A favorite attack line of conservatives and/or disinformers is that progressives are elitists who supposedly “espouse their intellectual superiority.” The goal of this disingenuous attack is so that they can push the Big Oil, Corporate Polluter agenda and appear to care about the middle class, while putting the screws to them, and so they can undercut the credibility of all ‘experts,’ especially scientists, whose work is crucial to preserving clean-air, clean water, and a livable climate.
The attack is particularly laughable coming from elite disinformers who themselves treat the American public with so much disdain by lying non-stop to further an agenda that will enrich the rich and put the screws to pretty much everyone else.
Remember, perhaps the main reason the country has failed to act on climate change is the immoral, but brilliantly successful, disinformation campaign funded by Big Oil and billionaire polluters — the pollutocrats (see “From promoting acid rain to climate denial “” over 20 years of David Koch’s polluter front groups“) — and embraced by the elite conservative media, pundits, and politicians.
Now, those pollutocrats are pulling the strings of the Tea Party, in order to give a populist, grass-roots gloss to their corporatist agenda. Frank Rich makes this point in his Sunday piece, “The Grand Old Plot Against the Tea Party“:
What made the Tea Party most useful was that its loud populist message gave the G.O.P. just the cover it needed both to camouflage its corporate patrons and to rebrand itself as a party miraculously antithetical to the despised G.O.P. that gave us George W. Bush and record deficits only yesterday.
Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News and Wall Street Journal have been arduous in promoting and inflating Tea Party events and celebrities to this propagandistic end. The more the Tea Party looks as if it’s calling the shots in the G.O.P., the easier it is to distract attention from those who are actually calling them “” namely, those who’ve cashed in and cashed out as ordinary Americans lost their jobs, homes and 401(k)’s.
So it is beyond ironic for anyone to call ‘elitist’ those who are trying, however ineffectively, to actually provide accurate information on climate science and give America a fighting chance to regain leadership in the clean energy industries that will be one of the biggest job creating sectors of the economy.
That doesn’t stop NY Times reporter Peter Baker from parroting the standard right wing attack in his piece, “Elitism: The Charge Obama Can’t Shake.” Of course, who does the NYT quote to prove his case:
“Part of the reason that our politics seems so tough right now, and facts and science and argument does not seem to be winning the day all the time, is because we’re hard-wired not to always think clearly when we’re scared,” he told a roomful of doctors who chipped in at least $15,200 each to Democratic coffers. “And the country is scared, and they have good reason to be.”
The notion that voters would reject Democrats only because they don’t understand the facts prompted a round of recriminations “” “Obama the snob,” read the headline on a Washington Post column by Michael Gerson, the former speechwriter for President George W. Bush “” and fueled the underlying argument of the campaign that ends Tuesday. For all the discussion of health care and spending and jobs, at the core of the nation’s debate this fall has been the battle of elitism.
Mr. Obama’s remark that autumn evening played into a perception promoted by his critics that he is a Harvard-educated millionaire elitist who is sure that he knows best and thinks that those who disagree just aren’t in their right minds. Never mind that Mr. Obama was raised in less exalted circumstances by a single mother who he said once needed food stamps.
Uhh, yes, the attack is “promoted by his critics” — along with the claim Obama is socialist or a fascist or a Muslim or someone who wasn’t born in this country — or a Joker-style anarchist. Seriously, the speechwriter for the President who did the most to enrich to rich at the expense of the poor and middle class, who created the largest income gap in many decades, is calling Obama an elitist? And the New York Times uses that attack to justify an article on the front page of the widely read ‘Week in Review’ section?
Obama isn’t an elitist — he is just painfully bad at messaging. Indeed, in recent weeks he has been consistently ignoring the first rule of political messaging — don’t talk about process! Don’t talk about why you have failed to deliver your message effectively — deliver your damn message effectively already! The media just love to trash presidents who talk process, rather than substance. The fact that Obama doesn’t know this — and that his advisers won’t put a stop to it — is embarrassing.
It shouldn’t be any surprise to a great speech-maker like Obama that “facts and science” aren’t winning the day. They hardly ever do — “argument” does. That’s what the Greeks figured out 2500 years ago when they invented rhetoric. Indeed, that was specifically why they codified the rules of rhetoric.
The specific reason “facts and science” aren’t winning the day is that the plutocrats and pollutocrats have spent hundreds of millions of dollars spreading lies — and have their own media outlets that provide billions of dollars worth of coverage of those lies — whereas Barack ‘no narrative’ Obama and progressive politicians hardly spend any time explaining what he’s done or why, so much so that even The Onion noticed (see Democrats: “If We’re Gonna Lose, Let’s Go Down Running Away From Every Legislative Accomplishment We’ve Made”).
The disinformers try the same faux populism when they claim, as the discredited Anthony Watts recently did:
Screaming “hell, high water, global boiling, climate disruption, etc ” while at the same time saying “you’re too dumb to understand it” looks to be an epic “failure to communicate”.,
I have never met a climate blogger who wrote or even thought that Americans were too dumb to understand what’s happening to the climate and why. There’s nothing terribly complicated about it. Indeed, it would be absurd to hold such a view — since Americans consistently support much stronger action on climate and clean energy than their leaders, including “cap-and-trade.” And indeed, as Jon Krosnick, senior fellow at the Woods Institute for the Environment at Stanford University, has found in poll after poll, “The vast majority of Americans know global warming is real.”
If we even had simple majority rule in the Senate, we probably would have had a climate bill last year — and we certainly would’ve had one if there were voting strictly based on proportional representation. But the super majority in the Senate allows a minority backed by the pollutocrats to thwart the will of the people. And their superior messaging strategy and greater financial resources allow them to convince a great many people that this was an okay thing to do.
It is certainly true that most polling suggests that Democrats and independents understand climate science better — but that isn’t terribly surprising since conservatives get much of their news from media outlets that are run by and/or parrot the pollutocrats. Yes, I think it is appropriate to be disgusted with politicians who flip flop on basic issues of climate science and climate action rather than tell voters the facts:
- McCain drinks the Kool-Aid [iced tea?] and becomes a climate conspiracy theorist
- The dumbing down of Carly Fiorina
- Flashback: Carly Fiorina said cap-and-trade “will both create jobs and lower the cost of energy”
- NY Times slams “alternative reality” of GOP deniers: “They’ve disappeared in a fog of disinformation, an entire political party parroting the Cheney line.”
BUT those who call out political leaders whose job it is to be informed on crucial issues of the day, particularly the single most important issue of the century, are not calling voters dumb — much as the disinformers desparately want to push that smear. I repeat, on this issue, most voters, particularly Democrats and independents, are considerably wiser than the collective wisdom of the U.S. Senate.
The rest of this post is going to be an extended excerpt from my 2008 post, Why scientists aren’t more persuasive, Part 2: Why deniers out-debate “smart talkers.” Scientists — and technocrats like Obama — must understand the elitist frame that the opposition desperately wants to shoe-horn them into, a narrative the media is all too eager to repeat, as the NY Times shows.
Public debates are typically won by the person or group who presents the most compelling and persuasive character. If I can convince you I’m an honest, straight talker, you’ll believe what else I say. If can’t, you won’t. This fact was very well understood by the masters of persuasive language from ancient Greece and Rome through Elizabethans like Shakespeare and by skilled debaters like Lincoln and Churchill, as we will see.
Debates are not usually won on factual or policy merits, in part because listeners aren’t in a position to adjudicate sometimes subtle differences between complex positions “” what exactly was the difference between Clinton’s health care plan and Obama’s? and what exactly is the difference between carbon dioxide emissions and carbon dioxide concentrations? “” and because those who are undecided on an issue are typically skeptical of all advocates, especially self-style “experts.” They assume everybody exaggerates to defend their position. In any case, if I don’t convince you I’m honest, my stated positions can’t possibly matter.
Here’s why (those who appear to be) straight talkers beat smart talkers every time, ending with a discussion of the 2004 election.
A HISTORY OF FAKING STRAIGHT TALK
A core strategy of rhetoric is to avoid seeming like a smarty-pants, to avoid appearing like Carter Dukakis Gore Kerry a highly educated (i.e. elite), wonkish speaker, but rather a plainspoken man of the people.
Shakespeare “” a master of rhetoric who knew more than 200 figures of speech like all middle-class Elizabethans (why do you think they called it grammar school?) “” understood that very well. That’s why he has Mark Antony say in one of the great debate speeches of all time, his famous “Friends, Romans, countrymen” response to Brutus in the Roman Forum: “I am no orator, as Brutus is, But-as you know me all-a plain blunt man.”
Is it coincidental that the only ones to use the word “rhetoric” in the 2004 presidential debates were George Bush and Dick Cheney? In the Vice Presidential Debate, Cheney said to his Democratic rival, Senator John Edwards, “Your rhetoric, Senator, would be a lot more credible if there was a record to back it up.” In the final debate, Bush twice repeated almost verbatim the same accusation about Kerry: “His rhetoric doesn’t match his record,” and again “His record in the United States Senate does not match his rhetoric.” This was only a small salvo in the Bush team’s war on Kerry’s language.
It is a mark of wily orators that they accuse their opponents of being rhetoricians. Winston Churchill, who wrote a treatise on the use of rhetoric in political speech at the age of 22, himself once opened an attack on his political opponents, saying “These professional intellectuals who revel in decimals and polysyllables”¦.”
Returning to the Roman Forum, Marc Antony says
For I have neither wit, nor words, nor worth,
Action, nor utterance, nor the power of speech,
To stir men’s blood: I only speak right on;
I tell you that which you yourselves do know;
So Antony is a man of the people, just reminding them of what they already know. Antony was, in fact, a patrician, like Bush. Indeed, Antony was a student of rhetoric, but his repeated use of one-syllable words lends credibility to his blunt sincerity. It is a mark of first-rate orators that they deny eloquence.
Lincoln was a “plain homespun” speaker, or so goes the legend, a legend he himself worked hard to create. In a December 1859 autobiographical sketch provided to a Pennsylvania newspaper, Lincoln explained how his father grew up “literally without education.” Lincoln described growing up in “a wild region, with many bears and other wild animals still in the woods”¦. There were some schools, so called.” He offers one especially colorful spin: “If a stranger supposed to understand Latin, happened to sojourn in the neighborhood, he was looked upon as a wizard.” No fancy talkers here. Lincoln modestly explains the result of the little schooling he had: “Of course when I came of age, I did not know much.” And after that, “I have not been to school since. The little advance I now have upon this store of education, I have picked up from time to time under the pressure of necessity.” All this from a man who in the previous year had proven himself to be one of America’s great orators in the Lincoln-Douglas debates and who during the course of his presidency would demonstrate the most sophisticated grasp of rhetoric of any U.S. President, before or since.
Lincoln opened his masterful February 1859 Cooper Union speech echoing Shakespeare’s Antony: “The facts with which I shall deal this evening are mainly old and familiar; nor is there anything new in the general use I shall make of them.” (In Antony’s own words, “I only speak right on; I tell you that which you yourselves do know.”) These are the words of a man who had memorized Shakespeare from William Scott’s Lessons in Elocution, a treatise that included Antony’s famous speech.
Does this sound a little familiar [the late Michael Crichton from a climate debate discussed in the 2008 post]:
I myself, uh, just a few years ago, held the kinds of views that I, uh, expect most of you in this room hold.
If you want to switch people’s viewpoints, pretend like you once held their views. It is a twofer. First, you can pretend you’re just like one of them. Second, you draw people into the narrative, since they become intrigued about how someone who used to believe as they did now believes differently. Classic storytelling “” you need to create a hook for the listener early on or they will tune out.
Returing to rhetoric, the master orator who denies eloquence was such a commonplace by the sixteenth century that Shakespeare resorted to it repeatedly. Consider his King Henry V, a master of oratory, who delivered the most famous pre-battle speech in the English-language:
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he today that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother”¦
After the British triumph at Agincourt, King Henry V woos Katherine, the daughter of the French king. Yet, even though Kate’s hand was one of Henry’s conditions for peace, the master of rhetoric still treats us to his tricks.
When Kate says she doesn’t speak English well, Henry says he’s glad, “for, if thou couldst, thou wouldst find me such a plain king that thou wouldst think I had sold my farm to buy my crown.” He’s just like a farmer, a man of the people. He adds, “But, before God, Kate, I cannot look greenly nor gasp out my eloquence, nor I have no cunning in protestation; only downright oaths, which I never use till urged, nor never break for urging.” Like Antony, he disingenuously denies eloquence. The reason orators use this trick: Being blunt and ineloquent means they must be honest and steadfast.
Here is Bush in his Orlando campaign speech on October 30, 2004:
Sometimes I’m a little too blunt-I get that from my mother. [Huge Cheers] Sometimes I mangle the English language-I get that from my dad. [Laughter and Cheers]. But you always know where I stand. You can’t say that for my opponent”¦.
For a blunt language-mangler, that’s surprisingly old-school “” very old school “” rhetoric.
Henry urges Kate to “take a fellow of plain and uncoin’d constancy, for he perforce must do thee right, because he hath not the gift to woo in other places.” Because he is not a clever orator, he must be an honest and constant man. Then Henry compares himself to an imaginary rival: “For these fellows of infinite tongue, that can rhyme themselves into ladies’ favours, they do always reason themselves out again.” In short, the other guys are flip-floppers and liars. They talk smarter than I do, but that’s exactly why you can’t trust them.
This is precisely why the deniers like Stott and Crichton love to repeat the global cooling myth, love to say, as Crichton has one of his fictional environmentalists climate in State of Fear, “In the 1970’s all the climate scientists believed an ice age was coming.”
This clever and popular attack tries to make present global-warming fears seem faddish, saying current climate science is nothing more than finger-in-the-wind guessing. This attack appeals especially to conservatives who want to link their attack on climate scientists to their favorite attack against progressive presidential candidates “” that they are flip-floppers. It been debunked time and time again “” see “Killing the myth of the 1970s global cooling scientific consensus” and “Another denier talking point “” ‘global cooling’ “” bites the dust.”
Consider Bush’s stump speech in Wilmington, Ohio the day before the election, discussing his September 2003 request for $87 billion in Iraq war funding and Kerry’s vote: “And then he entered the flip-flop Hall of Fame by saying this: ‘I actually did vote for the $87 billion right before I voted against it.’ I haven’t spent a lot of time in the coffee shops around here, but I bet you a lot of people don’t talk that way.” In Burgettstown, two hours later he said, “I doubt many people in western Pennsylvania talk that way.” In Sioux City, Iowa, a few hours later, “I haven’t spent much time in the coffee shops around here, but I feel pretty comfortable in predicting that not many people talk like that in Sioux land.” And in Albuquerque, he said, “I have spent a lot of time in New Mexico, and I’ve never heard a person talk that way.”
Sarah Palin, in her stump speech, makes an almost identical criticism of Obama: “We tend to prefer candidates who don’t talk about us one way in Scranton and another way in San Francisco.” He is not one of us. He’s two faced. Yes, it may seem laughable coming from the Palin-McCain team, but even laughable works when it uses the tools of rhetoric “” Palin here is using antithesis- placing words or ideas in contrast or opposition, one of Lincoln’s favorite rhetorical devices: “with malice toward none; with charity for all.” And she is placing Obama into a very old narrative about liars, flip-floppers, and Democratic candidates for President.
Kerry’s self-defining and self-defaming quote-“I actually did vote for the $87 billion right before I voted against it.”-has the powerful elements of eloquence. Sadly for Kerry, this is the precise reason it stuck in the mind. It has the repetition and sound of two memorable figures found in famous political quotes, antithesis, (“voted for” versus “voted against”), and chiasmus, words repeated in inverse order (in this case, “I .. vote for” and “before I voted”). Little wonder it was ripe for exploitation through repetition and sarcasm.
President Bush in 2004 had everything down cold that we expect from a master rhetorician: The repeated simple words, the repeated phrases, and the message that his opponent is inconsistent and inconstant because he’s too clever by half and doesn’t talk the way you and I do. Yet at the same time, Bush managed to leave the impression that he himself is rather slow and inarticulate. Ironically, the (all-too-many) Democrats who attacked Bush as being stupid merely gave him a free pass on all his lying and made him seem more genuine and credible to many voters.
Why did Kerry flip flop? Bush had a simple answer. The President told every audience that Kerry’s most revealing explanation “was when he said, the whole thing was a complicated matter. My fellow Americans, there is nothing complicated about supporting our troops in combat.” Rhetoric retains the power to move real people. In a 2005 post-election analysis, Journalism professor Danner quotes one Dr. Richardson-Pinto saying to him at Bush’s Orlando rally: “It doesn’t matter if the man [Kerry] can talk. Sometimes, when someone’s real articulate, you can’t trust what he says, you know?” And Richardson-Pinto is a doctor, someone whose credibility depends on being articulate.
So, yes, being smart, talking smart, and using big words may impress some in the audience “” but most likely only those who already agree with you. It may cost you credibility with the very people you are trying to reach.
I fully understand that many scientists don’t want to spend the time needed to learn how to be persuasive to nonscientists. Indeed, Part 1 discusses how scientists are punished for being popularizers. But it is a skill that can be acquired, not really more difficult than differential equations. In any case, if you won’t spend the time, or don’t want to be known as a popularizer, then simply turn down public debates. This is not an amateur’s game. The stakes are way, way too high.
I fear that because Obama is a good speechmaker, he thinks he’s good at messaging and won’t let anybody tell him otherwise. Well, he isn’t. He’s bad at messaging, dreadful even. That doesn’t mean he didn’t make consequential policy mistakes. He did. The stimulus was clearly too small — see Krugman sets the narrative straight: “We never had the kind of fiscal expansion that might have created the millions of jobs we need.”
But when your messaging is this bad, you can’t tell how much of your failure is due to bad messaging or bad policies. And, of course, your opponents get to define you, rather than you defining them, which is the key to victory. Unless Obama brings on board someone who understands messaging a lot better than David Axelrod or is given the gift of an unelectable opponent, like Sarah Palin, he is going to struggle mightily to be reelected.