Framing Wars, “The Chris Daughtry Effect”, and Jean Baudrillard’s Argument for the Genius of Mitt Romney’s Campaign
A Three Part Series Setting the Stage for the 2012 Presidential Election
For those of us who follow politics, the twists and turns of a Presidential election is one of the most entertaining things to watch unfold, from announcements to primaries to election night. We flip on MSNBC and Fox for the insight of slanted talking heads, CNN for the 13 interactive projection screens, read Politico and The Hill for the inside information and internal battles that go into a campaign. We do delegate math and analyze the significance of external events and various endorsements. It’s like watching the final season of The West Wing, except better (although I do wish Jimmy Smits and Alan Alda were politicians in real life). It’s just the best.
I personally believe that this election will come down to 3 things:
1) The formulation and execution of specific broad framing strategies of the respective campaigns.
2) The mathematical perils of expectative voters. This is something that I will henceforth refer to and explain further in part 2, as “The Chris Daughtry Effect.”
And 3) How successful the theories of French post-structuralist philosopher Jean Baudrillard will prove, or not prove, to be about modern society based on the results of this election.
So let’s get right into it.
My #1 2012 Election factor is framing. I’m a sucker for framing. The broad campaign framework that belies every strategic decision from there on forth. I think I get this propensity to look for and analyze these meta-strategies, in part at least, from my old debate coach and general life mentor, John Kephart. Every time we talked politics, debate, anything really, he always taught me to look for the the larger strategy. It made me a better thinker; and by proxy, a better debater. Seemingly innocuous questions during cross-examination or hidden sentences in texts of evidence would give clues as to how the opposing team was going to frame their argument or provide my partner and I with an opportunity to frame their evidence in a different and less advantageous light. In an activity like policy debate, in which people are by and large saying the same things in different ways and with varying fact-bases to back them up (kind of like in politics), this kind of insight was extremely useful.
This strategy-forming method was especially crucial when a debate was less about minute geopolitical details and more about broad philosophical opposition points. Mostly because philosophical divergences, other than in ivory-tower academia, are rarely narrow or simple to settle. They are grand sweeping lenses in which to view a topic of generally immense important to oneself. And with those kinds of moral discrepencies, framing is key.
Unfortunately, in debate, most teams would always try to make their framing of the argument about life-and-death, using sophistry and spin to feign the highest order of importance. Vote affirmative or else (fill in melodramatic nonsense here: no value to life, nuclear war, blah blah blah) and vice versa. Teams with very minute qualitative differences between their approach to the activity of debate itself, as well as the genre of their arguments, would try so desperately hard to show the judge that the worlds of the affirmative and negative are wildly different and that a judge would be committing forensic massacre if he didn’t choose their side. Hogwash.
FYI: this concept is so well-known in the policy debate community that the [arguably] funniest debate blog/tumblr out there is called “And nuclear war…” Check it out. Hilarious if you ever did debate.
Having said that, political campaigns seem to do the exact same thing (it shouldn’t come as a shock that many debaters go on to be lawyers, political operatives, and think tank analysts). Competing campaign operatives, especially in a Presidential race, will never just admit to being basically being the same as the other guy with a discrepancy between minute details. To get out the vote, generate interest, move the media needle, and keep the typical apathetic voter passionate enough to get to the polls both camps will always try to make the consequence of your ballot tantamount to life and death.
So, I have good news and bad news.
The Good News: In 2012, you do actually have a real choice. Certainly on social issues: women’s reproductive health, gender and sexual orientation equality, general interpretational differences in what the Constitution says, means and should mean, approaches to homelessness and poverty, etc etc. But really, social justice and economic justice go hand-in-hand and the most stark difference you’ll be able to analyze and enjoy this November is that of the candidates’ fundamental approaches to macro-economics in the face of inflated debt and the globalization of trade –
And no… the choice does not look like this. It’s a bit more complex.
Romney: General austerity to stop the free fall and a balance of laissez faire (unregulated) and free market (consumerism drives prices, theoretically inducing competition) Capitalism to catalyze growth.
Obama: A combination of budget cuts through streamlining government and equitable tax-and-spend investment in areas that will theoretically result in long-term, sustainable economic stability and growth (chiefly infrastructure, access to and quality of education, and environmental industry growth).
The Bad News: It’s still politics so, you will be getting two sides of the same coin in a nice chunk of ways. Both candidates will inevitably cave into the corrosive pressures of modern influence (see Super PACs, Obama’s Stance On), both will move to the center and dodge some issues like the Greatest making Liston look foolish in order to pander to some large group of people, both will flip-flop at some point on something (one obviously more than the other because, well let’s just face it, Mittens is really just plastic beach footwear at this point; I hope we all see that regardless of party affiliation). Both will only be able to deliver less than all (by a lot) of what they promise during their campaigns. As a nation, we will continue to put security ahead of personal liberty and use remote-control toy planes on Bane steroids to “neutralize” a lot of innocent people abroad. Excetera, excetera.
Point being: it actually matters who you vote for this Fall. And who wins will depends largely on how all of this will be framed over the next 7 months.
Part 1: Framing Wars – Hope v. Empire
A short short time ago…
In a Nation Seriously Right Here…
It is a period of civil war. Fringe billionaires, striking from a hidden base, have planned their victory against the Chicago Empire. You get the (not very good and possibly role-reversed) parody by now. If not, you seriously need to get cracking and watch some Star Wars (the real ones not the sucky origination trilogy. Except The Phantom Menace, that one is pretty good. Moving on.)
Remember how I mentioned, like 5 paragraphs ago, that the closer two debate teams were in style, if not substance, the more intense they would diverge on framing their arguments? Well, the 2012 Election is a great example.
Forget Romney’s “severely conservative” claims, and don’t bank too hard on Obama’s new-founded Rooseveltian populism. While in substantive implementation and policy beliefs, these two are quite different, make no mistake, this is a race between two Harvard-educated, rational-minded, cool-tempered, pragmatists.
If the first weeks post-Romney all-but locking up the nomination are any indication, the framing of this particular election is going to be one of the most interesting we’ve seen.
Team Hope: Hope, Change, Forward, Drone Strikes, Super PACs, A, A, Back, Triangle. It’s the cheat code that will make magically make us judge this President by actions and not perception. If only it were that easy.
Chicago HQ will have one of the most uniquely difficult tasks in Presidential campaign history: making the American electorate adequately digest, retain, and believe facts. I know, pure insanity. And it really is that simple. If Axelrod and Co. could wave a magic wand and make the entire United States understand and believe nothing but the facts about Obama’s Presidency vs. Romney’s Governorship, business history and leadership plans then I could say with relative certainty that the President would win this election by anywhere between 10-15 percentage points, easily.
Why is this so difficult? Well, the easy answer is that people, by and large, are kinda dense and would much rather be swept up in the hoopla of entertainment then make emotional, relatively uninformed decisions because it’s easy and fun.
But here’s my armchair social psychologist’s analysis as to why this is such a difficult framing assignment: Barack Obama is a frustrating human being and politician for the average American citizen to deal with and/or compute. A) He’s incredibly intelligent. Like, ridiculously so. He covers all of his bases, all of the time and makes the majority of his personal decisions, the right one. I mean, we just uncovered journals of the man deconstructing one of the most difficult poems of the 21st century (T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land) AS A 22 YEAR OLD, IN THE FORM OF A LOVE LETTER! Seriously? B) He is charismatic beyond measure. Personable, decent looking, good singer, funny. Blah blah. C) He’s extremely morally sound. Great family life, no giant discrepancies, no infidelity, no FEC investigations, and generally just very little dirt of note. D) For where he has gone wayward in his life, he has described it in eloquent excellence in a pristinely written best-selling autobiography. Gag. E) By all rational accounts he has been a pretty good (at the very least) President. And by that, I mean he has caused no catastrophes, he’s improved our perceived standing in the world, and things are better off in this country than they were when he came in. That’s all. F) And to top it off? He’s a black dude with a Muslim name… in America; and whether we choose to accept it or not, a lot of people in this country aren’t very okay with that.
So consider this: when is the last time in your life you experienced a President with even a majority of those qualifications? Bush II, The Herp-Derp Chronicles? Nope. Slick Willy? Close, but no, too much personal baggage. Bush Senior? Too shady, as personable and inspiring as a swinette (that’s right, I said swinette. 20 points to whoever knows what that is without scurrying for the link).
Reagan. It’s Ronald Reagan. That’s the last time. Many of us don’t even remember his administration but for those who do, he’s the Republican Jesus, so that doesn’t translate to any relation or understanding with Obama. Yeah, that’s the difference. He was a Caucasian, Conservative, Hollywood (albeit B/C-level) Western actor.
Point being, some people will hate him regardless of any presented facts. But most Americans (over 60% in most polls) like the President, they do. But most of us don’t understand him or don’t want to because he’s kind of a reminder of how lazy, morally weak, untalented, possibly racist, and well… human, we are. We do not know how to deal with a genuinely intelligent, charismatic, ethically solid, (at least) moderately successful as a leader, humbly self-reflective politician; from a race and with a name from two cultures that we, of the former, owe big time, and in the latter, distrust.
So, with normal relatable person ruled out, what are the alternatives for his identity in the mind of the average voter? Savior and Satan. Unfortunately, he hasn’t turned water into jobs nor is his band of Al Queda buddies executing Pastors for eating french fries at Ground Zero. Where does that leave us?
Basic psychology posits that the conflict between presumption and reality is angst (specifically an acute but nonspecific sense of remorse, anxiety, and disappointment).
That’s why this campaign’s job is so difficult. His easy path to re-election is through logic, through facts, through objective analysis. But Maya Angelou famously said “people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
The honeymoon is over. Get the American people to digest the facts just as they are and separate our odd cornucopia of emotions regarding Obama when in the intimacy of that booth? No. We are emotional animals. We think, vote, love, and act, for better or worse (usually worse) with our emotions.
President Obama: make us feel like you are our best hope again. And good luck.
Team T-1000: Robotic enough to have no emotional connection to anyone yet liquid enough to fundamentally change form to adapt to any situation – ladies and gentleman, Mr. Willard Mitt Romney.
Mitt Romney is tired of trying to pander to you people. Except not at all.
The framing task of the Romney 2012 campaign is far more intriguing, and oddly enough, less difficult than that of his opponent.
The Romney campaign will be framing their entire campaign against the President at the subconscious level of the average American by attacking far more often, Barack Obama, the caricature, and far less Barack Obama, the man and the President. This would have been the strategy no matter who the Republican nominee was. (Un)fortunately for the GOP, they didn’t listen to every accomplished economist not working for the Heritage Foundation and banked on a crap economy and thus propped up Willard as their Mr. Capitalism/Fix-It Man.
So what’s the plan?
Mitt Romney and his campaign will have to do two things in the next 6 months:
First, mobilize the conservative base by creating a man that Bible Belt America has feared since the South got mollywoped by the Union seven score and seven years ago, a man that simply doesn’t exist: Doppelganger Barack Hussein Obama:
A child of the single-mother hip-hop inner-city environment that breeds thugs and liars, a disciple of Saul Alinksy Chicago leftist “community organizing”, an uppity N-word turned know-nothing liberal Harvard-educated professor who would sooner take up arms with Farrakhan and the Panthers than go to Church and oppose abortion, a spawn of radical Indonesian and Kenyan Islam, a product of post-1960’s affirmative action black-pandering America who stormed into the White House through luck and favors, an inexperienced silver-tongued car salesman who duped us through empty rhetoric and has failed us miserably where it hurts most – our traditions and our wallets.
All while propping up their guy, Mitt, not as a person (because that really is quite tall an order), but simply as the polar opposite of all that they fear. The Great White
security blanket Hope.
Second, they’ll need to tap into the disappointed, moderate Independent base by convincing people, through sheer force of rhetorical repetition and constant ads, that Obama has been a disappointment and that the economy is stagnant, not impressive, and un-American under our current President.
That’s it. Develop the image of the caricature, push the fear of a “plying with house money” second term of the aforementioned caricature, posit yourself as the cauterization to the wound of withering Anglo-Saxon values for your fringe base, hope that that base holds up as the statistically more active voting bloc than your opponents’, talk the centrist-disappointed talk to moderate undecideds, play some minimal defense by deflecting the spotlight off of Romney and squarely on to the complex emotional relationship we have with the President, and let your well-constructed well-funded campaign infrastructure do it’s thing.
Whether this strategy works or not on the scope and degree in which Romney is and will be doing it, frankly, speaks to a whole other issue. One that will be the sole topic of part 3, our final part in this series.
Next – Part 2 in our 2012 Presidential Election Season series.
(Editor’s Note: In full disclosure, the author, Calvin Abbasi is President and Executive Director of Students for Obama, California as well as an elected Presidential delegate to the 2012 Democratic National Convention.)