What if James Carville isn’t distorting what conservatives believe as a rhetorical trick, but …

by CynthiaYockey on February 27, 2011

… because he actually believes that’s what we believe?

Last night I had the pure joy and honor to meet Mary Matalin and chat with her at the fundraiser she held in her home for GOProud. Whenever I’ve seen her on television she’s always been under enemy fire, so while I knew about her brilliance, I didn’t know she has warmth, wisdom and humor in the high terrawatts until, oh, some three or four nanoseconds after meeting her in person.

At the fundraiser we talked as a group for a bit on how to win hearts and minds to conservative principles and candidates and what gays can do for conservativism. That’s right — we were asking not what conservativism can do for us, but what we can do for conservativism. And Mary pointed out that we have to figure out how to defeat a rhetorical tactic of which her husband, James Carville, is reigning master and world champeen: presenting your opponent’s case in ways that are so false and wrong that you get them to run out the clock correcting all your misrepresentations so they never get a chance to make their real case.

I looked through Mr. Carville’s books on Amazon before writing this post and I gather he explains this tactic as framing the debate in his book, Buck Up, Suck Up.

I admit, when Mary brought this up and was trying to give it a name, I jumped in and called it, “rhetorical cheating.”

But something extremely rare and wonderful about the Matalin/Carville home made me reconsider that characterization this morning and give Mr. Carville more credit for integrity: their art collection of paintings, statues, ceramics and glass. I’m not just an art lover, I’m the widow of a genius artist who taught me a thing or two. So here’s the thing about the Matalin/Carville art: from big names to less well-known artists, all of it was real art and it was all chosen with real love. And here’s what is extremely rare: the unifying traits all the pieces share are joy, silence, playfulness and a transcendent spirituality.

So it struck me that the reason James Carville distorts conservative positions to frame them as demonic is NOT just to win arguments and campaigns but because that’s what he really thinks we believe. His liberal brain translates what conservatives believe into those demonic images.

What this means is that when we frame our arguments, we have to take Liberal Brain Syndrome into account. That means the place we have to start in presenting the conservative case is to frame the most fundamental difference between conservativism and liberalism. To wit, conservatives believe wealth is born of an individual’s ideas and grows in a system that respects liberty and lets individuals keep the lion’s share of the fruits of their labors. In contrast, liberals have no idea how wealth is created — money comes from rich people, who got it unfairly, and it must be taken from them by force and re-distributed by all-wise politicians and bureaucrats. So we have to incorporate into our message that money comes from ideas and the little guy with an idea can prosper, just as relentlessly as liberals chant that money comes from rich people and the little guy has no hope.

This is a more compelling message than the traditional conservative one of drastic cuts and shared sacrifice on the part of people who were so wantonly imprudent that they squandered their money instead of becoming independently wealthy before losing the ability to work by becoming elderly, disabled, or both.

Every liberal principle is based on the axiom that the origin of wealth is unknowable. This is a message of hopelessness and stagnation.

Every conservative principle is based on the axiom that the origin of wealth is within each individual in their capacity for creativity. This is a message that enlivens creativity and ambition.

Because of Liberal Brain Syndrome, liberals can’t imagine how wealth is created by individuals with ideas, free markets, less regulation, lower taxes, more incentives to create, energy independence, secure borders and a strong defense. To frame the debate so they can understand what we are saying, we have to tell them how, and paint them the picture, every time.

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  • Liz

    I can definitely see that. I was a committed leftist – I don’t like the term “liberal” in this case; they’re not liberal – in high school. (Shut up, teenagers are meant to be stupid and know everything.)

    And I remember having such spectacular cognitive dissonance that I honestly couldn’t see any good conservatives or even consider any decent, intelligent motivations on their part.

    The fiscal conservatives – well, they just wanted to destroy the little man, amirite? The good socons were just decent, apolitical people being duped by the system. The bad socons were evil sumbitches. (God, it’s embarassing to write this.)

    “…liberals have no idea how wealth is created — money comes from rich people, who got it unfairly, and it must be taken from them by force and re-distributed by all-wise politicians and bureaucrats.”

    It’s what they don’t know that they don’t know that’s the killer here. Leftists honestly don’t believe that there is real freedom in the real world. This lack doesn’t come from the government interfering, it comes from class/race/gender privilege and means that no one ever achieves something on their own. It also means that your failures are down to society.

    They have the right idea that people are being held down (a lot of the more grassroots people operate out of a genuine concern for people) but they genuinely can’t comprehend that it’s the Democrats’ Marxist Corporatism that’s doing it. They constantly point out the “failures” of the “market”, and claim to be the ones living in the real world, but they constantly claim that the moment that they get the right government, with the right principled people, the problems will go away.

    The real problem, however, is that they honestly believe that “the rich” will produce no matter what, and that they’re just whining and dodging when they complain about taxes. No matter how many small and medium business owners they know in real life, they will not see them when they are considering “the business lobby”.

    You have to go far further than pure economics to counter all this. You have to root around to the core assumptions, especially the idea that their country is inherently racist and sexist. Tell them to read Thomas Sowell’s books – most criticize him without reading him and are blown away. A lot of well meaning leftists seem to believe, for instance, that everything that Muslims and African Americans do is down to white people.

    The single most effective economic counter is to frame leftist policies as corporatism, and how the big companies love them.

    • Havewatch

      Brilliant. Something like pointing out that a public-sector union saying “it’s for the children!” is about as slimy as a corrupt megacorp claiming “it’s for the shareholders!” sounds about right.

  • Havewatch

    What really fascinates me about leftist thought in general is that most leftists don’t seem to realize that their position is that the origin of wealth is unknowable; it’s the logical extrapolation from their ideas, but they don’t see that.

    For example, if a person is wealthy, leftists say they must have become so through “exploitation”. That raises the peculiar question of how the poor people they “exploited” had anything of value in the first place, because by leftist definition, any gained capital must be a product of “exploitation”. The image of a finite “pie” gets invoked, but no-one wonders who the baker was, so to speak.

    People won’t learn anything if they’re convinced they aren’t ignorant.

    • True.
      However, it’s important to keep the sequence of the flow of these ideas in order. It is an axiom of Leftist thinking that the origin of wealth is unknowable: that is where they start and all their other ideas flow from that axiom.

  • I like this – it means that we have to do what Leftists never seem to do, that is, think about educating (not overpowering) the opposition.

    • Yes — when we deal with the actual problem, which is that Leftists believe the origin of wealth is unknowable, we can actually get somewhere. We’ve been in an unwinnable will battle with the Left because we’ve been fighting with them over the solutions they propose that are based on their belief their axiom is true. All we do is scare them and make them cling tighter and tighter to their beliefs. I’m going to start exploring here how to frame the conservative message so it addresses this axiom of Leftism.

  • Nigel

    How do they deal with their own wealth? The wealth of the leftist seems to be earned where the wealth of the right seems to be stolen! They are smart where the right is mean. This is the conundrum that gets me.

  • Samantha

    Pardon the intrusion from a new reader 🙂 Your blog showed up on my google reader “recommendations” feed, and your characterization of the conservative/liberal split really got me thinking. I don’t think that the liberal position is that the origin of wealth is unknowable, but instead that it is less predictable than the conservative position allows for. Conservative principles would absolutely hold if everyone who had a good idea, and everyone who worked hard, reaped a livable wage from that effort. Further, conservative principles would be much more appealing if everyone who benefits from great wealth had at some point a great idea worthy of it. Instead, many of history’s greatest thinkers and hardest workers died in poverty, and many of the world’s wealthiest individuals did nothing more than luck into a fine inheritance. It sounds like the liberal axiom may be closer to “wealth often springs from hard work and good ideas, but even then an earthquake or global financial crisis can ruin everything, and we should make sure (to the best of our ability) everyone has the tools to rebuild his/her life.”

    While I don’t have the background to call the argument I’m about to frame “liberal” (I was reared in the south on fiscally conservative principles and only really learned the basics of the other side from a couple of classes in college), I will suggest that more moderate economic policies might be better suited to, as you say, enlivening creativity and ambition.

    I think everyone can agree that the country will do better and better as more people contribute to the marketplace of ideas because as we increase participation, we increase the possibility that some of those ideas will be great. The problem is that great ideas rarely spring from subsistence living. No matter how smart you are, if all of your energy has to go to how you’re going to find your next meal, or where you’re going to sleep tonight, you are much less likely to build the next revolutionary technology than the warm, well-fed person down the street is, even if that person is technically less intelligent. Or less ambitious. Or less creative.

    This is where ending the conversation at “wealth comes from good ideas and hard work” falls apart. Because poverty does not necessarily come from stupidity or sloth (and we have decades of social science to back this up). If the goal is the best ideas out of the most people (because we all, as individuals and as a country, reap the benefits of our citizenry’s innovation), then doing what we can to free up the minds and hands of the poor for more useful, more creative, and more efficient work is in everyone’s best interest. And this is where a social safety net and quality public education make sense.

    This is where those of us who have a little bit more than we need, even if it’s because we worked hard and had good ideas, need to step up. By not addressing poverty and the idea of a living wage for hard work, we doom ourselves mediocrity. Sure there will be a few whose ideas are so good, and whose work is so dogged that they amass great wealth despite being hungry or cold or under educated. But tokenism is never a good solution. It’s wasteful. We’re stuck with any number of mediocre ideas from those born to affluence because there were no barriers to entry, while the good ideas that would have supplanted them in a true meritocracy never see the light of day because the minds that would conceive them are too busy trying to feed their bodies.

    It will always be harder for some to acquire wealth than it is for others, even with the same capacity for great ideas and hard work. The family (or lack there of) that you’re born into, your physical health, and your access to education matter. It seems impractical to operate from the position that everyone has the same opportunity to succeed without at least trying to make sure that that’s true.

  • Make no mistake. Mr. Carville knows very well and good the Conservative position. One does not become a strategist by being silly or unaware, regardless of his taste in art.

    But you are correct on the other point. The Conservative message is a heart warming and inspiring one, told terribly. The Republican message, channel marketing, and PR is very poorly done. They need a good PR firm.

    Sure the message is framed by the Left in an unhelpful light, the sheer volume almost forcing a defensive position. But the message itself is poorly portrayed. I can not think of a national level politician that does it well, although Sarah Palin comes close. I believe it is the number one reason she is so popular. Her message comes from good old common sense though. There is an intellectual message to be told in sound bites, and I rarely hear it anywhere.

    • My point about the art was that the choices reflected integrity. It made me unwilling to believe that Mr. Carville lies in order to win.

      Regarding Sarah Palin, I think she has read Friedrich Hayek, at the very least, and knows that the intellectual pedigree of her approach to economics and government flows from von Mises to Hayek to Reagan, who, by the way, had a degree in economics. I think Gov. Palin is very secure about her intellect, as well she should since she is a brilliant woman, and so to reach the largest number of people, she frames her message as common sense knowing that people may get confused or be put off if she were to cite the economists who inform her thinking.

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