Archive | July, 2012

Four Words That Will Decide The Election

25 Jul

ImageFour Words That Will Decide The Election

 If there is anyone out there who still doubts that framing is what this election is about, just look at the vocabularies of the contending parties. It’s already down to a non-stop battle of mantras, buzzwords, epithets and self-designations.

  For Mitt Romney, it’s about “the entitlement society” versus “the opportunity society.” For Barack Obama, it’s about “a make-or-break moment for the middle class.” For Republican surrogates, it’s about defeating “big unions” and “Euro-socialists.” For their Democratic counterparts, it’s about resisting the onslaught of the “radical right.”

  There is a certain symmetry to it. Each side paints the other as out of touch with the American mainstream. Each accuses the other of wanting to lead the country down an unsustainable path. Each side tries to frame issues so as to ignite emotional responses that will immunize voters against whatever arguments the other side offers.

  Yet there is also a profound asymmetry at work. Whether Democrats admit it or not, Republicans have been far more effective at emotional mobilization.  Republicans have long since grasped what Democrats are still puzzling over. You choose the words that trigger the emotions. And the four words at the heart of Republican strategy this year are “entitlements,” “redistribution,” and “job creators.” Why those four? Because they load the dice most effectively against the President. To be in favor of “entitlements” is to favor giving people things to which they aren’t really entitled, such as other people’s money. To favor “redistribution” is to favor taking away what hard-working people have earned and giving it to people who don’t truly earn anything. And to tax “job creators” is to kill any hope of economic recovery.

  And how have Democrats responded? It’s a “war on women,” it’s a “war on the middle class,” it’s an attempt to “bring back the policies that got us into this mess.” That plays fine with the choir, but it’s not bringing a lot of new people into church. Why not? Because however justified as policy arguments, the first two mantras come across as insulting and the third asks people to ignore the last three and a half years. This is not the way to trigger emotional responses among the uncommitted.

  So what should Democrats be doing? Ah, the irony. While Republicans not only lionize their Dear Departed Leader but mimic his rhetorical strategy to a fault, Democrats exalt the memory of their Greatest Leader and totally ignore his rhetorical strategy. All Republicans know that Ronald Reagan’s stock in trade was denigrative language.  “Government isn’t the solution; government is the problem.” Yet how many Democrats have any idea of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s verbal strategy? From the show they’re putting on, I’d say very few to none. A history lesson for Democrats:

  Against whom did F.D.R. run in 1932? That’s easy. The ultimate conservative, Herbert Hoover. WRONG. Hoover never called himself a conservative in 1932.  Hard as it may be for Democrats to believe, throughout his career as both Secretary of Commerce and President, Hoover always called himself a “progressive” and a “liberal.”  In its review of his book American Individualism, the New York Times itself stated: “His liberalism, his progressivism, is a thing of the heart no less than of the head.” If no less an authority than the New York Times validated Hoover’s credentials as a progressive and a liberal, WHAT HAPPENED IN 1932, and how does it relate to 2012?

  Remember how Reagan took the cherished self-designation of the Democrats and turned it into a bad label, an epithet? “It’s time to . . . use the dreaded L-word; to say the policies of our opposition . . . are liberal, liberal, liberal.” And a dreaded word it has been ever since. How many Democrats are even running this year as self-styled liberals?

  Roosevelt could have done the same in 1932. He could have turned Hoover’s liberal label into a bad label, an epithet. Hoover was far more vulnerable in 1932 than were the Democrats of the 1980s. It would have been easy for F.D.R. to attack Hoover’s “liberal failures” and position himself as a “conservative,” as a restorer of traditional American values. Indeed, many historians have since analyzed the New Deal in terms of F.D.R.’s conserving, indeed saving, American capitalism. So why didn’t he go that road?

  Because he knew better.  Because he understood that his strongest emotional appeal was to challenge Hoover’s right to his own label.  This he did immediately and consistently, starting with his nomination acceptance speech in which he proclaimed the Democratic Party “the bearer of liberalism and of progress” and the “party of liberal thought, of planned action,” while attacking Hoover and the Republican leadership as “reactionary.” F.D.R. took away Hoover’s liberal label, redefined it and made it his own.  It worked so brilliantly that Hoover spent the next twelve years of his life in a vain effort to recapture his cherished liberal label. He never succeeded. Finally, after F.D.R.’s death, Hoover gave up and at age 71 started calling himself a conservative.

 So what’s the lesson for Democrats in 2012? Do what F.D.R. did. Take away Republican vocabulary. Turn it around on them, redefine their own words as F.D.R. did eighty years ago. Entitlements? Who’s the real entitlement candidate? Who’s proposing continued, massive subsidies to big corporations from oil companies to agribusiness, subsidies to which those corporations feel they’re entitled? Who’s proposing indefinite continuation of ridiculously low tax rates for the wealthiest Americans, millionaires and billionaires who also feel entitled to them? Who’s in favor of continuing to fatten up the industrial-military complex with huge government contracts to which those corporations feel entitled? And when you frame it that way, who’s the real opportunity candidate?

  We’re not talking semantics here; we’re talking framing. We’re talking politics. We’re talking emotional mobilization. We’re talking what F.D.R. did best. He turned the vocabulary of his opponents to his own advantage and their detriment.

  The same holds true for word number two: redistribution. Who’s the real redistribution candidate? The way Republicans are using the word, they’re igniting huge emotional reactions against the idea of redistributing wealth downward. What Democrats have failed to grasp is both the necessity and the opportunity of turning that very word around on the Republicans. Romney is hugely vulnerable on the issue of redistributing wealth upward. That’s what his tax break policies are about. That’s what his spending cuts are about. That’s what his entire economic program is about. All the statistics are already there proving how dramatically the wealth has been redistributed upward ever since the Reagan era, and Romney wants to continue that. What hasn’t happened is that Democrats haven’t framed that data using Romney’s own vocabulary. Again, we’re not talking semantics; we’re talking emotional mobilization. Democrats need to take over the word redistribution, and they need to do it now.

  Finally, words three and four: job creators. Tailor-made for Democrats. What have big corporations done most effectively over the last twenty years?  Romney’s corporate supporters have been creating jobs, all right, in China, India, the Philippines, Mexico, Cambodia, Singapore, Vietnam – everywhere but the United States. At the same time, Republicans in Congress have consistently sabotaged the administration’s efforts to create jobs at home, and then blamed the President for lack of job creation. Again, the vocabulary is tailor-made for a Democratic counterattack. The Republicans are great at creating jobs outside the United States, and every time they create a job outside the United States they kill a job inside the United States. So who is the real job creator?

  And the biggest irony of all? Who said, “Don’t retreat; reload”? She was right, but what she didn’t realize is that it works both ways. Reload indeed, but with the other side’s ammunition. Democrats should not only let Republicans compete with them over the vocabulary; they should force them to. Democrats should get off the defensive and go on the offensive, using the opposition’s own weaponry. They should be making Republicans afraid even to use those words. And when Republicans start to run away, Democrats should chase after them with the same weaponry. “Republicans don’t want to talk about entitlements any more, now that the American people realize who the real entitlement candidate is. And they don’t want to talk about redistribution any more, or about job creators.” When Democrats reach that point, they’ll know they have won.

  And it not only works for the big four words; it works with other words such as “Obamacare” and “class warfare.” Again, we’re talking emotion here. Republicans have been yelling “Obamacare” since long before the Supreme Court decision, but they don’t dare talk about “Romneycare.” Well, why not? Now that the Court has rendered its decision, it’s the perfect time to turn that vocabulary around. As for “class warfare,” Democrats need to turn that around in the same way as they do the word redistribution.

  Homework for Democrats: Go through the entire list of Republican buzzwords and turn each and every one of them against the Republicans. It not only can be done; it has to be done, because if it isn’t done, the Republicans will win the framing war, and if they win the framing war, they win the election.

  But again, it’s the big four words that will be front and center for the rest of this campaign. Democrats have only two choices. They can keep running away from the ghost of Ronald Reagan and stay on the defensive, or they can finally learn from their deservedly greatest hero and do what he did so brilliantly and with such telling effect. There is no time to lose. The time to reclaim the offensive, and the vocabulary, is now.

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David Green is the author of The Language of Politics in America: Shaping Political Consciousness From McKinley to Reagan (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1991). He has taught at Ohio State, Cornell, and York University.

 

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