Obama and Why Rhetoric Matters: Nothing Makes Sense in Movement Conservatism Except in the Light of Creationism

Once again, with apologies to Theodosius Dobzhansky. Rick Perlstein explains why liberals and progressives are so bothered by Obama’s failure of rhetoric (boldface mine; emphasis original):

Instead, his favorite campaign line on the Republican record was a story about competence: The Republicans “drove the country into the ditch,” and “now they want the keys back.” But Republicans aren’t bad drivers; they drive exactly where they want to go, pedal to the metal. Sure, they sometimes compromise on tactics – certainly Reagan did. But he, and they, never waver on strategic aims. They plant their flag in an uncompromising position, and wait for the world to come around – which, quite often, it eventually does. This is because in a media environment based on the ideology of “balance,” in which anything one of the parties insists upon must be given equal weight to whatever the other party says back, the party that plants its ideological flag further from the center makes the center move. And that is how America changes. You set the stage for future changes by shifting the rhetoric of the present.

This pattern is widely misunderstood by analysts. Republicans striking conservative positions are interpreted as “pleasing the base.” But this isn’t the main thing they’re trying to do. Much more so, such moves are aimed at shifting the way even those who don’t pay attention to politics — actually, especially those who don’t pay attention to politics: “independents,” “swing voters,” etc. — understand the world. William Rusher, the National Review publisher and conservative movement activist who died last year, once said that the greatest power in politics is “the power to define reality.” Obama never attempts that. Instead, he ratifies his opponent’s reality, by folding it into his original negotiating position. And since the opponent’s preferred position is always further out than his own, even a “successful” compromise ends up with the reality looking more like the one the Republicans prefer. A compromise serves to legitimize.

Exactly. And this example will be recognized by regular readers of this blog:

The annals of right-wing strategizing are full of long-range documents plotting shifts in the common sense of once-settled issues. The Discovery Institute’s secret “Wedge Document” outlined a strategy to rebrand Biblical creationism as a “scientific” debate over “Intelligent Design,” with the hidden goal of “replac[ing] materialistic explanations with the theistic understanding that nature and human beings are created by God.” The Cato Institute’s “Achieving a ‘Leninist’ Strategy” (pdf) worked similar mojo for Social Security – plotting long-term rhetorical methods to, as the document put it, “cast doubt on the picture of reality [that the coalition supporting Social Security] presents to the general public.”

That’s the game: Conservatives recast the global perception of something they despise, and the rest of us take for granted as plain progress, as a bubbling cauldron of “controversy.” Which allows them, in the fullness of time, to get policy makers on board to take the risk to change the laws in the way they prefer.

That Democratic political operatives either do not recognize this, or do–and simply don’t care–is one of the great, ongoing political tragedies of our time.

And is another reason why we can’t have nice things.

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1 Response to Obama and Why Rhetoric Matters: Nothing Makes Sense in Movement Conservatism Except in the Light of Creationism

  1. When I tell people that I intend to be “the left wing Ann Coulter” (I have a lefty radio show in the most conservative county in the USA), the lefties all howl that she lies, exaggerates, blah blah blah, but what I see is: she is framing the issues and setting the terms. And they LOOOOVE her for it… as you say, she is “defining reality”.

    I have noticed when I say outrageous stuff (on purpose of course) like “Jesus was the first socialist!” –the conservatives are beside themselves, which is exactly what I intend. But the liberals are too perfectionist and literal, they take pains to correct me: Jesus WASN’T the first socialist. (actually St Francis was) OF COURSE I am aware of this, but I trying to *reclaim the debate* and frame issues OUR WAY. Unfortunately, the left does not seem to want to do this… they do not WANT to appeal to the undecideds and the uninteresteds. Until they get over a great deal of their own elitism and stop writing off huge swaths of the unwashed south, we will perpetually have our reality DEFINED BY THE RIGHT.

    And thanks for letting me vent, loved the post. Its a war of images and meanings, and very few wonky leftists seem to get that, its so nice when someone finally does. 🙂

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