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.”