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Thursday, November 18, 2004

Don't Re-Frame, Organize


Via Brad DeLong, I learn of a fascinating article written by someone who spent seven weeks knocking on the doors of undecided voters in Wisconsin.
Time after time, undecided voters would agree vociferously with every single critique I offered of Bush's Iraq policy, but conclude that it really didn't matter who was elected, since neither candidate would have any chance of making things better.
So reports Christopher Hayes of TNR. He concluded that many voters have a
fundamental lack of understanding of what constituted the broad category of the "political." The undecideds I spoke to didn't seem to have any intuitive grasp of what kinds of grievances qualify as political grievances. Often, once I would engage undecided voters, they would list concerns, such as the rising cost of health care; but when I would tell them that Kerry had a plan to lower health-care premiums, they would respond in disbelief--not in disbelief that he had a plan, but that the cost of health care was a political issue. It was as if you were telling them that Kerry was promising to extend summer into December.
I was struck by how similar his analysis is to the views of cynical political scientist Larry Bartels, who has written extensively about the widespread failure to reason about political and policy choices, for example, about the estate tax:
Millions of ordinary Americans say that the federal government should spend more on a wide variety of programs, that the rich are asked to pay too little in taxes, and that growing economic inequality is a bad thing -- yet simultaneously support a policy (estate-tax repeal) whose main effect would be to reduce the tax burden of the very wealthy, constrain funding for government programs, and further widen the growing gap in economic fortunes between the rich and the rest of American society.
Elsewhere [pdf], Bartels points out that this failure isn't confined to the stupid and poorly educated, citing the support of many intellectuals for Stalin in the 1950s, long after it should have become clear that he was a monster.

How ought candidates to respond to this? Many say the answer is a change in rhetoric. Hayes argues that the Democrats need to "rebuild a
popular, accessible political vocabulary." Over at the DLC, the New Donkey says "Democrats should focus on developing a broad, national message for change on all the challenges facing the country, since our "targeted" messages [about particular issues such as Social Security], some of which violently oppose "change," don't seem to be succeeding very well." Others speak of adopting the right Lakoffian "frames" for the Democrat's message.

I don't doubt that what candidates say, in speeches and TV commercials, is important. But it doesn't seem like fine-tuning the message is the obvious way to persuade voters who see high health costs as a fact of life, rather than the outcome of political choices. And I don't have high hopes that framing the issues correctly will win votes from those who don't believe that politicians tell the truth, and don't believe that politicians have the ability to make life better, even if they wanted to. I guess improving the message is better than nothing, since people have to vote for one of the candidates.

So what will work? It seems to me that more important than developing new language is building institutions that can speak to voters from a position of trust. Labor unions and the mass media are obvious examples. Ralph Nader, for all his faults, is pretty good at coming up with innovative ways to fund citizen's groups.
If I were George Soros, I'd buy People magazine, and order them to run embarrassing pictures of Bush (say, the shot of him giving the finger to the camera) and pictures of maimed Iraqi children.

Which isn't to say that organizing is the only answer, in the absence of the right poetry and prose, message and issues. Just that all three things (and probably more) are needed.

 
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