Weekly Workgroup: Challenging the “Surrender to Terrorists” Frame

This article was originally published by Joe Brewer of the Rockridge Institute on March 12, 2008.

How does a progressive respond to the claim that electing Candidate X is “surrendering to the terrorists” and troop withdrawal from Iraq results in our troops “dying in vain”? This week we explore this strategic framing question for progressives.

Last week’s workgroup was a smashing success! Thanks to everyone who participated in our discussion of the politics of fear. I particularly enjoyed the hands-on, practical nature of our conversation. This week I’d like to address another timely issue for progressives in the hope that we can roll up our sleeves and get right to work. The issue, inspired by a recent question from Rockridge Nation member phostur, is this:

Conservatives have set a trap for us that we need to avoid – the betrayal trap. (I’ve written about this with my colleague Scott Parkinson at length here.) How do we respond to the claim that withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq will result in soldiers having died in vain?

I’d like to start things off with three thoughts:

  1. This argument can take on a number of specific forms (e.g. defeatist, surrender to terrorists, lack of resolve, etc.) that all have the same overall narrative structure – betrayal.
  2. Conservatives have worked tirelessly for decades to frame progressives as being weak – as if caring for each other is being “soft.” This betrayal story is persuasive because progressives keep letting them get away with this. Not anymore, I say!
  3. Responding with counter-arguments, without shifting the narrative, will leave us at a disadvantage. Strategies that presume people will reason to the right conclusions if given enough facts are going to fail.

Here is the basic narrative conservatives are using to lay the blame on progressives:

We are the Great Nation, whose military endeavors always side with the Good. Our country is inherently good and our military strength is unrivaled. Consistency requires that our ‘enemy’ must be evil – and is always the lesser foe. Failure is impossible in a fair contest. If we lose, it must be a failure from within. We must have been betrayed.

This narrative was crafted in the late 70’s to blame peace activists for the “loss” in Vietnam (which, like the occupation of Iraq, wasn’t really a war either). It is now being used against progressives seeking to end the occupation. Scott and I made a few suggestions in our paper about how to respond:

First and foremost, we must reframe the debate. This needs to happen on several fronts:

The invasion of Iraq was a betrayal of trust, not a mistake.
It is an occupation, not a war.

The escalation has failed, because it has not delivered meaningful political progress.

Congress is the decider, not the president

Getting the language right is only part of the solution. We also need to get the message out far and wide to counter the swift-boaters. And we need to act before they do. It is essential that we synergize the netroots, grassroots, independent media, and progressive organizations to counter the decades old conservative infrastructure.

It is vital that we tell the truth with a powerful narrative and preempt their betrayal narrative before it becomes established. People are ready for the truth.

These suggestions are fairly general. Now seems like a good time to get more specific. As an example, consider this plausible political ad that might appear later this year. How should we respond to it?

Sample Ad: Letting Our Troops Die in Vain

(Opening scene: Music filled with tension plays an ominous melody, combined with sounds of gunfire and explosions. A tattered American flag waves in the foreground.)

Narrator: Many brave soldiers have made the greatest sacrifice to our country to deliver freedom abroad and make us safe against terror at home.

(New scene: Footage of Candidate X in a civilian context. Musical tension builds.)

Narrator: We cannot afford to let their efforts be in vain. These proud sons and daughters honored us with their service. But now, Candidate X wants to surrender to the terrorists and force our valiant soldiers home before they get to finish the job. We must honor the sacrifice. We must honor the service. It is time to finish the job.

(New scene: Ominous tones suggestive of some unknown threat. Images appear of the smoking towers.)

Narrator: This lack of resolve, this defeatist attitude, weakens America.

Challenge the Narrative BEFORE it is Told

We can expect ads like this to issue forth in the coming months. It will be difficult to counter them after they go out because the stage has already been set for betrayal. Progressives can claim higher ground by framing the terms of debate (setting our own narratives) ahead of the onslaught.

I have a couple ideas to offer. Then let’s get to work and see what we can come up with together.

  1. Tell our own betrayal story. Conservatives lied to the American people and betrayed our trust – leading us into a quagmire that even Dick Cheney predicted back in 1994 would occur.
  2. Frame “dying in vain” from a progressive perspective. Having our troops sent into harms way for short-sided gains (mainly in oil revenues and hegemonic control of the Middle East), all the while wrecking our economy at home and making the world less safe… that is pretty wasteful of human life.
  3. Tell the Iraq Recession story. The conflict in Iraq is going to cost taxpayers an estimated $3 trillion that could have been spent on schools, roads, health care, renewable energy, and more. Conservative leaders have betrayed our trust by stealing our treasure and causing widespread suffering for our people.

What do you think? How can we nip this one in the bud before it grows too large to handle? Let’s get some ideas rolling that can make a difference to all the progressives running for office this year who want to bring peace to our people and end the devastation in Iraq.

UPDATE: Comment about Discipline and Weakness

Our executive director, Bruce Budner, suggested that we also talk about the conservative notion of discipline and strength in this discussion. He observed the importance of framing empathy and compassion as strengths that are seen as “undisciplined and weak” in the conservative worldview.  This is an important component of this topic.

UPDATE 2: New Discussion Threat

This workgroup has been so productive that I’ve added a second post to bring some of the ideas together and talk strategy.  Please join us at the Weekly Workgroup: “Surrender to Terrorists” Stage 2 Discussion when you finish looking things over here.

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