Thursday, December 23, 2004

Beyond narrative

There has been a lot of discussion about the need for Democrats to develop a narrative in order to communicate their message. I agree with this and a lot of good work is being done. But I'm coming to think that there is another problem we have which goes beyond narrative. I think it might be better described as context. We need to better understand and tailor our message to the appropriate context of the existing political debate. The implications of both these ideas though is the same, we do not need to change our message by moving to the right (or left), the content of our message is fine, the presentation, however, stinks.

By context I'm suggesting that there is a framework for a political campaign, indeed the whole political process, in which all the participants, the parties, the press and the electorate have certain roles to play. There are different possible types of context and I think that everyone except for the Democratic party are interacting according to one context and we Democrats are off presenting our message in a different context. The result is a failure to get our positive message across but at the same time presenting the Democratic message in a very negative message light.

This concept of context can best be expressed in terms of analogies. The context then that everyone else is using is that of a jury trial. In that context the Republicans are counsel for conservatism and the Democrats are counsel for liberalism. The electorate is the jury and will decide the case (vote for the party) by analyzing the respective counsel's arguments. The jury does not do much in the way of analyzing and critiquing the two counsel's arguments, that is primarily the job of the attorneys. The job of each counsel is to present the best possible case they can. Each piece of evidence is presented unabashedly as being either favorable to their case, irrelevant, or else questionable. An attorney does not admit weaknesses to his case nor concede points to opposing counsel, certainly not with the jury present. I can elaborate on this analogy, but the point is that the two counsel are to present their case in a frankly biased fashion and leave it to the jury to select between the two cases presented.

Another context to consider though is that of a scientific conference or discussion. Very similar for most other academic discussions, but I'm most familiar with the sciences. Richard Feynman wrote an important essay once arguing that part of the scientific process depends upon a kind of extreme form of honesty, bending over backwards to make sure that those who will hear your arguments will not get mislead. To meet that standard you must not only make sure that what you write and say is accurate, but you need to go out of your way to point out possible flaws in your position. I wrote about these ideas earlier here and here

It is this pointing out flaws in ones own arguments which is such a strong contrast between those two contexts. In a scientific conference you are expected to point out the flaws in your own arguments and should expect those who disagree with you to do the same. In the trial context you do not do this, except perhaps as a tactical maneuver, and cannot expect your opponent to point out flaws in his position. Indeed in a trial it is entirely up to you to point out the flaws in your opponents arguments and if you fail to do this the jury cannot be expected to recognize the flaws at all. Furthermore, if this occurs it is in fact your error not that of opposing counsel nor that of the jury.

The point of all this then is to suggest that among the problems we Democrats have has is that we are arguing in the context of a scientific conference while everyone else is expecting a jury trial. We are admitting our faults, which the jury does not appreciate as extra honesty, but merely finds confusing. It means to them that there is no clear case to asses. We then complain that the jury is stupid and the Republicans dishonest because they are not admitting to their own faults. However, in the trial context they are not supposed to. We concede points to our opponents far too readily for the trial context.

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