“Whenever the other side has you talking their language, they’ve got you. That, to me, is what it’s about in a nutshell and it’s almost that simple.” George Carlin in an interview with Tim Russert, when asked why he thought the Democratic Party and John Kerry failed to connect with the voters. (November 23, 2004)
Matt Bai had a cover story in Sunday’s New York Times magazine. (“The Framing Wars,” July 17, 2005) It’s spin about spin. On one level, it’s an article about how Democrats now understand the value of “framing”–that language and narrative matter in politics.
It’s also a tale about what Dems are doing to contest the well-funded Republican spin machine which has twisted America’s political language for decades to deceive the public for its own base purposes. (Over the past few decades, the radical right has engaged in a well-funded program of Orwellian doublespeak, transforming American political discourse to suit its political ends. Think “death tax” or “tax relief” or “personal accounts” or “partial birth abortion.”).
On another level, Bai’s essay is also a profile of “the father of framing”–George Lakoff. (Others who’ve toiled long in the “framing” fields sent out e-mails on Sunday, ticked off that Bai made Lakoff out to be the guru of the field, ignoring the serious work of other “framers.”)
Bai’s piece will be familiar to progressives who’ve been arguing for years that individual issues must be tied together by some larger (preferably moral) frame that articulates a vision and speaks to the kind of country we want to live in. But Bai does raise some legitimate questions: Is the Dems’ problem bigger than a battle of language? Maybe the focus needs to be on the battle of ideas?
My problem is with the article’s snarky reductionism; in the end, Bai suggests, the Dem’s framing is really all about spin, or weird and wonky linguistic theories. But what about the fact that there is a a real science involved in framing? And isn’t there a very real connection between language and ideas. Why not make the point that many Republican ideas are slogans without substance or, as Mark Schmitt points out on Josh Marshall’s new site, TPMCafe, “substance that contradicts the slogans, while liberal ideas are more likely to be serious, substantive, meaningful, but lack a slogan.” And as Jonathan Chait argues in his New Republic cover story of last week, not only do progressives have plenty of ideas but what the right calls “ideas” is really something very different.
I believe we need a campaign to debunk the Right’s language–with conviction and, most important, humor. A few months ago, sick and tired of the Right’s verbal gymnastics (spin and deceptions), I set out to do another kind of “framing.”: I asked Nation.com readers to suggest satirical definitions of Republican slogans. Believing lies melt away in the face of mockery, I wanted to skewer the GOP with the fine tipped sword of satire. And I wanted to find a way to combine Lakoff with, well, one of the most effective political communicators in America today–Jon Stewart.
The result was a grassroots groundswell of hilarious and illuminating submissions from Americans who are mad as hell and aren’t going to take it anymore. I’ve collected the sharpest, funniest, most hard-hitting in The Dictionary of Republicanisms–coming to your local bookstore in late October. (We’ll also be featuring selections of the book at TheNation.com.)
Clarify, v. To repeat the same lie over and over again.
Compassionate Conservatism, n. Though shalt not exploit thy neighbor for thyself.
Faith, n. The stubborn belief that God approves of Republican moral values despite the preponderance of textual evidence to the contrary.
Fiscal Conservative, n. A vanishing subspecies of the Republican party
Fox News, n. We distort, you comply.
God, n. The Republican-in-Chief.
Moral Values, n. Do as we say, not as we do.
No Child Left Behind, riff. There are always jobs in the military.
Pro-life, adj. Valuing human life up until birth.
Simplify, v. To cut the taxes of Republican donors.
Voter fraud, n. A significant minority turnout.
Thousands of definitions were entered from all over the country, 44 states in all, along with Puerto Rico and Washington, DC. As would be expected, entries from blue states predominated, especially New York, Massachusetts, and California. But there were some surprises. The state with the most submissions? Texas.