April 01, 2005

Howard Dean, Madman

I've never felt all that strongly one way or the other about Howard Dean. Disliked him as a presidential candidate, but voted for him in the New Hampshire primaries anyway. That sort of thing. Same with his bid for DNC chair: nothing but tepid shrugs here. Nevertheless, it's a bit frustrating to read in this month's Atlantic Monthly that Howard Dean is planning the wholesale destruction and marginalization of the Democratic party:
In a private meeting of officials the new party chairman, Howard Dean, vowed that he would "make George Lakoff the Democrats' Frank Luntz."
Ha ha! April Fool's? Actually, no, apparently Dean's serious. And seriously, horribly, galactically wrong. Look, Lakoff is a wonderful man—during college I did a year-long research project in cognitive linguistics and ended up reading nearly everything Lakoff wrote, and it's all quite brilliant—but this obsession with "framing" needs to end. Right. Now.

Let's take one example. Liberals love to talk about how conservatives scored a major victory when they took the estate tax and started calling it the "death tax." In fact, Josh Green wrote just such an article a few years ago for TAP. Nevertheless, the slogan itself was overrated. It wasn't just a turn of phrase that shifted popular opinion against the estate tax. The repeal movement also managed to build a vast coalition of political allies. They managed to drum up scare story after scare story about hard-working men and women who built up the small family business with their bare, grubby, cracked hands and then had to dissolve the whole thing upon death. They managed to prey off the fact that some 20 percent of Americans believe that they're in the top 1 percent of the income distribution (and another 20 percent think they'll be there soon). They lied, lied, lied, about the effect of the tax on women and minorities. They talked endlessly about how, with the coming Baby Boomer retirement, millions upon millions of Americans stood to benefit from inherited wealth. It was hard work!

The phrase "death tax" didn't actively frame anything, and it didn't cause millions of Americans to think, mistakenly, that they too would benefit from the tax' repeal. (And it was mistakenly: in the end, 80 percent of Americans supported junking a tax that affected only 2 percent of them.) No, the heavy lifting here was done by a mass barrage of facts and arguments and statistics and horror stories that predisposed Americans against the tax. Only then was the ground ripe for a snappy slogan to come along and nudge public opinion in the right direction. But first you need to make the ground ripe. Otherwise, you're just coming up with a goofy new name for something—which is why, notice, the phrase "personal accounts" have never caught on.

So please, no Lakoff. Not yet. Figure out how to do all that other stuff first. But depending on framing and framing alone will condemn the Democrats to irrelevance for decades to come.

UPDATE: Hm, been away from the internet for the past 30 hours or so (yes, I got shakes and cold sweats), but reading through the comments below, it seems I've misunderstood Lakoff. Well, that, or I've conflated "frames" and "slogans" somewhat. My post was railing against the latter, but Lakoff seems to be genuinely advocating the former, even though, from what I can tell, his actual examples (and the examples I've seen at DailyKos and elsewhere) veer towards flimsy and rather politically un-astute slogans. So okay, sorry for the confusion.

Still, the estate tax example is rather interesting -- from what I can tell the Republicans didn't really "reframe" the issue per se; they just barraged people with facts, sob stories, and lies, and won the public over by confusing them, not by changing the way they think about the world. Still, I could be very wrong about this, so I went out and got Michael Graetz and Ian Shapiro's Death By a Thousand Cuts today, which should be a good case study in how the great bamboozle machine works.
-- Brad Plumer 2:45 PM || ||