Sunday, August 27, 2006

Tunnels and Bridges, Part II: Nothing to Fear But Fear Itself

by Sara Robinson

In Part III of Cracks In The Wall, we saw the importance of calming the high fear and panic levels that drive individual authoritarian thinking. Taking fear reduction to the community and national scale is pretty much the same process. The ground rules are: find and build from our common ground; appeal to authorities they're bound to respect; and speak from strength, always avoiding weak and ambiguous language.

Family, Community, and the Moral Common Good
Finding political and cultural common ground, as we all know, hasn't been easy in recent years. Many RWAs are beyond furious at the whole idea of government, for reasons that most of us have found perplexing, but Doug Muder, in his excellent essay "Red Family, Blue Family," makes pointedly clear. For those at the authoritarian end of the spectrum, supporting schools that don't teach their values and parks where they can't put up their Christmas displays feels like taxation without representation. The social safety net just encourages people to ignore their inherited familial obligations. We don't even define “family” the same way they do; and we don't reckon our obligations to it in quite the same way. How can we stop talking past each other, and find solid places to connect?

Muder's essay offers several promising suggestions – all of which emerge from his core point that RWAs are angry with us because they've been told to mistake our tolerance and flexibility for moral unseriousness. Only people who take their commitments lightly could be so keen on creating systems that enable people to abandon their obligations, or excuse them from the consequences of their choices. Staking out common ground, he argues, begins with making our own commitments clear:

The most important fact that conservatives don’t know about liberals is this: We believe that a life without commitments is superficial and empty. Unlike the demonized liberals you hear about on Fox News, real liberals are morally serious people who are not looking to take the easy way out when there are greater issues at stake.

Liberals join the Peace Corps, work in soup kitchens, and stand together with unpopular oppressed peoples rather than walking away from. Why? Because liberals are serious, committed people....Our rhetoric needs to capture the seriousness of our beliefs and commitments. We should, for example, miss no opportunity to use words like commitment and principle. Our principles should be stated clearly and we should return to them often, rather than moving towards a nebulous center whenever we are afraid of losing....

Many, given an accurate view of liberals and the values that motivate us, may come to see that we are not so scary, and that their differences with us can be bridged. And as the pluto-
cratic agenda of the Right lets jobs continue to be lost, wages continue to stagnate, and the gap between rich and poor stretch ever wider, they may recall that the New Deal was not such a bad
idea after all.

As we saw in Part III, individual RWAs relax when they feel sure of who we are and what we stand for, even when they don't agree with it. They are impressed by strength, and have contempt for weakness – especially in those who seek to lead them. They will not trust us as long as we're ambiguous about our values and commitments. But once we start using clear language and taking clear, bold stands for what we cherish, they may at least be impressed with our moral strength even when they don't share our principles. Once their trust is engaged, and they are convinced they are dealing with morally serious people who are strong in their own beliefs and values, it becomes easier to lead them away from black-and-white thinking, and toward greater willingness to think in more complex terms.

The Right Authorities
We've seen that RWA followers only grant legitimacy to authorities who confirm and support their worldview; and they may expand those views if given permission to do so by people operating under color of these accepted authorities. We gain their trust when we support our points by enlisting authorities they respect.

It's true that finding authorities that we can also give some credence to isn't always easy. We need to choose our rhetorical allies carefully. Perhaps the first place to look is in the ranks of sainted Republicans, past and present, who took positions that would now be recognized as liberal. Eisenhower and Nixon both had some magnificent moments here. Teddy Roosevelt and Abe Lincoln also provide rich fodder. "Conservatives Without Conscience" began in conversations between John Dean and Barry Goldwater; one of Dean's main arguments is that Goldwater's values were much closer to those of modern liberals than they are to Bush's. Likewise, there are clergymen with "elder statesman" status on the right -- Robert Schuller and Billy Graham, to name two -- who have surprisingly often argued for positions that square with progressive notions of morality.

Yes, we have our own important liberal sources of authority. But when we are trying to talk to the authoritarian right, our sources will not be believed. In quoting their own heroes back to them, we're not only moving onto common ground -- "we believe these things, too" -- we're also co-opting some of their own mythology, taking control of it and re-defining it in the same way the right wing has re-defined words like "liberal" and "patriot" out from under us. It's a game two can play; and this is the way to play it with a clean conscience.

Brave Words and Strong Language
Democrats seem to have lost the gift of powerful oratory. Most of our public figures speak like overeducated technocrats, relying on facts rather than emotion to carry their message. It's why they're seen as effect urban snobs. It's time to return to language that speaks in clear terms of right and wrong – not to parrot authoritarian values, as some Vichy Democrats are prone to do, but to passionately assert and defend the traditional Democratic values that are the very basis of constitutional government. There are just two rules here:

Stay Strong -- As we've seen, RWA followers are driven by their fears. Rush, Ann, and other right-wing talkers play straight into that fear by speaking in voices that are strong, assertive, even occasionally aggressive. It hits all their buttons, providing an emotional antidote to the fear they feel even as it stokes the fires of their rage. God knows the appeal of these gasbags isn't in the factual information they provide; it's in the soul-comforting conviction they bring to their bloviations. It's their emotional appeal that establishes them as authorities in their listeners' ears, and convinces them to follow wherever they lead.

Democrats have a long and noble rhetorical tradition of speaking from strength, which we stupidly abandoned out of embarrassment at the over-the-top rantings of the far-left leaders of the 60s. In reaction to this, public liberals have spent the last 30 years leaning the other way, trying (at the cost of their own credibility) to sound not-loony, calm, and rational. The upshot, to many Americans, is that we sound like wimps who don't really believe what we're saying, don't understand the fear they feel, and aren't strong enough to be counted on when it matters.

People: Abbie Hoffman has been dead for 17 years, and the Sixties are now three decades behind us. The world has moved on -- and it's desperately in need of Fighting Dems again. America isn't afraid of our strong language; to the contrary, it's terrified by the lack of strength we seem to bring to our convictions.

If you can't remember how this is done, go re-read Tom Paine's pamphlets, Dr. King's speeches, or anything from FDR or JFK or great populists like Bob LaFollette. This is our rhetorical heritage; it is also how we reclaim the respect of the soft-core followers who may be seeking a powerful, moral alternative to the increasinly unignorable cravenness of their own right-wing leaders.

Stay Concrete -- Use the specific, non-abstract language that authoritarians understand. Draw clear lines between people, policies, and the real-life consequences people experience in their own lives. "My proposed bill will put $10 million in new programs for illiteracy" makes your average voter (authoriarian or otherwise) just snooze. But "The war in Iraq is costing you, personally, X dollars per day. In a year, that's Y new teachers you're not getting in your local school, Z amount of health care for your family, and Q amount of effective homeland security" -- that's the kind of real-world specificity that wakes listeners up to the intimate consequences of their choices.

As the GOP rose through the 70s and 80s, it sought out and cultivated candidates that could speak this language – and then, just to make sure, gave them specific training to make them particularly effective at it. It's stunning that Democrats haven't followed suit. They've been talking circles around us for 20 years now.

It's past time for progressives to make strong, passionate oratory a required skill for our emerging leaders as well. Al Gore's global warming talks are perfect examples of how to lay out arguments that are clear, specific, values-based, emotionally appealing, and unambiguous in describing how specific policies can create great personal harm to the listener. Nationally, the growing influence of progressive Christian groups within the Democratic party, and the rise of politicians like Barack Obama and John Murtha who are comfortable with strong moral language, are positive trends. The progressive side is not going to win back the soft core until our ranks are thick with leaders who can present our values in the clear, literal, unequivocal language RWAs associate with strength.

Next: A Bigger World

No comments: