Now that Speaker Boehner is stepping out of the picture, we can expect even more slash and burn tactics from the House, promoted with truly alarming language. But more dangerous, in my view, is the way already familiar language will be hijacked to fit the Right’s agenda. For example, not too long ago I noticed an op-ed in our local paper, the San Francisco Chronicle, entitled “Corporate welfare is killing our economy.” Now “corporate welfare” has long been a standard target of progressives and liberals, and by this term we have always meant the way big oil and big guns (the military industrial complex) manage to get huge federal subsidies paid for with our tax dollars. But in this 8.20.15 op-ed a funny thing happened to the meaning of the term “corporate welfare.” In a list of what that word includes, suddenly the word “regulations” also appears. Next a familiar name pops up: the Right wing Cato Institute, as a source of statistics on how much “business subsidies” cost the taxpayer. And then comes the real gotcha: Warren Buffett quoted as criticizing wind turbines for not making business sense. So now the attack on “corporate welfare” and “business subsidies” is also aimed at incentives to grow the fledgling green energy industries we need so desperately, as climate chaos hovers over all of us.
But there was, surprisingly enough, even more. In the next paragraph I was astonished to see the author, Chris Rufer, attack the idea of having business or professional licenses, such as the ones for hairdressers or caregivers, as too much regulation. I don’t know about you, but I certainly don’t want to patronize an unlicensed personal care provider myself. And I bet you don’t either. Finally the writer of this sneaky piece put his cards on the table by going into hypocritical praise of the Koch brothers for opposing “government-sponsored favoritism” and “leading by example even when it benefits them.” Of course it is well-known that the Kochs have gotten a lot of government corporate welfare, and what the author is praising them for is just “explicitly criticizing it.” As the saying goes, talk is cheap.
So do we just shrug and say, “it’s the Kochs at it again!”? No, we’d better not. Because this cooptation of our frame and supporting ideas by the Kochs and their henchmen is even more dangerous than the Bush administration’s happy talk “Orwellian language” that George Lakoff used to write so much about back in the day. Why? Because it will mislead people who are not paying attention to the details. That this tactic is quite deliberate is shown by a quote in a Mother Jones piece published December 8,2014, to the effect that the Kochs felt they lost in 2012 because “the Left had a superior messaging strategy.” Even worse, now the Kochs are boldly and openly putting their own names on our kidnapped, brainwashed frame, as if they invented it themselves.
But as Kenneth Boulding famously said, hypocrisy means opportunity (for us). If the Kochs are even a little serious about attacking corporate welfare in our sense of the word, maybe we can goad them to act as well as talk. If they push the frame too far into libertarian territory, we can expose them. If you want things to change in America, don’t be David with Goliath, get your own Goliath. After all, the reason we have safety belts in cars today is that the insurance industry took on a very reluctant Detroit. They forced the automakers to put safety belts into every car.
So Brothers Koch, let’s see you do something real, not just talk. Some people say you are now the biggest player in American politics, and maybe even on the correct side about criminal justice reform (does that include being against the extremely wasteful and destructive private prison lobby?). So Messrs. Koch, can you beat back the other big oil lobbies feeding at the taxpayer trough, without gutting needed government support for the fledgling clean energy companies of the future or the health and safety protections we all need? We know you want to stop anything that protects our planet’s ecosphere, the one we all depend on for life itself, in defiance of the Pope and common sense, because you are in the oil business too.
But we can keep making that point ourselves. Let’s see the Kochs step up and stop taking government subsidies themselves . Then they can stop the subsidies to the rest of big oil. Let’s see them do something besides fund crackpot politicians the whole world laughs at. As for us, we need to keep vigilant about their hijack ploy of kidnaping and/brainwashing our frames. Call it wherever you see it, loud and clear. “Real corporate welfare = taxpayer $ in big oil pockets.” Et cetara. The Kochs’ new frame game is much more serious than all of their political donations and polluting industries put together—it pollutes the public mind.
Susan C. Strong, Ph.D., is the Founder and Executive Director of The Metaphor Project, http://www.metaphorproject.org, and author of our new book, Move Our Message: How to Get America’s Ear. The Metaphor Project has been helping progressives mainstream their messages since 1997. Follow Susan on Twitter @SusanCStrong.
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