Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Dueling Diagnoses => Actions speak louder than Words

(Cross posted at DailyKos)

Yet another diagnosis of the Democrats slide into near oblivion has made its way into my inbox recently, this one from James Kroeger entitled The Republican Nemesis, close on the heels of George Lakoff's most recent item, The Post-Katrina Era.

Kroeger's diagnosis is basically that "While Democrats knock themselves out every election cycle trying to talk to Swing Voters about The Issues, Republicans have calmly focused their attention on winning The Image Campaign. Quite simply: Democrats lose because they don't understand what moves their target audience." Republicans make themselves look good by making Democrats look bad and Democrats, in trying to maintain some semblance of civility, play right into Republicans' hands by giving them a measure of credibility. Democrats must slam Republicans whenever appropriate, laugh at the ridiculous claims they make of us and state clearly why we should all be afraid of electing Republicans - not particularly tough to do at the moment.

IMHO, Kroeger's analysis is accurate, as far as it goes. I believe, however, it is incomplete as it is missing that which Kroeger specifically chooses to dismiss when he writes that "George Lakoff says that the Republicans are especially talented at choosing words & associations that work for them. True as that may be, it becomes apparent with a little more reflection that it's not really the words or value-associations that matter so much; it's the emotions that are expressed when words are used. "

His dismissal way oversimplifies what Lakoff has to say, ignoring the multiplicative, reinforcing nature of repeated messages integrated into a consistent frame that, even without the loaded delivery, elicits emotional responses. This together with how Republicans cast Democrats and ineffective responses from Democrats made for a very steep decline indeed.

As Kroeger's analysis is incomplete, so too is his solution. It is necessary for Democrats to respond effectively to the inevitable Republican smears, however it is not sufficient. Democrats must also have a framework within which to fashion consistent messages that paint a positive self-portrait for the electorate. Bill Moyers outstanding series on Joseph Campbell And The Power of Myth comes to mind - storytelling is extremely powerful and Democrats must regain this critical skill. Lakoff provides a style guide as well as a content primer for stories. Kroeger provides insight into story teller traits needed to get the listener to both buy into our stories and reject that of our opponents.

There are two other elements that I think are needed to ensure Democratic resurgence - and no, it's not that Republicans keep shooting themselves in the foot, though of course more of that is quite welcome.

The first is that every single Democratic elected official, Party official, candidate, spokesperson, whatever, must be relentless in calling Republicans on the disconnect between their words and their actions. The phrases "Watch what they do, not what they say!" and "Actions speak louder than words!" need to be repeated over and over and over again.

Second, following on the storytelling theme, is that we need to recruit and train top notch story tellers. There is no excuse for settling for bar pour when only top shelf will get the job done.

By the way, do read Lakoff's piece - he does a good job of making a case for focusing on the philosophical underpinnings of the Katrina disaster - Republicans don't believe in government, how can they do anything but what they've done? It should be no surprise to anyone that they've managed to completely trash FEMA along with the FDA and EPA while hard at work to repeat the process in every federal agency.

Democrats, on the other hand, believe in government as the appropriate vehicle for effective common action for the common good and have repeatedly demonstrated that this philosophy leads to well run government able to get the job done for Americans and America. This of course dovetails nicely with Kroeger's exhortation to show the electorate why they should fear Republicans and elect Democrats.


At 9/16/2005 9:18 AM, Blogger coturnix said...

I have read both pieces earlier. I think you would like my blog as I write a lot about Lakoff.

At 9/16/2005 12:56 PM, Blogger coturnix said...

Science and Politics - particularly the "Understanding America" category.

At 9/22/2005 6:05 AM, Blogger chicago dyke said...

i've also posted on this at corrente.

At 9/22/2005 6:26 AM, Blogger fouro said...

Joe, if you're looking to add to the mix, and also amenable to mild critique of Lakoff's "surface" treatment of emotion and its roots in American Identity and self image as well as some all-important suggestions for execution, try this from Oct 2003: On (more) Democratic Human Nature, Part I and Part II


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