Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Reclaiming American History Part II - What Was the American Revolution About?

As I argued in a previous post, conservatives have been able to frame American history in a way that feeds into their broader goal of discrediting the role of government in society. They have done this by using history to define the United States as a conservative country. While progressive scholars and activists have spent the last few decades bringing marginalized groups (African Americans, American Indians, women, etc.) into the mainstream of American history, conservatives have focused on portraying the nation's founding in a way that suits their needs. They've done by arguing (1) that the Founding Fathers were deeply religious individuals who supported laissez-faire economic policies and (2) that the Revolutionary War was a revolt against government and taxes.

Because the founding period is the defining moment in a nation's history, conservative efforts to claim the Founding Fathers and Revolutionary War have been politically effective. It can be hard to tease out the precise ways that our understanding of the past influences the politics of today, but it clearly has an effect. For instance, the sense that the United States was founded by people who supported laissez-faire economics causes members of the media to portray various forms of government intervention, such as the 2009 stimulus, as unprecedented and/or vastly different from what the Founding Fathers would have done in similar circumstances. To the extent that most Americans think about history, they tend to adopt the view that the United States started off as a fairly perfect country - with a heroic set of founders - and that current policy should be geared towards keeping the country as moored to the founding principles as possible. This has a subtle but important impact on politics at both the personal and societal level, particularly because it taps into the way in which many of us are wired to appeal to authority and tradition when making political decisions.

Having said all that, what is wrong with the argument that the United States was founded as a conservative country. After all, weren't the Founding Fathers Christians who believed that government had gone too far? Wasn't the Revolution an anti-tax revolt against an oppressive central government?

Well, as any historian will tell you, the story is more complicated. The truth of the matter is that it is impossible to distill any one meaning from the Revolutionary period. There were many Founding Fathers, they disagreed vehemently, and the Revolution meant different things to different people. Moreover, times change. Attempting to apply lessons of the past to the issues of today is complicated by the fact that definitions and concepts are not static. Being a Christian meant something different two hundred years ago compared to what it means today. Same with race, economic policy, and other issues.

Nonetheless, there is a progressive view of the United States' founding that needs to be told. I'm going to lay this out in more detail in a few forthcoming posts, but for now I want to highlight the two key principles that I think progressives should focus on as we seek to reclaim American history from conservatives.

1. The Founding Fathers were forward-thinking individuals that were interested in progress. Although they were wealthy white men who wore powdered wigs, the Founding Fathers did not want to be bound by tradition. Rather, they were obsessed with figuring out ways to move their nation - and all of humanity - forward. They saw this primarily in political terms, specifically through extending democracy, but were deeply interested in scientific, technological, and cultural progress as well. Like progressives today, the Founding Fathers embraced critical inquiry, scientific truth, and, above all, doing something to move history forward.

2. The Revolutionary War was an anti-imperialist revolt. An oppressive government that denied people participation in the political process, not taxes, was the primary cause of the American Revolution. Like progressives today, the Revolutionary generation was deeply worried about concentrated political and economic power. They were inspired to take up arms against the British Empire because they felt that they had no say in the political process. They did not say "No taxation." They said "No taxation without representation."

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Friday, April 13, 2012

Reclaiming American History Part I - Focus on the Founders

[This is the first in a series of posts about how progressives can reclaim American history from the right wing.]

One key component of the conservative messaging success of the past three decades has been their ability to claim American history as their own. Although we have come a long way in how we understand the past, most people still view American history through a conservative lens. They think of the Founding Fathers as Christian conservatives, view the American Revolution as a war against taxes, and believe that the United States grew rich and powerful because of its free enterprise, laissez-faire system.

That these claims are false (or, more accurately, highly misleading), should not distract from the fact that they have an important effect on our political discourse. How we think about the past influences the way we think about the present and the future, and countless academic books and articles that paint a progressive picture of American history have failed to impact the way most Americans really understand the nation's past.

Let me explain in a little more detail.

There are two main ways of thinking about American history, each of which lends itself to different political implications. The first sees the nation's past as a slow but steady progression towards greater freedom and prosperity. According to this view, the United States was a deeply flawed nation at its birth, but for a variety of reasons it has become better over time. This interpretation, which historians often term Whiggish, tends to be held by people on the left and emphasizes the contributions of various social movements, such as the labor movement and the civil rights movement, as engines of progress.

By contrast, many conservatives subscribe to a view of American history in which the United States was born great but has fallen (or struggles to remain great) because we have strayed from the ideals of previous generations. This "declensionist" view tends to focus on valorizing the Founding Fathers and discrediting the 1960s.

So what's the problem? Well, my sense is that, although we've come to accept the contributions that marginalized groups and social movements have played in American history, the declensionist view dominates popular understandings of our nation's past. It is great that we have things like Black History Month, but many people - and not just racists or diehard conservatives - still think that the United States was more free in the 1950s than it is today.

Why is this? One reason is that the media, politicians, and other people who set the terms of public discourse are, by their very nature, concerned with critiquing the present and, as such, have a tendency to look favorably upon the past. Those of us who pay close attention to the ins-and-outs of politics have a hard time stepping back and acknowledging that things are getting better. We have a natural inclination to complain about the here-and-now while longing for bygone days. In this sense, progressives engage in their own forms of declensionist thinking. For example, we hold up Franklin Roosevelt as a tireless champion of liberal values when, in fact, his presidency was characterized by the same sort of hesitancy that gets progressives riled up about Obama.

To my mind, the right wing has capitalized on declensionist tendencies among the public and the media - tendencies which tap into the respect for tradition moral foundation that Jonathan Haidt has talked about - by advancing a conservative vision of the Founding Fathers and other key authority figures in American history. Instead of fighting battles to get marginalized groups included in the story, the right wing has focused on using history to define the United States a conservative country. The main way they've done this is by portraying the Founding Fathers as Christian conservatives and claiming that the American Revolution was a revolt against government and taxes. They've done a lot of other things as well - trying to appropriate the civil rights movement, discrediting the Great Society programs of the 1960s, reminding people that Abe Lincoln was a Republican, etc. - but they have focused the vast majority of their attention on the Founding Fathers and the Revolutionary War.

This is really smart because the Revolutionary Era is, and will forever remain, the defining period in American history. It is what we all inevitably refer back to when we want to understand the "nature" of our country, which is the major contribution that history makes towards informing our political decision-making.

For this reason, I think it is high time that progressives push back on the conservative campaign to claim the Founding Fathers as their own. Over the course of the next few weeks, I'll be focusing on how we can debunk right wing myths about the Founders, particularly the view that they were extremely religious and advocated a laissez-faire approach to economic policy. Stay tuned.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

How Not to Talk About the Budget

Gene Sperling, Director of the White House's National Economic Council, is a smart man. But he was caught badly off guard by CNBC's Maria Bartiromo in an interview on Tuesday.

In a sad scene that we see time and time again, Bartiromo played the part of the clueless media figure parroting right wing talking points, which in this case were false claims about taxes and the budget. (Brian Beutler has a nice rundown of Bartiromo's faulty line of questioning regarding the budget. In short, Congress passes budgets - not the President.) Meanwhile, Sterling was the typical Democrat who struggles to explain complicated issues and ends up coming off as defensive and out of touch.

Here's a link to the full interview and the most talked about part of it:

In the spirit of our mission to help progressives improve their messaging, I'm going to suggest some ways that Sperling could have done a better job in the interview. (I'll only focus on the material in the clip above.)

  1. First off, it appeared that Sperling was unprepared for Bartiromo's aggressive line of questioning. Knowing that she hosts a show that caters to Wall Street, Sperling should have been prepared for attacks on the budget and the Buffett Rule.
  2. Instead of saying "There is about zero truth to anything in the question," Sperling should have said, "Maria, why are you misleading your viewers?" or "It looks like you don't understand how the budget works." In so doing, Sperling could have gone from defense to offense and controlled the rest of the conversation.
  3. See her smile at the 31 second mark in the clip? That's probably in response to Sperling's decision to defend the White House's budget proposal by saying, "It's the most detailed thing that is out in the United States right now." This is true, but it is ineffective political language. When Bartiromo asked, "What budget?," Sperling should have responded by saying, "Haven't you read it?" Again, this puts her on the defensive and shows her for what she is - totally clueless about how government works.
  4. Sperling wisely ignores Bartiromo's question about why no congressional Democrats supported the President's budget. But he could have used this as another opportunity to demonstrate how dumb she is by saying something along the lines of, "Maria, do you not understand that Congress never approves the President's budget proposal?"

There's more to be said, but my main takeaway from the exchange is that, when confronted with right wing talking points, progressives need to avoid the trap of explaining their position on the issues. Instead, one can be more effective by seeming surprised that anyone would believe those talking points. 

If you engage with right wing talking points, even to debunk them, you legitimize them. You play by their rules and on their territory.

If, on the other hand, you treat those talking points as so silly and stupid that you can't believe your conversation partner would believe them, you come off as an authority figure, which we know appeals to moderates and conservatives.  

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Marketing and Politics

People say that "politics is like marketing" in that they have similar goals - convince people to buy something/vote for someone. And political campaigns have a lot of the "slickness" of marketing - flashy videos, high production-value ads, slick soundbites. But it seems that the right wing has really taken the marketing side of politics seriously, while the left wing has at best only taken on those slick trappings. For the last 30-40 years the right wing has gone a lot deeper into the marketing bag of tricks than the left wing.

This is partly because the left has always been mistrustful of "marketing" per se, considering it manipulative and somewhat louche. This is backed up by the left's underlying confidence that rationality and reason will prevail in political discourse - the fundamental Enlightenment position that our Founding Fathers had as well. Reason and rationality will win in the end. An informed and responsible citizenry will consider the realities and facts of a situation, and use reason and logic to determine the best solution or best candidate to address the situation.

But this is not how the world actually works, not nowadays, and not for a large plurality of the citizens. In the days of the Founders when all the participants in the political process were well-educated, highly intelligent, very ambitious white men, this might have been the case (but even so, look at the vituperation in the Federalist Papers). In today's world, this approach is clearly not working. In an age when nearly half of the electorate has been convinced that climate change is not happening or is merely a way for "climate scientists" to get more funding for their research, and more than 30% don't believe in evolution, you clearly need to start using different approaches to talking to people about political situations.

And this is what the right wing has done. Starting about 40 years ago, they began to create a conservative "position" that they could use as the basis for much of their rhetoric. Positioning is the art of creating such a "position" in the mind of a consumer that quickly defines and identifies you, and which carries along with it implicitly all the rest of your identity. For example, Coke has been famous over the years for its positions - "It's the Real Thing." And 7-Up for years had a great position - "The Uncola." Good positions are defensible, and actually put the competition on the defensive. 7-Up's position was unassailable by Coke, because Coke could never not be cola. (Of course, since people would rather drink cola than lemon soda, Coke still prevailed.)

So, as a thought experiment, try to remember the Democrat's position, in the marketing sense. I'll wait ... How about any progressive movement? How's that going? Any luck with that?

Now, try to same experiment for the right wing. Does "No new taxes" leap to mind immediately? Or "Taxes are bad." Or "Smaller government." For 40 years the right wing has been promoting those positions, and they have clearly succeeded.

Now, there's a critical fact to notice here - do the Republicans actually always lower taxes or make government smaller? Of course they don't. But one of the key points about your position is that it doesn't necessarily have to align perfectly with your actions. Was Coke really "The Real Thing" - I don't think that even has any meaning! But it worked to position Coke for years.

And as a result, the right wing has essentially set the agenda - taxes bad, government bad - in spite of not only the rational self-interest of the electorate, but the actual fact that the electorate generally *supports* specific government programs, and that right wing politicians are at least as responsible for government growing as Democrats are.

How do you respond to such a well-entrenched and well-defined position? This will be the subject of future posts, but for now suffice it to say that simply trying to latch onto the competitor's position is NOT the way to win. That's what Pepsi tried for years, and it's what the Democrats have tried for years. And neither of these underdogs was successful.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Rhetorological Fallacies

A friend of the blog passed along this typology of rhetorical and logical fallacies. (See here for the original, full-sized graphic.)

This blog's premise is that people often make political decisions on an irrational basis. Conservatives both inside and outside the Republican Party are aware of this and have exploited it to their advantage, framing issues in a way that has shifted the nation's politics to the right. 

I think the graphic can get us thinking about some of the tactics through which this has been done, and how progressives can flip the tables on conservatives. I don't have time to go into all of the fallacies the visualization lays out, but a few strike me as particularly important. 

Appeal to Tradition
  • Conservatives have done a great job getting people to believe that this is a conservative country. From insisting that the Founding Fathers were Christian moralists who hated government and taxes to claiming that things were so much better in the 1950s (when you could pray in school and women couldn't access contraception) to arguing that the 1960s were a disaster, Republicans have owned both ancient and recent American history. 
  • President Obama and others have pushed back on this to a certain extent. But I think the overall narrative still holds. If you were to walk down the street and ask people about the Founding Fathers, I bet 9/10 would say that they were die-hard Christians who fought for independence because they hated paying taxes. We need to figure out ways to change this misunderstanding because it has a subtle but significant impact on the way people think about politics. 
Appeal to Fear
  • I'm not advocating that Democrats exploit fear the same way that the Bush administration did after 9/11, but it is important in an adversarial democracy such as ours to draw sharp distinctions between different parties. Democrats have and are continuing to do this with issues like the Republican plan to gut Medicare, but I think more can be done here as well.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Some Thoughts on President Obama's Speech

I just had a chance to read the transcript of President Obama's speech from earlier today in which he criticized the House Republicans' latest budget disaster plan. In what is being described as the opening salvo for the general election, Obama called out Mitt Romney for supporting a budget that guts social services, Medicaid, and a range of other important programs in order to preserve tax cuts for the rich.

In addition to criticizing Romney by name, Obama called the Republican plan "thinly veiled social Darwinism" that is "so far to the right it makes the Contract with America look like the New Deal." Then, in a question and answer session that followed the speech, the President argued that the Republican Party had become so conservative that even Ronald Reagan "could not get through a Republican primary today."

Most commentators feel that Obama took the gloves off with his remarks. (See TPM's description of the speech, for instance). When judged against the President's usual rhetoric, they're right.

I see it differently. As much as I love allusions to social Darwinism, the New Deal, the Contract with America, and the Republican Party's move to the right, the vast majority of voters have no idea what these are. People want to hear about unemployment, gas prices, health care and other pressing concerns. They don't know - and they don't care - about inside the beltway topics like the ones the President highlighted.

Of course, the audience for the speech (a group of newspaper editors) was very much an inside the beltway crowd. But when I think about the President's rhetoric as a whole, it seems that the overwhelming truth of what he has to say is weighing him down.

The same is true for many of us on the left. We have the facts on our side, and the opposition is so wrong that it is hard to know where to start. The danger is that we focus on enumerating and repeating those facts and lose sight of the often irrational ways in which most people make political decisions.

This was genius of Bill Clinton's response to the national debt question in the 1992 debate, as I noted in my previous post. Clinton didn't worry about giving the right answer. He spoke directly to the questioner's immediate economic needs and concerns. George H.W. Bush, by contrast, gave a very Obamaesque answer - correct on its merits but too complicated for the average voter to understand. Let's hope the President figures out a way to craft a more direct economic message before it's too late.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Go for the Gut

Remember this moment from the 1992 Presidential campaign?

This was one of the moments that swung the election in Clinton's favor. The exchange encapsulated the differences between Clinton and George Bush, Sr. Whereas Bush looked uninterested - checking his watch and seeming annoyed by the question - Clinton demonstrated empathy and concern. (Ross Perot doesn't address the question, as far as I can remember.) The moment when he takes the microphone, steps forward, and looks the questioner in her eyes was classic Clinton. It clearly resonated with the audience and was one of the signature moments of Clinton's political career.

What strikes me as important with regards to what we're discussing here, though, is the fact that Bill Clinton got the question wrong. The questioner asked, "How has the national debt personally affected each of your lives?" (A poorly worded question, to say the least, but a question nonetheless.) But instead of discussing how the national debt impacts the economy, which is what Bush did in his discussion of interest rates, Clinton deflected to his economic record in Arkansas, all while throwing in some digs at Bush.

In other words, he said nothing about the national debt at all. And guess what? It didn't matter.

What Clinton grasped - and what Bushed missed - is that people have no idea what the national debt is. Decades of finger pointing over the national debt and federal budget deficit has served to make people aware that these are bad things. But most people simply think of the national debt as the cause of a bad economy, a tenuous connection to say the least.

This was true in the early 1990s, and it remains true today. And going into the November election, I think we'll see a number of questions like this. My worry is that Obama (and Democrats down the ticket) are prone to give an answer more like George Bush, Sr.'s than like Bill Clinton's.

Fortunately, Mitt Romney is no Bill Clinton. But on many issues - climate change, business regulation, state budgets - conservatives seem to understand that when it comes to getting elected it's less important to be correct on policy and more important to appeal to people's very, very low level of political knowledge.