Thursday, October 30, 2008

Common Words for Common People - Repackaging the Liberals

Reading this New York Times article on a psychologist who is helping liberals re-brand their message I had a two-fold response: it's about time, and now we're no different than the conservatives. Because those of us with critical thinking abilities have seen for a long time that the conservative message is just neatly packaged and sold, and ultimately gets people to vote against their political, social and economic interests by playing on fear and emotion. And I for one have been proud that the liberals aren't stooping to those tactics.

On the other side, a friend and I were lamenting a few years ago that 'liberal' has become a dirty word. That tolerant and progressive are negative qualities, at least according to the conservatives and their populist rhetoric. It's not that the voting masses were actually against tolerance or progress, just that these things had been metaphorically tarred and feathered. And it seemed like the liberals, who for all intents and purposes should be master word-smiths, or at least be able to draw upon some, were just spinning in circles, unable to reclaim or re-imagine the context of the debate.

But should we really use the dirty and deceitful rhetorical stylings of the right? The article reads:
The handbook does not offer a script so much as a menu of options, each of which was poll-tested against
conservative arguments. On economics, for example, one message begins with “I want to see the words ‘Made in
America’ again.” Another reads, “We need leaders who don’t just talk about family values but actually value families.”
These insubstantial phrases are all bells and whistle, sound and fury, with no purpose. These, frankly, are something I can hear Sarah Palin or George W. Bush saying to a crowd of cheering people who don't want anyone smarter than them to be in charge. That's the whole problem with this "common words for common people" take, as far as I'm concerned.

I am not the smartest person in the country. I don't think that people who are smarter or better educated than me are inherently elitests or privledged. Many incredibly smart people come from working class backgrounds, and make their opportunities with the help of a system that is designed to reward merit (at least as well as wealth and class). This is a uniquely American construction, and something I'm proud of. And when it comes down to it, I want the person in charge to be smarter than me, by a lot. I don't understand the complexities of government, economy or foreign policy. So this reliance on 'straight talk,' which is just a euphamism for dumb talk, is part condescention taken to it's worst and part shame of being intelligent. Neither of these is a good thing.

However, it is past time that the liberals get energized, come up with some new messages or new ways of conveying the same messages, and stop rolling over for conservative dirty tricks. I just don't know if the lowest-common-denominator rhetoric is the best way to do that. Because then, how are we any different?

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