Monday, February 15, 2010

Diluting Political Discourse

If you muddy the discursive waters enough, you can convince people of some pretty wild propositions.

For example, if you can convince people that Bill Clinton was a "progressive" or a "man of the Left", then this speaks to the sense in which "progressive" and "Left" have been evacuated of any substantive political meaning at all.

Richard Seymour has a nice post on this matter, pertaining to the present electoral situation in Britain. There, the Conservatives, under the leadership of David Cameron, are on the up and up and threaten to squash New Labour in the next election. But, as Seymour points out, the strange part about this is that many left-liberal voices are claiming that Cameron "isn't that bad", and even that he's a "progressive". For instance:
The question is how did such claims even become vaguely intelligible? How did 'progress' as a discourse become a byword for reaction? The obvious answer is that New Labour made this possible. On every theme I've mentioned above, every objectionable facet of Tory policy, there is a New Labour counterpart - not exact, and not necessarily as extreme, but very real nonetheless. You want a party that baits immigrants, cuts taxes for the rich, allies itself with European reactionaries, trucks with neoconservatives, and calls all this progressive? It's been the ruling government for thirteen years. You want a party that prefers free markets and 'meritocracy' to 'the old structures', 'the old class systems', etc? You want a party whose matey populism abets an elitist agenda that adulates the rich and the unelected, pampered, scum royals? You want a party whose approach to crime is to sensationalise, and blame the poor, and ethnic minorities? You want a party of moralising and social authoritarianism, hedged with a modest concession to gay rights? And calls all that progressive too? Yeah, well, I think you've got the point by now. Tony Blair and New Labour systematically marketed every crackpot Tory idea they could lay their hands on as "progressive". And now David Cameron is a "progressive".
And the same is true of the US case. One hears often about "moderate" Republicans (or Democrats, for that matter) as though this were something that should meet with immediate praise. But what is the political content of "moderate" right now? If it means: for further privatizing health care, cutting taxes, constricting spending and escalating foreign wars... then this speaks to how out-of-wack our political vocabulary is. We lack even the common language to articulate our own oppressive situation. For example, if Obama really were "the Left", a "socialist", full stop.... then what could one possibly say that was critical about the status quo? If that were true, then we really would have to conclude that maybe the Right "alternative" (hah) was the way to go... but of course Obama is neither Left nor progressive, and we need not choose between the narrow pro-Business agenda of either the Democrats or the Republicans. But it isn't clear that our political vocabulary leaves us much room to make this critical point.

1 comment:

fwoan said...

The right realized much sooner than the left of the importance of framing ideas for public consumption. By calling someone only slightly to the left of your conceptual paradigm "the left" you cut off what could become an alternative to your ideas at that point.

The right's wordsmith Frank Luntz is very talented with coming up with ways of presenting ideas contrary to the public's interest and making them more palatable. The same is true for ideas contrary to the right's opinion - by calling the "public option" the "government option" public opinion changes drastically.

I had to sit in a meeting with Mr. Luntz once during a discussion on framing the ad campaign for a company I was working with at the time and saw first hand his ability to manipulate ideas.