Tuesday, October 14, 2008

2008 spin: Rereading "Don't Think of an Elephant" (2004)

This was a fascinating book to read during the heat of the 2004 elections, since it crystallizes the reasons why Mr. Bush considered his victory a "mandate." His partisans framed the debate in honeyed words, they didn't waver from those sweet talking points, and they wound up with the most votes. People do like their honey! Semantics aside, those who wanted a second term came to believe that partisanship itself is its own God-anointed reward.

But even the Republican spin machine discovered honeyed words only gum up the works when there's a country to run. Those who cried out "let freedom reign" at the 2004 Republican convention realized it takes two sides to build a democracy in Iraq. The fate of Terri Schiavo gave the lie to a Republican Party interested in less government, not more. And most Republicans have forgotten that debate that raged over privatizing Social Security -- check the stock market daily to see how that idea would have fared. To get anything accomplished takes a serious bipartisan effort, not partisan obstruction; God is in the details, not occupying a Senate seat.

Don't Think of an Elephant is worth re-reading during the current election cycle. George Lakoff's models of the strict-father family (the GOP) and the caring-parent family (the Democrats) are still in place. Whichever party wins on November 4 will have to face resolution in Iraq, but beyond that, the next four years will be much different in tone than the Bush White House cares to consider (or, apparently, care about). From the economy to health care to failing Interstate bridges, the issues will be domestic ones, and polls show Obama far ahead of McCain on these items -- and it's increasingly evident why.

For the Republicans, still, the campaign has come down to words and character attacks. McCain's vaunted "maverick" labeling (and Palin's embarrassing reference to "a team of mavericks" at the convention) are proving that even as the voters turn away from the party's tough-guy attitudes, the GOP continues to hammer away at issues of personality. They are still hoping that the images conjured up by party media handlers and campaign strategists are strong enough to overcome the realities of daily headlines. The stock-market rollercoaster ride of the past weeks showed McCain's inability to handle two things at once, as he claimed to suspend his campaign so he could focus on the bailout issues. He simply looked indecisive and angry; it was obvious he never really stopped his campaign. And the image of Sarah Palin as the pit-bull with lipstick will be the one voters take with them into the booth next month.

There is an unexpected echo of the 2008 campaign in Don't Think of an Elephant. In describing his appearance before a group of linguists while writing the book in 2004, Lakoff remembers speaking to several conservative attendees afterward about his theories. He recalls meeting with members of the Christian Coalition, who indicated they "wanted to help him get some of the details right" about the strict-father model of the family. They suggested he read books by James Dobson:

I said, "Who?" They said, "James Dobson." I said, "Who?" They said, "You're kidding. He's on three thousand radio stations." I said, "Well, I don't think he's on NPR. I haven't heard of him." They said, "Well, you live in Berkeley.""Where would I . . . does he write stuff?"

"Oh," they said, "oh yes. He has sold millions of books. His classic is 'Dare to Discipline'."

My friends were right. I followed their directions to my local Christian bookstore, and there I found it all laid out: the strict father model in all its details. Dobson not only has a 100-to-200- million-dollar-a-year operation, but he also has his own ZIP code, so many people are writing to order his books and pamphlets. He is teaching people how to use the strict father model to raise their kids, and he understands its connection to rightwing politics.

Forward to 2008: While much has been said about the role of the religious right in the Republicans' current campaign, it's been largely unreported that the Christian Coalition had much to do with the selection of the one-term governor and moose-hunting hockey mom as McCain's surprise vice-presidential choice. A great deal was made of McCain's non-vetting process, but Governor Palin had passed another more rigorous test by a group called the Council for Natuional Policy, whose members have included -- surprise -- the Rev. James Dobson. From the New York Times:

Last week, while the media focused almost obsessively on the DNC's spectacle in Denver, the country's most influential conservatives met quietly at a hotel in downtown Minneapolis to get to know Sarah Palin. The assembled were members of the Council for National Policy. CNP members have included Tony Perkins, James Dobson, Grover Norquist, Tim LaHaye and Paul Weyrich. At a secret 2000 meeting of the CNP, George W. Bush promised to nominate only pro-life judges; in 2004, then-Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist told the group, "The destiny of the nation is on the shoulders of the conservative movement." This year, thanks to Sarah Palin's selection, the movement may have finally aligned itself behind the campaign of John McCain.

Since that surprise move, the Republican party has abandoned their "team of mavericks" to its own spin machine, months ago realizing that this election was going to Obama. Even Karl Rove concedes an Obama victory, if only to revitalize his own post-Bush career plans. With just weeks to go before the election the words keep spilling out: in McCain's speeches he now repeatedly refers to himself as "the fighter;" and with each appearance Palin becomes more of a loose cannon on the deck of the campaign. Sinking poll numbers show how much damage she's doing to the party, with no end in sight. McCain and Palin try to put as much distance as they can from the GOP (acknowledging mistakes made by the current administration) even as they are being sabotaged by it.

Don't Think of an Elephant gives the seeming abstraction of politics a practical gloss -- the argument that the system is actually something which can work, and be changed for better or worse in the process. Words are powerful tools and political systems have used them time and again for their own ends. McCain is the latest manifestation of what words can do. I'm sure he and his supporters believe in their hearts that they are doing the correct things to secure America's future. But they are not the only ones who have control of that future, no matter how it's framed.

"Framing the debate" can be as simple as describing a glass of water being half-empty or half-full. At this delicate point in America's history it may not be enough to know if the glass is half-empty or half-full, but whether a vocally partisan, one-sided political system can keep the glass itself from breaking. Comment


Anonymous said...

I love that book....& in the same vein:

Don't Think of Mark Bromberg's Blog!


Anonymous said...

Good one, Mark. I know all about Dobson from my years in Colo Springs…..he is very big there. Also Tim Hayes was half of the duo who wrote the “doomsday” books.

Nice picture of Ms. Palin!