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Lakoff on Obama v. Clinton 3 February 2008

Posted by Todd in 2008 Elections, Cognitive Science, Democracy, Politics.
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Lakoff often irritates me for what I think is often a sloppy misapplication of his research on linguistic frames to politics; but his is the first description of Obama v. Clinton that I’ve read that really articulates what I’ve been struggling to define over the past few weeks (even more since Edwards dropped out). Why does Obama continue to appeal to me so much (despite his ex-gay mistep a few months ago)? It’s the combination of policy + vision that really gets my attention. And we hear endlessly about “conservative values” and “value voters” from the MSM, but no one ever talks about the values that drive the left, that we too are values voters. This resonance with Obama for me goes back to his speech at the 2004 convention, where in the middle of the DNC trying to play the center (Clinton’s fucking “triangulation politics” has ruined the Democratic party for the past 15 years), and in the middle of the Bush administrations campaign of misinformation and outright lies, here comes Obama like a fresh breeze. It wasn’t substantive in a political sense, but it was a reminder of what the best in politics can be. It’s not that I value rhetoric over pragmatic policy making; but it is that I respond so strongly to the values that drive those policies. [Hat tip to my friend Hank for pointing me to Lakoff’s piece.]

Political endorsements rarely make interesting reading. But this year is different. Take the endorsements of Hillary Clinton by the New York Times [NY Times, January 25, 2008] and Barack Obama by Caroline Kennedy [NY Times, January 27, 2008].

To the editors of the New York Times, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama agree on policy goals:

“On the major issues, there is no real gulf separating the two. They promise an end to the war in Iraq, more equitable taxation, more effective government spending, more concern for social issues, a restoration of civil liberties and an end to the politics of division of George W. Bush and Karl Rove.”
What matters to the editors is experience in “tackling … issues” — in mastering details of policy and carrying them out one by one. “The next president needs to start immediately on challenges that will require concrete solutions, resolve, and the ability to make government work.”

To Caroline Kennedy, policy is not the real issue:

“Most of us would prefer to base our voting decision on policy differences. However, the candidates’ goals are similar. They have all laid out detailed plans on everything from strengthening our middle class to investing in early childhood education. So qualities of leadership, character and judgment play a larger role than usual.

“I want a president who understands that his responsibility is to articulate a vision and encourage others to achieve it; who holds himself, and those around him, to the highest ethical standards; who appeals to the hopes of those who still believe in the American Dream, and those around the world who still believe in the American ideal; and who can lift our spirits, and make us believe again that our country needs every one of us to get involved.”

The difference is striking. To the editors of the New York Times, the quality of leadership seems not to be an “issue.” The ability to unite the country is not an “issue.” What Obama calls the empathy deficit — attunement to the experience and needs of real people — is not an “issue.” Honesty is not an “issue.” Trust is not an “issue.” Moral judgment is not an “issue.” Values are not “issues.” Adherence to democratic ideals — rather than political positioning, triangulation, and incrementalism — are not “issues.” Inspiration, a call to a higher purpose, and a transcendence of interest-based politics are not “issues.”

It is time to understand what counts as an “issue,” to whom, and why.

In Thinking Points, the handbook for progressives that the Rockridge Institute staff and I wrote last year, we began by analyzing Ronald Reagan’s strengths as a politician. According to his chief strategist, Richard Wirthlin, Reagan realized that most voters do not vote primarily on the basis of policies, but rather on (1) values, (2) connection, (3) authenticity, (4) trust, and (5) identity. That is, Reagan spoke about his values, and policies for him just exemplified values. He connected viscerally with people. He was perceived as authentic, as really believing what he said. As a result, people trusted him and identified with him. Even if they had different positions on issues, they knew where he stood. Even when his economic policies did not produce a “Morning in America,” voters still felt a connection to him because he spoke to what they wanted America to be. That was what allowed Reagan to gain the votes of so many independents and Democrats.

There is a reason that Obama recently spoke of Reagan. Reagan understood that you win elections by drawing support from independents and the opposite side. He understood what unified the country so that he could lead it according to his vision. His vision was a radical conservative one, a vision devastating for the country and contradicted by his economic policies.

Obama understands the importance of values, connection, authenticity, trust, and identity.

But his vision is deeply progressive. He proposes to lead in a very different direction than Reagan. Crucially, he adds to that vision a streetwise pragmatism: his policies have to do more than look good on paper; they have to bring concrete material results to millions of struggling Americans in the lower and middle classes. They have to meet the criteria of a community organizer.

The Clintonian policy wonks don’t seem to understand any of this. They have trivialized Reagan’s political acumen as an illegitimate triumph of personality over policy. They confuse values with programs. They have underestimated authenticity and trust.

I actually have to disagree with both Kennedy and the NYT on the policy issue. On some policies, I think Clinton is clearly better: she knows her stuff backwards and forward on issues such as health care reform. And I find many of her policies to be too much of a compromise for the right-leaning wonks’ benefit. It’s not that I’m against compromise, just that I want to hear the grand ideas and goals up front, and like a barter system, you can’t give too much to the opposition up front or you end up with a center that is far to the right of world political norms.

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