A friend of mine once asked me why I so disliked the use of George Lakoff’s concepts of “frames” by political operatives, after reading me complain here about those ideas several times. After all, my friend argued, there’s some truth to the idea, political outcomes are in fact decided by the rhetorical and conceptual shorthand that comes to dominate public discourse: say, in the difference between considering something warfare versus seeing it as law enforcement, or in terms like anti-abortion, pro-life, pro-choice.
Yes, there’s some empirical truth to the concept, that how we commonly speak about political and social problems leads to the privileging of certain kinds of actions. The problem with how political elites use Lakoff, however, is that they assume that the association between a frame and the real embedded knowledge of people about their world is arbitrary and infinitely mobile, that all you have to do is find the right key to unlock hearts and minds. It’s a way of thinking that had a much more sophisticated double or echo in Stuart Hall’s meditations about Gramscian thought back in the Thatcher era. Hall was upbraiding his colleagues on the left for thinking that their major challenge was to mobilize the appropriate social formations, that Thatcher’s public rhetoric had no relationship to her political power. Instead, he argued, they needed to take that rhetoric very seriously, because it was an important source of her political success. That was an important point, but Hall didn’t quite take it far enough, in that he never fully thought through why Thatcherite ideas were popular even among social groups that the British left hoped to mobilize.
What I’ve written about here before is what happens when political organizers and experts of all ideological predispositions believe that they’re engaged in “rehanging frames” is that they fall quickly into a self-destructive elitism, a cack-handed vanguardism. They come to believe that they somehow have an x-ray vision understanding of the rhetorical landscape which the general public does not have, they separate the world into knowing magicians and dumbfounded marks. Even when a political elite has a pretty good ear for how things play in Peoria, once an aspirant frame-mover sets himself outside of the lived world of various publics, it’s only a matter of time before they misfire completely in word or deed. It’s the domestic equivalent of expecting Iraqis to throw flowers at occupying troops.
I mention this discussion because of a Glenn Greenwald column about some writing by Cass Sunstein, in which he calls for a consensus-politics liberal-leaning version of COINTELPRO, more or less. Rather than restate Greenwald at length, just go read his critique. Read it because for one, the bone-headedness of the position paper by Sunstein that Greenwald discusses is breath-taking. Forget the obvious and legitimate slippery-slope arguments for a moment. Purely in terms of the argument of the paper, it’s impossible to conceive of a “solution” more guaranteed to actually aggravate or even just create the problem that it defines.
If it was just a dumb argument, that would be one thing. But it’s not: I think it’s emblematic of what has happened to the political elite on both sides of the aisle. Whatever happens in elections, most of them feel like they can’t lose. Certain prizes change hands, sure, but the circuit of their power and influence remains largely unbroken. They know that even if a candidate comes into office seemingly riding a wave of insurgent sentiment, they’re going to have to fill out the ranks of government with experts of one ideology or another. Where else are you going to go? And if you try seriously to reach outside the usual suspects, the usual suspects are going to find ways to fuck with your authority. Because if there’s one thing the policy and bureaucratic establishment (right and left) is good at, it’s sandbagging and subverting policy directions they don’t like or don’t endorse.
Sunstein’s paper exemplifies what I was writing about last week, about the inauthenticity of political and social life at the moment. As I said then, it’s not just Sunstein’s problem. Far too much public conversation is driven by a similar conceit, a belief that you can move obstacles to your favored goals by pushing constantly at them with half-truths and manipulations. But Sunstein in this essay is a poster child for just how deep in the tank much of the Beltway elite has gone–and how they’re dragging any hope of meaningful social change down into the pit with them.