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Posted by gustav at 09:01AM, Saturday, November 01st, 2003

Footsoldiers in the Culture War, here are your weapons

As a followup to my last big article, I'd like to do two things: come at my whole argument from a slightly different angle, and start aggregating memes I think progressive Democrats need to disseminate.

First, the abstract.

I think the single most influential and important change we must make to the Democratic party in order to regain control of the three branches of government is to be a party of strong people and firm beliefs. For too long, we've been perceived as whiners. We've tried to be "better" -- to have more integrity -- than the Republicans, to be willing to concede, to talk about issues and base our arguments in logic, rather than to pound in brief, repeated talking points, without getting into the arguments for them. All this has gotten us is fewer and fewer seats in Congress. We need an image change. And the best way to do that is to coordinate a set of brief talking points to get us there, that our politicians can use as weapons in the 21st-Century culture war.

I urge you to at least skim the rest of this, for reasons I'll explain at the end.

In order to win the center, and the red states, we need to stop pandering to them, stop relinquishing strong positions in hopes of compromise, and start supporting our base, spreading our progressive ideals and the liberal values they reflect. To people who claim that this doesn't work, who claim that supporting our base is too divisive, we must say: Look at the GOP. It worked for them. They're as divisive as can be, with many of their policies reflecting flat-out fascist notions in their decision-makers, but they control Congress, the presidency, and the Supreme Court. God forbid we did the same. But we haven't even tried. When's the last time we had a Democratic presidential nominee who was proud to say "I support Affirmative Action," or "I support gay marriage?" If we want to return to power, we must stop trying to imitate Republicans only in pressing conservative legislation, while differentiating ourselves only by acting meek and timid when promoting our own agenda.

Everything Democrats do from now on must come from a position of strength, and reinforce our new image of people proud to defend Progressivism in moral terms, and to frame the contrast with our Republican opposition in moral terms, as well. In order for the electorate in middle America to perceive us as different, we must demonstrate our difference on issues, by repeating our central memes loudly and frequently. We must be less concerned with logical frameworks and self-consistency, and more concerned with emotion. We must saturate the airwaves with our new memes, and embrace those in the media capable of disseminating them. People like Jon Stewart and Michael Moore are painted as divisive -- but they're proud of what they stand for, and what they say gets heard and repeated by everyone in the echo chamber. It puts Republicans on the defensive, where we need them to be. That's what we want -- yet many Democrats shun them. We musn't.

What people like Jon Stewart and Bill Maher avoid are lengthy intellectual discussions of issues. John Kerry sticks in the craw of some backwards Southerners because he assumes, incorrectly, that if he just explains all the facts, people will choose their position based on the issues. Meanwhile, they feel like he's patronizing them, lecturing them. They don't want to hear why he voted for an appropriations bill, but then voted against it when it changed -- which is why Rove brings that up in the debates. They want to hear an emotionally-compelling sound bite that makes Kerry sound like the winner -- and they want to hear him attacking his opposition, to demonstrate that he's tough. This is why he lost. He should have had a set of attack phrases that he uttered regularly, very briefly articulating policy differences in value-laden language, which were echoed amongst every left-wing talking head, disseminated and popularized and explained. If he'd had those, he could have attacked Bush with ten different points in a couple sentences, leaving the poor idiot even more dazed than he was. He'd have been using Rove's tactics, and he would have won.

While projecting a strong, positive, and, most importantly, winning image of ourselves on the National level, we need to target specifically regional issues regionally. Gun rights don't fly in Massachusetts, and gay rights don't fly in Missouri (which isn't to say that it's not worth going there and asking why Republicans hate gays, in the context of hate as the antithesis of Christ's teachings. This is where the framing comes in.) Being strong, being a winner, flies in both states. Issues like environmentalism can be targeted for both, too. And, of course, the economy works with all demographics but the monopolistic nepotistic multi-millionaire Republican Elite thugs like Bill Gates, who are never going to vote for us, anyway.

We need to change tactics and realize that it's not worth the energy going after people who aren't going to vote for us on the issues they care about, and stop turning our backs on our GLBT and black and Hispanic and poor base to woo these bigots. Calling for a stop to gay marriage in Massachusetts is never going to get us votes from born-again Southern Baptists who bear a visceral hatred for Clinton. Toning down our rhetoric is the last thing to win votes from people who claim that we hate Christians because we oppose their "right" to discriminate against gays and blacks in housing. Doing so teaches Karl Rove that his strategy works, that they can bully us into silence. If we're silent, if we are no longer opposition, and presidential candidates, as this year, try to out-"I-don't-like-gay-marriage" one another on the stump, we lose. Our base is alienated and demotivated, and the unwashed who sit watching the debates see us unable to clearly articulate moral policy differences, so either don't vote, or vote for the candidate who appears more sure of his stand -- which is always the Republican.

However, we might win those red-state votes by framing the nature of the debate through language, just as Karl Rove has done. If we frame housing rights as freedom for adults to live wherever they like, even if they disagree about issues; if we frame marriage rights as freedom from government interference in personal relations; if we frame gay rights in the South in the context of Christ teaching tolerance even of behavior which he doesn't approve; if we depict intolerance as more against the teachings of Christ than, to cite a Gospel example, prostitution, while projecting an image of moral rectitude and certainty -- then we just might have a crack at the red states.

The first, and most important, step on this road is to find Democratic leadership that understands the power of language, and proudly believes in progressive values. Additionally, people with new ideas about fundraising and organization, or a proven ability to attract and foster youth activism, are ideal. There are a lot of names floating around right now. I think we could do much worse than make Howard Dean the head of the DNC, but I'm not committed to any one person at this point.

Now, the concrete

Meanwhile, what we as on-the-ground activists can do is start to promulgate the memes and catch-phrases many of us agree on. This is the most successful of Rove's tactics. We need short, memorable, emotionally-charged phrases that imply our patriotism while impugning that of our opponents, and referencing or short-handing a whole broader set of issues. These let us avoid getting bogged down in logical argument or citing the hypocrisy in our opposition, while still brutally and quickly attacking them. Using emotionally-charged phrases lets us frame the debate in ways that make opposition difficult. Remember, it's hard to argue with something called the "USA Patriot Act." It puts Republicans on the defensive, whick makes it harder for them to find time to attack us. It gives us an effective means of attack that protects us from being labelled as self-satisfied elite lecturers. Also, humor helps to keep these memes memorable and spread them like viruses. Think of Jib-Jab, or Jon Stewart's Crossfire appearance.

To that end, here I present some initial lists. Most of these are general, while a few are targeted at specific demographics. I think both of those are important. Common to all of them, it's the meme itself that we want to promote, not the arguments to support it.

So, read these, and start using the ones you like, or think are powerful. This is supposed to be viral, and we have no central disseminating mechanism as yet -- other than the web. Use them when talking to your colleagues, your friends, your neighbors. Use them with people who agree with you, and people who don't. Just get them out there. Some of these are mine; some have been floating around for a while. I think they're all important.

(For more context on the power of memes, I urge everyone who hasn't yet to read George Lakoff's article.)

Memes I'm sure of:

Memes I think are important, but the wording of which I'm less certain of:

RNC memes we need to combat:

I'm less sure of how to deal with many of these, mostly because we're naturally tempted to repudiate them through careful socratic reasoning and pointing out inconsistencies. That's exactly what we need to avoid, in favor of quick, sharp talking points. If possible, we should avoid repeating their memes, even to counter them -- unless, of course, we can viciously satirize and skewer them:

Finally, if you've read this far: which part did you enjoy more? The long, intellectually-argued thesis on what we need to change, or the quick talking points that get us there? Your answer is my argument.

Update Nov 12

Thinking about this some more, I've got a couple more I want to add:

Update Nov 18

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