Friday, April 16, 2010

Poor Carpentry

Peter Beinart of The Daily Beast indulges in some Lakoffian framing to "explain" how the Tea Party movement isn't "populist." All he has to do to get there is redefine populism and by implication recast the federal government under the current administration as being the little guy. Seriously! Here, let's watch him stack the deck...
In American history, populism has a specific meaning: It’s our non-Marxist way of talking about class. Being a populist means standing up for the little guy against ruling elites.

Such vague claptrap is what Beinart deploys as a definition of populism for exclusionary purposes. And it fails on the face of it. In modern poli-sci terms populism is best defined as "an ideology which pits a virtuous and homogeneous people against a set of elites and dangerous ‘others’ who are together depicted as depriving (or attempting to deprive) the sovereign people of their rights, values, prosperity, identity and voice." [1]

This is a clear definition of populism that fits well the assorted populist movements in American history, including the current Tea Party movement. Beinart doesn't want to employ it because it specifically negates the rhetorical pretzel logic he has conspicuously constructed to steer the definition back into the fallacious trap of using "populism" as a mere sneering pejorative when describing any popular non-leftist movement. In Beinart's world, ONLY leftist movements employing identity politics can truly be "populist."

Beinart has substituted "little guy" into the equation to exclude anyone falling outside the heroic leftist totem of "the oppressed" from being capable of being "populist." In Beinart's world, only "the oppressed" can be "populists," and in leftist terms that automatically excludes anyone not favored by, well, leftists. It's simply a new polish on the old "victimhood" routine, one intended to deny victim status to anyone not of Beinart's tribe. One is either a victim or an oppressor, and by defining populism in terms of class struggle (while claiming he's being "non-Marxist" in doing so) Beinart seeks to automatically and categorically label the Tea Party people as elitist oppresssors. Thus anyone they are opposed to must categorically be the oppressed.

Now let's watch the second part of the framing attempt, in which Beinart casts the Obama administration in the role of the oppressed, since those opposed to the oppressed by Beinart's definition cannot be populists:
The Tea Partiers aren’t standing up for the little guy; they’re standing up to the little guy. We’ve long known that their leaders, like Sarah Palin, opposed against real regulation of Wall Street. Now we learn that what the Tea Partiers dislike about Barack Obama’s economic policies is that they don’t do enough for the rich. According to the Times, Tea Partiers are more likely than other Americans to think Barack Obama’s policies favor the poor, and they’re mad as heck about it.

Yeah, right. This is merely an attempt by Beinart to cast anyone opposed to the actions of the administration as being part of a privileged racist/elitist mob. Beinart is asserting here that being opposed to the massive growth of federal government and economy-crushing spending by same somehow automatically makes Tea Party people privileged elitists oppressing the "little guy." The "little guy" in this case being the federal government as personified by Barack Obama! (Try oppressing the IRS next time you're summoned for an audit. You'll quickly find out who the "little guy" really is.)

Pretty disingenuous stuff coming from a left-wing elitist Ivy League product of exclusive private schools, Yale, and Oxford. Perhaps Mr. Beinart has mistaken his own wealth of elitist privilege as being an acceptable substitute for intelligence, when even the most cursory examination of his premises makes clear that his ham-handed rhetorical framing is pretty poor carpentry indeed.

As George Orwell once famously remarked, "One has to belong to the intelligentsia to believe things like that; no ordinary man could be such a fool."

UPDATE: Right on cue, here comes reliable tool and left-wing elitist Ivy League product of exclusive private schools, Harvard, and Oxford E.J.Dionne promoting the narrative. Why, you'd almost think it was a coordinated effort on the part of left-wing elitist Ivy League products of exclusive private schools, Harvard/Yale, and Oxford to shape the narrative. Is having had a Rhodes scholarship one of the required credentials for this club? Elsewhere, Glenn Reynolds notes his own powers of prognostication.

UPDATE AGAIN: James Taranto at WSJ's Best of the Web takes notice with "Populism of the Privileged." Heh. Remember that we were there first.

[1] Albertazzi, Daniele and Duncan McDonnell, 2008, Twenty-First Century Populism: The Spectre of Western European Democracy, New York and London: Palgrave Macmillan, p.3


Anonymous said...

Lakoff is a fraud; "framing" is not a new concept despite Lakoff receiving big credit for it; and Beinart is a deceptive meritocrat who uses his expensive education for the betterment of Beinart, not the betterment of his betters.

Tully said...

RE: Lakoff -- No argument here, nor I suspect from anyone familiar with the millenia-old history of propaganda. Lakoff didn't even remotely invent framing, he simply invented his own systematic structural framework for employing it in specific ways, none of which are terribly original.

The salient point of the post, of course, is that Beinart is trying to definitionally exclude the Tea Party movement from being populist, when it most obviously is exactly that. Beinart wants "populism" to be a GoodThink term applicable only to the left.

However, populism is defined not by what Beinart wants it to be, but by how a movement ideologically and motivationally perceives itself. Any given populist movement could be good or bad in the view of some of the general public or of specific political or elitist factions, but the attempts to define populism so as to categorically exclude The Opposing Other and retain the GoodThink label strictly for one's own favored movements is laughable.

mw said...

Apparently Brandeis University did not get the memo on on the Tea Party being an unimportant anti-populist non-movement of the privileged. They are instead going with the Tea Party being on the vanguard of an emerging Neo-Nazi armed militia uprising.

It is indeed laughable when you look at the wildly contradictory "frames" of the Tea Partiers coming out of the left. It is like a child with fingers in the ear saying "Nyah Nyah Nyah I can't hear you!" A breathtaking display of denial. This can only work to the advantage of limited government advocates, fiscal conservatives, the GOP and Dividists in the mid-terms.

I am beginning to believe that against all odds, the GOP might indeed retake the majority in one house or the other in November.

The left wing "framing" fetish always struck me as odd. It betrays a true contempt for the electorate by insisting that people will only understand the crystal clear image of an idea if it is presented in a correct "frame" by a suitable left wing intellect who can explain it properly.

Maybe there was a case to be made for the importance of "framing" when the Dems were an impotent political factor and out of power as the Republicans are now. But now that they hold all the cards, it comes across as nothing but a disingenuous sleight of hand - "Don't worry about what we are actually doing, listen to what we say we are doing."

Perhaps the best example of "framing" can be found somewhere over the rainbow:

"Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain."

I can't think of a more succinct description of the Obama administration gestalt.

Tully said...

All factions "frame" (propagandize) of course. It's the amazing expanding disconnect from reality that's so startling. To abuse that poker analogy, sometimes it's like watching someone continue to raise into you when you already have the certified best hand possible. Sure, go ahead, spash the pot!

The internet gave everyone the chance to indulge in very widespread near-instantaneous dispersion of propaganda, and the left has certainly led the charge. But at the same time it also provides the tools for discovering and highlighting the missing bits, and the out-and-out lies. Silver linings, etc.

True Believers (any faction) will never be swayed from the Doctrine & Dogma, but a large portion of the general public are quite capable of recognizing embedded cognitive dissonance. Not surprisingly, the more indepenent any given voter is from the faith-based factions, the more attention they pay to that embedded dissonance.

Current odds for GOP gains in the House/Senate are at 38/8. Obviously the elections are still a long way out and things can always change, but if they were held today there would be a better-than-even chance that the GOP would take back the House by just a hair, and they'd certainly manage to have a solid filibuster-proof minority in the Senate.