Sunday, July 23, 2006

Endless Framing

In the contest to find an omniscient prophet to turn the the tide of the Democratic party, the rise of scholar and writer George Lakoff, a linguist at UC-Berkeley and a relatively new celebrity in political circles, is almost predictable. Lakoff's book Don't Think of an Elephant, Fram the Debate (2004) launched a second career for the professor, a career based on his assertion that if Democrats want to win elections, they must frame issues in a broader and more theme-based platform. He has the ear of many Democrats in high places, and some of what he says is admittedly useful, such as his assertion that the Bush Administration does not represent incompetence but rather the failure of conservative principles (but doesn't it represent both?).

According to him and others--for this narrative is hardly new--the Republican establishment has done a good job defining their party as the symbolic "strict father" with "the moral authority who supports and defends the family, tells his wife what to do, and teaches his kids right from wrong." Republicans have made the "strict father" model into a trusted worldview among Americans; Democrats' "nuturant parent" model that assumes people are inherently good is in turn rejected in favor of the strict father approach. As a result, much hand-wringing ensues over how the Democrats are losing the "framing" contest. Too much time is spent analyzing and parroting Lakoff, not enough time is spent working to turn dismal prophecies around.

Lost in all of this is how unquantifiable a lot of what Lakoff asserts really is. Language of course and its effective mastery, including the ability to unite thoughts under a coherent theme, is crucial in communicating ideals and beliefs--and not something George W. Bush particularly excels at--but commencing yet another debate on why Democrats lose rather than working for them to win is in a sense undermining the effort to use language to redefine and renew the party. A communications strategy that is supposed to consist of successful framing techniques becomes overcome by self-defeat. Proof of this is the way in which Lakoff himself has become a star attraction rather than just an anonymous speechwriter.

Sometimes over-analysis results in paralysis, rather than a clear-headed ability to act. In this vein, one of the best and most deceptively simple pieces of advice I have received is to "act as if, and belief will follow." Often times, dwelling on failures rather than successes lead to a rootedness in that failure. Sometimes, one must act as if success was inevitable, and perhaps it will be.


Chris said...

"Sometimes, one must act as if success was [sic] inevitable, and perhaps it will be."

It seems that this mindset is also quite prevalent in Democratic politics. Every election they make grandiose predictions about how they are, at very least, likely to win in the most unlikely of congressional districts (usually high-profile), only for them to spend much time, energy, and money running campaigns that were most likely not going to succeed rather than focusing on places perhaps less noteworthy but but more promising, only to lose the election but claim a moral victory for getting a higher percentage of votes than in the past. I have yet to find one person that is not a hardcore Democrat who actually believes such a situation to be an actual electoral victory of any kind. Your idea is correct...the Dems just need to figure out when "sometimes" is and when it isn't.

Let me make a note on the use of gendered language also. (Although I loathe such analysis when it's theory applied to text, here it is theory reapplied to text created with theory in mind, so it's more sensical.) I realize that "fathers" have very much a negative connotation in today's society so it doesn't surprise me that Republicans would be characterized as "strict father[s]." But then to do away with the gendered terms when talking about democrats as "nuturant [sic]parent" is quite frankly absurd and incongruous. I mean, I know men can be attentive and caring, too, but is it wrong for Democrats to embrace their feminine side??? Do/should they have something against motherhood or perhaps they fear such a characterization might offend or marginalize their childess female constituency??

Here I end my brief rant consisting of feigned moral outrage and verbal diarrhea/intellectual masturbation that passes for political debate these days.

Elaine said...
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Elaine said...

Thanks for the [sic]. That's sick.

Anyway, just because I'm advising to act as if success were inevitable does not mean I'm advising blind optimism, and I guess my ending was partially a last sentence of blog entry style flourish, but I was trying to express that it might be best right now for the Democrats to work especially towards tangible goals rather than on intangibles. This is why I appreciate Howard Dean's 50 State Strategy which is ideally going to cultivate a new wave of party workers in states and areas where there hasn't been a whole lot of Democratic activity or presence. I think there is a lot to be said for meeting people and getting involved in local issues that sometimes is missed by a grandiose approach like Lakoff's.

I don't really know whether father has any worse of a connotation than mother these days. (For every derogatory "dead beat dad" remark there is the equally bad if not worse "welfare queen" expression applying to single women). As for the nurturing versus strict parent, I don't think the roles are really mutually exclusive and therefore wouldn't be inclined to associate one role with one gender. Perhaps this flies in the face of Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus logic, but I don't think this is necessarily a bad thing.

Chris said...

Actually, what I thought was weird about that terminology, and I'm being serious now, is that in the early days of the Republic the debate regarding what kind of federal government the US should have revolved around the terms "nursing father" (a Biblical allusion to Isaiah, by the way) and I believe "Watchman".

Anyway, you're welcome for the sic, since I believe the proper use of the subjunctive should be brought back to common usage, i.e. Sometimes, one must act as if success [were] inevitable, and perhaps it [would] be."

Elaine said...

Well, that's a horse of a different color. Purple maybe? or Orange. Kiddings aside, that is an interesting point about the meaning of Father in the early days of our government. Might it suggest that masculinity was under assault even in the days of our forefathers?

You are right that I should have used the subjunctive properly, but I am right when I say I made a cursory error. At least, so I believe, which is why I didn't think the [sic] necessary.

However, it might be that I really do not know how to use the subjunctive. I should go back and read all of my writings and find out. Knowing this, I will do all in my power to use the subjunctive with great care, even though it is my least favorite form to learn in other languages (I don't believe in expressing mood in language. I'm a purist).

If you want to do right by the subjunctive, write a new blog entry, you delinquent ;-)

Chris said...
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Chris said...

Haha...I've been so busy, but I should. I know that German has turned you off to the subjunctive - for whom would it not??? The subjunctive in English is remarkably easy...there are no conjugations whatsoever. It's just "were" straight through. The blog entry will have to wait til next week though...actually, there will be a few entries considering how much time I actually have on my hands these days.