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“Framing” a Meme Crudely: Prelude to Campaign 2010


Former Governor, former Presidential candidate and former Chairman of the Democratic National Committee Howard Dean unveiled the Democratic Party’s trial balloon for the election of 2012. Normally, I bold all the text in an excerpt but I will do so from this POLITICO post only selectively:

….Appearing on “Fox News Sunday,” Dean, who’s also a former Democratic national chairman and hero of liberals, asserted Fox News failed to vet video footage of a speech misleadingly excerpted to make it appear that Sherrod was boasting of using her post as an Agriculture Department official to discriminate against a white farmer.

“I don’t think Newt Gingrich is a racist, and I don’t think you’re a racist,” Dean told Fox News host Chris Wallace, “but Fox News did something that was absolutely racist. They took a – they had an obligation to find out what was really in the clip. They had been pushing a theme of black racism with this phony Black Panther crap and this business and this Sotomayor and all this other stuff.”

When Wallace interrupted Dean to point out that Fox did not air the excerpted Sherrod footage until after the Obama administration had fired her based on it , Dean shot back “It was about to go on Glenn Beck, which is what the administration was afraid of.”

And Dean mildly rebuked the Obama administration, as well, saying, “We’ve got to stop being afraid of Glenn Beck (a Fox News host) and the racist fringe of the Republican Party. But Fox News was not blameless during this. You played it up.”

Dean dismissed Wallace’s point about timing, asserting “you didn’t do your job,” and charging that Fox News has helped the Republican Party foster racism by focusing on allegations of reverse racism.

“The tea party called out their racist fringe and I think the Republican Party’s got to stop appealing to its racist fringe. And Fox News is what did that. You put that on,” Dean said. “Continuing to cater to this theme of minority racism and stressing comments like this – some of which are taken out of context – does not help the country knit itself

In just this brief section where Dean is quoted, he used the word “racism” or a variant seven times and is paraphrased saying it twice more. Most likely, the transcript of the show will tally more uses of “racist” than just seven to nine in a few minutes of air time. Now either Howard Dean, a wealthy man born into a elite family, a graduate of St. Georges prep and Yale University, a physician and very successful governor, has only a rudimentary vocabulary or Dean was doing a crude imitation of George Lakoff’s  verbal “framing” and testing the Democratic Party’s none-too-subtle campaign theme:”All Republicans are racists”.

The underlying issue here is not about Shirley Sherrod or even racism, but of political power.

It seems likely at this point in time that the Democratic Party is headed for a reprise of their 1994 electoral disaster, despite the Republican Party being incompetent and bankrupt of both leadership and ideas ( in fact, given the demonstrated ineptitude of Micheal Steele as the GOP spokesman, the bast tactical stance for Republicans might be to just shut-up and only speak from unimpeachable ground that 60 % + of the public agrees with).  The war is not going well and the economy is worse, while taxes and spending are going up. That all of this is not the fault of Democrats is irrelevant because enough of it is and having all the power, the voters see them as accountable.. Having decided to govern from the left of center – maybe not Netroots Left, but left of moderate Democrats and Independents, under the aegis of Pelosi and Reid – the Democrats have irrevocably branded themselves for this election cycle and probably the next.

Not having any appealing points for undecided voters and independents leaves the Democrats the option of the hardball attack with the objective of mitigating the damage. How does trying to build an association between the word “racism” and “Republican” do that as it obviously fires up the Republicans to come out and vote by angering them?

Partisan liberals (note: I am not saying all liberals or all Democrats, just the zealous partisans) tend to believe that the only viable explanation for people not accepting their political agenda and exercise of power is a) Stupidity, or b) Evil motivations – among which, racism is the most evil of all.  In other words, there is no “legitimate” basis of democratic disagreement with them, only error and malice. Which is why many partisan liberals today, like the ranters exposed on Journolist, often come across to non-liberals as humorless authoritarians in a way that past liberals like Hubert Humphrey, William Brennan or Barbara Jordan never did. This campaign theme, while partisan liberals enjoy attacking Republicans immensely, isn’t for them either. They already are sure votes and maxed out political donors.

No, the target audience for Dean’s framing are the younger, basically apolitical, white voters who came out and voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and whom polls suggest won’t do so again. A second group are socially liberal, Democratic-leaning, independent swing voters. A coordinated drumbeat of prominent Democrats relentlessly attacking opponents as “racists” is designed to keep the first group at home on election day so that they do not vote Republican and to motivate the second group to come out and vote against them. In swing districts and states this might keep a few seats in Democratic hands that might otherwise go to the GOP and it could permanently tarnish or destroy some Republican politicians and turn them into damaged goods.

This is not a stupid tactic. It might not matter, if public sentiment is as angrily anti-incumbent and anti-Democrat as some polls suggest but such a framing campaign is based upon reasonable evidence that negative memes work, that charges of racism are an effective form of slander in American society, that Republicans are highly unlikely to mount an effective counterattack and that a majority of voters are only dimly aware of the factual details of political life. The prospect of losing power makes it a worthwhile gamble for Democrats – especially if figures whom voters cannot punish, like Howard Dean, lead the charge ( it also helps that a certain percentage of members of Congress of both parties harbor some degree of racism, anti-semitism, homophobia, religious bigotry, misogyny or other unseemly prejudices more obscure and tend to do and say things that give evidence of such beliefs. Public life is a target rich environment for take-down efforts).

Could Republicans respond effectively? Of course. There’s all sorts of ways to go for the jugular here, but they probably will not. Newt Gingrich, for example, could have demolished Dean on live television but he chose not to do so because Newt himself plays the “framing” game far better than does Dean and explaining to the uninformed what Dean was doing diminishes Gingrich’s own future rhetorical effectiveness with said uninformed public. Most other Republican leaders lack Gingrich’s intellectual firepower and debating skills and would either try to ignore the charge of racism (a loser move) or fall into protesting their lack of racism so as to better make themselves the object of ridicule as well as abuse.

The poor Republican Party, so close to power and so far from strategy.

16 Responses to ““Framing” a Meme Crudely: Prelude to Campaign 2010”

  1. Citizens For A Better Veterans Home Says:

    July 20, 2009, Lynn Sweet of the Chicago Sun-Times, Obama’s hometown newspaper, asked out of the blue the final question of the evening dealing with the Prof Gates affair. After hearing Obama state first that Prof. Gates was a personal friend of his and then that he was not familiar with all the facts in the case, I was utterly dumbfounded to hear Obama then proceed to render his opinion on the case and pronounce his verdict that the police “had acted stupidly.” I was shocked that someone who was a lawyer (not to mention President of the Harvard Law Review, not to mention “professor” of Constitutional law at Chicago Law School) would make a mistake that any competent recent graduate of any decent law school would know not to make. If anyone has any doubts, pose the following test to any competent lawyer friend: (1) X is a personal friend of mine, (2) I am not familiar with the facts of X’s case, and (3) [fill in the blank]. Peace Prize during an ongoing war, firing government officials with little or no knowledge, talking ‘change’ while acting as the operator of W’s third term.

  2. joey Says:

    Your a racist! – No YOUR a racist! -No you are! -I think my brain is going to melt….

  3. MMaineiac Says:

    You may be partiality correct regarding the Democratic party using the racist meme but I saw Dean’s appearance not as an attack focused on Republicans in general  but rather as a push-back specifically  against  Fox News.  Dean mentioned  "this phony Black Panther crap and this business and Sotomayor and all this other stuff".   It does seem that Fox has been pushing  the theme  of anti-white bias very aggressively.

    With regards to Tom Vilsack   hasty overreaction to the Shirley Sherrod incident, evidently  he is particularly  vulnerable to such  feints because, as he has reveled, he is very fearful of an accusation of racism from Glen Beck. This is a testimony to the power of Beck and the fearfulness of Vilsack

  4. democratic core Says:

    The Dean stuff is absolute poison to Obama, and he has to stay a million miles away from it, and I have no doubt that he will.  Dean and the "Left" are doing as much damage to the Democrats as the Tea Partiers are doing to the Republicans.  Republicans will undoubtedly gain a lot of seats, but I still think it is unlikely they will gain control of either house.  Either way, it’s not that big a deal because I don’t think there is all that much Obama needs or wants to do legislatively over the next 2 years.  A more conservative congress will afford greater flexibility on Afghanistan and will be more helpful in enabling Obama to start turning to deficit reduction, a necessary pivot as I suspect we will start to see reductions in unemployment over the next 2 years.  The only real danger is that the "default" crowd will gain control of the Republican Party, will refuse to vote for an increase in the debt ceiling, and will precipitate a real possibility of default.

    It is really hard to get through the day with the current media din we are subjected to.   What it basically comes down to is right wing media attacks Obama for being a socialist and left wing media attacks Obama for not being a socialist.  Aren’t the fifteen minutes up for most of the bozos?

  5. Lexington Green Says:

    "…so close to power and so far from strategy…"
    They are not far from strategy.  They just cannot say aloud what it is.  Their strategy is to lie low, let the Democrats lose by themselves, make no promises of any substance, and then get back in charge of the rent-seeking, incumbent-protecting regulatory state and run it to their own advantage, and change nothing.  The recent comments by Trent Lott show this to be the case.  You let the rubes believe something big will happen, and then you run the railroad exactly the same way once the election is over. 
    What we need is a serious reform faction within the GOP to have a strategy.  The GOP Old Boys are the immediate adversary, the Democrats the remote adversary, and the hostile ruling class, in all its ramificationsm, which operates the regulatory state for its own advantage and employment is the ultimate adversary. 

  6. Eddie Says:

    Its indicative of the pathetic uninformed rancor that passes for political analysis that this post itself and several of its comments have more valuable insight than thousands of posts elsewhere, and this is written by a person who rarely posts on poli-tricks.

    I agree with Zen about Dean but also see value in MM’s assertion this is a personal pushback against Fox News. Certain elements of their operation have been screaming at the top of their lungs from Day 1 that Obama hates whitey and concocting scandal after scandal to try to prove it. They have literally devoted hundreds of hours to a group of 13 bat-sh*t idiots from Philadelphia who are considered a joke by the local PD (which has been unafraid to violently put down any real "black power" demonstrations), who did not elicit a single complaint from (mostly) black voters who passed by and snickered at their stupidity and who do not represent the views of 99.9% of black people in this country. That alone is worthy of pulling Fox’s broadcasting license for openly trying to provoke an "MFing" race riot. Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh are busy arguing Obama is taking us back to the 1950’s, only with the races flipped and white people violently disenfranchised and oppressed at every step of life. I despise race-based preferences like AA but this is beyond rhetoric and into inciting a race riot.

    I believe that Fox News is constructing a complete alternate reality for its regular viewers (along with the millions who listen and believe radio shock jocks) and agree with James Joyner that conservative media bias is something far more insidious than anything the liberals have yet attempted.
    "And Yglesias’ point that conservative media outlets are, at the end of the day, in the business of lying to conservatives is worth underscoring." (1)

    Above all else though, what Lex writes here and Zen has written in the past about the hostile ruling class is the overarching truth. You get a Palin/Obama matchup in 2012 and somebody with a brain and cash might actually try to change that.

    Re: Newt, he’s become a d-bag. Look at his recent pandering to the Far Far Right over the mosque in Manhattan, tarring all Americans who hold the Islamic faith as terrorists or terrorist sympathizers and essentially demanding that since KSA doesn’t support religious freedom, America must ignore its Constitution and deny religious freedom and property rights to Muslims. Since he’s more interested in promoting AQ’s interests (by doing his damndest to prove true their vile propaganda that Muslims in America cannot possibly be free), overthrowing the democratic process in Manhattan (where the local neighborhood residents and borough planning council have already approved the mosque’s inclusion as part of a Muslim version of the YMCA), and supporting the growing climate of irrational hostility towards Muslims in this country (consider recent very public campaigns waged against American Muslims trying to lawfully build a mosque or hold community activities in California, Tennesee, NY and elsewhere),  I would suggest he cannot be taken seriously any longer.


  7. Joseph Fouche Says:

    This is yet another problem that will go away as soon as we get those racism sniffing dogs into service.

  8. Fred Says:

    You should consider this post and it comment thread within the context of the Codevilla article that was recently linked and discussed here. Much of what Codevilla wrote was about/from the point of view of religious conservatives. His article, whether you agree with it or not, was thoughtful and nuanced. It was not a caricature. 

    This is important to the discussion in this thread of the "racism" tactic, because  a large and rapidly growing segment of religious conservatives are explicitly opposed to racism in all of its forms. They will not automaticly vote for someone who may have the faintest odor of racism, even someone with impeccable religious conservative credentials.  
    Because Obama has continued so many of Bush’s policies (with only stylistic changes at most),  Republicans have had trouble criticizing him substantively. But they have to criticize him. That’s what the out-of-power party is supposed to do. As a result much of the criticism has been so clumsy, so poorly thought out, so silly, that undecideds can easily conclude that many republicans are racists.

  9. zen Says:

    Hi Gents,
    MM and Eddie have a very valid point about FOX.  First, partisan liberals find its existence to be a red flag, it is a bogeyman and favorite target. Secondly, the existence of FOX – regardless of whether FOX is engaging in shoddy journalism, overt propaganda or actual investigative journalism – forces major liberally oriented news organizations to cover news differently than if FOX did not exist. Stories that would otherwise be ignored have to be covered, there’s the risk of being fact-checked and time/space has to be used playing "defense" for the Democrats that otherwise would go to advancing/reinforcing the agenda. Much like an insurgency needs only to continue to fight to "win", FOX does not need to haul in Pulitzer prizes. They can be just north of the National Inquirer in quality and still have an immense impact on national media reaction by being the only major available option in terms of TV news to liberal MSM. Roger Ailes, being a very smart man, understands this leverage and uses it to manipulate opinion when it suits him to do so – not unlike, the Suzlbergers, the Grahams, the Luces, the Hearsts etc. Anyone who relies on a single source of information -whether it is Glenn Beck or John Stewart – is, in my opinion, a fool.
    Regarding Newt. While there are things I admire about Newt, in 1984, he was an ambitious insurgent, in 2010 he is a canny, heavily connected, insider. Huge difference. Newt still says a lot of important things – behind closed doors.  On TV you will a mixture of shtick and messaging, including a generous peddling of cynical nonsense.
    "Their strategy is to lie low, let the Democrats lose by themselves, make no promises of any substance, and then get back in charge of the rent-seeking, incumbent-protecting regulatory state and run it to their own advantage, and change nothing."
    Ok, Lex….I’ll grant them that is a default strategy of sorts and probably their deepest hope
    "The Dean stuff is absolute poison to Obama, and he has to stay a million miles away from it"
    I agree with DC that Obama personally will stay far from these kinds of remarks. Would not be surprised though if David Axelrod is directing this as his longstanding technique is to use cut-outs several times removed from his candidate for negative campaigning and he and Rahm Emanuel would be pretty quick to rein in senior Democrats going "off the reservation" on FOX on a subject as politically sensitive right now to the administration as race.

  10. Jonathan Says:

    I agree with the thrust of Zen’s post and also with Lex’s comment. Going further, it appears that Dean’s race tack is one of several approaches currently being tested by the Democrats, as often multiple approaches are tested simultaneously with the one(s) that gain traction adopted for mass use. There was a hint of an alternative approach in recent Democratic media ads attempting to use the oil spill to create support for new energy taxes/subsidies in the now-defunct(?) energy bill. There must be many other similar opinion-surfing/shaping efforts that I’m missing. I assume that the Democrats always have multiple opinion-research groups working on new themes. If you watch their talking points flow through the media’s rhetorical tributaries it’s clear that the Democrats and their media collaborators have been highly effective in controlling the framing of events. With the exception of media-savvy superstars like Palin and Gingrich the institutional Republicans are generally inept by comparison. There are also numerous operators such as Fox and some of the conservative talkers who say things that benefit themselves at the expense of the Republicans and who the Democrats generally exploit via accusations that these operators are Republican tools.

  11. Jonathan Says:

    Eddie, the Philly controversy isn’t about the direct danger posed by a couple of buffoons at a polling place. It’s about the Obama administration’s racial double-standard in response. Because the buffoons were egregious and were videoed in the act, any administration would have felt strong political pressure to make an example of them. By letting them off instead, the Obama administration signaled that the buffoons’ behavior wasn’t a problem. This is a big deal because nobody believes they would have treated white racists so casually. Fox surfed the wave here, they didn’t create it. If Fox hadn’t picked up the incident it would have made the rounds via blogs and YouTube alone.

  12. Seerov Says:

    The race discourse in America is a simple problem-reaction-solution model.  Every week now we have a "problem" (white people are racist) we have a "reaction" (Multicultural outrage!!…..Race "experts" on CNN discussing "structural racism!!!") and we have the "solution" (more racial policies that make whites worse off).   
      This cycle goes on and on and on.  The elite have no other purpose but to defeat the forces of "whiteness."  Their economic system isn’t producing, and their government programs are going broke, so they need some reason to maintain power. 
    At the same time, the elite are getting worried.  They see whites getting uppity in Middle America.  Even a goofy group like the Tea Party is treated like the rise of the 4th Reich, and the target of sick sexual language (teabagger).  The Internet is especially worrisome for them.
    There’s a reason there’s been talk recently about "turning off" the Internet or implementing "hate speech laws."  In a society where multiculturalism is the highest spiritual order, any and all dissent must be crushed.          

  13. J. Scott Says:

    Fox is the only major media outlet that is not marching lock-step with the administration; the proverbial "Fourth Estate" adversarial media is so rare at the national level that Fox has co-opted the market. It is the purpose of the media in a free society to question power, to remain skeptical. The left, which is monolithic at the national level, is truly aggressive when a republican occupies the WH/runs the Congress, but offers little more than an echo when their fellow travelers occupy seats of power. We do have a race problem: through there policies the folks on the left seem to want to keep blacks dependent (witness race-hustlers Sharpton and Jackson), and most folks on the right want everyone to have the opportunity to "pursue happiness." Truth is, most Americans are beyond "race" and our "unifying president" doesn’t seem to have figured it out, or he doesn’t care and uses race to broad-brush critics of his policies.

  14. Eddie Says:

    Jonathan, There have only been three successful prosecutions for voter intimidation over the last four decades, with cases far more vile and threatening having been lost by federal prosecutors (who tend to be slightly more capable than their state brethren). Conservative legal scholar Abigail Themstrom has accurately identified this brouhaha as a textbook manufactured scandal (and like most of them, it would have made the rounds on partisan blogs for a while and then petered out). Even better, she points out what James Joyner tried to in the post I linked to… that this outrage machine known as Fox News is lying to viewers and poorly serving them. Had they actually given a damn about wising up people about Obama’s bad policies, they might have focused on the racial congressional district gerrymandering the DOJ’s civil rights division is directing for 2010/beyond that even Democrats like Michael Lind and James Webb have expressed outrage about over the years. Had they done that, a very real opportunity might have emerged for conservatives to constructively embarrass and harass the admin. into dropping its racial gerrymandering agenda (something done not b/c Obama is racist but b/c Democrats and Republicans alike have seen fit to cede certain districts to minorities in order to protect other districts, cynically segregating Americans for political gain).  Instead, with this conservative echo machine, you have manufactured scandal after overblown policy after manufactured scandal that leaves conservatives whiffing on very real, big opportunities to water down bad legislation or outright defeat administration initiatives. http://www.aei.org/article/102343

  15. Jonathan Says:

    Eddie, I might agree with you about the Philly voting incident if the DOJ had made a serious attempt to explain why it dropped the case. But 1) they didn’t explain seriously, 2) there’s a video that appears to show a blatant attempt to intimidate voters (whether many voters were actually intimidated is beside the point) and 3) there are reasonable-sounding statements from an ex-DOJ employee alleging an official racial double-standard. Manufactured scandal or no, a lot of people are concerned about the case and the government should respond for this reason alone. The DOJ’s stonewalling is evidence of either incompetence, contempt for public opinion, or racial bias — any of which is unacceptable.

    Whether conservative media try to gin up issues is also beside the point. Media attempts to gin up issues are part of public life in an open society, and Fox is hardly the worst offender. We should not forget that Fox is in business to make money for its owners, not to promote a conservative agenda. And dealing with public controversies is part of a government agency’s job.

    It seems to me that either the DOJ mishandled this controversy or the Fox narrative is correct.

  16. Fred Says:

    My comment is based upon my first hand involvement in elections since the early ’70s in my part of the country. So it may have no significance to the discussion upthread of what happened in Philadelphia.
    Election day was a big party for certain types, who would start drinking when the polls opened, drive from precinct to precinct during the day to "keep an eye on things," and then show up at the courthouse when the polls closed for the vote count. Back during the paper ballot era, the party would oftentimes last until the sun came up, if some races were close.
    There was a lot of liquor, a lot of trash talk, an occassional fist fight, and always the very real possibility of some one pulling a gun.
    However, the arguments and fist fights were always about local races. No one cared about presidential or congressional races. With the passage of time this has changed. More of the arguments are now about races with "national" significance. But the drinking and partying haven’t slowed down.
    At least from my point of view, what happened in Philadelphia is so garden variety, that it isn’t newsworthy. It certainly does’t deserve a DOJ investigation.

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