The Work Cut Out for Us | The Nation


The Work Cut Out for Us

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For which, see Paul Waldman's Being Right Is Not Enough. Waldman is something of a rarity: a Democratic strategist who is as sick of triangulating as he is of losing elections. Like Edsall, he thinks progressives (and for those who dislike the word, he gives a good argument for preferring "progressive" to "liberal") have everything to learn from conservatives about building a movement; above all, stay the course. Edsall quotes a study by the Democracy Alliance: "Conservatives systematically invest in non-electoral, social, religious and cultural networks to wage a 'permanent campaign' that continuously dialogues with people around conservative values outside of election season and then inspires them to make conservative electoral choices. Progressive capacity concentrates efforts on the eve of elections, while conservatives work to create conservative culture and work to produce conservative voters year-round." Waldman echoes this: "Passive citizens don't proselytize; members of a movement do. And in recent years, all the proselytizing has come from the right. Conservatives have worked hard not just to motivate their own supporters but to turn opponents into supporters. In the process, they remade the Republican Party in their image."

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George Scialabba
George Scialabba is the author of Divided Mind and, most recently, What Are Intellectuals Good For? and The Modern...

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Waldman and Edsall disagree, however, about something equally fundamental. Edsall, like Alan Wolfe, William Galston and other influential Democratic centrists, thinks most Americans are cultural conservatives. Waldman produces a mountain of polling data suggesting otherwise. On most economic, social and national security issues, a majority of Americans agree with Democratic positions rather than Republican ones. (The data seem solid, from Pew, Annenberg, Gallup, the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, Time, Newsweek, NBC, CBS, ABC, Fox, etc.) Why, then, do many more Americans call themselves conservative, moderate or independent than liberal or progressive? And why, until recently, did Republicans control the elective branches of government?

There are several plausible answers to the second question. One is that Republicans cheat. That the presidential election of 2000 was stolen is scarcely disputed. As for 2004 (and 2008), even those who have moved on should read Greg Palast's lengthy chapter "The Con" in his raucous book, Armed Madhouse. Another explanation is our defective Constitution: Though Democratic votes for Senate candidates consistently outnumber Republican votes, the two-senators-per-state rule means that the proportion of Republican seats to Republican votes far exceeds the proportion of Democratic seats to Democratic votes. Still another possibility is that more people with Democratic opinions don't vote than people with Republican opinions.

Waldman emphasizes another, by now almost equally familiar, explanation: Democratic rhetoric. Being Right Is Not Enough is George Lakoff's Whose Freedom? done properly, with much firsthand experience brought to bear and without Lakoff's interesting but entirely superfluous cognitive-psychological baggage. Waldman's point, copiously and tellingly illustrated, is that Democrats aim at voters' minds, while Republicans aim at their hearts and imaginations; that Democrats aim to convince, while Republicans aim to arouse and inspire; that (to use Aristotle's categories) Democrats appeal to logos (reason), while Republicans appeal to ethos (morality) and pathos (emotion). "Voters aren't debate judges carefully marking their scoresheets," he reminds us. "Electoral success isn't about plans...and it isn't about ideas. It's about...how people feel about a candidate, and how he makes them feel about themselves." Republicans understand this; Democrats don't.

This doesn't mean Republicans don't have ideas. "In their full form, conservative ideas are just as complex as liberal ones," Waldman writes. But while "there are plenty of very smart conservatives who have thought long and hard about what they want to achieve and why...there are lots of other smart conservatives who have thought long and hard about how to reduce those complex ideas to simple expressions of values and beliefs. It is in this area that liberals have failed."

It is true, of course, that out in the field, Republicans very often exaggerate wildly, simplify ruthlessly and sometimes just lie. Waldman is not proposing that Democrats do this. If he's right about public opinion, they don't need to. What they need to do is get people's attention, win their trust, capture their imagination. He has lots of practical suggestions for doing this--stories, frames, contrasts, etc.--most of them very good. He also seems to understand that slickness is no use. Stories have their own integrity; you can't just manufacture them: "Just as the best art has both a complexity that challenges the intellect and an emotionality that touches the soul, political messages need to be logically persuasive and laden with emotion."

Still, as a mostly logos kind of guy, I was a tad ambivalent about having my nose rubbed so persistently in ethos and pathos:

Progressives need to banish the idea that if only voters could be convinced to look at the issues, then everything would be fine.... Progressives need to understand that campaigns are not about issues.
 The way the American people relate to politics and make political decisions is not rational. There is nothing rational about it.
 One might argue that the Bush campaign's incessant invoking of September 11 was a way to short-circuit rational thinking on the part of the electorate, but one has to grant that it worked.

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