25 Jun 2012

Cameron and How he is Framing the Political Debate

Paying tax is how we help each other, how we express our concern for the education of children, caring for the sick and elderly, and providing amenities for the community, like roads, electricity and water.
I've been looking into George Lakoff's work on how political discourse is framed. Conservatives have an underlying metaphor of the community as a family ruled by a strict father, who is always right, rules by authority and force (if necessary). In this family morality is expressed as obedience. It requires discipline. The moral are rewarded with success. So if you are poor, it is because you lack discipline and are therefore immoral. A loving parent would discipline an immoral child by chastising them.

Does David Cameron's touting for votes by punishing the poor make a little more sense in this light? And what about the rewarding of his successful, i.e. rich friends? And since Jimmy Carr portrays himself as a pervert for comic effect (edgy, but successful), he doesn't deserve the enormous success he's had, so he is targeted when Tory donors using similar schemes are fine and dandy.

The strict father family is invoked in other ways. Since Reagan, at least, conservative politicians have been framing tax as a affliction. Reagan campaigned on "tax relief" ie relief from the imposition and affliction of government taking our money.  When tax is framed as a burden it is only rational to stick to the letter of the law, not the spirit of the law. We forget the the spirit of the law is working together to create a better world.

Also "the market" (which is entirely a fiction created by delusional economists) is like the perfect strict father: the market knows, decides, rewards and punishes, and its authority should not be ursurped by regulation. Conservatives feel drawn to this idea. Perhaps this is an idea that has had it's day, but in fact not legislation has been passed which might make a difference to the markets. The markets are still free to gamble on assets for instance. The market as conceived by economists is simple, rational, linear, and tends towards an equilibrium. It perfectly rewards the industrious and punishes the lazy. The market then is the Buddhist conception of karma, and impersonal force which keeps tabs on us.

Providing support for young people to find independence, is important for creating a dynamic society. In times when house prices have been inflated by criminals gambling on asset prices, we have a moral obligation to provide help paying the rent. We could do away with housing benefit if rents reflected  the real cost of ownership.
Conservatives are concerned that people are getting something for nothing, that the system rewards those who choose not to work. Laziness is immoral in their world view, and Cameron has several times let slip that he sees himself as not only a political leader, but a moral leader. Conservatives are asking themselves why anyone should "benefit" from not working, not why we should support those who are unable to work because economic mismanagement has lead to high unemployment. Facts don't help because Cameron is appealing to emotions which emerge out of a deep seated world view. We can say that there are 11 people out of work for every job available in the UK, but this does not change the fundamental attitude. Housing benefit just epitomises this problem for Torys.

Ironically the people making money with no effort are the bankers and those with enormous investment portfolios. Like Cameron himself. If working hard is a virtue then the bankers who gambled our money away are some of the most vicious members of our society. They didn't earn the money. And the public had to spend a trillion pounds bailing them out. "The market", to use that language showed us that banks and financial speculators were wrong and immoral by making them insolvent. But the government has failed to follow through on the morality of that particular mess.

Part of the problem is that progressives tend to argue by negating the words of the conservatives (who are way ahead in terms of setting the agenda). But even when we negate a word we invoke the frame it is defined by, and the narratives it is embedded in. George Lakoff illustrates this by saying "don't think of an elephant".

But progressives have a different family in mind. A family of nuturing parents. Mother and father are involved. They teach us that respect does not come from position or authority but has to be earned. We look after each other, and help those who need help. The nuturing family is tied into a the extended family, and into the wider community.

Progressives failed to make the point that paying tax is how we help each other, how we express our concern for the education of children, caring for the sick and elderly, and providing amenities like roads, electricity and water. They don't point out that though pooling our resources we have created a better society. If we forget what it was like we have Charles Dickens to remind us!

No one, no matter who they are or what they are doing, succeeds on their own. There is always a team. The most successful business person relies on teams of people to carry out their vision and implement their strategies. Cameron himself relies on Tory donors, party workers, policy advisers, the civil service, his wife and family, on voters. We are all inter-related.

How do we get this across without falling into the trap of sounding like communists? Because the conservatives have long ago linked this kind of discourse to the Soviets and the Chinese.

One thing you will notice about Cameron is that he does not attack the left on their own terms. He does so in his own conservative language, repeating catch phrases. Now Cameron and his team are not particularly adept at this game, but more recently Cameron has been falling back on more traditional conservative language. And the conservatives around the country will be lapping it up, not because Cameron is stating facts or being more logical than the left, but because to a conservative this kind of talk feels right. And on the other hand this means that simply opposing this message with facts is unlikely to change minds. On my other blog I have tried to explain how this process works.

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Keep is seemly & on-topic. Thanks.