The recent tragedy in Arizona has catapulted a flurry of emails and electronic campaigns calling for calmer, more reasoned political discourse. It is true that the increase in right wing threats, vandalism and attacks against Democrats and progressives are clearly tied to the high stakes, “to the battle stations” hyperbole of conservative commentators. Yet, it’s hard to get folk beyond our core to accept this fact. They have accepted the hype of corporations, conservatives and others who, for more than a century, have denied that propaganda and marketing affect behavior – while spending billions on them to do just that. They get away with this denial because, for many people, making a causal connection between violent rhetoric and violent action conflicts with people’s basic beliefs about individual responsibility and free will.
Even if most people believed the causal connection between the speech and the actions, is a call for reason enough? Fox commentators basically declared war on the Obama Administration and spent millions on airtime and promotional events to whip their core into a frenzy. Of course, it doesn’t hurt to try and leverage this moment to push the right toward less inflammatory, hateful discourse. However, while we talk discourse, they talk war.
By invoking the war frame, the right triggers our beliefs about war including the well worn idiom, “All’s fair in love and war.” In war you say what you want to, incur casualties (however unintended) but you supposedly have no choice. These are dire circumstances according to their narrative. The country is “lost.” That scary (Black) man in the White House is killing jobs, killing elders, stifling the Constitution and basically killing America. And dire circumstances require dire action: basically, a bare knuckles, all out fight.
Of course, this frame is designed to obscure what’s really at stake for the right – turning back the clock on corporate regulation and making good on all those healthcare industry contributions to repeal healthcare. So the hype begins. The first salvo was the House’s first ever, conveniently abridged Constitutional read aloud. It was staged as a nod to the Tea Party’s assertion that conservatives are bringing the Constitution back to lawmaking. Forget that the Constitution has always been the guide for lawmaking — for better or worse. It was one of many stunts to come that the right hopes will help co-brand their pro corporate/anti health/pro gun/white supremacist agenda with the flag and other “core” American symbols. And there are millions who are going for it. Not just people without much formal education (as we like to think) but folk with big degrees and big paychecks, too.
In short, pushing for conservatives to engage more politely may be an opening but it’s not enough.
There will be no way to fight them without, well, fighting. So be it. Let’s do this. Bare knuckles in the alley and all – metaphorically speaking, of course.
That said, there will be openings to push for increased penalties for hate crimes and hate related vandalism; gun safety policy; getting politician pledges for civil, facts-based discourse; examining the attack on intellectuals (aka the right wing conspiracy to undermine debate and marginalize people who know what they are talking about) in public discourse; identify ways of harnessing schools to better prepare future generations to be informed and civil participants in a diverse democracy – plus lots more ideas waiting to be discovered.
I also think we progressives must do more to take back the moral high ground. We will need to stay compassionate and consistently grounded in and aware of the widespread despair our folk are experiencing. It’s tough to live through a moment like the 2008 Election and inauguration, witness what is happening today — and still stay engaged in politics. Many of our folk are still trying to make sense of it all. Too many are opting out all together.
We have to somehow inspire a sense of hope – not in politicians – but in a future that we can forge together as part of an authentic, grassroots movement. And tell stories that help us remember the fact that our communities have overcome much worse, with much less.
As important as storytelling is to the fight, it is still only a mean to an end – real power on the ground. Therefore, we must hold ourselves accountable to movement not messaging outcomes. As progressive communicators, we should not ask ourselves, “Was our frame better? Was our story better?” We have to ask, “Did we expand the base of people engaged? Did we move our agenda forward?”