax relief' program (wrong term - we lose) as the 'child tax' (right term - we win), to convey the notion that it shifts today's tax burden to tomorrow's taxpayers.

But we must go deeper and also reframe names, categories, and their associations. 'Liberal' is probably too tainted a term to resurrect for a generation, and so we should proudly describe ourselves as progressives, and insist that others, especially in the media, do the same. In doing so, we should learn the lesson mastered by the right: insistent repetition ultimately works. In fact, it can sometimes work so well that even your opponents will wind up using your language against themselves. As George Lakoff notes, liberals have done precisely that, falling into the trap of talking about the 'death tax' (wrong term - we lose) instead of the 'estate tax' (right term - we win).

So we must adopt the label 'progressives', but more importantly, what do we call our good friends on the right? Calling them 'conservatives' is a loser for at least two reasons. One is that the term has relatively positive connotations with a good deal of the American public today, so we again wind-up playing on their turf. For that matter we could call them 'saints' instead, but of course it would help them, not us. Moreover, it would obviously not be true, which brings us to the second reason cease using the term 'conservative'. That moniker dignifies the contemporary right and disguises its true agenda. Among other things, conservative used to mean - and, importantly, still evokes - ideas like fiscal responsibility, pragmatic realism in foreign policy, and patriotism. Those we continue to call conservatives today possess none of those qualities. They are little more than kleptocrats and ideological fanatics who (in the case of the president, quite literally) dress-up like patriots in order to pillage the American public and degrade the public sphere. Thus, just the simple act of calling these folk conservatives foolishly cedes to them legitimacy and trust among those whom we seek to persuade in political debates.

But what are the alternatives? "Tories"? Probably too European. "Reactionaries"? Absolutely, but too ideological for Americans. "Dirty Rotten Bastards"? Accurate, to be sure, but perhaps a bit off-putting. How about "Evildoers"? Um, nah - but thanks just the same. One label which many of us have no doubt found tempting to apply over the last four years is 'fascist'. It is, of course, a bad choice, even though perhaps justified in a literal sense: nearly every one of the multiple elements in the formal, textbook definition for the term is actually quite uncomfortably manifest in our current political environment. Just the same, this is not Germany in the thirties, and we would look hysterical - and therefore not only not attractive, but all the more unattractive - trying to fly that flag.

What is needed is a term which meets several criteria in order to be most effective. It should, first, represent just the right stretch from the current conventional wisdom that comprises our unfortunate but unavoidable starting place. Far enough to do damage, that is, but not so far as to be immediately dismissed on its face for lacking credibility (e.g., 'fascist'). We also need a term which conveys powerfully the distinction between us and them. And we want a term which offers a thematic lodestar that can orient and encapsulate the full series of individual policy differences that separate us. Finally, and especially, we need a label with an inherently pejorative connotation - one which involuntarily and subconsciously creates negatives images and feelings within those who hear or read it.

Given these criteria, and that we do and should describe ourselves as progressives, I propose that one of the easiest and smartest single moves we can make toward winning the political war in which we are engaged is to start calling our opponents 'regressives' instead of conservatives. 'Regressive', as in: "We don't want to regress back to consigning our elderly to a life of poverty." Or, as in: "We oppose returning to back-alley abortions." Or: "We believe in moving the civil rights agenda forward, not backward." Or, "The regressive right is taking us back to a polarization of wealth not seen since the Gilded Age." And so on.

This term meets all the criteria just described. It makes powerfully clear the distinction between the us and them. It takes policy disputes over reproductive rights, civil liberties, Social Security, taxes, foreign policy and most everything else, and it fits these into a simple thematic framework which unites these otherwise disparate ideas. And, it does so in a fashion which is intrinsically and, (to us good guys) favorably, judgmental: We're forward thinking. They want to return to the bad old days.

While labeling our opponents 'regressives' may appear at first glance to fail the first criterion - that of spanning a carefully calibrated distance from existing cognitive categories - it really doesn't, especially if its long-term use is initially preceded by bridging compound terms such as 'regressive Republicans' or 'the regressive right'. In any case, we should not lose sight of how quickly such terminology can go from being new and foreign to so conventional that people no longer even notice it when in use. The right - er, that is, regressives - know this, and they've demonstrated it repeatedly with phrases like 'death tax' and 'partial-birth abortion'.

Changing how the public labels categories changes the associations those labels invoke in people's minds, which in turn changes their affective attitudes toward what is being described. Too many American unconsciously think 'wasteful', 'wimpy', 'criminal-coddling', 'anti-religious', 'baby-killing', 'tree-hugging' wackos when they see or hear the word 'liberal'. Progressives saddled with that kind of baggage start out eleven points down in a ten point game. No wonder we keep losing.

But we can use these same principles against the right. And we can do it even more effectively, because - unlike them - we don't have to lie. Best of all, if we do this vigilantly and set the stage properly, when the regressives' policies come a cropper, the public will have a comprehensive, orienting, cognitive framework on which to locate these individual failures, and further reinforce accreting negative perceptions. In other words, this macro reframing at the level of basic categories also benefits us by establishing a structure upon which further criticisms will mount, rather than scatter individually. The importance of this can be seen most clearly in the case of Election 2004, wherein the Bush campaign promulgated a brilliantly crafted (though completely false), integrated, thematic foundation which told a coherent story, and the Kerry campaign utterly lacked one. Kerry had far more material to work with in this fight, but he never offered an axial core to wrap it around, and thus he could never sell it to voters and get it to stick. He could, however, lose, and he did.

Not only can we use these framing principles, we must. This is the most crucial and consequential front in the ideological war American is experiencing, and should be experiencing even more. The left has so much to do in order to start winning this war again, not least of which is regaining the courage and consistency of our convictions (itself, simultaneously, also one of the most powerfully attractive image frames, as Bush demonstrated last year).

But the smartest, easiest and most fruitful step we can take today is to label ourselves the progressives we in fact are, and our adversaries the regressives we know them to be.

David Green (pscdmg@hofstra.edu) is a professor of political science at Hofstra University in New York.

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