The sad fact is that facts don’t win many arguments here in America. Superior debating skills don’t win American political debates. We are predisposed to take in facts that agree with our worldview and dismiss, or be impervious to, ones that contradict it. Humans are emotional beings who will charge into enemy fire if they are whipped up the right way. Americans may be more emotional than many humans, to judge from our elections. Then again, a glance at the rest of the world and all bets are off on that theory. Author George Lakoff makes a series of excellent points on the central role of emotions in American politics and the shrewd and effective strategy of the right wing, you can read them here.
Even as I watched Gore whup Dubya in presidential debates, I realized, thanks initially to a friend’s insight, that I was watching something millions of Americans were not focusing on. People found Dubya folksy and likable, they wanted to have a beer with the affable alcoholic. Gore was wooden, and overly intellectual. After Dubya lost the debate, he strutted on the stage, looking like he’d just kicked ass; Gore looked exhausted, hunched over gathering up his papers. “Look at them now and tell me who won,” my friend said to his family.
Recently Hillary made one excellent, nuanced, irrefutable point after another (at least irrefutable by Trump) as Trump smirked, stalked and called her a nasty woman. Polls after the debates between the most hated and second most hated presidential candidates in history showed few minds were changed, no matter who may have made the more intelligent showing in the “debate”. Americans were watching a talent show for a winner to believe in and a loser to vote off the island. Americans were tuned into attitude, confidence, body language– ineffable things that resonate emotionally.
When Hillary restrained herself as Trump vented, which I found admirable and poignant to watch– a woman is simply not allowed to betray her annoyance, let alone publicly tell a sexist blow-hard to just shut the fuck up — she was still seen as a nasty woman by those who hated her. You had to admire Trump, he cut through to the truth, those who hated Hillary said– she is one nasty woman.
Bush and Cheney had a terrible first term. Among many bad things, they ignored specific advance intelligence about the attacks of 9/11, the US suffered a devastating mass murder, they invaded Iraq based on a campaign of lies, they let bin Laden and the core of Al Qu’eada escape at Tora Bora, they resisted formation of a Committee to investigate 9/11 for a long time and then acted like a couple of guilty perps by refusing to take an oath to tell the truth (no oath, no perjury– fatal mistake swearing an oath, Bill “Perjurer” Clinton), insisting on giving their testimony together in a room where no notes or recordings could be made of what they said.
The 2004 election should not have been close after that first term, with the disastrous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan raging with no end in sight, but the principled Democratic candidate came off like a walking cadaver, cautiously hewing to the terrible truth and refusing to dignify the lies of an easily refuted smear campaign against his decorated military service. President Bush, who had used his father’s position to evade military service in Vietnam, and left the National Guard before his tour ended, somehow managed to campaign like a heroic war time commander-in-chief.
Americans don’t want the terrible truth, we want to feel good about ourselves!
When the tide of the 2004 presidential election was swung by millions of “values voters”, Christians who believed God told them to hate homosexuals (the Bible says kill them, after all), people who turned out to vote so that God’s law would not be violated by the homosexuals who controlled the Left, I got a long whiff of which way this country was headed. The Hope and Change Obama’s campaign promised, so desperately needed, proved to be mostly hope. The change we got was the normalization of radical anti-democratic changes made by Cheney and Bush, justified by their endless, borderless military campaign against Terror. More and more Americans came to realize we are basically screwed, powerless and screwed, represented by money-compromised media stars concerned mostly with being reelected. Then we got the canny reality TV star, the genius of confident, boastful self-promotion the American way, the smiling populist billionaire servant of his fellow billionaires.
As Lakoff points out, as I’ve been frustrated to witness for decades now, the right frames every debate. I have never understood why every time a Republican says “Death Tax” a Democrat does not say “Paris Hilton Tax” and add that it only effects a handful of spoiled, super-rich kids. “Climate Change Skeptic” is a label that has been useful in making cynical people, or absolute morons in complete denial, look intelligent and creating a controversy where there is none. After all, skepticism is part of critical thinking while those alarmed about the rising sea levels and catastrophic weather patterns are “alarmists.”
“Right to Life” should be countered with “Right to Decency” or something, indicating that a girl should never be forced to give birth to her rapist’s baby. Those fetuses have a right to life that ends at birth, as Ronald Reagan famously said. They are not guaranteed anything but the life of an unwanted child. Abortion is not a casual choice for any woman, it is often an agonizing one, I would think– but no discussion of pros or cons is possible when God says every abortion is murder, while actual murder between humans walking on the earth must be carefully considered according to who kills whom.
Lakoff notes that the regulations Republicans hate as “job killing” should be reframed as “protections” by Democrats who want to protect the air, the water, worker safety, the social safety net. Every time the Republican rails against big government regulations, the Democrat should extoll these vital protections against greedy predators. Sadly, Lakoff’s recommendations have never been much heeded by politicians on the left.
When former Vice Presidential candidate turned Fox News “pundent” Sarah Palin screamed about “Death Panels” during the debate over Obamacare, why did Obama not go on TV and call bullshit, give a 30 second explanation of hospice care? Make mention of the 45,000 Americans who die every year for lack of health insurance. Those on the left side of the political spectrum are left with the demonstrable facts while the right has learned to stir the raw emotions with memorable, galvanizing buzzwords. The left has the facts, bully for them for being actually right so much of the time. How’s that facty, righty thing working out for you, Democrats? I fell into the same trap the other day when writing about Trump’s lawyer, Marc Kasowitz.
While factually true, it was a partisan framing job, pure and simple. My account focused on selected embarrassing episodes in a skilled lawyer’s long career. Kasowitz is a millionaire many times over, paid more in a day than most Americans make in a month. He wins cases, he loses cases, some are draws, some he cuts great deals for. Like any lawyer, he has to play the cards he’s dealt. Could he make the sexual harassment allegations against Bill O’Reilly go away or negotiate Fox out of firing him? No, not under the circumstances he walked into. But he got O’Reilly paid, lottery-winner bucks, and you can be sure he had O’Reilly write him a fat check.
How do I know that the $25,000,000 settlement he negotiated to end the fraud case against Trump and Trump University was not an excellent deal for Trump? The facts speak for themselves: a presidential candidate settled a huge fraud case against him right before the election and still managed to become the president. Who is the smart one now? Likely not a dime of the 25 million came from Trump’s own deep pockets, that is also likely Kasowitz’s doing.
Regardless of the ultimate outcome of the case, wiseass Bill Maher got a public comeuppance, as far as Trump’s people saw the lawsuit. So what if Trump ultimately withdrew the arguably frivolous lawsuit? That wasn’t in the news. Trump’s threats to sue people he doesn’t like, or who have claims against him, have probably worked as often as they haven’t. The New York Times may not have given Trump the apology Kasowitz demanded, but they pretty much have kept quiet. But there I go again… the facts.
So we have the facts, a deck of cards that can seemingly be infinitely shuffled. Facts themselves are now in dispute here in Breitbart’s America, but let’s stick to what we can agree are facts. Depending on which card is on top, how they are played– there goes the conversation. It’s maddening to see politicians avoid directly answering questions, pivoting straight to their focus group tested talking points. It doesn’t matter if it’s maddening or not, they would be stupid not to learn the skill. No matter how clumsily they do it, it is better than wading into candor that will come back to bite their head off in a negative campaign ad. We call them “attack ads” and they are ubiquitous and often very effective in deciding elections.
Why are we in the situation we are in the USA? My simple one word answer? Advertising– the entire culture, not only the economy, is based on the irrefutable, reductive genius of it and how it serves the bottom line. The most skillfully advertised product wins– that is the fact. That includes, clearly, the long, expensive ad campaigns that decide how we select the leaders we wind up hating or believing in, no matter what the sullen facts may have to say about the matter.