clap clap blog: we have moved

Wednesday, June 11, 2003
"Read my lips, no new services. Thank you, President Bush."

Tom Friedman makes some good points, although I think he's willfully overlooking the fact that a lot of Americans right now see the services getting cut as other people's services, so why should they care? The bit at the end is all good, though:

To name something is to own it. And the Democrats, for too long, have allowed the Bush team to name its radical reduction in services, and the huge dependence it is creating on foreign capital, as an innocuous "tax cut." Balderdash.

This is something the left seems to be forgetting. Of course, we're at a bit of a disadvantage, since not only does the President have a lot of agenda-setting power, but the next best option is the legislature, which is also under opposition control. So I can sympathize with Dems trying to get their message out there, but it also seems like they really aren't trying that hard since there's, well, there's not much of a Democratic message, seems like. You can't just be reactive to Bush's agenda; you have to start going out on limbs and talking up subjects that the Republicans aren't, so that at least you can have the first say, and maybe even define the (ugh) paradigm (sorry) under which they're discussed.

That said, while naming something may give you power over it, the problem is that you may be doing it in a language that won't resonate with or be understood by your target audience. So libs have defined a lot of stuff real good (i.e. "to death") but when you shout "Manufacturing consent!" a lot of people are either going to go "Buh?" or roll their eyes. The other option, then, is to redefine the structure behind a term people already like.

To use an analogy, let's say there's a policy of giving everyone free ice cream and this policy is called "The Welcome Wagon." (I'm envisioning it in a wagon. Just run with it, OK?) But then the Blue Meany party decides it doesn't like giving everyone free ice cream because it takes away tax dollars from hard-working etc., decreases productivity, and so forth, and so they want to cut it. But who's going to accept cutting a program like that? No one, that's who.

But there are a number of other techniques wherein you retain the name--use the power of the initial naming--and repurpose it either to drive other policies or to decrease the power of the name. So, for instance, you could require everyone who wants free ice cream to register for a national ID card, or you could put methamphetamines in the ice cream to boost worker productivity back up, and even if people knew about this, they might think, "Well, it's the Welcome Wagon, so it's still good." On the other hand, you could steadily decrease funding for the ice cream trucks so that the flavors were bad, they ran out of stock, and the workers were grumpy and rude, so that people started to think, "The Welcome Wagon, that's not so great. Why are we paying for shitty ice cream and rude workers?"

The parallels to contemporary policy are obvious. (And, honestly, not intentional--I just pursued the analogy to its conclusion.) But let me focus for a second on a whole other kind of redefinition: the redefinition of federal departments. Take the FCC, for example, which has drifted so far from its original mandate of serving the public interest that it's not even funny, but it's still staying true to itself because whatever the FCC does is whatever the FCC is supposed to do. This is one of the big problems with bureaucracies, especially as regards long-seated civil organizations. So while I might be all for killing the FCC and rebuilding it anew (and that's not a bad message to pursue), unless they sponsor an Al-Quada terrorist they're not going to get defunded anytime soon (a Christian terrorist would be OK, though). So instead you have to get into power and redefine its mandate from the inside. This takes a lot longer. So it goes.