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Political Rhetoric 101 for Beginners (such as Democratic candidates)

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From flickr.com: Democratic Donkey Down {MID-290830}
Democratic Donkey Down
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As the November 2018 election campaigns take shape--and, probably even more important, in the day-to-day political work of pressuring one's representatives, opponents and teammates to do the right thing--Democrats (at least the ones who shouldn't still be there, that is, the Clintonites) seem to need yet again a salubrious reminder of the basics of political combat rhetoric.

  1. Never use the first-person plural to say "We've [done something wrong or made a mistake]," as in "We've made a terrible mistake in Iraq / Syria / Libya / Afghanistan," "We've run up the biggest deficit in history," "We've let the surveillance state get out of control" or "We've enacted a tax code that makes the rich richer." No, we didn't; they did. So say "They've "[made a mistake, done something foul, gotten us into a mess]." Ever notice how the Republicans never say "we" in this sense? Most people don't want to admit that they themselves have made a mistake, and indeed are suspicious of a self-flagellating tendency to do so--it smacks of "blame America first." People are more willing to admit that they, i.e. someone else, have made a mistake or been wicked. This Democratic tendency has a fascinating cultural history. The defining experience of the moderate left since the mid-1950s was realizing, and then persuading a critical mass of others, that there was a degree of rot in the moral core of America: racial oppression that had to be overturned, and a vicious war in Vietnam that was not just a blunder but a crime. For them, America advanced when it exposed its soul to a moral reckoning and admitted it had been doing wrong. (You saw this self-criticism in Deliverance and copycat films that depicted evil in the heartland.) That attitude occupies the moral higher ground, but it's usually lousy politics. The Democrats are probably wrong to think they won on civil rights and Vietnam (if indeed they actually did win) because they convinced a majority of Americans to confess to and repent a sin. (Yes it is an oddly Christian mindset, isn't it? Strange that most American Christians are the last people to admit that their political establishment has sinned.) Reagan achieved improbable success by implying that "We don't do wrong. If something doesn't go well, it's because we're human and we miss a trick every once in a while, or because the bad guys were even more wicked and persistent than we expected." Don't try to get people to admit that we've all been wrong or done wrong: instead draw a line between honest voters just trying to get by and figure out who best to vote for, and the maneuverers on the periphery of respectable society who take advantage. They, not we. (See below re creating a bogeyman.)

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  2. Most voters don't believe that everyone is nice and our problems are just misunderstandings. They sense there's a villain out there causing their problems. Often enough, they have a point: the Democratic mantra of "everyone is nice and let's just work things out" misses real villainy. It's also untrue to the intellectual history of the left: Marxism is a massive elaboration of the thesis that nasty people band together to screw the little people for their own benefit (and to some extent for the fun of it). History has hardly proven Marx wrong, at least in his diagnosis. (Soviet citizens liked to joke "Marx understood capitalism better than anyone. The problem is, he didn't understand communism.") When people are stressed, they want someone to blame. Successful politicians give them what they want (and virtuous successful politicians identify the villain accurately, and propose counter-measures consonant with our values). In the civil rights struggle, the villains helpfully made themselves plain--the cops who set attack dogs on peaceful, often pious protesters; the sordid politicians who defended racial oppression. If they hadn't, it would have been hard to convince a majority that wickedness inhabited our heartland. Usually it's easier to take a xenophobic tack and paint non-Americans as the villains--the Soviets / the Russians, an uncooperative dictator, terrorists. Associating your political opponents with these foreign nasties--the spectrum of association can run from being too soft and understanding towards them, to sympathizing with them, to being an agent of them--is a time-honored tactic. Derogating compatriots as villains without foreign associations is somewhat harder, as it argues that there is a rot in our society (see above), though very doable. Republicans paint Democrats as metropolitan, effete, more concerned with diversity than with the welfare and righteousness of the mainstream, too keen to experiment with other people's money, soft on our so-called enemies and not violent enough. Several of these have enough of a grain of truth to make them hard to refute. Democrats have entirely failed to paint a picture of the worst of the Republican firmament that captures their monstrous character flaws, has enough demonstrable truth to make it stick, and shows that our side not only has better character but knows a workable way forward. They've forgotten the most successful Democratic politician of all time, the frice-elected FDR, who pulled no punches in castigating his opponents as economic royalists and malefactors of great wealth. That resonated with Depression-stricken voters; they had no problem believing that the white-tie-and-tails set was the cause of their problems or at least weren't lifting a finger to help. Democrats in the 21st century need to re-discover a way to call their opponents for what they are and put it in terms that make sense to voters and speak to their values as well as their situation. The fact that the rich are now transnational--shifting their employees and wealth offshore--would allow Dems to hearken to suspicion of foreigners and lack of patriotism on the part of those who consort abroad. All this may seem riskily divisive, but: first, we're already divided, just not along the right lines; and second, we do desperately need to divide out the unhelpful element, isolate and disempower. (Read the latest climate-breakdown doomsday predictions?)

  1. Don't accuse your opponent of being dumb, especially if it's true. Plenty of people vote for dumb politicians out of libertarian calculation: they don't want those in office to be too quick and effective. Dumb voters will react by thinking that the politician in question doesn't seem that dumb, in fact s/he thinks just about like me, meaning I've just been insulted. Finally, most of America has a culture in which stupidity is viewed more with sympathy than contempt, and to some extent equated with plain virtue. People would rather vote for someone about whom they think "Her heart's in the right place, even if she's never gonna be the brightest bulb on the porch" than "So he thinks brains is the only important thing, plus he thinks he's got plenty of em."

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  2. Never use foreign words, prefixes or suffixes. Words like 'faux,' 'pseudo-,' 'sans,' 'père' and 'fils' are hereby banned from the Democratic Party and all sympathetic publications. You really want to trade some Congressional seats for the chance to show off that you know a few words of French? Use English, not French or Latin: say phony, bogus, without, senior and junior.

  3. Don't criticize something by calling it 'absurd.' Absurdity is abstract and exists only in relation to some rational norm. Therefore it's only detectable by rational, educated, elite people; and you implicitly put yourself on that pedestal when you cite absurdity. That's not what the struggling voter wants to hear. They want to hear that the policies, actions, or mindsets that are causing their problems are wrong, myopic, duplicitous, greedy, conniving, and/or wicked. Absurdity is the least of their problems.

  4. Say "Hard Right" instead of "conservative" -- as in "The Hard Right wants to do this, but Americans want to do that"" It's a good brisk pejorative to repeat against the worst of our opponents, and sounds less jargonish than "neo-cons." Speak well of true conservatives--after all you're hoping for some of their votes. (A Democrat would be wise to say "I don't mind conservative politicians. You can work with a true conservative. A true conservative is honest, principled, practical, and restrained. But the Republican Party apparatus has been taken over by people who aren't conservatives. They're something else.") Get conservatives to see themselves as separate from the hard right, and to see the hard right as anything but conservative.

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  5. Democrats should make better use of patriotic imagery. When John Kerry was running (sort of) against Bush Jr. in 2004, being from Massachusetts he had massive scope to drape himself with New England's patriotic imagery--Lexington's Battle Green and Concord's Old North Bridge; Faneuil Hall; the USS Constitution; the Old North Church and Paul Revere statue; working-class war memorials in South Boston and Worcester. He could have used those to counter-act the Massachusetts ultra-liberal label and remind people that New England is the birthplace of American patriotism. Total missed opportunity. Republicans have long since seized the flag; Democrats should seize it back while reminding people what it stands for.

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Robert Durham is the nom de plume of an American living in Europe.

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Political Rhetoric 101 for Beginners (such as Democratic candidates)