There has been a lot of discussion of late about the Lakoff interview on how the left needs to learn how to better “frame” issues, in order to combat the right’s extraordinary success in doing so. Take the example of the environment, a recently leaked document written by the corporate “public opinion researcher” Frank Luntz provides advice to corporations on how to “frame” environmental issues so as to convince the public of their “sincerity and concern” even as they seek to exploit the environment for private gain.
The image one gets after reading articles like this, is that the left is loosing a spin-doctor arms race with the right. (Indeed, I believe I contributed to that impression in a recent post on the topic, an impression which I now hope to correct.) The implicit argument is that all the left needs to do is to higher better spin-doctors than the right, give them more money, and we will be able to win. This simplistic view overlooks some fundamental problems faced by the left in attempting to overcome conservative ideology:
First of all, some ideological positions lend themselves better to such re-framing than others. At the core of conservative ideology is a simple (and simplistic) world view. They assert (whether they believe it or not) that markets are inherently efficient, and government is inherently inefficient. What does the left offer to oppose this? Nothing but complexity. “Most economists don’t believe that markets are so wonderfully efficient,” we can shout. “Information has costs, and so markets run on imperfect information” we can scream. We can even stamp our feet and point to statistics and reports which show that some industries run better and more efficiently under government control than in the private sector. (Pick up any issue of the American Prospect to see what I’m talking about.) But complexity simply isn’t appealing.
This leads to the second problem, which is that there is something fundamentally dishonest in “framing.” It implies a certain condescension towards your audience, the belief that you are smarter than they are and while you yourself are capable of handling complex truths, your audience needs to be coddled with half-truths. As Paul Krugman has valiantly pointed out, much of the spin relating to White House economic policy consists of overt lies. The left is therefore in the position of either exposing “the truth.” This is related to the first problem, in that the truth is inherently more complex than the lies. The Krugmans of this world sound like the ones who are “condescending,” while the Rush Limbaughs sound like they are speaking the “plain truth.” Understandably, the left holds itself to a higher standard (and it should). Compare the accusations leveled at Michael Moore with those directed at Ann Coulter and you’ll see what I mean. (I’m not arguing that there should be different standards — but that it is necessarily more difficult to be Michael Moore than Ann Coulter, a very different argument.)
Third, the concentration of media ownership, and the enormously conservative bias in the media, means that the playing field is anything but “fair and balanced.” It is particularly important to notice how right-wing economic ideology obscures this bias by presenting media concentration as a natural and healthy result of “free” competition. (Ignoring the important role of government regulation in creating such monopolies.)
Fourth, there is the problem of reception. I don’t think the American people are stupid — far from it; but I also believe that an educational system which emphases standardized testing over individual creativity, and which presents history as a series of “facts” rather than the development of ideas, serves to turn people off of critical engagement with ideas, and perhaps even causes resentment at those they perceive as being too “intellectual.” But is it really possible that Bush’s popularity is due to his apparent lack of intellegence?
Finally, and most importantly, I think the idea of competing spin-doctors misses one of the most central questions facing the future of the left. It isn’t that the left’s ideas are harder to sell — but that the left, at some fundamental level, lacks ideas. If anything, all the left offers is a more complex and nuanced version of the same ideas being espoused by the right. Neoliberalism, it seems, is the only game in town:
… the neoliberal utopia tends to embody itself in the reality of a kind of infernal machine, whose necessity imposes itself even upon the rulers. Like the Marxism of an earlier time, with which, in this regard, it has much in common, this utopia evokes powerful belief — the free trade faith — not only among those who live off it, such as financiers, the owners and managers of large corporations, etc., but also among those, such as high-level government officials and politicians, who derive their justification for existing from it.
It isn’t enough to critique neoliberalism, or to refine it — the left needs to present a coherent alternative. Most importantly, the left needs to take the issue of inequality seriously, and no longer pretend that more efficient markets will magically make the problem go away. I sometimes feel that what most Democrats want is “compassionate conservatism,” and that they are simply upset that Bush didn’t deliver what he promised. Sure, Clinton looks better in hindsight, but it was the left’s embrace of Clinton’s neoliberalism that allowed Bush to happen. We need to draw a line in the sand and make it clear where we stand — not simply re-frame neoliberalism to make it more appealing to liberals and conservatives alike. The right’s already done that for us!