Friday, September 01, 2006

Sterotypes, Sellouts, and Winning the Meme Wars

by Sara Robinson
Wow. Looks like we all ate our Wheaties this beautiful Friday morning. Dave: the long rest obviously did you a world of good. And our commenters seem to be in fine voice today, too.

Dave wrote:

I simply don't believe that progressives will win rural districts by selling out their core values. I believe a lot of it has to do with framing those values in a way that rural people can identify with.

As my series has chugged along, I've been mightily accused by a handful of people who seem to think I'm suggesting that we do just this. The implication is that, if we choose to use language the right-wing authoritarian base understands, the content of our message -- those good progressive values -- will necessarily be diluted, compromised, or lost.

Those people are missing my point, which is the same one Dave puts in stark terms above. Our values have far more intrinsic potency than the right wing's do. After all: we're defending the original ideals of democracy, while they're trying to dismantle it. That's such a stark contrast that past generations of Democrats have been able to make it easily, persuasively, and usually in words with fewer than three syllables. If I have a core thesis, it's that we need to find spokespeople who can speak that language again -- and train ourselves to use it, too.

Our message is unbeatable. But the media we've used to send that message has, in recent decades, sucked. The resulting misunderstandings have led to three debilitating stereotypes, which between them have almost totally closed off real communication and undertanding between Democrats and their eroding working-class base.

The first, of course, is that Republicans have brilliantly stereotyped Democrats as urban, feckless, and out of touch. As I've written: when the Democrats abandoned rural America in the 70s, they left the door wide open for this to happen. We vanished; but the GOP stuck around, promoting their ideas without letup through mail, radio, the churches, their local offices, and eventually the government. The party may have been lying snakes in the grass, determined from the start to sell the American middle class out to globalization -- but they consistently showed up, hung around, and sounded neighborly. In small towns and working-class burbs, sheer consistency and friendliness counts for a lot. Before long, everybody's friends were Republicans.

That's how the Democrats got that latte-and-limousine reputation. The GOP promoted it; and there was nobody left in town to say it was all a lie. At the same time, there were plenty of Democratic talking heads and technocrats around who seemed determined to prove its truth. They provided the anecdotes that fed the lie.

Second: Democrats have returned the favor by stereotyping rural Americans (especially, but not exclusively, Southerners) as stupid and racist. As commenter Cal Godot points out, this view has been gleefully promoted by Republicans, who've used it to keep us as far from their hard-won base as possible:

The "they" of the South is created by those who are unwilling to accept the progress of history in the South. That "they" is created not only by the remaining bigots but also by hand-wringing Democrats who timidly approach the "race issue" when in the South, while boldly preaching against racism when in the North. Democrats condemn Republicans for pandering to bigotry in the South, then turn and pander - albeit in a more confused or subtle fashion - to the very same voters.?

To put it quite simply, and to paraphrase Stein, there is no 'they' there. The "they" Democrats imagine controlling the Southern vote is an imaginary creature, constructed by Republican propagandists who have cleverly realized that Democrats can best be defeated by setting things up for them to defeat themselves. Pogo also offers wisdom: Democrats have met the enemy, and it is themselves.

Only people who haven't spent time in rural America could buy into this. In abandoning the countryside, the Democrats made themselves suckers for people peddling illusions.

Earlier Dem pols would never have bought this nonsense. Many of the best of them came out of agricultural and blue-collar districts themselves, and understood the subtle nuances of working-class culture. These guys knew that their constituents liked plain, strong language. They like to know what you're going to do for them, specifically. They want to know you're taking care of local business. Since working-class Americans tend to be more religious than the upper classes, they value the emotional tropes of public ritual, and are comforted by pols who can talk a little church talk when the occasion merits it.

The old pols also knew that if you scare these people, you'd better damn well be able to back up the threat with solid evidence. They may trust authority a little more, but they're not stupid, and they don't take kindly to people who call "wolf" on them just to play politics (a trait that the Bush Administration, in its arrogance, forgot -- and is now re-learning first-hand).

As long as most of the national Democratic leadership consists of people who grew up in affluent suburbs, went to the Best Schools, and have never spent much time with people outside their own class and culture (and, yes, I'm aware I'm engaging in a little stereotyping of my own here), the party will continue to be easily led by wrong-headed stereotypes of working-class Americans -- and will thus also continue to fail utterly to speak to their real concerns. When we buy into these stereotypes, we're letting the GOP win.

And then, on the third hand (as we've seen here recently), we've got progressives who are perversely stereotyping people on their own side who are trying to get past all this and create some dialogue. "Sellout" seems to be the popular epithet for anybody -- from Howard Dean to yours truly -- who thinks that, if we want these people's votes (or, as with the authoritarians discussed in the series, to simply bring them back to the reality-based world), we might do well to actually go out there, get to know who they are, and speak to what they value.

What's ironic about this third group is that they don't even notice that they're actively arguing against some of their own most cherished liberal ideals. Meeting people where they are? Treating them as unique individuals instead of wrongly lumping them into monolithic groups? Using social science research to divine their deeper motivations? Increasing our own cultural awareness to bridge the gaps in understanding? How utterly feckless. How blatantly useless. Don't you understand you can't reason with these people? Don't you know we're in a war?

And if our values are misplaced -- whoa, just wait until you hear our proposals! Moving the conversation forward by focusing on common ground, instead of what separates us. Honestly invoking spiritual values listeners will understand and find inspiring, or comforting. Appealing to authorities they regard as credible, rather than shooting our own toes off by invoking people they despise. Finding strong language that creates emotional bonds, and empowers the nervous and fearful. Asserting that some values support democracy better than others -- and coming out for those values, with full conviction. How dare people who advocate such things call themselves liberals?

The progressive cause is captive of all three stereotypes. We are going to stay bound in place until we start recognizing all the ways they shape our thinking, and decide to think differently.

Most essentially, we need to stay focused on McLuhan's truth that the medium is the message. We have strong ideas, but we've expressed them narrowly, weakly, and intermittently for lo, these past 40 years. The right wing conversely, has weak and damaging ideas -- but they were willing to broadcast them, strongly and without without letup, for as long as it took.

Notice who won the last round of the meme wars. And imagine how much better we might do if the media we choose were even half as strong as the message we have to tell.

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