Everything old is new again

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Back in March 2009, when Obama was riding high from his historic win, and Rudd was still basking in the post-Apology glow, I wrote:

…the US Republicans are cannibalising themselves, that they are struggling to find a leader, and that they have no clear strategy for combating Obama and the Democrat machine.

Only two years later, the picture is very different. Paul Krugman in the NYTs writes:

Last week, President Obama offered a spirited defense of his party’s values — in effect, of the legacy of the New Deal and the Great Society. Immediately thereafter, as always happens when Democrats take a stand, the civility police came out in force. The president, we were told, was being too partisan; he needs to treat his opponents with respect; he should have lunch with them, and work out a consensus.

Everywhere we look, progressive politics are on the defensive. Labor is struggling here, the Democrats are still reeling after the mid-term elections in the US, and UK Labour won’t be able to reverse its massive loss for another four years.

Krugman’s thesis is that Democrats need to stand up to the conservative onslaught. He calls out the media narrative of “bipartisanship” and “civility” as being little more than a sop for conservative Democrats and Republicans cutting taxes for the wealthy and running down public services.

Don't Think of an Elephant (Photo courtesy: epSos.de)

Over at The Political Sword, the pseudonymous HillbillySkeleton invokes (without credit) George Lakoff’s “Don’t Think of an Elephant” in seeking to explain the “nervousness” of the ALP and the “effectiveness” of the Liberals. Lakoff’s explanation of the conservative “frame” of “tax relief” is applied to Abbott’s “great big new tax” sloganeering.

I am sure that Lakoff’s “Don’t Think of an Elephant” did the rounds back in 2004 in Australia – I remember it back at university – and I am also sure that the likes of Gillard and Swan – and other Ministers – would both have read it (it is very short). Yet incredibly, our PM and DPM and many in Cabinet continue to use “tax relief” or removing the “regulatory burden” in press conferences and interviews.

This week, the conservative criticism of the Federal Budget is that it is “made in China“. This stirs the pot in several ways. It implies that any good news in the budget is not due to Labor’s fiscal management. It implies that Labor has made Australia beholden to the Chinese. It implies that Labor’s budget is shoddy, cheap or not well made. Lakoff would say that the conservatives have “framed” the Budget debate. (Conservative spin-doctors like Frank Luntz would call it “context”.)

The “made in China” label should never be used by Labor – even in dismissing it. Yet we had Wayne Swan on the radio this week saying something to the effect that “this budget is not made in China” and “the budget surplus of 2013 will not be made in China”.

While Lakoff is off the mark in much of his political analysis, his cognitive analysis of politics in my view is spot on. Using conservative phrases and slogans simply serves to reinforce the conservative message. Lakoff explains how this happens at a cognitive level. If you haven’t read “Don’t Think of an Elephant” yet, get it here (and also read “The Political Mind“).

Back in 2009, Republican “wise-man” Fred Malek said that the Republican’s best bet was to wander around waiting for the economy to tarnish Obama. That’s just what has happened. I’ve written before about my view that the Republican surge in the mid-terms was more of a vote against incumbents than a vote of confidence in the GOP. Similarly, the thrashing that UK Labour received at the General Election was as much due to the Global Financial Crisis as the charisma-less Gordon Brown (whose lustre came off as the economy tanked).

Rudd’s political fortunes also tracked downward as unemployment (and underemployment) tracked upward – with the CPRS backdown being the double-underline in voter’s minds that they didn’t know what Rudd stood for anymore.

Krugman’s call for a “frank discussion of our differences” is really a call for Democrats (and by extension, Labor in Australia) to articulate what they stand for. Given the great Progressive Australia conference last weekend, which talked a lot about progressive values, I really agree with Krugman on this one.

2 responses to “Everything old is new again”

  1. Hillbilly Skeleton Avatar

    Actually, I didn’t credit George Lakoff because I wasn’t composing a blog about George Lakoff but using his Framing theorem and applying it to the Labor and Liberal communications strategies. I thought about it but decided against it. Next time I’ll be more orthodox and include ’em all, OK? 🙂

    1. admin Avatar

      Hi Victoria,

      Thanks for commenting on my blog. “Crediting” Lakoff could have been as simple as acknowledging that the ideas you were writing about originated with him – the tax relief paragraph is basically identical to what’s in The Political Brain and Don’t Think of an Elephant. After all, you credited Krugman and Andrew Elder.


      PS. I’m not the blog police, so you don’t need to be more “orthodox” on my account.

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