Search This Blog

Sunday, August 07, 2005

Simplifying progressive rhetoric

Walter Russell Mead's fine book Special Providence has a disturbing chapter about the "enormous" influence of the populist "Jacksonian" "folk community" on American foreign policy. Jacksonians have a "warlike disposition," practice "cowboy diplomacy," have little regard for international law and institutions, and typically reject foreign aid.

Sound like anyone we know?

In this post, however, I'm not going to discuss Jacksonian political culture. Instead, I want to focus on something Mead says about how popular politicians -- from Andrew Jackson to Ronald Reagan -- talk successfully to the American people. This is from a Winter 1999 article in The National Interest, but the ideas are essentially the same as in chapter 7 of his book:
The profoundly populist world-view of Jacksonian Americans contributes to one of the most important elements in their politics: the belief that while problems are complicated, solutions are simple. False idols are many; the True God is One. Jacksonians believe that Gordian Knots are there to be cut. In public controversies, the side that is always giving you reasons why something can't be done, and is endlessly telling you that the popular view isn't sufficiently "sophisticated" or "nuanced"--that is the side that doesn't want you to know what it is doing, and it is not to be trusted. If politicians have honest intentions, they will tell you straight up what they plan to do. If it's a good idea, you will like it as soon as they explain the whole package. For most of the other [foreign policy] schools [of thought], "complex" is a positive term when applied either to policies or to situations; for Jacksonians it is a negative.
John McCain was praised for being a "straight shooter" in the 2000 presidential election campaign. George W. Bush also garners praise for his rhetorical simplifications. People and nations are either "good" or "evil." Here's Bush from the first 2004 presidential debate with John Kerry:
But by speaking clearly and sending messages that we mean what we say, we've affected the world in a positive way.
Indeed, throughout the 2004 election campaign, Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney repeatedly reminded American voters that John Kerry was not a Jacksonian.

Here's Vice President Cheney, July 16, 2004:
Earlier this week, Senator Kerry told us he is proud that he and Senator Edwards voted against funding for the troops. Later he explained that his decision to oppose funding for our military personnel was "complicated." Funding American troops in combat should not be a complicated choice. (Applause.) We need a President who will back our troops 100 percent, and that's exactly the kind of President we have. (Applause.)
Search the White House website and learn that Cheney used these applause lines again and again and again -- to great effect. Bush also used them on numerous occasions.

Those wanting to unseat the Republicans currently in power have already devoted a great deal of attention to "framing" political discussion. Democrats, for example, must figure out how to talk about politics in a way that will appeal to a majority of voters, especially so-called "swing" voters (in "purple" states).

For the rest of this blog post, based on Mead's view of populist Jacksonian rhetoric, I'm going to list some topics that progressives might use to paint their political opponents into an unpopular corner. Specifically, I'll look at topics that the Bush White House considers complicated -- or complex. Most importantly, what topics require complex solutions? According to Mead, that's what gets politicians in trouble.

Here are some issues that Bush's political foes should use in the near future. I quoted in a few cases, linked in others. I probably should have been consistent, but I wanted to give examples and didn't want the post to get too long.

First, domestically, personal privacy is complicated. Republicans opened a problematic can of words by emphasizing the Terry Schiavo case earlier this year. Press Secretary Scott McClellan said this when asked whether the President and his allies were "over-reaching" in this case.:
MR. McCLELLAN: This is a complex case where serious questions and significant doubts have been raised. And the President believes the presumption ought to be in favor of life. We ought to err on the side of life in a case like this. And so this legislation, my understanding, is narrowly tailored, it would give her parents another opportunity to save their daughter's life through the federal courts.

Q You've used that same language repeatedly over the last few days, about it being a complex case and the serious questions and doubts and all that --

MR. McCLELLAN: That's the President's view.
More of the same can be found here. McClellan tries to simplify by talking about a "culture of life," but his slogan breaks down in the specifics. Why was the government interfering in this family's decision?

Similar problem: Stem cell research. Some cell research lines are OK, some aren't. That sounds complicated compared to legalization of research.

Here's another good one: Health care! Ask a Republican what to do about health care. Then, ask why the solution isn't simply to guarantee that everyone has coverage.

On the foreign policy front, which is more important to me, US policy toward Russia is complicated. Here's Bush, December 20, 2004::
[Vladimir Putin] probably has disagreements over some of the decisions I've made. Clearly, one such decision was in Iraq. But this is a vital and important relationship.

And it's a relationship where it's complicated -- it's complex, rather than complicated. It's complex because we have joint efforts when it comes to sharing intelligence to fight terrorism. We've got work to do to secure nuclear materials.
Loss of Russian democracy is complex?

Also: Immigration. Bush has acknowledged the "complexity" of the issue since before 9/11. All of the proposed plans to address the issue raise difficult issues.

For Republicans, global warming is too complicated even to address. How about simply admitting it is a problem and finding ways to cut emissions?

Finally, on occasion, the Bush administration even says that America's role in Iraq is gosh darn complex. Perhaps opponents would have it easier if they embraced a simple solution: withdrawal.

Note: Progressives should mostly ignore the tax code. The Bush White House regularly declares that the tax code is too complicated. However, they urge simplification. Can their opponents beat this frame? I doubt it.

No comments:

Post a Comment