Sun. May 26th, 2024

How using ‘high dominance’ rhetoric can help Biden beat Trump

Tyler Mitchell By Tyler Mitchell May20,2024

The 2024 presidential election appears to be a toss up. About half of all voters want to replace both Biden and Trump on the ballot, but party loyalty among rank-and-file Republicans and Democrats remains strong, and the bases are dug in.

Political psychologist Drew Westen has recommended that Democrats reconsider their view that elections are won and lost on the issues, and the assumption that the policies they support sell themselves. Politics, Westen emphasizes, is actually “less a marketplace of ideas than a marketplace of emotions.” And feelings are best tapped through stories that fit into a “master narrative.”

If Democrats don’t adopt this approach, he concludes, they can only hope for “default victories … that occur when the Republicans are so incompetent, corrupt, or morally bankrupt that voters have no direction to turn but left.” And maybe not even then.

A new, unabashedly partisan book by M. Steven Fish, a professor of political science at the University of California, Berkeley, builds on Westen’s analysis. “Comeback: Routing Trumpism, Reclaiming the Nation, and Restoring Democracy’s Edge” proposes an approach to campaign messaging that should command the attention of Democratic strategists and political junkies across the ideological spectrum.

Fish makes a compelling case that voters admire, respect and support politicians who consistently use “high dominance” rhetoric (while acknowledging that such rhetoric can be a liability when taken to extremes). MAGA Republicans, especially Donald Trump, tend to savor conflict; shape their own reality; use entertaining, provocative language; cast themselves as buoyant, confident, menacing and morally superior, and their opponents as weak, underhanded, unpatriotic and worthy of ridicule and contempt. These figures provide voters with perpetual reminders of the truth, their truth; when caught in lies, they double down rather than revise or retract.

By contrast, liberal Democrats — including Joe Biden — tend to be introspective and empathetic; endorse bipartisanship and compromise; play defense; and present themselves and their constituents as vulnerable. They sometimes fear that celebrating progress, especially with respect to race, ethnicity and gender, can be interpreted as “insensitivity to those who still suffer.” The “libs” don’t enjoy being “owned,” but they seem uncertain what to do about it.

Most important, perhaps, the Republicans play to win, while the Democrats play not to lose. They “call Republicans bullies,” Fish writes, “but leave them in charge of the playground.”

When one political party “intentionally deepens social and political cleavages,” Fish maintains, the other party must adopt a high dominance response. Although uniting and not dividing is a laudable goal, the smart strategy is to “decisively and repeatedly defeat the polarizers,” then “offer them unity” — albeit with a non-negotiable demand that democracy be respected.

Fish notes that 73 percent of Americans say patriotism is important to them, a higher percentage than say marriage, having children or believing in God is important. 56 percent — including most working-class whites and first-generation U.S. citizens — believe the term applies to the GOP, while only 46 percent believe it applies to the Democrats.

With these attitudes in mind, Fish urges liberal politicians to stop implying or asserting that the country is a site of wrongs that need to be righted and assuming that “culture is Republicans’ terrain.” Instead, liberals should proclaim their faith in “the nation’s inexhaustible promise — with absolutely no reservations.”

Doing so, he argues, allows Democrats to contrast their inclusive nationalism, which welcomes everyone who pledges allegiance to America’s revolutionary experiment in democracy, with MAGA’s exclusionist, un-American white identity politics. He urges Democrats to tell stories about the American Dream that present equal opportunity “for traditionally underprivileged groups as inseparable from the progress of the entire nation,” describe economic justice “in language that celebrates Americans’ enterprising spirit, bootstrap mentality, and belief in personal responsibility,” and the United States as the promoter and protector of freedom against the likes of Putin, Xi, Kim Jong Un and Iranian ayatollahs.

This nationalist master narrative, Fish emphasizes, can contain claims that Republicans, not “America,” have made it more difficult to attack poverty, confront climate change, address voter suppression, enact universal background checks on gun purchases and ban the sale of assault weapons. The narrative could conclude, a la Ronald Reagan, with a promise of a glorious tomorrow and a call to action.

Will Democratic leaders implement these recommendations? If they do, the delivery of the messages will be important and, as Fish recognizes, require at minimum “a reasonably high dominance actor” able to “generate elation about the nation” and engage in spirited and emotional appeals and attacks without alienating base supporters.

Is President Biden up to the task? Given his recent speeches mocking his opponent, he just might be.

Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Emeritus Professor of American Studies at Cornell University.

Tyler Mitchell

By Tyler Mitchell

Tyler is a renowned journalist with years of experience covering a wide range of topics including politics, entertainment, and technology. His insightful analysis and compelling storytelling have made him a trusted source for breaking news and expert commentary.

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2 thoughts on “How using ‘high dominance’ rhetoric can help Biden beat Trump”
  1. As an avid political observer, I firmly believe that Drew Westen’s suggestion about the power of emotions over policies is spot on. The upcoming election will be won not by facts and figures, but by tapping into the voters’ emotions through compelling narratives. M. Steven Fish’s concept of ‘high dominance’ rhetoric could be a game-changer for Democrats in reclaiming the nation from Trumpism. Exciting times ahead!

  2. As a political science enthusiast, I find the concept of using ‘high dominance’ rhetoric in campaign messaging quite intriguing. It’s crucial for Democrats to understand that emotions play a significant role in politics, and a compelling narrative can sway voters more than mere policy talk. Fish’s proposal in “Comeback” could be a game-changer for the upcoming election cycle.

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