Getting my liberal friends to add emotive content to their arguments is like getting my three year old to eat anything we call chicken - it's not that she doesn't like chicken, but if we call it that, she won't eat it. She'll instantly claim that she doesn't like it.
Now, my wife and I know this cannot possibly be true, she loves real chicken: chicken soup, chicken and rice casserole and chicken fingers and more. So it goes with my three year old (and most others' three year olds too, I would guess), and this faces us with a choice - we noticed that she'll eat chicken if we don't call it that. We could lie to her and call it 'turkey' or something similar or keep our mouths shut and let her munch happily along in oblivious bliss. We could, but we don't; we won't trick her and we won't lie to her. We just need to keep presenting her with real chicken until she's ready to try it, as chicken. How do we convince her to try chicken? Rhetoric, conviction and repetition. We use rhetoric to show her how yummy it is, we show how much fun we have eating it, and we do it convincingly. And we do it over and over and over, night after night. It's how we got her to like rice, and mashed potatoes and lollypops and spinach. Ok, we never had any trouble with lollypops; that's just a dream of mine.
If you're a Republican, something else is dreamy: people don't change all that much from their three year old selves. Want to convince some nice old lady that President Obama personally is out to get her? Just lie to that poor little old lady and get a bunch of deep-voiced authority figures to tell her about the "death panels" in Obamacare over and over and over. Simple, really - rhetoric (they're panels! ...of DEATH!), conviction (hey, Brit Hume said it and didn't laugh!), repetition (at 7am, 730am, 9am, 12pm, 2pm, 4pm, 430pm, 7pm, 715pm, 730pm...)
Now, it's possible to overdo it. This year was a year of rhetorical failure for Republicans. They went too far in their lies and people saw through those lies and we won by almost by default. Almost. People were driven away in disgust in order to escape a horrific onslaught of reductions in simple human rights that the Right would usher in - Republicans lost women, blacks, Asians, the young and Hispanics at shameful rates. Simultaneously, Obama For America turned out the single most effective GOTV machine ever created. But our rhetoric was terrible! It was horrible, no good and very bad! It was nearly all of the form of "look how looney those guys are!" There were the Bain Capital ads, My-wife-died-because-I-didn't-have-healthcare ads, Todd-Aiken-is-a-crazy-Mommy-Murderer!eleventy!!1! ads, and other similar ads that were the bulk of campaign spending by Dems on messaging. That's great! It only works if and when Republicans actually and really come across as looney.
But do not make the mistake of thinking that Republicans aren't going to simply repackage their extreme policy priorities in a way that makes it much more palatable: no senior personnel changes are forthcoming at Focus on the Family, or at Cato or Heritage Foundation or any other font of right-wing wrongness - they're going to stop saying that there are 'no exceptions' and start saying 'life of the child', in other words, they're going to stop calling chicken 'chicken'. It will take them a few months, maybe a couple of years, but it will happen - they won't really be calling it chicken anymore, but Freedom Fowl or Tax Free Range Birds. Once they come back with their new and shiny take on their old and busted ideas, if we haven't already been actively selling progressive and liberal ideas - firing up our base and making good, convincing arguments for our side - we'll be stuck making 'look at those loonies!' arguments against a bunch of people who really don't look like loonies. It's clear that we need to sell liberal and progressive ideas better, and who do we sell those ideas to? Our base, of course.
Let's also be clear as to why it's necessary to fire up our base. We get great use out of that great network effect that draws people in who don't like labels, 'independents' and people who are not identifying as Democrats or liberals or progressives, but can and do vote that way. If you want those independents, you must fire up the base. Why? Here's another reason. It's the base that really puts the arguments into the mainstream, not the activists, not the bloggers or the elected officials and not party loyalists.
The job of the politically activated is to package the ideas of the party into forms that are easy to remember, easy to repeat and work from the conclusion and not the premise. If you feel this is an incorrect assessment, I have two words for you: Death Panels. You're going to have to do a lot of work explaining 2010. However, since nobody's done that work in any sort of convincing manner, let's continue on with the real work of how to convince the base to turn out every election, not just every four years. (See the frame there? The 'real' work is convincing the base, that other, less real work is stuff that does not work towards that end. There's no lie there but people who think differently are forced to either ignore it and let it stand or argue it and give me the repetition necessary to convince people that my frame is the better one - either way, I win. You can argue all day long about how I'm wrong, I'll just disagree with you politely and take the 'reasonable' stance, then I win again. Attacking points directly tends to lose in the marketplace of ideas - why do you think you never see ads detailing how horrible it is to own, say, a Honda? Because an ad like that is an ad FOR Honda.)
That's why. On to how. First, we need (care to guess?) rhetoric, conviction and repetition to accomplish our goals. Of course we need to think carefully about our policy stances and we need to develop deeply nuanced policies in line with clear liberal premises using a powerful understanding of the issues. But then! But then we burst into action and sell those policies with an eye towards the emotional content of our sales pitch. It may be simplified, but that's the nature of a sales pitch - you have less than 15 seconds to make your case. You're not going to get a do-over and you're not going to have time to explain complex dynamics. It's got to be simple but right and punchy but positive. People who are interested will delve deeper, but you're never going to sell good policy to people who only have time for an executive summary if you insist on giving them the dissertation itself. That bears repeating: You're never, ever, ever going to sell good policy to people who only have time for an executive summary if you insist on giving them the dissertation. You, dear reader, have time for the dissertation, that's why you read blog posts like this.
Additionally, we've got to claim the frames available and make space for new frames. What do I mean by that? Well, I may be just some latte-drinking, arugula-eating Yankee liberal who likes ObamaCare, but I know an awful lot of people who are proud to call themselves gay, redneck and jarhead who know a thing or two about claiming a frame. There's only one response that works when it comes to using labels to frame an argument: claim it, hard. Every other response lets your opponent either use it unopposed, and we can ask John "Swiftboat" Kerry about how that worked out, or reinforces it through repetition of the opposition's own ideas. They get to give a lie some semblance of reality. If a label is used to pigeonhole you, then the only valid rhetorical response is to make the label unappealing as a weapon by defining your own version. And how do you get that redefinition to work? With rhetoric, conviction and repetition (sound familiar?).
"So, you think that there should be no exceptions for abortions? Interesting. But families will lose loved ones if that policy is implemented. Why do you want to be a Mommy Murderer?"
"Of course I eat arugula! Why are you against healthy eating? Moderate voters and independents are in favor of healthy eating you extremist!"
"Of course I'm liberal, free markets work for everyone! Why are you against free markets? Oh, you're not one of those people who think open, unregulated markets are a good idea, are you? Oh bless your heart."
Then do it again, and again and again, ad nauseum. By the time you're sick of it, the base will have just started picking it up and putting it into the mainstream. Don't make the mistake of thinking that doing this once is enough: a thousand times is too few. Welcome to reality. That's how the human brain works and we don't get to change it.
Lastly, I think some people get hung up on how the Right uses rhetoric: they lie. Constantly. About everything. Shamefully. Conservatives have no problem 'unskewing' things they don't like: polls, evolution, AGW, the Constitution, race relations, economics and on and on and on - reality looks like a plateful of chicken? Pretend it's cheese! That's the Republican answer to 'stuff we don't like'. We liberals don't do that. When we make our sales pitch, it is, it must be, correct. Some people think we liberals will go down that road ourselves if we use rhetoric in our word choices, conviction in our voices and then have the temerity to repeat, repeat, repeat our ideas.
But that's not how the left uses rhetoric - we don't need to lie. Really, we don't. One of the tastiest slices of rhetorical heaven ever created perfectly embodies this idea: Reality has a well-known Liberal bias. Here's another rhetorical gem: Colbert said it. I believe it. That settles it. Conviction sells just like sex.
Our rhetoric is only as good or as evil as we ourselves are. We can take the measure of the man by examining his use of argument: does he lie to get his way like the people on the Right do? That tells you everything you need to know about a person's motivations - they don't care that you think, they only care about what you think. You're only as good to them, to Republicans, as you're able to support their ideas. That's how the Right uses rhetoric, and it's wrong. But we don't do that, we do real good, using the truth and make real change in people's lives.
Really. We should eat more real chicken. Just not at Chick-fil-A.