I've thought a lot over the years about persuasion and why it's so difficult, especially when it comes to political values and opinions, and the best conceptual tool that helps me to understand the difficulty is 'frames'. There are individual and group mindframes, and more often than not you can predict the individual's thinking if you know his group allegiances. Independent thinking is rare. Arguments are about mindframes butting against one another, and mostly the mindframes of the individuals engaged in argument are determined by their conflicting group mindframes.
It's refreshing when you find an independent thinker. You have a chance, then, to engage in an honest conversation, but most people are not. Most people's thinking is derivative, they are mouthing what other, smarter people on their team have said. And even when they seem to have lost an argument, they console themselves in thinking that if Rush or Rachel were here, he or she would have set that guy straight. It's not the ideas that matter; it's the team you're playing for that matters.
So to even have a conversation with such people you have to make arguments that accept as normative that person's frame, and in doing so you are usually doomed to failure when the interior logical architecture of the frame more often than not excludes the logic or facts you muster. You can argue about how much practical sense a single payer health care system makes, but the only response you're going to get from a Neoliberal is "That's socialistic; let's find a market solution."
So then your only option is to crash the other's frame and to introduce yours as a more adequate or desirable replacement. But that is extraordinarily hard to do--too much is personally invested in a frame, especially "ethos frames" (see below) because so much of one's sense of self and identity is invested in it, and with it one's sense of what is right and just. Let me explain.
The rhetorical tradition leans heavily on three foundational concepts: logos, pathos, and ethos, and I think it's helpful to think about logos frames, pathos frames, and ethos frames. A logos frame is defined by facts, analytical prowess, competency, practicality, getting things done--it's the frame that wonks work in and take most seriously. An ethos frame is defined by a group's beliefs, its sense of virtue and rightness, its values. It's the frame that most politicians operate in, whether they are influenced by the Tea Party Right's ethos, or the politically correct ethos of the cultural left. A pathos frame is defined by a person's or group's desires and fears: What do we really want? What do we want to avoid? The Frank Underwoods are primarily driven by the pathos of power or greed, and logos and ethos arguments are irrelevant for them except as they can use them to further their own interests.
Remember rock, scissors,paper? Well, logos, pathos, ethos works similarly. Pathos/emotion beats ethos/beliefs, ethos beats logos, but here's the difference--logos doesn't beat anything. Logos wonkery works only within established ethos or pathos frames. All logos arguments work within frames that have prerational (ethos or pathos) foundations. You don't want to deal with facts and details until you've been sold, and you get sold because an idea, a product purchase, an opportunity 'fits' with your existing sense of what's right. (Tea Party) Or because it serves your self interest. (Frank Underwood)
Or if it conflicts with your values, you can get sold because you really, really want it or really, really fear it. We might feel guilty, but advertizers understand that pathos beats ethos for most people most of the time. Facts, reason, competency come into play only once you've established your pathos or ethos frame, and the argument moves to a more deliberative discussion of strategy and tactics about how to accomplish the goals that we want or align with our beliefs. The most powerful arguments are those that work with a confluence of ethos and pathos, when your hopes and fears align with what you most deeply believe. And when you get that going on a collective level, then you have a very powerful social movement. Once again, the Tea Party is a good example. The political left? I don't know? What does it believe? What is it willing to put its neck on the line for? Where is its pathos?
So when you are in an argument, you have either to work within the frame of your opponent, or you have to crash it. Eisenhower and Nixon were considered conservatives in their day, but since they felt constrained to operate within the New Deal ethos frame, they are perceived as way to the left of conservatives today. Barry Goldwater tried to crash the New Deal frame and failed miserably. Ronald Reagan tried again 16 years later and succeeded. We have lived since then within a Neoliberal frame, and now so-called Liberals like Bill Clinton and Barack Obama seem conservative when contrasted with Nixon and Eisenhower. A single payer healthcare system never had a chance in the 2010 healthcare debate because it makes no sense--it just doesn't feel right to anyone who inhabits a Neoliberal frame, and that's the frame that dominates the thinking of Washington policymakers. If you are unable to crash the Neoliberal frame, the ACA was the best possibility.
I supported Obama over Hillary Clinton in 2008 because with Hillary I knew I was getting a Neoliberal and because Obama talked as if he wanted to crash the Neoliberal frame. I wasn't certain that he would do it, but there was a chance he would. And I believed, and still do, that Obama at his worst would be no worse than Clinton at her best. As it turns out we got Obama at his worst, not because he's weak or bad but because he never attempted to crash the Neoliberal frame. It would be ironic if Hillary runs for the Democratic nomination again and loses to Elizabeth Warren. If she does, it's because Warren is someone who represents herself as a frame crasher, and that's deep down what all of us want. Whether she would do any better than Obama I have no idea.
Obama's hands, as a result, were tied from the beginning. He adapted to the Neoliberal ethos frame as Eisenhower and Nixon adapted to the New Deal frame. The results were predictable as soon as he hired his economic team, and considering the over-the-top vehemence of his GOP antagonists, his results aren't terrible--he avoided complete collapse so we could return to the status quo ante of the Bush years. The problem isn't primarily his competency or lack of it; the problem is the frame. The ACA as perceived from within any ethos-neutral Logos frame was an unnecessarily complex patchwork, and as such a disaster waiting to happen. But Logos only works within an existing Ethos frame in politics--and the disaster was always very likely. If this whole fiasco says anything about Obama's competency, it's because he seems not to have anticipated it.
Did Obama miss an opportunity in 2009-10? Well, going back to my rock, scissors, paper analogy, the only thing that beats an ethos frame is a pathos frame, and there was a lot of fear to work with after the financial crisis of 2008. He chose not to work with that fear, but rather to suppress it and get things back to the status quo ante, and in doing so he aligned himself with the Neoliberals on Wall Street, and if there was ever a chance of his breaking the Neoliberal frame, it was unlikely after making those alliances so central to his presidency.
But the fear that was released by the 2008 crisis didn't just evaporate after the bailouts and the calming of the markets; it was absorbed into the the Tea Party, and the tragedy is that the rank and file in the Tea Party fear the right things, but don't have a constructive ethos frame to channel their pathos productively.
Whatever else you may think about the Tea Party, the people in it are right to fear the Beltway cronyist mindframe. They want to crash that frame, and so should the rest of us want to. The problem, of course, is that the Tea Party doesn't seem to care if crashing it also crashes the world economy, as the sans culottes didn't care about anything except expressing their resentment, rage, and fear.
And the irony, or course, lies in that the populist rage that drives the rank and file in the Tea Party has been coopted precisely by the cronyists who are using them to reinforce their own bunkers of entrenched privilege. They coopted Obama by constraining him in a Neoliberal straitjacket, and then they coopted the Tea Party by channeling its anger at the spendthrift, big government with Obama at its head. They are deftly playing the one off the other. They shore up their entrenched positions by setting up a very powerful pathos frame for the Tea Party and a constraining ethos frame for Obama, who, like many Liberals, prides himself as operating within a Logos frame, which doesn't beat anything. So anybody who understands this watches in frustration (or glee) as the he tries to reason and talk sense with people whose ethos frame makes it impossible for them to trust him, and whose pathos has been aroused to destroy him.
Obama might have seized the opportunity presented to him to channel all the anger that was directed toward Wall Street when he first assumed the presidency, but he felt he had to rely on precisely the people he should have been fighting. Maybe nothing else was possible even for a shrewder, stronger man, but that was the moment when something could have changed because there was all this pathos up for grabs, and it just needed an effective ethos frame to channel it constructively. Maybe next time.
What's the solution? I don't think there is one. Pathos--fear/anger, and desire/hope--are the only things that have the power to crash an ethos frame and inspire the erection of a new one. We had our opportunity in 2009, and we missed it. We just have to ride it out now and contain the damage as best we can until a new opportunity presents itself.