In this weekend’s New York Times Book Review, Stanley Fish reviews the latest entrant in the “how Democrats got so screwed, with gestures in the direction of how they might get unscrewed” genre, linguist Geoff Nunberg’s How Conservatives Turned Liberalism into a Tax-Raising, Latte-Drinking, Sushi-Eating, Volvo-Driving, New York Times-Reading, Body-Piercing, Hollywood-Loving, Left-Wing Freak Show. Fish sums up the book’s thesis in a sentence as Faulknerian as its subject’s subtitle:
A succession of lively chapters explains how the Republicans turned “government into a term of abuse”; torpedoed affirmative action by introducing and promoting reverse discrimination; made “liberal” into a word of accusation; redefined the middle class so it encompassed everyone from the proprietor of a corner grocery to the president of the United States (all standing in alliance against the effete mob of latte-drinking, Volvo-driving Eastern seaboard snobs); invented a cultural divide that masks the economic divide between the haves and have-nots; narrowed Franklin Roosevelt’s four freedoms into the freedom of corporations to do what they like; drove a wedge between “patriotic” and “liberal,” so that one cannot be said to be both; and, in general, “radically reconfigured the political landscape” in ways that even liberals themselves accede to because the right’s language is now the default language for everyone.
Like George Lakoff, it sounds like Nunberg offers a self-flattering narrative that makes defeat a sign of virtue: It turns out Dems just aren’t as good as those devious Republicans at rhetorical trickery. Fish’s well honed sense of irony must have been on sabbatical when he included among these linguistic tactics the use of the phrase “reverse discrimination” to attack “affirmative action,” a meaningless euphemism for what might more accurately (if less palatably) be described as “racial preferences.”
The problem is that this approach seems to assume that the success of an attempt at framing is some kind of purely formal, syntactic exercise, unconnected to the contents of the frames. So if “liberal” has become a term of abuse, it can only be some kind of linguistic alchemy that GOP spin wizards have cooked up. If they’ve succeeded while similar attempts to make “conservative” or “right wing” (or even “extreme right wing”) anathema have failed, it’s because the Dems lack the proper alchemical formula. A-la Thomas Frank, if blue collar voters seem to find cultural issues more salient than economic ones, this must be some kind of hypnotically induced false consciousness, since only the latter can represent workers’ “true” interests.
In a way, this makes sense. Both parties, but Democrats in particular, subscribe (or at least must seem to subscribe) to the civic myth that the people are always right. Like Saint-Just mute at the guillotine, they would have to fall silent in the face of their own condemnation by the General Will. So if Democrats lose, it must be because people are duped. The counterproductive result is a focus on the package rather than the product.