THE VALUE OF FEAR….Chris Mooney has an article in this month’s American Prospect about one of my perennial favorites: how to fight back against the conservative monolith. The subject of his article is Susan Nall Bales, who runs a communications consulting firm called FrameWorks, and I’d like to agree with one thing she says and disagree with another.

First, Bales tells us that we have to figure out how people actually respond to liberal ideas and adjust our message accordingly. Unfortunately, she says, liberals don’t like to work that way:

Some may even be willing to suppress their instinctual reservations about coming off as calculating and Machiavellian, instead of idealistic, pure and high-minded. But it’s still a tough struggle. “There was a huge resistance to this,” says Diane Benjamin, director of the Minnesota Kids Count Project and a FrameWorks devotee, about her group’s implementation of strategic frame analysis. “Either people thought it didn’t matter what their media message was or they felt it was somehow selling out to be strategic about how they think about issues.”

Bales is absolutely right when she says that people are not usually persuaded by facts (“‘If the facts don’t fit the frame, it’s the facts that are rejected, not the frame,’ is an oft-repeated FrameWorks aphorism.”) Good marketing people understand that you can’t build your campaign around a message that would convince you, you have to build it around a message that will convince your target audience. Understanding that this audience may view the world differently from you is a necessary first step in changing minds, and there’s nothing wrong with a rational, calculating approach to gaining this understanding.

But then she takes a wrong step, claiming that a successful message has to be a positive one:

“Negative attacks by many of the groups, like children’s advocates and environmentalists, that we see as being caring kinds of groups do more damage to them than they do to the opposition. That’s one of the real hardships [of] liberal advocacy.”

It’s true that doom-and-gloom messages by themselves don’t sell, but something similarly negative does: fear. And it sells big.

Not fear of things like eventual environmental collapse (she’s right about that), but fear of people. Conservatives have very successfully gained ground by convincing moderate swing voters to be afraid of liberals: liberals “blame America first,” they have contempt for traditional values, they are atheists, they’re soft on child molesters, etc. etc. These are not people who should be in control of our government.

Fear sells. You buy deodorant because you’re afraid of the social ostracism of BO. You buy Wisk because you’re afraid your husband’s colleagues will think you’re a poor homemaker if they notice his ring around the collar. You drive your kids to school because you’re afraid of kidnappers and child molesters.

Of course you need a positive program too, but before anyone will listen to it you have to make them afraid of the opposition. So the fundamental problem for liberals is this: figuring out how to convince the middle third of voters that they should be afraid of what extreme conservatives are doing. When they are more afraid of them than they are of extreme liberals, then the real work can start.

That’s not a very inspiring message, is it? But it’s the reality of politics today, and liberals need to learn it. Fast.

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