Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Bush's Strategic 'Incompetence'

The Bush administration’s ‘incompetence,’ frequently invoked by its critics, actually misses the real issue. For in fact, as evidenced by the long list of its significant achievements, the conservative leadership is very successful and hence competent at executing a conservative philosophy. Thus, the problem is not the failure but precisely the success of conservative ideology. At least this is George Lakoff’s thesis, published in AlterNet on July 3, 2006, under the title, Bush Is Not Incompetent.

Lakoff is famous for applying the concept of framing to conservative and progressive politics. His main argument is that conservatives have managed to reframe key public debates by systematically and consistently using language in a way so as to evoke an emotional reaction that immediately relates the issue at hand to a conservative worldview. The challenge for progressives of course is to counter this conservative framing with their own framing in order to strengthen a progressive political and social philosophy. According to Lakoff, whoever dominates the worldview, dominates public discourse and thereby controls politics and policies. The Breakthrough Institute has taken up the challenge and attempts to apply and further develop Lakoff’s framing concept.

Lakoff is professor of linguistics at Berkeley, Senior Fellow at the Rockridge Institute, and the author of many influential books on philosophy, linguistics, and politics, including Moral Politics (1996), Don’t Think of an Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate – The Essential Guide for Progressives (2004) and, most recently, Whose Freedom? The Battle Over America's Most Important Idea (2006). For a harsh critique of the latter, see Kevin Drum’s review in the July/August issue of Mother Jones, At a Loss of Words.


According to Lakoff,
conservative philosophy has three fundamental tenets: individual initiative, that is, government's positive role in people's lives outside of the military and police should be minimized; the President is the moral authority; and free markets are enough to foster freedom and opportunity.
He gives three examples to illustrate how the Bush administration advanced its conservative vision beneath the veil of ‘incompetence:’ the mushrooming budget deficit, the Iraq fiasco, and the disastrous non-response to hurricane Katrina.

His basic argument is plausible and sounds disturbingly familiar. If government indeed is the problem, according to Reagan’s famous slogan, and you are in power, you will ‘govern’ as badly as you can in order to discredit government even further. If government is the problem, you have to show that it is indeed incompetent. You do so by systematically weakening it, with the exception of the few functions that are compatible with conservative ideology and that are important for your constituencies. The ultimate irony is that conservatives attribute all the failures that they have caused of course not to their governing, but to government as such, thereby discrediting it even more in the eyes of the public. All this amounts to what could be called not only tactical, but strategic incompetence.

If you want to reduce the role of government in the economy as much as possible, and ultimately limit it to assuring the functioning of the ‘free market,’ the best way to go about it is to ‘starve the beast’ (Grover Norquist). You lower taxes during wartime, which is unprecedented, in order to weaken public finances to the point that when confronted with the stark alternative to pay for social programs or for national security, you of course have to choose the latter, especially with the permanently looming danger of terrorism. To reduce the social role of the government to pre-FDR times seems to be one of the strategic objectives of right-wing organizations such as the Federalist Society, which has close ties to the government. Many Americans still don’t seem to realize that the Bush administration is one of the most radical administrations in history. Their goal is to severely and structurally weaken government for a long time to come.
One of the goals of Conservatives is to keep people from relying on the federal government. Under Bush, FEMA was reorganized to no longer be a first responder in major natural disasters, but to provide support for local agencies. This led to the disastrous response to Hurricane Katrina. Now citizens, as well as local and state governments, have become distrustful of the federal government's capacity to help ordinary citizens. Though Bush's popularity may have suffered, enhancing the perception of federal government as inept turned out to be a conservative victory.
Lakoff's conclusion is worth reading carefully, especially for its strategic and long-term implications:
The mantra of incompetence has been an unfortunate one. The incompetence frame assumes that there was a sound plan, and that the trouble has been in the execution. It turns public debate into a referendum on Bush's management capabilities, and deflects a critique of the impact of his guiding philosophy. It also leaves open the possibility that voters will opt for another radically conservative president in 2008, so long as he or she can manage better. Bush will not be running again, so thinking, talking and joking about him being incompetent offers no lessons to draw from his presidency.

Incompetence obscures the real issue. Bush's conservative philosophy is what has damaged this country and it is his philosophy of conservatism that must be rejected, whoever endorses it.

Conservatism itself is the villain that is harming our people, destroying our environment, and weakening our nation. Conservatives are undermining American values through legislation almost every day. This message applies to every conservative bill proposed to Congress. The issue that arises every day is which philosophy of governing should shape our country. It is the issue of our times. Unless conservative philosophy itself is discredited, Conservatives will continue their domination of public discourse, and with it, will continue their domination of politics. (emphases added)
It is important that Lakoff insists on the success of conservative ideology not in spite of unintentional but precisely because of intentional conservative incompetence. However, it should be pointed out that ideology of course does not succeed in and of itself. It can succeed in controlling politics and policies only if it is supported by governing power, supplemented by a strong sociopolitical infrastructure.

At least this is the conclusion drawn from the analysis of power structures inspired by Steven Lukes, John Gaventa, and Bill Domhoff. In fact, there are three levels of power: Governing power in formal political institutions, the power of the sociopolitical infrastructure, especially in setting the agenda, and the power of ideology, worldview or philosophy, if you prefer, which is the deepest, and many would say the most important level of power. All three levels of power strengthen or, as the case may be, weaken each other. In the case of the right over the past 35 years, it has built a very strong infrastructure that has consistently advanced a conservative communication strategy (including framing), which eventually has resulted – and in turn has been reinforced by – governing power.

If progressives want to have a chance to effectively weaken the conservative power structure, they have to develop their infrastructure vigorously. For without it, not enough people will hear the progressive message and will be convinced by the progressive worldview that comes with it. Given how long it took conservatives to build their power structure, and given how weak the progressive power structure still is today, especially in comparison to that of the conservatives, this will by necessity be a long-term project. There does not seem to be a shortcut to it, for social structures by definition develop slowly, and only if you invest a lot of time, money, energy and all kinds of other resources, to cultivate long-term relationships, develop lasting organizations, and build a powerful network. Of course, having a strategy for how to do all this would help, too.

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