I’m quite happy that I came across this post from Bob Somerby, which pivots off a David Atkins post at Digby’s place. Both posts are worth reading in full. Somerby critiques Atkins for his acerbic response to another post that is critical of student loan debtors and Occupy Wall Street protestors in general. I think Somerby’s post is a good one, and I especially like his notes about empathy, which is a subject we spent nearly half a lecture on in one PR class; I like his definition of the word. I hope to return to that concept soon in an upcoming post.
The reason I really like this post, though, is that I think it comes as close as any one that I’ve ever read to providing an example of a public relations argument in politics that truly interests me. Somerby closes by saying:
Atkins can’t imagine how “those people” think. And he’ll never come to terms with those who can’t feel basic empathy!
Atkins was begging and pleading here: Don’t talk to “those people!” But then, Digby has been advancing the same message at Hullabaloo this week. It’s a famous, familiar old message—a message which reaches into prehistory.
We aren’t the 99 percent, it says. Tribesmen, please! Don’t even think things like that!
If you peruse the entire post, you’ll get a better reading of his argument, but the gist of it is the claim that trashing other people (and their motives) is no path to electoral success. Other “liberal” pundits, ones who no doubt agree with Somerby on everything from the importance of reducing income inequality to the necessity of lessening America’s footprint abroad, will strongly disagree with this assertion. In several posts, Digby has noted a racial element to the Tea Party protests, as have several other liberal commentators, and used this observation to discredit the entire movement as a whole. This tends to irritate Somerby, who believes that casting aspersions (racism, in this case) over a group that counts millions of people makes little sense; racism is a serious charge, one that’s immensely difficult to prove. So why would you accuse an entire group of this terrible quality based on the signs and actions of a few people?
This argument fascinates me because it is fundamentally about public relations. Both Digby, Somerby and other “liberal” commentators want electoral success for Democrats and, ideally, better Democrats whose policies are better for Americans. But how do we get there? That’s the question. Do we take a “hard” approach, seizing on a few racist signs to tar the entire Tea Party as racist? Will that convince voters to pull the lever for Democrats?
Or do we take a more empathetic, understanding approach, one in which we acknowledge that although there are a few racist sentiments in the Tea Party crowd, there is no empirical evidence that suggests the majority of TP people are snarling racists? And do we go a step further and realize that TP members, just like us, are people? They, like us, mean well for the country. To us, their ideology and policies may be deeply misinformed and severely damaging, but this does not call into question their motives.
The biggest problem in resolving this argument is that Republicans, particularly the most right-wing and conservative ones, have enjoyed such outstanding success with rhetoric that is, in empirical terms, absolute horseshit. Liberals are a fifth column for violent Islamists! Liberals are trying to weaken America! Liberals want to turn the country into a socialist dystopia! Liberals expand government for the sake of gaining power! The noise machine has been churning this junk out for over a decade now and have hard-line Republicans suffered from it? Hardly. They’ve taken over the entire party. In fact, last election, far-right Republicans did pretty well for themselves.
The question, at the heart of this, is whether heated, reductionist rhetoric is more effective than nuance and truth. I imagine Digby and Atkins don’t believe that all of the Tea Party members are snarling racists, but there’s an election coming up, a very important one, and we need to win. So, if sacrificing a bit of nuance in favor of changing hearts and minds is requisite, shouldn’t we do it?
For my part, I have no clue. Philosophically, I’m solidly in Somerby’s camp. Practically, I don’t know where I stand. The right-wing’s success electorally and rhetorically (in terms of mainstream media effects and general impact on the national discourse) cannot be denied. But is it directly attributable to the sort of crap that Rush and Sean spew every day? Or are other factors, namely the fact that powerful, moneyed interests agree with what those hard-core “conservatives” want, which makes the emplacement of hard-core “conservative” policies more likely, more important than the rhetoric? And is the possibility, not guarantee, of electoral success reason to jettison our better intentions and smear the Republicans as their mouthpieces smear us? Will that end well?
* * * *
I remember being in New Zealand, when I was traveling with my family, and trying to articulate to my sister how there are some unempirical, unverifiable arguments that I find fascinating. I tried to provide an example and explained it very poorly. But this argument, which I roughly described to my sister at the time as a question of “does truth necessarily win,” is exactly what I was talking about. And although this is quite an esoteric example and politics is a discipline that operates in a unique way, the above question is crucial to public relations. There are so many examples in our national discourse alone the show how the truth gets flayed. Social Security, our health care system and the 2003 invasion of Iraq are just a few examples. This conversation, and this post, raises far more questions than it answers. But I know I don’t have the answers. And I don’t know that anyone else does, either.