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Politics: The movie

As one who worships facts and logic and the public arguments that can be fashioned out of facts and logic, I suffer a bit (or more than a bit) with all the evidence that the side that (I believe) has the stronger facts and logic, doesn’t win the argument.

Liberal linguist George Lakoff thinks liberals approach the task of public persuasion like social scientists, thinking that facts and logic will persuade, but conservatives think like marketers and understand, like the makers of an effective TV commercial, that the wires of the brain react positively and negatively to particular words and images.

In a depressing but compelling new piece in The American Prospect, film scholar Neal Gabler goes for a depressing alternative metaphor.  The formula is to think of politics as a movie, which makes the president (metaphorically) a film star. President Obama thinks he is a college professor, standing at the lectern explaining his policies to the class. But the public is not taking notes, it is (metaphorically) in a darkened theater. Quite naturally, the president who got this, says Gabler, was our movie star president, Ronald Reagan:

“Reagan’s political genius, such as it was, was to recognize that politics is basically aesthetics, that the public is an audience, and that the president has to satisfy that audience. He realized that people care less about what you do in substantive political terms if you manage to buoy them psychologically. They want to feel good — the way they feel when the lights come up at the movie theater. That’s why Reagan wasn’t a detail man. He knew that the details were irrelevant. It was the show that counted.

“Since Reagan’s presidency, this has only become more valid, especially since Republican intransigence has made real change extremely difficult. In a sense, there is nothing but feel good, to which Reagan, had he been a theorist rather than a politician, might have said that since the purpose of policy is to create a sense of happiness and well-being, by massaging the national psyche, he was only cutting out the middle man, namely substantive achievement. Or put another way, ‘Morning in America’ wasn’t just an election slogan. It was the very raison d’etre of the presidency.

“Whether one believes that psychology trumps policy and that a president’s most potent weapon is aesthetics, psychology and aesthetics are certainly useful presidential tools, though this is a lesson Democrats have had a much harder time learning than Republicans have. Modern Republicanism is predicated on government inaction. Republicans are comfortable with a narrative-driven politics that is specifically designed to appeal to voters’ predilections and prejudices and that makes the public feel a positive attitude is enough to conquer anything. Once arrived upon, these canards have never changed: Government is the problem, not the solution; private enterprise will solve everything; tax cuts are a magical force that will juice a stagnant economy and feed a roaring one; and liberals are not ‘real’ Americans because they don’t believe in any of this.

“It is an appealing litany precisely because it is so simple and because it demands nothing either of government or of the American people save one thing: confidence. The underlying theme of the anti-government crusade is that everything will be fine if we just believe in ourselves and let the system churn along on its own merry way. It is not prescriptive. It is holistic — a form of political self-help that is not very different from the psychobabble that a Tony Robbins or a Rhonda Byrne peddles. Though the affinity may be obscured by the GOP’s alliance with the religious right, in effect Reagan turned his party into the political adjunct of the self-help movement.

“It is no wonder that Democrats are uncomfortable with this sort of extra-political, quasi-mystical, confidence-building approach to politics. Most Democrats, operating out of the liberal tradition, are disposed to rationality rather than showmanship, to legislative programs rather than 12-step programs. But while their disdain is understandable, it has often worked to their detriment. It is far easier, as President Obama learned, for opponents to attack specific policy prescriptions than to attack more generalized platitudes, which accounts in part for Reagan’s famous Teflon coating. He always floated above the wonky stuff on rhetorical wings while it seemed that every time Jimmy Carter or Bill Clinton or Obama proposed a legislative initiative, it got bogged down in minutiae.”

Comments (8)

  1. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 01/11/2011 - 03:16 pm.

    Good stuff, Eric. As an old, broken-down history teacher, I’m equally dismayed when facts and logic fail – again – to win the political argument. I’m inclined by temperament to take this latest theory with a grain of salt, but I take the facts/logic and marketing/commercial viewpoints with their own portion of sodium chloride. The “movie” analogy seems to me a useful, if not entirely “magic solution,” way to look at political trends and presidencies.

    No great intellect, it was useful for Reagan to think in “big picture,” clichéd terms because it seemed to me at the time that he thought in those terms.

    Carter and Obama suffer from the same flaw that afflicts so many college professors – they think everyone in the room wants to hear them lecture. One of the great flaws in higher education, while the public is busy flagellating K-12 public schools for their lack of innovation, is the continued reliance in college classrooms (or, more accurately, lecture halls) on the same instructional method used at the University of Verona in the 14th century.

    Lectures can be useful, and I certainly hope some of mine were useful when I was teaching, but they have their limitations, and students/the public are generally far more enthused about presentations that do more to engage them. In terms of actual learning, the record for “fun” or “engaging” activities compared to the standard lecture is inconsistent, but the degree of student enthusiasm is generally positive.

    Because Republicans have been adept at framing issues (I think Lakoff is spot-on in this regard) in language they want to use, promoting an engaging emotional tone in the process, they’ve been very effective in getting their viewpoint in front of the public.

    Democrats, especially policy wonks, have a much harder time with this, for reasons I’m not at all clear about, even after reading Lakoff. Still, Carter and Obama often annoy people with their professorial tone.

    The interesting wild card here is Clinton, who was, sometimes genuinely, sometimes cynically, very emotional as presidents go. Off the top of my head, the “movie” metaphor makes a lot of sense in the Clinton context, because – despite figuratively shooting himself in the foot (or somewhere else) – he remained an influential President, and with all his flaws, was nonetheless reelected to a second term. Clinton could be, and even now, sometimes is, just as wonkish as any think-tank specialist, but he always wore his emotions on his sleeve, and that seems, in retrospect, to have worked in his favor.

  2. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 01/11/2011 - 07:04 pm.

    At the risk of oversimplifying,
    Reagan was a politician (his main motivation was getting and holding office);
    Carter was a governor (his main motivation was accomplishing things while in office);
    Clinton was a combination of the two.
    It remains to be seen whether Obama will end up being classed with Reagan or with Clinton.

    As a generalization:
    Republicans tend to be politicians, while Democrats are more concerned with governance.

  3. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 01/11/2011 - 07:08 pm.

    And Ray, for what it’s worth, I gave most of the lectures in my 39 years of college teaching in my first year.
    Most college faculty lecture only when the demands of overly large courses require it (unfortunately there’s not a whole lot else you can do when faced with several hundred students in an Intro class).

  4. Submitted by Sheila Ehrich on 01/12/2011 - 09:26 am.

    Eric, you just explained so-o-o much. I have always looked at American politics thru the lens of Richard Hofstader’s “Anti-Intellecualism in American Life”, but this puts it much more modern terminology. It’s still basically the same thing, but without quite the bite.

  5. Submitted by Peter Swanson on 01/12/2011 - 10:32 am.

    Wow. Where to begin? For someone who claims to worship facts and logic, this post/article is awfully light on both. The lengthy quote from Mr. Gabler (does he have any political leanings?) is guilty of exactly what he accuses Republicans/Reagan of — arguing in broad terms while being light on specifics. Life is too short for me to read the actual Gabler article, so I will say that Eric Black did Gabler a disservice in selecting that quote if, in fact, Gabler backs up his argument with more specifics elsewhere.

    It would be an interesting discussion to contrast George H. W. Bush with Ronald Reagan. Remember the “vision thing”? Further, it might be worthwhile to compare both the rhetorical impact and the economic impact of Bush 41’s tax increase versus the tax cuts of his predecessor and his son. I am reminded of the Dukakis quote where the election was about “competence and not about ideology.” I also remember the rejoinder that competence makes the trains run on time but has no idea where they are going. Whether or not Bush 41 lived up to his campaign rhetoric, and what effect that had, would be a worthwhile discussion.

    Have we factored in foreign policy to the whole conservatives = good-salesmen-but-dumb argument? How about firing the striking PATCO air traffic controllers?

    If I may speak in broad terms (as a conservative, I am supposedly capable of nothing more), I would say that there is a theme in Eric Black’s writing. The host of the McLaughlin Group ends every topic with his own opinion, saying, “The answer is….” Eric Black does the same thing, but without the John McLaughlin twinkle in his eye. When analyzing arguments over the Constitution or political discourse, it is not that he has another opinion for your consideration. He floats above the fray, providing the one correct answer, seemingly unaffected by the psychological stuff and Jedi-mind tricks that the rest of us fall victim to.

  6. Submitted by Becky Lourey on 01/12/2011 - 01:45 pm.

    This is a fascinating and perhaps accurate reading of the situation even though depressing. Would your presentation of the facts regarding the forming of our Constitution make an inspiring movie? One that made citizens feel good? Your series on the Constitution was excellent; so many of my acquaintances and I are thrilled to have access to real history which made me dig even deeper into the history that you presented in your series. In your opinion, is it ever possible for politicians to present logic and fact in a way that can inspire citizens, that can help them understand where their interests coincide with policy that is fair and builds an infrastructure giving every citizen opportunity to develop their talents whether or not they take advantage of that opportunity?

  7. Submitted by Tim Larson on 01/12/2011 - 09:13 pm.

    //As one who worships facts and logic and the public arguments that can be fashioned out of facts and logic

    Mr Black, it appears to me that you worship opinions. Opinions that you consider logical.

    There are no facts in Gabler’s piece.

  8. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 01/13/2011 - 03:57 pm.

    How about reviving (and playing for weeks at mega-theaters for large audiences rather than just a night or two at one small theater) some of the movies that pack both an emotional wallop and deliver important truths? A few come to mind:

    Preston Sturges’ “Sullivan’s Travels”
    Oliver Stone’s “Platoon” and “Salvador”
    Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now”
    Stanley Kubrick’s “Dr. Strangelove, Or How I
    Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb”
    John Sayles’ “Matewan”
    and Ivan Reitman’s “Dave”

    There must be many more.

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