Wednesday, 28 May 2008

Sick politics

How many times have you heard the Liberal Democrats patronised or mocked as: a bit loopy; or well-meaning-but-not-quite-serious; or “limp wrested”? Remember the cartoons of Ming Campbell with a zimmer frame? There are epithets for Nick Clegg now too; I don’t need to repeat them here. And you must have noticed how Gordon Brown constantly refers to the Liberal Democrats as “the liberals”. Somehow, I don’t think he’s helpfully trying to analyse our party philosophy.

In subtle and not so subtle ways, our opponents keep trying to ridicule and undermine us. By using language and clever framing, they try to make us seem less valid, less real and less authentic – in short, not legitimate in politics.

This technique is as old as politics itself. In my experience though, the right do it better. I used to belong to the New Zealand Labour Party. Many years ago, it was led by a decent man but he had a high voice and minimal charisma. Popularly known as "Bill" Rowling, he was mocked by his main opponent as “Wallace”. In one general election campaign, a band of tories paid for newspaper adverts with cartoons showing a mouse-like caricature of Rowling caught in a trap.

The past masters at this type of politics must be the US Republicans. In the late 1980s, Newt Gingrich (later Speaker of the House) ran a political action committee that mailed a pamphlet called Language, A Key Mechanism of Control to Republicans all over the country. The booklet offered rhetorical advice to Republican candidates who wanted to “speak like Newt.”

Republicans were told to describe their opponents as “sick”, “shallow”, “pathetic” and “corrupt”. There were some generalities for Republicans to apply to themselves and their policies. These included “change”, “choice”, “commitment”, “hard work”, “moral” and “common sense”. In 1990, the pamphlet was awarded a Doublespeak Award by the National Conference of Teachers of English. But the Republicans finally won control of both Houses of Congress in 1994 and held on until after the 2006 elections.

The same tactics were later used in what David Bromwich of The Huffington Post calls the delegitimation of President Bill Clinton. It started with Whitewater and ended with the then president’s impeachment trial. The whole thing left Bill and Hillary Clinton, understandably, very bitter.

Geoffrey Nunberg has shown how George W. Bush’s presidential victories in 2000 and 2004 were a result of the Republicans’ superior skill at political framing. Nunberg and George Lakoff have shown how Republicans high-jacked the language of politics to push liberals and their values seem outside the political mainstream.

The same tactics are now being used against Senator Barack Obama. The negative frame being used is race. David Bromwich condemns none other than Bill and Hillary Clinton for joining in with the extreme Republican right. He traces what he sees as attempts by the Clintons to delegitimate Obama and then says:

"Hillary Clinton's recent careless-careful mention of the assassination of Robert Kennedy, in answer to a question about why she would stay in the Democratic race when all the numbers are against her, raised the tactics of delegitimation to a pitch as weird as anything the Clintons can have seen in the years 1997-98.

"The most disturbing element of her remark was this: that it chose to treat assassination as just one more political possibility, one of the things that happen in our politics, like hecklers, lobbyists, and forced resignations. The slovenly morale and callousness of such a released fantasy is catching. So when, a few days later, the Fox News contributor Liz Trotta was asked her opinion of Senator Clinton's statement, Trotta said: "some are reading [it] as a suggestion that somebody knock off Osama...Obama. Well...both if we could!" Liz Trotta laughed as she said that. Later, she apologized, as Senator Clinton also has apologized."

Bromwich is horrified by this apparent acceptance of political violence and worries where it all will lead.

His final comments might be just a little alarmist. I’d like to think so. But make no mistake: Senator Obama will struggle against vicious attempts to frame him as too liberal and, yes, too black to be president. As with his rise from underdog to near-certain nominee, Senator Obama’s general election campaign – and the campaign to stop him - will provide a once-in-a-generation case study of how political frames and story-telling really work. Let’s hope there’s a happy ending this time.

As for what the Liberal Democrats should do about the on-going efforts to attack our legitimacy, the obvious answer is to make the charges less credible. More tough choices, fewer wish lists. More focus on results, less talk about process. More narrative, fewer litanies. Otherwise, I’m all for fighting fire with fire. Once again, Vince Cable offered up one of our best attack lines when he called Gordon Brown’s fall from grace “from Stalin to Mr Bean”. More recently, he slated the Tories as “a bit flaky” on key policy areas. We need some more of that.

(With thanks to Jafapete for the Bromwich reference.)

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