If The Republicans Won’t Win The Argument There’s No Way They’ll Win The War
One of the environmental advocates who coined this term recently revealed to Jean Chemnick, a reporter for E&E, one of the Left’s most potent weapons in dominating the policy discourse (even while, often although not always, losing political battles). Call it the “framing war.”
In politics, there was “Holocaust denial,” “moon-landing denial” and “evolution denial” — all flowing from Freud, with its implications not only of untruth but of mental illness.
And now the word’s in the center ring of the global warming fight: “Climate denial.”
“Climate change has always been a kind of a framing war,” said George Marshall, founder of the Climate Outreach Information Network in Great Britain and the author of the book “Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change.” “If you can get out there and you can get your language inserted into the discourse, it’s your ideas that dominate.”
Marshall and co-author Mark Lynas published the first reference to “climate denier” in the English-language press in a 2003 op-ed they wrote for the left-leaning magazine The New Statesman.
They wanted those words to sting.
They did — and still do.
There is a famous quote by one of the world’s most obscure philosophers, Andrew Fletcher of Saltoun (a Scottish nationalist who might be overdue for rediscovery): “If a man were permitted to make all the ballads he need not care who should make the laws of a nation….” (From Political Works: Letter to the Marquis of Montrose, and Others, 1703.)
The left, by a shrewdly focused effort to “make all the ballads” — that is, by dominating the culture and defining the terms of the debate — sets the context in which the laws are made. This has led to progressive legislative and policy victories, many of which appear contrary to election results.
As Sun Tzu observed in The Art of War:
“Now the general who wins a battle makes many calculations in his temple ere the battle is fought. The general who loses a battle makes but few calculations beforehand. Thus do many calculations lead to victory, and few calculations to defeat: how much more no calculation at all! It is by attention to this point that I can foresee who is likely to win or lose.”
The left’s generals, unlike the right’s, make many calculations in their temple ere the battle is fought.
The American “New Civil War” is one between center left proponents of social democracy and center right proponents of liberal (in the classical sense) republicanism. America, according to Gallup self-describes as a center right nation on economic policy, and by a margin of about two to one.
The left presents with a brave insouciance as to its many electoral defeats. Why so?
The left believes itself to be right (and the right to be wrong). The left believes that election losses are temporary tactical defeats and that, strategically, they will win the war by persuading the electorate as to the rightness of their views.
There is some evidence that they could succeed if the right keeps defaulting in the framing war.
For the first time since Gallup began polling this matter social liberalism has closed the gap with social conservatism, with the country reportedly now being split 31-31. Self-identified social conservatives are down from what appears to be a median 35%, self-described social liberals are up from what appears to be a median 25%.
This trend apparently started around 2012. It may be reversible if Republicans start taking the framing war seriously (and astutely) and set out to win some arguments, not just elections.
Although an across-the-board conservative I spend a great deal of time taking pleasure in the company of progressives. (Capitalize with capitalists but socialize with socialists, they throw much better parties.) The left maintains high morale in the face of the loss of the Senate and the Republican surge in the House (and, moreover, the left’s recent rout in the UK). They remain of good cheer by virtue of their belief that they are winning the argument and, hence, winning at the ballot box will follow.
It is instructive to review how the left first won the “framing war” on, for one example, same sex marriage, going on to win popular sentiment, and the issue itself, in states comprising 70% of the U.S. population. The left largely won by framing the debate as an argument about “discrimination.”
Restricting marriage to a heterosexual institution axiomatically is discriminatory. Thus this was an argument the right simply could not win on these terms. (Of course, restricting marriage to a dyad also axiomatically is discriminatory.) The right generally failed to argue, or argued obscurely, the incontrovertible fact that the Constitution, as interpreted by the Supreme Court, does not prohibit discrimination. It prohibits only invidious discrimination.
As nicely summarized, from writings by progressive legal thinker Prof. Lawrence Tribe, at uscivilliberties.org, by Lawrence Friedman:
“Invidious discrimination refers to the arbitrarily different treatment of a class of persons by the government. Discrimination is said to be invidious if the law’s classification does not rest on a reasonable and just relation to its aims, whatever those aims may be. Discrimination animated solely by bias or prejudice is invidious.
“Though the principle of equal protection of law stands as a constitutional commitment to the like treatment by the government of all similarly situated persons, it does not render every legislative classification invalid. Indeed, nearly every law discriminates in some way by differentiating on its face or in its effect between similarly situated persons—between those who will benefit from the law and those who will be burdened by it. As interpreted and applied by the Supreme Court, however, equal protection forbids only invidious discrimination.”
To be “discriminating” is a good thing, akin to “discerning,” to be “indiscriminate” is considered poor form, for good reasons. A statement by a spokesman for Maryland governor Larry Hogan, Republican, recently reported in the Washington Post, shows just how dim the GOP can be: “We’re opposed to discrimination — all forms of discrimination….”
The governor’s office fell into a “framing war” trap.
Admittedly there are some who oppose gay marriage based on bias or prejudice. Bias and prejudice, however, are neither the only nor the primary motive of the leading proponents of “Classic Marriage.”
Can laws reflecting conscientiously-founded orthodox religious codes of traditional morality decisively be called “invidious”? This an important, deeply under-discussed, question. Whether this was invidious is an argument that hardly happened.
Whether or not one subscribes to traditional modes of sexual morality there is a powerful argument for the legitimacy of such codes… and for their protection. That proposition is at the very fore of the Bill of Rights. The First Amendment commences: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof….” This principle has been extended to the States via the doctrine of incorporation.
The left shrewdly (perhaps invidiously) collapsed a crucial distinction, making the argument about “discrimination,” eliding the crucial element of “invidious.” It thereby won the framing war. In doing so the left virtually predestined the outcome of the political battle.
Their victory comes at a cost. It is troubling to me, a classical liberal, that the left’s win was gained at the cost of undermining an explicit guarantee of the Bill of Rights. The matter should have been fought out on the issue of invidiousness, something which neither American culture or law protects. As President Washington once famously wrote:
“It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it was the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily, the government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.”
Had the left won an argument that keeping marriage exclusively between a man and a woman was invidious — akin to anti-miscegenation laws (which had no religious basis) which were ruled unconstitutional — it would have won a clean, rather than a dirty, victory. That’s not what happened. Next up: religious liberty.
Progressives work with impressive relentlessness across a broad variety of fronts to advocate for greater government intervention in our lives, including in the economy. Their current main theater of operations, directly relevant to the 2016 presidential election, is wage stagnation, retarded income mobility, and the prejudice of what Sen. Elizabeth Warren stirringly called, “America’s once invincible middle class….”
As also noted by Gallup the left is flying into a serious headwind of strong center right voter sentiment on economic policy. As I here observed in 2012 before, “American progressives keep promising Denmark, a true socialist workers paradise and the happiest country in the world, and delivering Detroit: now entering the Ninth Circle of Hell.” (Note from 2015: welcome back from the Ninth Circle, Detroit! Next down, Chicago?)
I stipulate to the left’s authentic humanitarianism and a well-founded desire to, as its latest manifesto declares, establish “an agenda for growth and shared prosperity.” I dispute the likely efficacy of its proposed means.
The left has its work cut out for it in framing the 2016 election as one about “income inequality” so as to persuade an electorate who just wants opportunity to thrive to embrace massive government intervention in the economy. That said, the left has a virtual monopoly in the “framing wars’ and the left’s generals clearly have spent time in their temples ere the battle is fought.
Unless the GOP begins to take the middle income families’ malaise seriously — with a serious approach to restoring equitable prosperity — with special emphasis on restoring good monetary policy, “Reagan’s and Clinton’s secret sauce,” it is not at all out of the question that we shall see Hillary Clinton, on January 20, 2017, with her right hand on the Holy Bible and her left hand on Rewriting The Rules of the American Economy: an agenda for growth and shared prosperity taking the oath of office of the president of the United States.
As Sean Fieler, chairman of American Principles in Action (for which I serve as senior advisor, economics) recently noted in Newsweek:
The Republican Party, the party of ideas, needs to rediscover the value of “first winning the argument and then winning the vote,” to paraphrase Margaret Thatcher.
Winning the “framing war” is a powerful tool for winning arguments. Winning arguments leads to winning political battles. That can, and might, lead one side to victory in the New Civil War between America’s social democrats and its classical liberal republicans. High time for the right to get this right.