Belaboring the Obvious

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Code Word Nation...

... the home of the PR flack and the land of the sound bite. I'm not sure that the country's voters have, on the whole, ever been informed by real debate (well, maybe not since the Lincoln-Douglas debates), but the situation is dire today.

It's not just the failure of the media to report on what government is doing (because there are still some reporters trying to do that diligently, albeit it fewer and fewer of them these days). It's largely a problem of government by focus group and consultancy--and that process has reduced not only the detail and perspicacity of the public debate, but has effectively turned most debate toward the terms that each side has found poll well, or "sound" correct or have emotional resonance with the listener.

Frank Luntz, of course, is the acknowledged master of this process, but, I daresay, no one is granting that Luntz is in any way furthering the debate by what he does. If anything, Luntz and his ilk are trying desperately to obscure the actual issues.

There's been much said recently about what Democrats need to do to regain the House, the Senate, or possibly both. The predominant complaint (echoed often by the right wing) is that the Democrats don't stand for anything. The truth is that they do stand for something--exactly what the pollsters and consultants say will play well with the public. The Democrats do have a core constituency, and the Democrats do speak to their base, but, unfortunately, they often couch their language in the terms that polling says will evoke the greatest response from independents and swing voters.

One example of the phenomenon is the continuing, pervasive attempt by Republicans to extend and amplify tax cuts for the wealthy and for corporations. Republicans have been effective in saying to ordinary people, "it's your money," while at the same time intending something entirely different in the legislation they promote. It's a message that Democrats can't counter. Why? Because many of them can't argue with the sentiment as expressed. More importantly, many voted for that legislation, even though voting for it was an absolute renunciation of their party's core principles.

The simplest and most direct means of countering Republican mendacity toward tax breaks for the rich would be a heavy, unrelenting--and unified--application of the truth. But for many Democrats, that would open them to charges of hypocrisy. The genesis of this problem goes back to the early `80s, when a Democratically-controlled House effectively gave up on the modern progressive income tax. While the reasons given were economic stimulation, the real reason, I think, is that Dems knew it would put a lot more money into the hands of the wealthy and corporations, and the Dems expected to benefit from that when it came time to solicit campaign funds. Democrats had traditionally lagged behind Republicans in campaign donations.

Instead, that tactic backfired in three ways: first, a healthy chunk of that new wealth was funneled into right-wing think tanks and PR firms, which used that wealth to utterly change the nature of the public discourse--just as Lewis Powell in 1971 anticipated that it would. Second, all that extra money raised the overall costs of campaigns--advertising became more important and more expensive and much more money was spent on polling and consultants. Last, Republicans continued to receive the bulk of that newfound wealth, and what incremental improvements in campaign funds Democrats saw from their mistake forever tied them to Wall Street and big business, power centers which were the traditional antitheses of their voting base. From that unholy association came the DLC and a pro-business Democratic elite that would consistently vote as Democrats on some social issues and in favor of big business the rest of the time.

After twenty years of continuing tax cuts for the richest in society, the standard of living for the bottom 50% of the country has stagnated or declined. The distribution of wealth has continued to worsen and debt of all kinds has dramatically increased. When some rare soul tries to tell the truth about why, the Republicans shout, "class warfare!" Democrats are generally silent on the subject, hoping not to offend either Wall Street or the swing voter, or to open themselves to those bitter charges of hypocrisy (as if that would bother inside-the-Beltway types, who seem to have evolved into an inordinately thick-skinned breed).

Both parties now represent big business and the wealthy. That might be one reason why roughly 75 million people in this country don't vote at all. It has been class warfare, and, as Molly Ivins has said, "they've won."

They have won, and if the Democrats' consultants are clever enough this election season, Dems may once again control one of the two houses of Congress, but they will do everything in their power not to let the public get a glimpse of who controls them. Listen hard for the code words, the indistinct phrases culled from focus groups, the snappy sound bite. If you listen even more carefully, you'll hear another sound, that of public money being slipped into private pockets. A campaign contribution, to a politician of either major party, has a better return on investment than any other outlay in business today.

One day, when the house of cards collapses, voters will wonder what happened and do something about it. Until that day, they'll listen to the code words and, like ancient magicians divining from the entrails of a goat, find the meaning they want in them.


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