I read the news today, oh boy. Deficit going up, courts ignoring civil rights, republicans unfazed. Like many of you, the saddest thing for me is the capitulation of our party.
And so, in an effort to pull myself out of this funk and possibly contribute something positive to the discussion, I'd like to make some observations on how we can better communicate our ideas to the disengaged. There has been a lot of talk about how the democrats need to be stronger, but that is often hard when our positions are rhetorically weak. Many have discussed framing our position in a positive manner and others have urged our leaders to simplify the message. All of this is true but I would go one step further-- in order to win the political discourse in America, we have to speak in terms of Bad Things.
Rather than articulating problems that need to be solved, we should identify Bad Things that need to be eliminated. By identifying Bad Things appropriately, it will be much harder for Republicans to oppose us.
We are living in a world where the complexity and information available on issues continues to skyrocket while, at the same time, the average voter has low or decreasing brainpower to deal with it. Think about any current national issue-- healthcare, the budget deficit, climate change-- these are exceedingly complex issues with exceedingly complex solutions. I am an educated person who spends several hours per week reading news but I don't understand the Healthcare Bill or what was in the budget compromise. I only understand climate change because it is a personal interest of mine, but I still don't fully understand Cap-and-Trade legislation.
In short, most voters don't understand the complexities of these issues and it is our job to explain it to them. Obama does understand this, and he is good at explaining his position in a simple way. What Obama is not good at is explaining the urgency of action or the evils of the "Conservative" position.
While we are all aware of the many losses that democrats have suffered in our quest to improve the general welfare, I would like to mention a victory that is quite dramatic and, I think can instruct us on how to proceed-- smoking.
When I was a child, restaurants were just starting to designate non-smoking sections. A kid could buy a pack from a vending machine. People could smoke on airplanes. In high school, all students were allowed to smoke outside. Four years later, at my first job, smoking was allowed in certain parts of the office. The cigarette companies were still insisting that there was no proof that cigarettes caused cancer.
Now, cigarettes are banned nearly everywhere indoors. Smokers must stand a certain distance from entrances if they choose to smoke. Smoking is not allowed on airplanes in the US. Companies are firing people who only smoke at home. A billion dollar lawsuit has led to really good anti-smoking advertisements. Smoking is not gone (and it should never be completely banned) but it is much harder to smoke and it is much less socially acceptable.
Why such a dramatic change? Certainly the answer is complex, as there are many moving parts. The federal government passed the rule on airplanes; states (with some exceptions) banned smoking in restaurants. Companies and their landlords banned smoking at work. Plaintiffs and judges pushed the tobacco settlement along.
But even though there were multiple actors, they were all working toward the same goal for one reason-- second-hand smoke was seen as a Bad Thing.
Once second-hand smoke is seen as a Bad Thing, it is hard to argue that people should tolerate some smoke. Cigarette companies were smart enough to know that they couldn't argue "second hand smoke isn't really bad," because they knew that the public has no sympathy for Bad Things. Governments, from the local to the national, had tools to stop this Bad Thing, and they used them, in the ways that they best knew how.
At first glance, it may seem that most of society's major problems cannot be posed as simply as the problem of second-hand smoke. Health care is complicated, climate change is complicated and so are their solutions. But I think that with proper framing, these problems too can be framed as Bad Things.
Regarding health care reform, Bad Things were identified, but they weren't the right Bad Things. When describing the need for health care reform, the most common arguments were that people tend to get screwed over with our current healthcare system. However, there are two problems with this strategy-- first, the problems described were suffered by someone else; second, without more information, it isn't obvious that government-run healthcare is the only solution to bad healthcare.
Now consider the opposition to Obama's healthcare plan. They attacked it head on. For the Tea Party, government controlled health care was the Bad Thing. Such healthcare was framed in such a way that it directly harmed people (less benefits for you, even leading to "death panels"!). More importantly, the only "solution" to government-controlled healthcare is less regulation and the free market. In the end, Obama got a bill but the real winners were the healthcare industry.
So, how could we have done better? Rather than frame the issue as people without healthcare, we could have made our message that the private healthcare industry is a Bad Thing. The private healthcare industry is a Bad Thing because it will raise the price of your drug if it thinks it can make more money. It will cease to cover your benefits if it thinks it can save more money. Most importantly, the only solution to a private healthcare system is a public healthcare system. Just like congress, the president, and the military hire physicians directly using public funds, so should everyone else.
Now certainly there would be huge opposition to this tactic. Insurance companies would put all of their resources into opposing it. But that would fit well into the narrative of insurance companies being a Bad Thing: insurance companies are bad because they take your money and spend it to ensure their continued lavish lifestyles.
There are those who did focus on the insurance companies-- Michael Moore and Dennis Kucinich were national figures and many here at DailyKos did so as well. But in the end, Obama's support for the public option dealt a great rhetorical blow to healthcare reform. By accepting the idea of a public option we're all accepting the idea that the private sector can do a good job of protecting people's health. From that point it's a slippery slope to accepting the status quo. Sure, some people can get good care from private insurance, but some people can be fine breathing in second hand smoke! The problem is that in both cases we all suffer from greater risks to our health.
With any political movement, change doesn't come overnight, but the most successful incrementalism is the kind that never accepts the validity of its opponents positions. Consider the animal rights movement. Probably the greatest success of the animal rights movement in recent years is the reduced use of fur-based apparel. A major reason for this is its simplicity. Compare "wearing fur is a Bad Thing" to "we need to treat farm animals more humanely." I know what fur is and I know what not wearing fur is. I don't know what more humane treatment of animals means and I don't know how to affect it. Similarly, within the arena of humane treatment of farm animals, animal rights organizations have been more successful at creating clear labels for things which are bad and fighting for those. Animal rights groups got McDonalds to order its suppliers to phase out the de-beaking of chickens. They also succeeded in passing California's Proposition 2, which gave many animals the small but significant right to move around in their cages.
Now let's consider climate change. The last two democratic administrations have tried and failed to implement a cap-and-trade program for Carbon dioxide. Simply stated, Cap-and-trade means that the amount of carbon dioxide emissions per emitter is capped, but that emitters who wish to emit more CO2 can pay other emitters to lower their emission levels.
Economists and politicians love cap and trade. It makes sense-- cap and trade is a great way to ensure that emitters who produce the greatest societal benefit from their emissions are allowed to continue their important work while those who only benefit slightly from their emissions are given financial incentives to reduce their emissions. It's a great idea in theory, but it is singing to the choir. No one who doesn't already understand how it works is going to support it. On the other hand, the opponents of cap-and-trade "took aim" (in one case quite literally) at increased government regulation, a damaged economy, and a whole host of demons that a thousand page climate bill probably had lurking within.
Under Cap and trade every one is a good guy. I suggest that only way to combat climate change is to identify the Bad Things that need to be fixed.
From a strictly scientific standpoint, all fossil fuel consumption is a Bad Thing, as it adds carbon to our atmosphere. Much like animal rights groups, we need to acknowledge that and make personal commitments to reduce our fossil fuel consumption. At the same time, animal rights groups don't expect to convert everyone to vegetarianism overnight. Rather, they identify the greatest cruelties and present them as Bad Things.
What are some bad things? Well, the internal combustion engine is a bad thing. Even electric cars powered by coal-fired power plants emit less CO2 than traditional gasoline engines. Additionally, power plants are more highly regulated, especially the new power plants which will have to be built to support the increased electricity demand of electric cars.
There are other low hanging fruit. Outdoor "sports" that emit tons of carbon dioxide (ATV's, powerboats, snowmobiles) are generally unnecessary, and they harm the environment. These are Bad Things that could be simply and forcefully opposed. SUVs and Trucks may be necessary to farmers or families with six children, but they are Bad Things which should not be easily obtained. They are like smoking, they hurt everyone, and they're not necessary.
Ultimately, once electric vehicles become affordable, the internal combustion engine may start to seem very much like cigarettes. Just like cigarettes, they are smelly, bad for your lungs, and should be kept away from children and people with asthma. Other people's internal combustion engines cost you more money in increased air-conditioning bills, greater flood insurance, and increased risk of tropical disease. At this point, there aren't many alternatives, but if we can get over the hump of affordability (maybe Tesla's Model S will be the start), we will have a huge opportunity to create a moral choice between electric vehicles and a Bad Thing.
But we need to think in terms of morality, not economics.
And, while we should recognize the imperfections of people and the practical difficulties of making changes, we can't be afraid to communicate the evil of certain situations in clear, unapologetic terms.Updated by John Chapman at Mon Apr 11, 2011 at 08:45 PM MST
There appears to be a debate in the comments concerning the validity of regulations on second hand smoke. Personally, I think that most of the new regulations are good ones. However, I don't think that you have to hate smoking to realize how beneficial it can be to our cause when we can clearly identify social and environmental harms. My point is that health care reform and cap-and-trade climate legislation failed to identify those harms and that those failures were a major part of why those legislative packages largely failed.