Sunday, November 07, 2004

One thing a lot of Democrats are thinking about these days is "what went wrong?" How did so many people go for Bush despite all the evidence that he had done a terrible job in his first term? How could they not have gotten Kerry's message? quotes Representative Earl Pomeroy of North Dakota as remarking that "the Democratic party nationally is perceived as being out of step with mainstream values."

Chris Dykstra, writing on the New Patriot blog, addresses the need for Democrats (and liberals in general) to reframe their arguments in ways that ordinary Americans (the ones who voted for Bush) will understand and accept. He argues that one of the main reasons that Bush is back in the White House for another four years has to do with the way the Republicans have used language to try to evoke particular emotions in Americans:

Radical Legislation is gilded with emotional titles, such as "Patriot Act" for example, or "Clear Skies." The justification for war is simplified and reduced to words a child would understand and repeat. Why do they hate us? "They hate us for our freedom."

Dykstra uses such words as "propaganda" and "packaging" to describe what the Republicans have done (and what he thinks Democrats need to do), but what he's basically talking about is rhetoric. Although his article doesn't use the word "rhetoric" (at least not in any positive way), he's basically arguing for liberals to use the same strategies as the Republicans in order to gain a hearing by the people who voted for Bush last Tuesday.

This suggests that the Democrats need to go back to the Republicans' speeches and writings and identify those commonplaces that resonate with those who voted for Bush. They have to understand how the Republicans used those commonplaces to invent arguments justifying actions like going to war with Iraq and supplying Federal financial support of church-run organizations. Then the Democrats need to invent their own arguments based on the same commonplaces and use them repeatedly, consistently, and fearlessly. Dykstra gives an example:

Democrats must begin to use the language of faith. Even if our intent is secular, i.e. the separation of church and state, prayer in schools, etc. it must framed as a way to support faith. In other words, strong legislation prohibiting prayer in schools must be called the: Faith Protection Act. The argument would be that limiting prayer in schools protects all faiths from government control. We must proactively identify a progressive legislative agenda (separation of church and state) then sell it by framing it as a way to protect something conservatives cherish (faith) from something conservatives fear (government control).
The use of commonplaces might strike some liberals and intellectuals (and even rhetoricians?) as embarrassing--or even worse, lazy and possibly even ethically suspect. Richard Lanham has suggested that in modern times, rhetors are less likely to use commonplaces "because we no longer trust traditional wisdom, are far more interested in investigating the world anew" (170). We're much more comfortable with complexity because the world seems much more complex than the Republicans would lead us to believe. We don't trust appeals to emotion because we believe decisions should be made based on evidence and rational deliberation. As a group of people who claim to represent diversity (as opposed the Republicans, who are often accused of really representing only the rich and the Christian Right), liberals often seem to take an unnecessarily narrow view of the kinds of rhetorical approaches that we should use to forward our beliefs. But as Lanham reminds us, "[f]or an oral culture, ... commonplaces, like all formulas for thought, were where thought and utterance began, not just where they were conveniently parked" (170). This suggests to me that while we need to "simplify" by going back to the commonplaces, we needn't avoid complicating the simple. We need to work out strategies to appeal to the beliefs of at least some of the 51% who voted for Bush while at the same time pushing the envelope on what can be said.

(I notice that I've moved from referring to Democrats and liberals as "they" to "we." Oh well... I suppose that wouldn't be any surprise to anyone...)

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