Tuesday, December 14, 2004

Hyman Slouches Toward Irrelevance

Do you remember the battle between VHS and Betamax for dominance of the video recorder market? Betamax seemed to have the advantage. It was more established. The tapes themselves were smaller and more convenient than their bulky VHS counterparts. Betamax also provided better sound and video quality. But VHS won out and Betamax became the answer to a trivia question. Why?

It wasn’t because of the quality of the product. Beta had all the advantages. But VHS marketed more aggressively and more successfully. By suggesting they were the de facto format for video recorders, they made the claim a reality by continually repeating it in a catchy way.

That’s what Mark Hyman hopes to do in
his latest editorial. Supposedly offering sage advice for Democrats on who to pick for their party chair, Hyman actually is attempting to do what VHS did: convince his audience that his product (radical social conservatism) is the political coin of the realm. By asserting the supposed mainstream-ness of his views, he hopes to make this bald faced lie part of conventional wisdom.

But as we pointed out in a post last month, we live in a blue country. If you examine the extensive polling data on every major issue, from Iraq to income taxes, Americans are far more in line with the Democratic Party than they are with Republicans. In fact, a hypothetical candidate whose positions were determined solely by existing polling data on every issue would be significantly to the left of John Kerry.

As Thomas Frank points out in
"What's the Matter with Kansas?", as well as George Lakoff in "Moral Politics" and "Don't Think of an Elephant," elections, particularly at the national level, are not decided by voters sitting down and ticking off a list of issues and counting how many of their specific positions are shared by a candidate. The entire art (if we can use that word in this context) of the campaign ad is predicated on such decisions not being simple matters of logic. People vote on feel, on perception, on which of the competing narratives being offered seems better to them.

Hyman suggests Democrats need to have a centrist heading up the party, not someone like Howard Dean. He’s wrong. Democrats already have the issues on their side—they don’t need to move anywhere (at least not to the right). The difficulty is that for too long, Democrats have relied on the simple fact that their political positions are more in line with those of the voters. That, one might figure, should be enough.

But positions don’t matter if they aren’t communicated effectively. What made (and continues to make) Bill Clinton so popular is not centrist politics, but his ability to frame his positions in the context of a compelling narrative—in short, to tell a good story.

At the moment, Republicans have the better storytellers on the national level. That’s the result of having positions that are demonstrably less popular with (and less advantageous for) the electorate. They need to craft artful narratives in order to have a chance, and, necessity being the mother of invention, they’ve become masters at it.

But if there’s one thing that this election proved to Democrats, it’s that they can’t rely on simply being right. They need to express this rightness in a compelling way. Howard Dean is someone who’s shown an ability to do this. There are others, and there will be more. And when enough Democrats have honed their narrative craft, all else being equal, the better and more popular ideas will win. And that’s good news for Democrats.

And that’s also The Counterpoint.

PS. Hyman casually says that every candidate Bill Clinton endorsed or campaigned for in 2004 lost. Well, we typed “Bill Clinton,” “endorsement,” and “2004” into Google, and the first thing we found was that Clinton had endorsed Tom Lantos for Congress in the California 12th, both in the primary and in the general election. Lantos crushed his challenger for the Democratic nomination (who had desperately attempted to get Clinton’s endorsement), and then beat his Republican challenger 68% to 21% in the general election. If “Fact Checker for ‘The Point’” wasn’t an oxymoron, I ‘d suggest you get a new one, Mark.


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