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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Liberals, conservatives and the great American message war

Published: February 12, 2010
Section: Opinions

ILLUSTRATION BY Ali Corman-Vogan/The Hoot

Liberals are in a collective state of dread and anxiety over the 2010 midterm elections. Each day, they hear reports of Democratic congressmen from swing districts retiring or polls suggesting a senator from their party will lose his or her next election. There are a myriad of reasons to account for why this is happening: the faltering economy, high unemployment figures and the Democrats’ incompetence in leading and passing major legislation are among them. But perhaps the most important reason is conservatives are consistently better at marketing their ideas and messages.

The right and left generally promote their beliefs in two very different ways. The former utilizes media outlets like Fox News to espouse arguments that appeal directly to the visceral, the emotional and one’s basic intuition. Conversely, the Democrats, who also rely on the media (see MSNBC and The Huffington Post) try to sell their proposals and overall brand using reason. Their case is centered mainly on logic over feeling and attempts to influence one’s mind rather than one’s gut. Of course, there are numerous exceptions; indeed, both sides utilize whatever rhetorical tools are at their disposal to win over the public, but the general trend still holds.

We have repeatedly witnessed a messaging war between these two styles play out ever since President Barack Obama took office. For example, health care reform. The Democrats portray their efforts as “bend[ing] the cost curve,” “extend[ing] coverage to millions of Americans,” “not add[ing] one dime to the deficit” and “establish[ing] comprehensive insurance reform.” What they are saying is mostly true and is based primarily on established fact and research. However, how do Republicans frame this same exact issue? “Socialism,” “a government takeover of health care,” “denying benefits to granny,” “death panels,” “a tax increase” and “generational theft.” These messages are far from accurate but seem much more persuasive, and can provoke very emotive and passionate responses.

So who wins ultimately? In this case, the left is able to attract individuals who can understand the complexities and nuances of health care policy. However, a large portion of the American electorate does not fit into this category.

Instead, this segment of the populace may be suspicious of major changes to the status quo, even desperately needed ones, and will base their political views and decisions on instinct. Furthermore, they might lack the requisite education to understand the Democrats’ points.

This is where the right’s message seeps in. They tap into that primal fear of the unknown, warp it and twist it to gain support for their candidates. This is made particularly easy by the fact that many of the left’s policy proposals, like health care, can be exceedingly complicated in that they involve coordination between numerous moving parts.

This pattern extends to how the parties attempt to label their opposition. Democrats deem Republicans as “obstructionists” who are essentially heirs to former President George W. Bush. Again, they are correct on both counts and base their charges on the truth. The left has constantly courted the GOP and presented very centrist initiatives to appeal to them only to be completely rebuffed. The GOP was complicit as Bush harmed the country in an assortment of ways over the course of eight long years. Yet once more, these accusations are effectively countered by the Republicans, who frame Democrats as radical ideologues who seek to impose their cruel, communist will on the poor, unsuspecting American people. These points are not true, but are immensely provocative and emotional. In addition, they come across as far more convincing to naïve voters because they imply that a vote for a Democrat is essentially a vote for tyranny and the end of freedom.

Democrats can try to replicate the Republicans’ successful passion-filled approach, and they certainly have done so on certain issues. But is that a moral strategy? No. It is disingenuous to the American people to sink to this low level. This type of messaging fills the electorate with vitriol and vituperation towards those on the other side of the political spectrum. Taken to an extreme, this can generate great hostility and even hate crimes and partisan acts of violence.

Hopefully one day this type of negative, destructive campaigning will end. But alas, politics has never been a very nice sport, and it’s not very likely that anyone will change their ways.