Friday, August 05, 2005

A New Word for "Spin"

Some Democrats have complained in the past few years (and probably long before that) that they are losing elections because Republicans "frame" issues better. Matt Bai's giant article, The Framing Wars, from the New York Times seems to do a pretty fair assessment of the debate. There's a lot of discussion of linguistics and interviews with both liberals and conservatives on the "issue." The basic point is that some Democrats blame losses on not using the right words. This really is nothing new, it's age-old political spin. It's not a new problem in politics, it is politics.

Personally, I think Democrats lack a solid set of beliefs and are less tolerant than Republicans of even the smallest disagreements. Mr. Bai notes that many Democrats just want "magic words" instead of considering that their policy positions might be part of the problem. There's a good example of this at the end of the article:

Rather than continue merely to deflect Clinton's agenda, Republicans came up with their own, the Contract With America, which promised 10 major legislative acts that were, at the time, quite provocative. They included reforming welfare, slashing budget deficits, imposing harsher criminal penalties and cutting taxes on small businesses...

By contrast, consider the declaration that House Democrats produced after their session with John Cullinane, the branding expert, last fall. The pamphlet is titled "The House Democrats' New Partnership for America's Future: Six Core Values for a Strong and Secure Middle Class." Under each of the six values -- "prosperity, national security, fairness, opportunity, community and accountability" -- is a wish list of vague notions and familiar policy ideas. ("Make health care affordable for every American," "Invest in a fully funded education system that gives every child the skills to succeed" and so on.) ...if you had to pick an unconscious metaphor to attach to it, it would probably be a cotton ball.

Consider, too, George Lakoff's own answer to the Republican mantra. He sums up the Republican message as "strong defense, free markets, lower taxes, smaller government and family values," and in "Don't Think of an Elephant!" he proposes some Democratic alternatives: "Stronger America, broad prosperity, better future, effective government and mutual responsibility." Look at the differences between the two. The Republican version is an argument, a series of philosophical assertions that require voters to make concrete choices about the direction of the country. Should we spend more or less on the military? Should government regulate industry or leave it unfettered? Lakoff's formulation, on the other hand, amounts to a vague collection of the least objectionable ideas in American life...

What all these middling generalities suggest, perhaps, is that Democrats are still unwilling to put their more concrete convictions about the country into words, either because they don't know what those convictions are or because they lack confidence in the notion that voters can be persuaded to embrace them. Either way, this is where the power of language meets its outer limit. The right words can frame an argument, but they will never stand in its place.

It's really a question of marketing. A good pitch can help, but you won't be able to sell something that the people don't want ("New Coke," anyone?).

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