Al gets it

Posted May 17th, 2007 by Sylvia S Tognetti and filed in Civics 101

As attention gathers around Al Gore’s new book, The Assault on Reason, I’m waiting to see if Frank Luntz helps to reframe and build consensus around climate and related matters, as Gore is actually doing, or whether he continues to just call for building consensus and finding “ways to be environmentally protective and not anti-economy,” – and dismisses Gore and friends as angry and hysterical, in which case he can be dismissed as “a Luntz” and his extended 15 minutes, if not over, will become a lesson for the history books. Regardless, Al seems to be ready for him and his kind – below a few quotes from an excerpt that just appeared in Time magazine:

American democracy is now in danger—not from any one set of ideas, but from unprecedented changes in the environment within which ideas either live and spread, or wither and die. I do not mean the physical environment; I mean what is called the public sphere, or the marketplace of ideas.

It is simply no longer possible to ignore the strangeness of our public discourse. I know I am not alone in feeling that something has gone fundamentally wrong. In 2001, I had hoped it was an aberration when polls showed that three-quarters of Americans believed that Saddam Hussein was responsible for attacking us on Sept. 11. More than five years later, however, nearly half of the American public still believes Saddam was connected to the attack.

At first I thought the exhaustive, nonstop coverage of the O.J. Simpson trial was just an unfortunate excess—an unwelcome departure from the normal good sense and judgment of our television news media. Now we know that it was merely an early example of a new pattern of serial obsessions that periodically take over the airwaves for weeks at a time: the Michael Jackson trial and the Robert Blake trial, the Laci Peterson tragedy and the Chandra Levy tragedy, Britney and KFed, Lindsay and Paris and Nicole….

…When I first ran for Congress in 1976, I never took a poll during the entire campaign. Eight years later, however, when I ran statewide for the U.S. Senate, I did take polls and like most statewide candidates relied more heavily on electronic advertising to deliver my message. I vividly remember a turning point in that Senate campaign when my opponent, a fine public servant named Victor Ashe who has since become a close friend, was narrowing the lead I had in the polls. After a detailed review of all the polling information and careful testing of potential TV commercials, the anticipated response from my opponent’s campaign and the planned response to the response, my advisers made a recommendation and prediction that surprised me with its specificity: “If you run this ad at this many ‘points’ [a measure of the size of the advertising buy], and if Ashe responds as we anticipate, and then we purchase this many points to air our response to his response, the net result after three weeks will be an increase of 8.5% in your lead in the polls.”

I authorized the plan and was astonished when three weeks later my lead had increased by exactly 8.5%. Though pleased, of course, for my own campaign, I had a sense of foreboding for what this revealed about our democracy. Clearly, at least to some degree, the “consent of the governed” was becoming a commodity to be purchased by the highest bidder. To the extent that money and the clever use of electronic mass media could be used to manipulate the outcome of elections, the role of reason began to diminish.

As a college student, I wrote my senior thesis on the impact of television on the balance of power among the three branches of government. In the study, I pointed out the growing importance of visual rhetoric and body language over logic and reason. There are countless examples of this, but perhaps understandably, the first one that comes to mind is from the 2000 campaign, long before the Supreme Court decision and the hanging chads, when the controversy over my sighs in the first debate with George W. Bush created an impression on television that for many viewers outweighed whatever positive benefits I might have otherwise gained in the verbal combat of ideas and substance. A lot of good that senior thesis did me.

The potential for manipulating mass opinions and feelings initially discovered by commercial advertisers is now being even more aggressively exploited by a new generation of media Machiavellis. The combination of ever more sophisticated public opinion sampling techniques and the increasing use of powerful computers to parse and subdivide the American people according to “psychographic” categories that identify their susceptibility to individually tailored appeals has further magnified the power of propagandistic electronic messaging that has created a harsh new reality for the functioning of our democracy.

In the article he also says:

If I do my job right, all the candidates will be talking about the climate crisis. And I’m not convinced the presidency is the highest and best role I could play. The path I see is a path that builds a consensus—to the point where it doesn’t matter as much who’s running. It would take a lot to disabuse me of the notion that my highest and best use is to keep building that consensus.

But if he should he decide to run, bloggers will have his back this time.

Luntz may be history anyhow as it isn’t clear he would even know how to begin to reframe climate and related issues. In the Frontline interview, he also said: “you tell me where global warming fits in on the more immediate issues –  Iraq, Iran, terrorism, health care, prescription drugs, education…” I will, but not today. It takes much more effort than finding jingles that resonate and this isn’t my full time job. If we want to bring people around we have to go through the painstaking and discomforting process of constructing a new frame of reference rather than using inadequate ones just because they work. This dilemma is what motivated me to start blogging in the first place.


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One Response to “Al gets it”

  1. Ted says:

    I hope he doesn’t use really, really difficult words because I will probably read the book — I’d like to understand the argument he’s making for myself, but I don’t really buy the notion that Al cares too much about the assault on reason itself based on his performance as VP. I think he’s just trying to counter the success that Republicans sometimes have, and to expiate the American public of the responsibilities it bears. I expect the there, there, children — someone else done it to us argument.
    I’m also ordering The Myth of the Rational Voter because I suspect that there will be contention on the whole assault vs. willing rubes thing between the two books.
    Don’t get me wrong, on the whole, I like Al. I hope he gets a Nobel Prize for his work with climate change. It’s good stuff, but Al is not the kind that would challenge the status quo too much, would not challenge the military-industrial complex sufficiently, would not challenge the business base, would not upset the cart geopolitically. And overall, I don’t think that the strategy of status quo will work.
    Nice blog BTW — quite well written.

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