Saturday, April 15, 2006

Stealth Democracy

It's been interesting the last couple of years to watch the blogs and Democratic types finally latch onto the concept of framing, especially in the work of George Lakoff. Lakoff's been around for years, outlining how people think and develop concepts in books like Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things and Metaphors We Live By, long enough that Dukakis should never have misjudged the Willie Horton commercials and the Flag Salute "debate," and certainly long enough that anyone without cork for a brain would never have let the Swift Boaters float by unfired upon.

People don't think in the "rational," "sophisticated" ways that too many Democrats have built campaigns upon, to the great misfortune of our nation and legacy. ("People won't fall for that 'he shot himself to get a medal' crap.") They think in metaphors and stories, and the parties and campaigns that use those the best win. Simple as that. Republicans since Ronald Reagan have gotten that. Too few Democrats do yet. ("Let's tell people about how we've focus grouped policies that match public opinion polls.") Lakoff was cluing them in about the wisdom of that years ago. Think where we'd be if we were a decade ahead in framing. With that in mind, I've been thinking about what obscure book is out there that, 10-15 years from now, Democrats will conclude they should have paid attention to.

My candidate is Stealth Democracy: American's Beliefs about How Government Should Work, an accessible academic study, like Lakoff's work, done by a couple of political scientists, John R. Hibbing and Elizabeth Theiss-Morse. The subtitle is a little misleading, leaving the impression that Americans have well considered ideas about our democracy and government, a plan or agenda that would get things right again. That's not what they mean. In their surveys of Americans, they found instead (my interpretation, not theirs) a self-absorbed, borderline stupid group that has abdicated its responsibilities as citizens, at least as envisioned by our forefathers. Involvement? Forget it. They'll turn it over to the elected folks and bureaucrats, who will then just magically set things up for the benefit of the whole and be happily willing to let these morons get back in the game if/when they should somehow choose to in the future.

When you read Stealth Democracy, you get a clear view of how we got where we are, a government disconnected from both reality and public opinion and a public that spouts cliches and whines about government and cuts itself off even more. You also get a clear idea of why the Democrats, with their see-sawing between policy proposals and bipartisan "better government," have been both in the majority in the opinion polls and a minority in the voting. Disconnected, misinformed people have no ground of philosophical or historical commitment to the American Legacy that would allow them to judge argument or "fact" as belched out by today's Spin Above All, "we make our own reality," "we have everything to fear, including fear itself" Republicans.

Above all, the book should make those thinking that, in light of the clear problems facing us (from reality's viewpoint), enough Americans will wake up and recover their roles as citizens and hold anyone responsible who actually is. The authors make clear that most Americans really don't like democracy or its demands. Someone else should do it. That doesn't make most of them fascists or commies or other authoritarians; it just makes them losers, who pull the rest of us down with them. And campaigns and parties who don't understand that and build their plans accordingly, as Iran, foreigners, and terrorism begin to blind everything else as the issues of the fall elections, will be staring wide-eyed into the darkness on election night, just like Dukakis and Kerry.

Of course, none of this is really news, except for those who want to wish away reality. Michael Kinsley made the same point a decade ago in his Big Babies. Guess who he was talking about. Actually, Ben Franklin pretty much did at the end of the Constitutional Convention when, asked what the Convention had given Americans, replied, "A Republic--if you can keep it." Stealth Democracy shows that we haven't. And most of us don't really care.