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Time to Scrape the Kerry Sticker Off: On Democrats, Values, and the Lakoff Thesis


Have you run across this person and/or his car? He is a white male in his late 30s with long curly hair. He drives a 1990-something green Toyota Corolla and lives near the campus of a major metropolitan university. There is a cloth peace symbol hanging from his rear-view mirror. The back seat of his car is littered with copies of the New York Times, The Nation, and Mother Jones, and a plethora of crumpled Starbucks cups.

He has an unusually large number of bumper stickers on the back of his car. They read: “Wage Peace;” “No Justice, No Peace;” “Wal-Mart: Always Low Wages;” “Flush Bush;” “It Will be a Good Day When the Pentagon has to Hold a Bake Sale to Pay for Another B-52 Bomber;” and “Bring the Troops Home.” At the bottom right, a sticker says “Kerry-Edwards: a Stronger America.”

“Reporting for Duty”

If you see this gentleman, please ask him to review the record of John Forbes Kerry’s presidential campaign. It’s fine for Kerry to bemoan the media’s failure to adequately cover the “fixed-intelligence” Downing Street Memo (see Jefferson Morely, “The Downing Street Memo Story Won’t Die,” Washington Post, 7 June 2005). But the Democratic “opposition” candidate did not seriously oppose George W. Bush’s illegal and immoral and occupation of Iraq or the culture of messianic militarism that Bush has advanced. John “Reporting for Duty” Kerry ran on the claim that he was more qualified to properly finish the Iraqi mission. “I,” Kerry proclaimed (to crudely paraphrase), “am the better, more sophisticated man of empire. I am also,” he added, “the only presidential candidate with direct service in the American military assault on Vietnam.”

“Not a Redistribution Democrat”

A review of the Kerry campaign will show that the Democratic candidate lived up to his middle name by assiduously avoiding the pressing issues of poverty and economic inequality. Consistent with Kerry’s vast personal fortune and related aristocratic bearing – so obvious that the satirical weekly The Onion depicted Kerry delivering a campaign speech to workers from the bow of a yacht – the Kerry campaign’s socioeconomic radar barely registered anyone beneath the middle-class.

For what it’s worth, Kerry would have been the richest U.S. president since another multimillionaire Democrat from Massachusetts – John Fitzgerald Kennedy. As he told a wealthy audience in New York City, “I am not a redistribution Democrat.” Given the corrosive impact of America’s steep socioeconomic disparities (the top 1 percent owns more than 40 percent of the United States’ wealth)on functioning democracy, this made it impossible for Kerry to be any kind of democrat at all (see “Kerry’s Predictable Failure to Make Bush Pay for Rising US Poverty,” Dissident Voice [September 8, 2004], available online at www.dissidentvoice.org/Sept04/ Street0908.htm).

Missing Connections

As an openly declared non-enemy of both empire and inequality, Kerry was naturally unwilling to make the basic connections between those two great and dialectically inseparable problems. The links were well understood by the people who came up with the B-52-bake-sale slogan in the 1960s, when Vietnam War expenditures were strangling the “War on Poverty” in its cradle and Martin Luther King, Jr. denounced what he called “the triple evils that are interrelated”: militarism, poverty, and racism.

In 2004, as for more than two decades now, the Democratic Party leadership’s silence on poverty and the other “triple evils” created a populist void that the hyper-plutocratic Republicans rushed to fill by ironically posing as the party of “the little guy.”

Facts, Frames, and Values

The problem with the Kerry campaign was different than what George Lakoff describes in his bestseller Don’t Think of an Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate (2004), which is being marketed as “the essential [political] guide for progressives.”

According to Lakoff, Democrats lose because they are unskilled at articulating the core “traditional American values that progressives hold.” Those values, by Lakoff’s account, include “fairness,” “community,” “open communication,” “equity,” “equality” (by which Lakoff means “political equality,” not social equality, revealingly enough), “democracy,” and “values-based foreign policy.”

Democrats fail, Lakoff argues, to use their “liberal/progressive” values to develop persuasive “issue frames” for understanding and acting upon the troubling facts of American social and political experience. They operate on the false Enlightenment-era assumption that stating those facts will bring the masses into their electoral camp.

Lakoff is certainly on to something with the idea that facts and issues need frames. Many progressives do seem to be under the illusion that if only people get the real factual story then they will come along to challenge the powers that be. Lakoff is right, moreover, to note that the nation’s in-fact radically regressive “conservatives” invest millions in the construction and dissemination of powerful, redolent moral-intellectual paradigms that do account (many Republicans sincerely believe)for many facts (e.g., mass American poverty and mass civilian casualties in Iraq) that drive leftists to fits of anger and despair.

He’s correct to note that liberal foundations and academics spend insufficient time and money on developing values-based language to counter the authoritarian world view of the right.

But Kerry and his handlers weren’t ignorant of their supposedly genuine but hidden progressivism. They didn’t fail to “know their [progressive] values.” Given their very own elitist, hierarchical, corporatist, nationalist-imperialist ideological framework, they were all-too pleased to ignore such basic facts as the number of Iraqi civilians the U.S. has murdered or the 1 million black children living at less than half the nation’s inadequate official poverty level. These and countless other terrible social and political facts do not bother many top Democrats enough to compel them to look for the proper way to “frame” them.

An All-Too Perfect Foil for Rove et al.

If you meet the aforementioned gentleman with the green Toyota and the bumper stickers, tell him to take a look at Thomas Frank’s book What’s the Matter With Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America (2004). How have Republicans been so successful in cloaking their militantly regressive, “economically royalist” policy agenda with “culturally workerist”(to use Frank’s clever description of the Republican formula) political language that paints the Democrats out as elitists? Frank rightly places much of the blame on the Democratic Party’s in-fact elitist determination to take popular economic issues “off the table.”

That determination makes it hard to evaluate the accuracy of Lakoff’s thesis that poor and working-class Americans are being diverted from acting in accord with their economic interests by Republican “moral issue frames” that encourage non-affluent people to vote “against their own pocketbooks.” How do we know that the right’s authoritarian frames are trumping workers’ economic self interest in determining electoral choices (such as they are) when top Democrats have made the not-so “progressive” moral determination that courting corporate political money and flattering the well-to-do are more valuable activities than addressing non-affluent peoples’ moral-economic issues?

It’s a hell of a deadly formula the Republicans have working for them. Frank leaves out some of that formula’s key ingredients because he fails to pay sufficient attention to the Republicans’ exploitation of national security fears and (more hidden) racial conflicts. To make matters yet worse, the Republicans benefit from the reactionary biases of dominant corporate-state media, which favors strict-authoritarian over “liberal/progressive” values and frames.

The best way to fight back against the resulting Republican hegemony over the American political system is neither simple nor self-evident. One way NOT to resist is ought to be clear, however: putting forth a hopelessly aristocratic, super-opulent candidate who refuses to engage substantive facts and issues of social and moral-economic justice. Fundamentally incapable of calling Republicans on their pseudo-populist, false-”workerist” bluff, the economically royal and culturally elite Kerry was an all-too perfect foil for the Karl Rove Republicans. He was astonishingly well-suited to the G.O.P.’s Orwellian misrepresentation of itself as the party of ordinary, non-affluent people and its related parody of the Democrats as nothing more than snooty, latte-sipping elitists.

It didn’t help, of course, that Kerry refused to call for an end to the occupation of Iraq, a murderous operation that most of his voting base and convention delegates opposed. On this and other issues, of course, he was all too accurately described by Republicans as a morally inconsistent “flip-flopper.”

John Kerry was in fact “the lesser evil” in a “winner-take-all” political and media system that provides little if any space for a serious left presidential run. The world might well be a somewhat safer and saner place if we had in fact “flushed Bush” last November.

But the patrician Kerry was not the plumber for that job. He lacked not just the way but also the will to mount an effective “progressive” challenge to American Empire and Inequality, Inc., whose pinnacles he wanted to climb, not dismantle.

Individual candidacies aside, it is by no means clear that the Democratic Party will ever again channel significant popular resistance to concentrated wealth and power in the United States. It may well be too permanently subject and beholden to corporate-imperial direction, structures, and values to meaningfully play that role in the future. Only time and activism will tell. In the meantime, progressives who still can’t seem to let go of their Kerry stickers and posters are displaying gross value confusion.

Paul Street ([email protected]) is the author of Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, 2004 ); Segregated Schools: Race, Class, and Educational Apartheid in the Post-Civil Rights Era (New York, NY: Routledge, 2005); and Still Separate, Unequal: Race, Place, Policy and the State of Black Chicago (Chicago, IL, 2005)

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