Exploring the Eclipse of Equality

First as Tragedy: New messaging rules from Karl Rove

In Domestic Politics on March 14, 2010 at 5:45 pm

There were several confrontational events to write about today. In fact the material is so rich that it was hard to decide what to highlight. For example, there was “the slap heard round the world” for Joe Biden. There was the rise of the Coffee Party (in media coverage at least), and there is the health care end game. All of these deserve posts of their own. What stood out among these, however, was the performance of Karl Rove in defense of his new book “Courage and Consequences.”

My title for this post draws on one of my favorite passages in social science literature, this from Marx’s 18th Brumaire, that history repeats itself first as tragedy and then as farce. Here is the passage:

Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce. Caussidière for Danton, Louis Blanc for Robespierre, the Montagne of 1848 to 1851 for the Montagne of 1793 to 1795, the nephew for the uncle. And the same caricature occurs in the circumstances of the second edition of the Eighteenth Brumaire.

It always struck me that there was something to these lines other than cleverness.  I now think that there is such a pattern in political life, and it results from our use of the symbolic resources available in political culture to both make sense of the circumstances of the present and give meaning to the flow of political events. Being a bitter pessimist for non-revolutionary society, Marx saw the recycling of historical events in strictly negative terms. Instead, we might easily replace the word tragedy with glory. Both great and low events in history are later  made into symbolic tools whose use retains at least a theatrical if not a farcical aspect. We need not always have tragedy, but we are stuck with farce.

It may be that Karl Rove has provided us with the reason for this in his defense of effective political messages. On Fox News Sunday today, he laid out a messaging method that we should all attend to whatever our political persuasion. Based on his past success, Rove is certainly authority enough to rely on. Bush famously referred to him as “the Architect” and his string of victories from 1994-2004, often against much better positioned candidates, made him so fearsome that in early 2006, he was feared by left and right as a kind of evil magician.

In defending his record in his new book, which includes the current TV tour, he has clarified his messaging philosophy. Rove told Chris Wallace that a message should be fair, appropriate,  relevant and credible. This seems fine (and for those of you who can’t stand the man, a little different than what his own strategies are said to have entailed),  but you get what Karl is up to when you think about these terms in descriptive rather than in the explicitly normative context he supplies. I have taken the liberty of reducing this approach to an acronym, while adding another term “emotional” to round out what I think Rove really believes, as opposed to what he will say. Taken together, this boils down to: Rove’s messaging strategy is to stage a FARCE, by providing (F)air, (A)ppropriate, (R)elevant, (C)redible and (E)motional appeals. Here we have the link between Rove and Marx. He has discovered the reason why history repeats itself; it is because the symbolic devices we use to navigate the stream, are drawn from salient history and therefore correspond to the elements of the FARCE framework.

For those of you who see something familiar, in this analysis I am borrowing from the work of Chip and Dan Heath. Their seminal approach was summarized in the too cute but brilliant SUCCES framework. The elements there were Simple, Unexpected, Concrete, Credible, Emotional, Stories. The Heaths do a great job in elaborating on this theme to explain why some messages work,  or stick, and why some don’t. I’ll refer you to the book to get the full picture, but the overlap with Rove is telling.

Rove proposes that the standards for judging a political message are that it should be fair, appropriate, relevant and credible.  The main difference is the emphasis that Rove places on seeming. What matters in politics is the appearance of moral action, because we are deeply moral over and above being rational creatures.

All political consultants successful enough for us to know of them have recognized that Shakespeare’s Richard III had much to teach them:

Now, they believe it; and withal whet me
To be revenged …
But then I sigh; and, with a piece of scripture,
Tell them that God bids us do good for evil:
And thus I clothe my naked villany
With old odd ends stolen out of holy writ;
And seem a saint, when most I play the devil.

If we think of the FARCE attributes as social psychological accomplishments rather than normative descriptions, Rove’s strategy may well be better than the SUCCES scheme: a message must seem fair, although it should be slanted to best advantage; it must feel appropriate, even if it is a wildly unexpected innovation; it should be recognized as relevant, even if one is simply changing the subject; it must seem credible even if easily proved basely false; and finally, if it fails to touch an emotional chord, all the reasoning in the world will not save it. Throw an “S” at the end of the FARCE for “stories” and you have a messaging strategy that works in an environment where what you are selling is authenticity. We see how at times we must steal from the holy writ of meaningful experience if we would clothe our naked villany in plausible and justifiable accounts.  And in this way, we solve the puzzle of that wacky Marx quote that feels so good to say, while it seems to say so little.

Karl Rove was and remains one of the best political operatives in the contest. I do not single him out as immoral, but I credit him with understanding the cruel heart of moral politics. Of most practical importance, Rove’s FARCES keep us honest in our messaging. As with the concept of objectivity in science, by committing ourselves to the elements of the farce of messaging, we prevent ourselves from trying to sell to others what we would better throw away–we protect ourselves from becoming amoral beings, even as we strategically game the morality of others. The lesson is ironically optimistic.

But before we let Rove off the hook, we should attend to a point of the Fox interview in which Rove may have revealed why he could lay claim to a special share of blame in this enervating hermeneutic exercise. This was where he played on a quotation of Potter Stewart from the famous Jacobellis v. Ohio case where he wrote:  “I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of [pornographic] material I understand to be embraced . . . but I know it when I see it.” In Rove’s version, we know greatness in politics as we know great art, i.e. we know it when we see it. Perhaps Bush was right when he gave him that inimitable scatological nickname.

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