originally published on November 1, 2010
In my post last week (Wow, France… Why can’t we do that here?!??), I asked, as the title suggests, what prevents the kind of broad, committed, collective action that we’re seeing in France from happening here in the United States. This is especially perplexing, given that their strike is about opposing the raising of the retirement age from 60 to 62 – whereas here our retirement age is already later than that, our college tuition rates promise a lifetime of debt, our health care system is all sorts of effed up, our hours are longer, our vacations shorter, our social safety net far less comprehensive. I could go on.
I started to answer my own question, discussing the mechanics of how collective action and protest have been negatively branded here, so as to effectively inoculate many people against participation. In response (over at Daily Kos), Pesto asked:
The $64,000 question WRT inoculation is why it hasn’t worked as well elsewhere. It’s not as if multinational corporations in France never considered trying to break French workers’ solidarity or willingness to shut the economy down to win what they want. They certainly understand the basic concepts of propaganda that have worked so well in the US. But whatever they’ve been trying in France hasn’t been working very well.
Big question. Where to begin? Well, why not start with Lady Gaga? More specifically, let’s start with CNN’s utilization of Lady Gaga as a cultural intermediary in their “coverage” of the strikes:
France strike – Some 200 demonstrators blocked France’s Marseille-Provence airport for more than three hours Thursday as strikes and protests continued across the country. The action comes ahead of a final vote on the country’s Pension Reform Bill. Pop star Lady Gaga postponed two Paris shows this weekend because of “the logistical difficulties due to the strikes,” her website said.
Modern US reporting on international news at its finest. At least they bothered to include the bit about the Pension Reform Bill, which just might lead readers to wonder whether those mischievous demonstrators may have some kind of an opinion about pension reform or something. But this anecdote illustrates more than the sorry state of what passes as mainstream journalism. CNN no doubt is genuinely at a loss for how to cover what’s happening in France, either because they think most Americans won’t understand the issues or because they themselves don’t understand the issues, or likely a combination of the two. Lucky for CNN though, Lady Gaga – a common cultural reference – happens to be touring in Europe; and CNN’s market audience will definitely be able to relate to the “inconvenienced traveler” story too.
So besides showing the sorry state of today’s mainstream media, this anecdote also illustrates the lack of a popular framework through which Americans can understand what’s happening in France.
Why isn’t there a popular framework to understand what’s happening in France? Largely because the Democratic Party repeatedly fails (with many important individual exceptions) to tell a coherent and overarching economic justice narrative. In the words of political psychologist and neuroscientist Drew Westen (in his book The Political Brain), “…Republicans assert an extreme principle, the public never hears a compelling counternarrative, and gradually public opinion shifts to the right.” In other words, if Republicans say “greed is good” over and over for three decades, and Democrats are too timid to say, “No, actually greed is bad!” then much of the public – who is predisposed from childhood to think that greed is indeed bad – is left to doubt their own commonsense and instead internalize the malignant idea that the economy is way too complicated for them to understand and that greed must inadvertently play a beneficial role through that invisible hand thing or whatever.
More from The Political Brain:
…political scientist John Zaller has shown how the discourse of “political elites” enters into public discourse and shapes public opinion. …when political elites offer a single message-as is often the case in matters of war, at least early on, when politicians of both parties put aside their differences to support the war effort and the commander-in-chief-the vast majority of the public tends to adopt this shared understanding. Political scientist (and sometimes-consultant) Samuel Popkin has argued that this tendency to play “follow the leader” is a sensible strategy for most voters, who have their own lives to lead and don’t have the time or interest to study all the affairs of state. Accepting uncontested elite opinions represents a form of what Popkin calls “low-information rationality.” If no one on either side of the aisle is contesting an issue at the top of the information chain, why would most voters, who have far less direct knowledge, contest it at the bottom?
Last week The Other School of Economics offered some great analysis about what’s happening in France, describing this same parroting phenomenon as “me-tooism”:
…”me-tooism” is the new modus operandi: the practise of adopting or imitating a policy successfully or popularly proposed by the rival party to ride a popular trend. Resulting in a failure to articulate radical differentiation.
So in our case, Democrats see the Republicans having some success in demonizing people who benefit from social welfare programs and, instead of providing a potent counter-narrative, they say, “Hey, me too!” And as a result:
…neo-liberal orthodoxies have now penetrated the collective psyche (you’d be excused to say ‘brainwashed’)…
Could it be that decades of conservative and neo-liberal brainwashing now trigger Pavlovian unconsidered mainstream chain reactions?: “Government -> control -> banks -> red flag -> smells like socialism -> bery bery bad -> it must me shite”. End of the story.
I love the use of arrows here. Because “arrows”-not arguments-is what this game is all about. These aren’t rational arguments, but cognitive associations. Government is associated with control; control/regulation of banks is associated with socialism (as pejorative), which is a huge red flag for most people because it’s somehow simultaneously associated with Nazism and Stalinism, and both are “enemies of the nation”; and that’s all “bery bery bad.” The wild thing is that these associations are are physically structured in our brains, taking up physical space, physically linked in our neural networks. Republicans have had so much success in burning these associative networks into our brains that nowadays the mere mention of the word “government” activates the whole string. When Democrats fail to boldly say, “No, actually greed is bad!” they’re allowing Republicans to take something as popular as fairness and associate it with fear and resignation; and they’re failing to activate the powerfully motivativing neural networks in our brains that are concerned with fairness and compassion.
In his post Taxes & Terrorism (Open Left), Paul Rosenberg argues that:
…the basis of conservative politics is fear… The conservative try to flood the zone with fear, so that people can’t think straight . . . If the GOP can turn anything into a flashpoint of fear, then they can keep on repeating it, and all thought shuts down–perhaps not for everyone, but for enough. But for them to be really secure, they need the Democrats to buy into their logic as well. Once the Democrats are gripped with fear, and unwilling to talk about a given issue, then that issue belongs to the GOP. Their position on it doesn’t have to make any sense. Making sense is beside the point. The point is scaring people. The point is, in a word, terrorism.
So Republicans have a culture of fear-mongering, that is met by Democrats’ culture of caution. For whatever complicated reasons, this hasn’t taken nearly as much in France. The Other School of Economics argues that that’s really what’s at stake in France:
…more than such and such policies (a tax cut here, a pension age there), it is the blanket acceptance of the liberal [meaning neo-liberal economic] dogma as the only reasonable alternative that is the ultimate prize…
The trouble is that the French seem to be quite recalcitrant, and are telling us that Society is not dead yet…
We should ponder what makes this country still have the ability to reactivate its immune defenses like that. Not being naïve about the many not-so-glamorous aspects of French society (the same as everywhere else really: temptation to materialism, inequalities, latent racism, yadi yada…) there is still a “cultural exception” that is driving the neo-cons nuts. The French should keep it that way.
Progressives in France are still willing to frame a progressive narrative, rather than parrot the reactionaries. When a political party (or whatever organized force with power) actually tells a progressive story, they provide and reinforce cognitive associations that can actually change the way a society thinks. A potent progressive narrative inoculates against fear (so that when, for example, reactionaries try to scare people about potential terrorist threats, society is undeterred) and activates our feelings of compassion, justice and fairness as motivators. As a result, young people are more willing to get out into the streets and to sacrifice convenience today for the long-term health of the whole society – their resignation navigated and their better angels activated. Protests are then bigger, and because they’re bigger they then get even BIGGER because people want to go to big protests, not small ones. So then they’re also more powerful, and they’re more powerfully leveraged politically because there’s not such a chasm between the political parties and young idealists out in the streets. And because protest is seen as powerful by more people, more people are down to participate.
How to get from here to there? We’ve got our work cut out for us.
(P.S. Lady Gaga rocks.)