Fouroboros | On: More [Democratic] Human Nature

[Part II here]


10-28-2003

Matthew Iglesias writes:

More Human Nature There's a lot to like in this Digby post but I'm not so thrilled to see him endorsing the idea that part of what defines liberals is that we take a rosier attitude toward "human nature" than do conservatives. I hear this so often, including from liberals, that I guess it must be true that most -- or at least many -- liberals really do think people are naturally good or something, but certainly I don't think that. People manifest a great deal of selfishness tempered by a hefty dose of irrationality and a pretty shocking degree of ignorance and superstition.

I was going to post in the comments to this thread on Matt Y's site, but then I realized "Hey, idiot, you've got a blog now, use it."

Digby's post linked above discusses a George Lakoff interview, here. Lakoff is a professor of Linguistics and Cognitive Science at UC Berkeley, and he feels that Democrats don't get it when it comes to framing political debate and shaping public opinion.

He's right.

He uses some poorly chosen terminology very definitely at odds with his premise, and I'll get to that. He also fairly eloquently explains the broad problem, but leaves out any subtext that would lead you to any answers. I'll make a "meagre" attempt at that, too. But still, he's right.

Matt has pondered before similar what-ifs to the one above. My response has been, perhaps impolitic, as a guest, "Matt, don't fall prey to your expensive [Harvard] education". True to form, the comments to his post above followed the same pattern and evolved into a very nuanced discussion of world political systems, various attributes of theocratic Valhallas, philosophical dyads and polarity continua of "is liberalism soul mate of communism?" and "are conservatives cousins of fascism?"

Phew. Of course, Digby's original thoughts referenced Lakoff's contention that Liberals are "nurturing parent" apposite of Conservatives as "strict father" and, most directly, how can Democrats get elected outside of an Ivy League graduate seminar on the Social Implications of World Hunger? Double Phew.

Much as I loved the resulting comment dialectic, Matt and Digby's question, well answered and executed upon, allows the breathing room and luxury to debate the other esoterica. Otherwise it's all just, umm, academic, isn't it?

There, in my mind is the problem, strategically, for Democrats. Plenty of facts, little human nature. Sterile, cold, almost, dare I say it: Detached. And Lakoff and Digby, and I'm sure many others agree. But what to do? I don't see it as terminal. But for a thing to be easy, first it must be hard. So, what are we dealing with?

First, Lakoff.

I think liberals are rationalists with soul. They see the virtue in giving 2nd chances and in the downstream potential of minimizing some of the more brutal swings of the pendulum of life on this here earth. Yet they also want to be taken seriously, to the point of neurosis sometimes. In this, except for the severely self-serious, they are not much different from a large majority of the electorate. In archetypal doctrine they are blend of Caregiver and Artist, careful of another's feelings (with obvious qualifications, politically speaking), yet questioning and expectant when it comes to possibilities.

They are liberal in the sense that the glass is viewed as half full for the most part, plenty to go around. But fairness and the idealism of inclusion and yet unknown futures can sometimes obstruct a very useful skill: The willingness to make a choice and pull the trigger. As individuals, it seems they're so busy fighting the cognitive dissonance within themselves there's little energy left for the external questions and fights it takes to form a coherent, relevant and resonant public character.

Example: Lakoff gets caught in his old paradigm knickers from the get-go: Strict Father and Nurturing Parent.

Parent?

What's up with that? Why not Mother? Simple. Because, as Lakoff knows, Mother connotes softness and pliancy, the exact opposite of "purpose" and "resoluteness" that is the DNA of success in today's political marketplace. In claiming Democrats have let go of the reins of debate--handed them over actually, by appearing too squishy and incoherent--he slips in a clanger that immediately says to anyone not fully tone deaf: Nope, not there yet.

Poor choice of words, certainly. And, unless I'm being far too literal, I don't buy his republican-parent view that

The conservative worldview, the strict father model, assumes that the world is dangerous and difficult and that children are born bad and must be made good. The strict father is the moral authority who supports and defends the family, tells his wife what to do, and teaches his kids right from wrong. The only way to do that is through painful discipline ? physical punishment that by adulthood will become internal discipline. The good people are the disciplined people.
Too simplistic. That approach may have worked in Provo in 1880, but it would get you whacked by your wife's bridge club in say, Bloomington, 2003. It's a cartoon view of reality that ignores the fact that bad turns of luck are apolitical. Witness the Bush twins, Republican affairs and divorces, financial malfeasance, quiet and not so quiet rehab stories and plain dumb choices. But there is a quiet, yearning archetypal myth at play, even if reality puts the lie to it. And, he does get some important words and phrases into the mix: right from wrong, internal discipline, moral authority, dangerous world. Support. Defend.

Leave those words, freighted as they may be, hanging for a second and reference "purpose", "resoluteness", "coherent", "relevant" and "resonant" above. Keep them in mind.

Lakoff again:

Right now the Democrat Party is into marketing. They pick a number of issues like prescription drugs and Social Security and ask which ones sell best across the spectrum, and they run on those issues. They have no moral perspective, no general values, no identity. People vote their identity, they don't just vote on the issues, and Democrats don't understand that. Look at Schwarzenegger, who says nothing about the issues. The Democrats ask, How could anyone vote for this guy? They did because he put forth an identity. Voters knew who he is.

Here, he has it right, if I can be so presumptuous. Too late now I guess.

I've written elsewhere that, "say what you want about Republicans, but they're marketing in 2003. They use spreadsheets for facts, and "poetry" (if you can call it that) for nuance. They believe, and charge ahead like Joan of Arc. That's powerful stuff to 90% of the electorate. Democrats, on the other hand, appear to spreadsheet their passion, and leave themselves open to the impression they nuance facts like taxing and spending."

Not fair is it? Like I said, hard before easy. Lakoff touches on a live wire: "no moral perspective." Good for him.

The question voters want answered is "Who are you, and why should I care?" But if you have only words to answer this question, you are doomed. The voters internal, subliminal dialogue goes: Spare me the shopping list. Don't tell me, show me. Don't bury me in position papers, touch me. Mirror me, even if I don't recognize myself. That last one is key. Politicians are purveyors of hope and answers to questions voters are often unequipped to ask. Visionary politics is about a future people didn't know they had.

A citizen may dream of an idealized version of his national self but he sure as hell couldn't begin to enunciate it or map out a plan. So, they're left to buy off the rack. And they increasingly disregard Democrats because the "material" feels, well, artificial. Like polyester. What is "real" in voter terms? Definition and firmness. What is Definition? Character. How do you measure character? Shared moral metrics. How do you measure up? Moral Ambition. What do people hear? Shared purpose. Two words for shared purpose: Loyalty. Votes.

Lakoff mentions "a moral perspective". In order to achieve perspective, one needs a fixed focal point. You need to draw a line and say, this is where I begin. But where to begin? What's a moral metric? I'd say it's consensual agreement on the only benchmarks that don't have people debating what the meaning of "is" is: The Seven Cardinal Virtues and the Seven Deadly's. These highly connective and common human understandings have been checked out by a certain group and never returned. And they've been doing naughty things with them. No, this is not holy roller country I'm suggesting, not there's anything wrong with that. Neither is it about browbeating others with your moral "superiority". Beatitude is a fine state but no voter plans it for themselves or expects it from political figures. They do, however, want a goalpost that doesn't move. They want affirmation that their search for "more" doesn't stop at an ATM or Walmart, and that decisions get made for better reasons than "because we feel like it and because we can.

The only way Democrats will ever get out of the whirlpool of retailing issues, of being discount players rather than branded, value added equities is to swallow hard and embrace the concept of "meaning". And to decide. Not whether they are nurturers or strict disciplinarians, or whether they are Artists or Caretakers, Rebels or Heroes, but "who am I?" In people, and character language. In my work I advise that "brands" are the public interpretation of deeply personal beliefs. Triple that for a politician and a party. In people terms, party defined as an individual in the minds of voters: a coherent, relevant and resonant public character.

Republicans will nominate the occasional bonehead and, much like a busted clock is right twice a day, they will bungle an election to Democrats. But winning by forfeit is hardly a plan, is it? Democrats, in order to win in a replicable mandate-inducing way, will have to embrace the truth that people take their measure of individuals and institutions by the feel of their experience, not by the brochure copy. They judge by symbolism, by virtue, by a moral sliderule. Some may not think these "private" and deeply personal benchmarks have a place in public discourse. Sorry, they're wrong. Politics is sublimely personal. Identity and self-image is key. Being "in" is primal. Being "out" for so many years drove Republicans crazy, and to rock bottom. At that point, with nothing left to lose, they followed Sun Tzu's dictum. Retreat, reevaluate, realign, reassert. They discovered that, for those who vote, you are your vote. It says things about you to yourself. And if nothing else, you want to like yourself. These all factor into an equation that shoots out the other end an archetype whose dimension fits the burning desire of voters. Or not.

Of course, some, with a more Nico-Manichaean bent, went so far as to craft positive and negative words to frame the debate. They were wise, if not righteous, to many eyes. They took a longer term, deeper, psychographic profiler's craft to the task of tuning their message. They found their "type".

Still reeling over the fact that women voted in droves for an "alleged" groper? Don't. He played to type. They weren't looking for Alan Alda. They already had his "smarmy cousin" in Sacramento. California voters wanted a romanticized Saviour, a warrior, not a dissembler. They'd had it with facts, "facts can lie" and be spun. What's left? They wanted, and got, Joan of Arc. With muscles. And a package.

To answer a question that may hang in the air: Well, wasn't Clinton a nurturer? What about "feeling our pain"? One word: rightness. In much the same way as Arnold Schwarzenneger's Teflon absolutely dumbfounded die-hard liberals when it came to the groping question, Clinton was bulletproof to charges of "Sissy!" that would attract to another candidate voicing some of the same policy positions. Clinton was a stud. Metaphorical cousin to Arnold, both were and are affable compassionate rogues to the end. As advertised, so to speak. Too early to tell about the Governor from Old Europe, but for Clinton, people were buying, all the way through and past Lewinsky.

Why? Digby mentions Clinton's JFK moment in the "Man from Hope" video. I would venture the hair stood up on 96.7% of the necks viewing in person and at home. But do you know what that was? It was "rightness." Granted, with a heavy dose of stagecraft, of transference and figurative baton passing, but the latter is what added to it's authenticity, its rightness. Americans had, before their very eyes, discovered a Captain of the football team older brother with an inner Florence Nightingale. A potent political archetypal mix. Voila: Teflon with a sax and a grin. "Sure he's not perfect, sure he skates on his charm, but how can you stay mad at someone like that? He cares. He produces. In terms that matter to me."

More important for Democrats now, is how do you replicate that rightness?

First you define it.

And that's the next installment.

[Part II here]

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