Political Animal


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.


TODAY’S MOOD: WEEP WITH COMPASSION DO YOUR BEST TO FEIGN REGRET….Reader Jeremy Osner recommends Patrick Farley’s latest creation: President Bush’s advice on how you should feel about the Iraqi people. It’s pretty funny.

That is, it’s pretty funny if you don’t like President Bush in the first place. Which, in case this hasn’t yet been quite obvious enough for y’all, I don’t.


IDLE WAR THOUGHTS….I have to admit that I’m a little perplexed that so many people are interested in minute-by-minute coverage of the war. I can understand being glued to the set for some kind of big breaking news ? the space shuttle disaster, for example ? but the invasion of Iraq has been in the works for months, it’s rolling along pretty much as planned, and it’s going to last for a few weeks (more or less). After the first few hours, I just don’t see how people can sustain such an intense interest in the whole thing.

Nor do I understand the insistence by some that other activities (like the Academy Awards, for example) should be put on hold “because we’re at war.” I don’t want to sound like Noam Chomsky here, but the United States has been at war at least nine times in the past couple of decades (Grenada, Nicaragua, Panama, Gulf War I, Haiti, Somalia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Gulf War II). Considering that we do this kind of thing approximately every 30 months, it’s hard for me to take seriously the notion that normal life should grind to a halt whenever the United States is at war.

Oh, and as long as I’m in Andy Rooney mode here, here’s something else that bothers me: continual blog posts about “supporting our troops.” I imagine that everyone aside from the most radical imaginable pacifists ? and probably even them ? supports our troops. But it’s almost like it’s become a contest to demonstrate who can mourn the loss of every soldier the most, and the forced tone of these postings sounds less than genuine to me. Because of that there’s something vaguely demeaning about the whole exercise.

In other news, it turns out that the chemical weapons factory wasn’t, Bush is finally going to submit a bill for the war to Congress, and the stock market, which allegedly was delirious on Friday because we were doing so well, is allegedly distraught today because the invasion has slowed down a bit. Sheesh.


ACADEMY AWARD WRAPUP….Sorry, Ted, but I’m not heading over to Freep land even if you do pay me. (Although, you know, you could always make me an offer….)

As it turns out, conservative reaction to the Academy Awards seems to be pretty muted. Sure, they all thought Michael Moore was an idiot, but Steve Martin’s quip lightened their outrage (and besides, Moore got some boos in addition to the applause). Adrien Brody’s speech hit a good tone, showing obvious concern for both the horror of war and his friend in the army. And Susan Sarandon’s peace sign ? well, that was pretty restrained for Susan Sarandon.

The best comment of the night? Steve Martin’s final line: “For all our service men and women overseas, I hope you enjoyed the show. It was for you.”

And can I just say that I wish they’d bring back Steve Martin to host every year? Sure, not every joke went over, but as a standup comic I think he’s unbeatable. Billy Crystal, on the other hand, just makes me wince.