In a previous piece, I suggested that Left self-criticism that looked at "linguistic" grounds to analyze the Left's decline were misguided, and that we really ought to look elsewhere to understand why the Left doesn't win elections and run the US government. Now, in a recent edition of alternet.org, George Lakoff is at it again: this time, he tries to learn from the Right about why people vote. People vote, he argues, for politicians who do things authentically. His argument borrows from Richard Wirthlin as follows:
Richard Wirthlin, chief strategist for former president Ronald Reagan, made a discovery in 1980 that profoundly changed American politics. As a pollster, he was taught that people vote for candidates on the basis of the candidates' positions on issues. But his initial polls for Reagan revealed something fascinating: Voters who didn't agree with Reagan on the issues still wanted to vote for him.Now, the list of twelve traps, as given by Lakoff at the bottom of this article, reads like a criticism of a list of excuses Democrats give for why they can't communicate values (issues, programs and policies are more important), why they can't connect with people (they're not in the "center"), or why they can't appear authentic (their ideas are not "spun" correctly). This list of excuses may ring true -- of Democrats.
Mystified, Wirthlin studied the matter further. He discovered just what made people want to vote for Reagan. Reagan talked about values rather than issues. Communicating values mattered more than specific policy positions. Reagan connected with people; he communicated well. Reagan also appeared authentic -- he seemed to believe what he said. And because he talked about his values, connected with people and appeared authentic, they felt they could trust him. For these four reasons -- values, connection, authenticity and trust -- voters identified with Reagan; they felt he was one of them.
But let me suggest another, very important, reason why Democrat leaders can't communicate values, connect with people, or appear authentic: their values aren't really progressive values. Government, as Vincent Navarro has pointed out so well, has been re-directed over the past thirty years, from the guardianship of the welfare state to the promoter of corporate profit above all else. And Democrats have bought into this, for the sake of obtaining the corporate money that seemingly guarantees them the plums of political office-holding. In doing so, however, the Democrats have sacrificed "values, connection, authenticity, trust, and identity" in order to appeal to progressive voters, while at the same time advancing agendas which are not progressive. No wonder they look so insincere (thus Kerry's support of militarism), disconnected (thus Al Gore's wooden 2000 persona), inauthentic (thus all the Democrat politicians who sound like policy wonks), and therefore untrustworthy.
Lakoff seems to recognize this in a dawning sort of way; thus he says:
A common mistaken ideology has convinced many progressives that they must "move to the right" to get more votes. In reality, this is counterproductive. By moving to the right, progressives actually help activate the right's values and give up on their own. In the process, they also alienate their base.But Democrat leaders haven't really been "moving to the right"; rather, neoliberal Democrats have to appear to be "moving to the right" in order to maintain the facade of being "progressive." People in Lakoff's reading audience should read up on John Kerry's record to disabuse themselves of the "moving to the right" notion.
The point is this: if "progressives" (and the Democrats have done plenty of damage to the content of that term) wish to reclaim "values, connection, authenticity, trust, and identity" for themselves, they will need somewhere to go in order to end the practice of voting for the "lesser of two evils" in a bad infinity, election after election without end. They will, in short, need a political party of their own -- and the Democrats are not that party. Me, I thought it was the Green Party -- but what do I know?