Saturday, November 26, 2005

Democratic Strategy

As we all know, Democratic Strategy is (sadly) inadequate. They don't have a clue. It has been stated by linguistics professor George Lakoff that Republicans are better at framing the issues by choosing their terminology carefully. I'd like to propose a way of framing the issues that (I think) would put the Democrats way out in front. But I'll have to give some technical background first.

An article in this week's New Scientist explains that our sense of morality is a mixture of logical reasoning and emotional reactions and which predominates is dependent upon the precise situation (introduction to article here but you have to be a subscriber to read it in full). In certain situations we evaluate the harms and benefits of various actions rationally but in other situations (particularly where a quick response is necessary) we react emotionally. This is not a hypothesis, it has been verified by brain scans of people presented with various situations and different areas of the brain come into play in different circumstances. The article goes on to say that emotional reactions are conditioned to a significant degree by social interactions: at one time mixed-race marriages and homosexuality were felt by most people to be emotionally disgusting but as attitudes have changed most (sane) people no longer feel a sense of revulsion at those ideas.

An example given in the article is that of a tram (the article used the US terminology "trolley" even though New Scientist is a UK publication) obviously out of control. It is heading down the track towards five people who are stuck on the track and who will surely die. However, you are in a position to divert the tram onto a fork in the track, sparing those five people, but where it will kill one person stuck on the other track. What do you do: walk away and let five people die or throw the lever and have one person die? Most people evaluate this rationally and throw the lever because it is better that one dies than five die.

I'm a bit more critical and would want to know (if possible) the merits of the potential dead: five 99-year-old Alzheimer's sufferers who have lived long, happy lives and are now living vegetables are not worth one five-year-old child with a potentially long life ahead of it. Five brain-retarded infants who will never manage to even go potty by themselves are not worth one Albert Einstein with only a year of life left (in my opinion, of course). One Mohamed ElBaradei (who won the Nobel Peace Prize recently) is worth far more than Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rove and Rice (who lied the US into war). But I'm a realist and know that in an imperfect world I wouldn't have this information available to me, so I'd sacrifice one life to save five.

The article then recasts the problem in a different way. Again, there is a runaway tram (trolley). Again, five people are stuck on the track and will surely die. But this time there is no fork in the track. And this time you are on a bridge above the track. However, this time there is one person in a car that you could nudge off the bridge onto the track using your own car (the article actually posits an incredibly obese person not in a car whom you could push off the bridge and whose body mass would halt the tram, but I found that scenario stretched my credulity too far). So now the situation is that by inaction you can allow five people to die or you can deliberately murder one person to save those five.

Isn't that the same as throwing the lever to shunt the tram onto the other track? If you throw that lever haven't you murdered the guy on the other track? Logically, yes. But that's not how our brains process the information. In the first situation you are confronted with a simple decision between greater and lesser. In the second situation your brain handles things emotionally and it feels like you are murdering somebody. Different areas of the brain are involved and different conclusions are reached.

As the article points out, politicians say it's about winning hearts not minds. The difference in the two situations is whether the problem touches the rational parts of our brain or the emotional parts (the heart is popularly used as a way of referring to the emotions). Same problem, but the reaction depends entirely upon how it is framed. With that in mind, I'll propose a TV advert for the Democrats (undoubtedly it could be greatly improved upon).

The advert uses the visuals and words of Democratic Representative John Murtha from a recent speech to the House of Representatives. There is, of course, also text on the screen.

It starts with Murtha's words calling for an immediate withdrawal from Iraq and that our military has accomplished its task and done its duty, words spoken as Murtha struggled to choke back tears. The text on screen points out that Murtha is a Korean and Vietnam vet with a bronze star and two purple hearts.

It continues with Murthas word's that the US troops have become the primary target for the insurgency; that they have become a catalyst for violence; that all US troops could be withdrawn within six months. The text points out that Murtha is a hawk, a strong ally of the Pentagon and originally supported the war in Iraq.

It continues with Murtha relating that several times a year he visits Iraq to assess the situation and frequently visits troops in hospitals in the US. The text explains that the Bush administration is trying to cut veterans' benefits and funding for VA medical treatment.

It finishes with Murtha's poignant explanation, with his voice cracking and tears flooding his eyes, that one of the wounded soldiers he visited in Walter Reed Hospital was blinded and lost both hands. When Murtha asked his family if there was anything he could do, they complained bitterly that because the injuries were caused by "friendly fire" the soldier had been denied a purple heart. As Murtha said:

I met with the commandant. I said, If you dont give him a Purple Heart, Ill give him one of mine. And they gave him a Purple Heart.


The text on screen points out that Bush has not shed a single tear over the death of more than 2,000 US troops but Murtha weeps because a deserving soldier is denied a purple heart. The Bush administration claims to care about the troops but does not. It is because the Democrats care about the troops that they want to bring them home.

OK, maybe I've had too much wine and am in a maudlin mood, but creating that scenario made me weep as I wrote it. Did a tear come to your eye as you read it? Can you visualize the impact of Murtha saying those words, with his voice cracking and his eyes flooding with tears without weeping yourself? Can you imagine anything more powerful that will wrench the guts of anyone who sees it? Can you imagine Bush's popularity remaining above 1% after it airs?

It's about winning hearts not minds... (and if you can do so by telling the truth rather than lying then it's actually justifiable).

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