18 May 2007:

Michael Tomasky on the Hope for Political Discourse, in The New York Review of Books

This Web log did not begin publication until November 2004, right after the presidential election, but the inauguration followed months of posting on political matters at Portico and reading a lot of blogs. I well remember, and not without bitterness, a widespread hope that, if the right arguments could only be persuasively presented, the American electorate would see the Bush Administration for what it was.

That hope was soundly dashed, and it was not revived for the 2006 elections. In 2006, many political bloggers concentrated on tactics and investigative reporting. I have no idea how much their efforts contributed to the Democratic recapture of Congress, but whatever happened, it wasn't a model for victory. For one thing, hundreds of seats were in play, including all of those in the House, and each case was different in its own way. There's only one presidential election coming up.

Most of the current Republican candidates are considerably more honorable than George W Bush, but the standout of the moment, Rudolph W Giuliani, promises to be just as unscrupulous as he could be if Karl Rove were working for him, only in new and different ways. The idea of fighting him off with rational arguments is laughable, for Mr Giuliani obviously appeals - and I speak from experience as a New Yorker who actually voted for him twice - to irrational impulses. It is arguable that Rudy was great for the city for most of his two terms, or at least better than the competition. But the last years were awful, starting with the attack on the Brooklyn Museum and the elevation of Bernard Kerik. That's when voters such as myself grew alarmed.

The point to all of this preamble is that Democrats, liberals, and progressives - and voters who really wish the United States well - have to find a new way of talking, and the hunt is no secret. In "How Democrats Should Talk," in the current issue of The New York Review of Books, Michael Tomasky appraises two books on the subject, and includes another that sets out the techniques that have worked for the Right. That would be Frank Luntz's Words That Work: It's Not What You Say, It's What People Hear. By the time Mr Tomasky is through with this book, the reader will have come up with a more accurate subtitle: It's Not What You Say, It's How You Spin, Tweak, and, If Absolutely Necessary, Lie. It's an important book to discuss, however, because Mr Luntz's techniques are unacceptably rebarbative to us nice people on the Left. Winning on the strength of lies raises the nightmare of Nazi Germany and The Manchurian Candidate. We don't want to go there.

Duplicating conservative methods for marketing candidates [Mr Tomasky writes], could be achieved more quickly, but it is an even trickier matter, since it presents not only an organizational challenge but a moral one. During campaigns or while attempting to govern, should liberals and Democrats engage in the moral equivalent of Willie Horton ads and lies about an opponent's war record and false claims about weapons of mass destruction? Most liberals would say "no," but few choices in the world of politics are quite as stark as the above three examples. Most would also agree that Democrats, particularly in the last two presidential campaigns, have let themselves be bullied by conservative attacks and need to play a better game of hardball. This was most notable in Kerry's failure to respond to the so-called Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, a conscious decision made by his campaign in the belief that the group's charges wouldn't stick. 

One wonders where, oh where, they got that idea.

In The Greatest Story Ever Sold: The Decline and Fall of Truth from 9/11 to Katrina, Frank Rich, according to Mr Tomasky, has nailed a case, in respectable, amply footnoted historical terms, against the Bush Administration. It's an important work, and will probably emerge as the permanent Contra Bush of our time and thereafter. But, persuasive as Mr Rich's book is for the people likely to read it, it's probably of no use at all as a means of persuading ordinary Americans to reject the Republican establishment as well as any candidate that it nominates.

This is where the third book comes in. It has not yet been published; it will appear at the end of June. But I'm so heartened by what Mr Tomasky has to say about it that I'm going to sing its praises sight unseen, if only because it restores to life my moribund hope in effective political discourse. The book is The Political Brain: The Rose of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation, by Drew Westen.

In his early chapters Westen discusses the physiology of the brain and the different ways in which we respond to rational and emotional stimuli. Whatever the views of other experts on these neurological matters may be, I can say that, for electoral politics, Westen's analyses almost always seem to me correct and something that Democrats need desperately to hear.

The burden of Mr Westen's book appears to be that it is not necessarily dishonest to appeal to voters' emotions. It's just very easy, especially when your opponent, the Democratic Party, is married to rational argument. What the non-Right needs to do, in brief, is to translate rational conclusions about how the nation ought to be governed into emotionally powerful statements. Mr Tomasky summarizes the argument that Mr Westen would like Democrats to have made against launching the Iraqi misadventure.

The resolution we are being asked t4o vote for [writes Mr Westen] demands that we abridge the Constitution that our founding fathers so artfully crafted, which gave Congress the sacred duty to provide oversight over the executive branch not only in times of peace but also in times of war, when American lives are most at stake. And the reason we are being asked to sign this resolution now - the reason it cannot wait until the facts are more clear - is not national security. This resolution is designed for no other purpose than the partisan interests of the Republican party.

"I recall no more than a small handful of Democrats," writes Mr Tomasky admiringly, "who said anything remotely like this. He does not add that such powerful remarks would play much better in the press than tiresome facts and figures, but it's obvious that they would.

I happen to be in the middle of Jonathan Sokol's There Goes My Everything: White Southerners in the Age of Civil Rights, 1945-1975, an immensely important history of the reaction to the movement to achieve civil equality for black Americans. Mr Sokol's second chapter, "'Our Negroes' No More," documents the very extensive use of anti-Communist rhetoric in reactionary arguments. Since black were deemed incapable of organizing themselves - and, indeed, even progressive Southern whites were offended that blacks took it upon themselves to anticipate the improvements that progressives believed they would themselves one fine day bestow (thus proving themselves to be just as patronizing as their opponents) - they must be put up to activism by outsiders, and everybody's default outsider in the Fifties and the Sixties was the "Communist," a bogeyman of mythical dimensions. There are parallels here for the nonsense that is spouted from today's Right about the "war on terror." The forces that once sought to constrain civil rights for black Americans now seek to constrain them for all Americans; and they do so with no greater justification, but rather with the identical justification: to hold on to power. Surely an electorate persuaded of this rational but emotionally-presented truth will act quickly to take that power back. 

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