Advice for Democrats
Check out Jim Wallis's op-ed today in the NYTimes.
Wallis is correct in his assessment that the importance of "framing" issues is largely overblown. As Wallis notes, the nature of a policy is far more important than the names or slogans associated with it.
Wallis even identifies two policy areas - abortion and protecting children from sleaze/pornography -in which Democrats could take common-sense approaches that would likely resonate with a large portion of the American political center.
However, Wallis himself engages in wishful thinking - and falls into the trap of "framing" -in his discussion of three other policy areas: poverty, the environment, and national security. In short, middle America cares not a whit about the first two - at least insofar as the issues actually affect voting decisions -and does not trust the Democrats with the third (precisely because some Democrats have already followed Wallis's advice).
With regard to poverty and the environment, the issues - whatever moral merit they might have - have absolutely no electoral appeal. It's just that simple. Great masses of voters (i.e. what the Democrats desperately need to attract) do not select political officials on the basis of what those officials will do for OTHER people - whether the OTHERS are poor people, gay people, or left-handed ex-convicts.
And outside of California, the same principle applies to the environment. No matter how many scientists are quoted about (real or hyped) impending environmental disasters, most of America does not care. Seriously, they just don't. Yeah, if you ask them in a survey, they'll say they care about the environment (and about poverty, too, for that matter). But in truth, they care about the environment like they care about whether their local grocery packs with (recycleable) paper or (unrecycleable) plastic. Yeah, it'd be nice if they used recycleable material, but we're not going to drive an extra 2 miles to a different grocery store.
Wallis tries mightily to frame both issues in language that makes them seem more important than most Americans think they are. It won't work (and hasn't).
Wallis's most glaring blind spot, however, concerns national security. When they speak about this issue, Democrats need to excise the word "international" from their vocabulary. "Yes, but Americans need to know that the international..." ZIP IT! "Ok, but the international..." ZIP IT! "But the entire world..." ZIP IT!
America - that is, the majority of Americans in the vast majority of states - do not trust the "international community" or ANY institution of the "international community."
And here's the key part, which Democrats have been flubbing for years:
EVEN IF AMERICANS DISTRUST THEIR OWN GOVERNMENT, THEY DISTRUST THE "INTERNATIONAL COMMUNITY" EVEN MORE.
This means that no matter how bad Iraq is or gets, the solution, for most Americans, does not lie with the UN unless President Bush says it does. No matter how bad the environment gets, the solution does not lie with an international agreement like Kyoto, which - whatever its merits - surely restrains American industry. No matter how much we might want to try Milosevic or Saddam, the solution will not be an International Court in which American soldier could even conceivably could be judged by justices from other countries.
In this discussion, I have not spoken directly of the merit of various policy initiatives. I do have opinions in each of these areas; I sometimes agree with the Democratic position, and sometimes with the Republican view. But my purpose here is only to point out the reality of how these issues are perceived by the American public. And if Wallis's view is emblematic of mainstream Democratic opinion, the Dems still have a lot to learn about the crucial difference between what people (in their view) should care about and what they actually do care about.