How To Generate Nonsense Controversy
Dan’s post about Four Books A Year noted a recent poll about U.S. reading habits. One may question the survey and ask what about other reading material that may fill any alleged gap, but the attempt to turn the poll into a statement about whether one party is somehow deeper than the other is foolish. Unfortunately Pat Schroeder has tried to do just that by blaming Karl Rove for focusing on simple slogans and claiming that liberals “can’t say anything in less than paragraphs. We really want the whole picture, want to peel the onion.” As Dwight Garner put it “Tony Fratto, more or less knocked that one out of the park: ‘Obfuscation usually requires a lot more words than if you simply focus on fundamental principles, so I’m not at all surprised by the loquaciousness of liberals.’” Furthermore, it is not as if Democrats have avoided a good slogan (remember “It’s the economy, stupid.”?) It is just that the Republicans have been better at using them. There may be a host of reasons for that of late but to say that conservatives don’t read is silly or that reading somehow prevents myopic arguments is silly. Just go to San Francisco and you will see what I mean. I love the Bay Area, but honestly reading does not cure foolishness. Indeed reading does not cure folly for either side of political spectrum. As the movie A Fish Called Wanda put it:
Wanda …you think you’re an intellectual, don’t you, ape?
Otto: Apes don’t read philosophy.
Wanda: Yes they do, Otto, they just don’t understand it.
Now there is something to the idea that the Republicans have been better at framing the debate. The recent excitement for Lakoff’s Don’t Think of an Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate–The Essential Guide for Progressives (Lakoff is O.K. but not as interesting as Richard Lanham or anything Kenneth Burke has written. For that matter take a look at James Boyd White’s work especially When Word’s Lose Their Meaning: Constitutions and Reconstitutions of Language, Character, and Community) and the writings of James Carville have tried to offer better ways for Democrats to use language to their advantage. Ironically (and somewhat painfully), Ms. Schroeder missed that part of the literature and went for an inaccessible metaphor (or perhaps worse one that resonates only with a small chunk of true believers). To illustrate this idea consider the work of Frank Lutz of whom Al Franken wrote “Language is like music. Unfortunately, the Republicans have a Paul McCartney and we Democrats got stuck with Yoko Ono.”
Wow. Not only did the Republicans get the catchy one, Democrats don’t even get the cool, deep guy but are stuck with the the screechy, experimental one. As a point of clarification, Rove may have been behind the right’s strategy but his best move was hiring Frank Lutz to find the language buttons to press. Ironically his book, Words That Work, is not that good. But maybe it does not have to be. Notice that Lutz’s precolon title is easy to understand, but Lakoff’s takes more effort–maybe Lakoff’s is deep, but if one misses the people one wants to reach, who cares? In a film called the Persuaders, Lutz explains why he choose the term estate tax. An estate tax is something that impacts the rich, but a death tax is something that hits everyone. See. No onions to peel and hard to combat with logic, because it takes too many words to do so. One must peel the onion to understand why it is not so. I admit it is hard to combat that one. As Franken said, the man is good. Still according to some the tax will end up affecting 3 out of 1000 people, .003 or .3%. And there it is, the .003 tax. Support .003, it’s fair. No one rewards a .003 batter, why reward anyone else who is a .003?
Now before folks take me to task for the .003 thing, yes, it is easy to grab onto but has holes (though that may be the point of what Lakoff, Lutz, and Carville suggest that parties should do). No, I do not claim it works that well. Yes with time I think a political strategist could come up with something simple and punchy that would work well. The point is both sides can use these tactics. It is just that right now the Democrats are upset because their propaganda for some reason (maybe the onion gases are interfering with the writing) is not working well. In any event here is a link to Presidential campaign slogans. As a teaser consider 54 – 40 or fight – James K. Polk; Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Speech, Free Men, and Fremont – John C. Fremont; Vote Yourself a Farm – Abraham Lincoln; and who knew? Don’t swap horses in the middle of the stream – Abraham Lincoln.