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George Lakoff | Democratic Strategies Lost Big. Here’s an Alternative

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Learn more about how progressives can better express values that improve the common good – through political language that appeals to people’s emotions. Get the all new Don’t Think of an Elephant! Know Your Values and Frame the Debate by the master of “framing,” George Lakoff. Click here now to receive your copy.

It is time to shine a light on the strategies used by Democrats, and on the Democratic infrastructure that uses those strategies.

Democratic strategists have been segmenting the electorate and seeking individual self-interest-based issues in each electoral block. The strategists also keep suggesting a move to right. This has left no room for the Democrats to have an overriding authentic moral identity that Americans can recognize.

Those strategists form an infrastructure that all Democrats have come to depend on; not just the candidates, but also the elected officials, Democrats in government, and citizens who either do, or might, find progressive policies morally and practically right. The strategic infrastructure includes PR firms, pollsters, consultants, researchers, trainers, communication specialists, speechwriters, and their funders.

It is an important and powerful infrastructure and we all depend on it. I believe it is vital to separate this infrastructure from the strategies it has been using. I believe the strategies can be greatly improved so as to give a true, deep, and moral picture of what progressive politics is about – one whose content and authenticity will resonate with, and inspire, a majority of US citizens.

I have just published a book about how to do this: The ALL NEW Don’t Think of an Elephant! It is an updated and much expanded version of the original, which introduced the concept of conceptual framing, which is about ideas, not just about slogans. The present book includes what I have learned over the past decade by bringing to bear results in my academic disciple, the Brain and Cognitive Sciences. The book is short, easy-to-read, and inexpensive.

At this point, some details are in order. Here is what is widely done according to present strategies. Not everyone uses all of these, but most are common.

  • Use demographic categories to segment the electorate, categories from the census (race, gender, ethnicity, age, marital status, income, zip code), as well as publicly available party registration.
  • Assume uniformity across the demographic categories. Poll on which issues are “most important,” e.g., for women (or single women), for each minority group, for young people, and so on. This separates the issues from one another and creates “issue silos.” It does not include segmentation for moral worldviews that differ between conservatives and progressives.
  • Assume language is neutral and that the same poll questions will have the same meaning for everyone polled. In reality, language is defined relative to conceptual frames. And the same words can be “contested,” that is, they can have opposite meanings depending on one’s moral values.
  • Assume that people vote on the basis of material self-interest and design different message to appeal to different demographic groups. In reality, poor conservatives will vote against their material interests when they identify with a candidate and his or her values.
  • In polling, apply statistical methods to the answers given in each demographic group. This will impose a “bell curve” in the results. The bell curve will impose a “middle” in each case.
  • Assume that most voters are in the middle imposed by the bell curve. Move to the middle. If your beliefs are on the left of the “middle,” move to the right to be where most voters are. You will be helping conservatives, by supporting their beliefs. And you may ne saying things you don;tje
  • Check the polls to see how popular the present Democratic president is; if he is not popular, design you message to dissociate yourself from the president. It will reinforce the unpopularity of the president when members of his own party, as well as the opposition, disown him.
  • Attack your opponents as being “extremists” when they hold views typical of the far right. This will help your opponents as standing uop for what they believe among those of their constituents that share any of those views.
  • Attack you opponents for getting money from rich corporations or individuals. This will help your opponent among Republicans (and some Democrats) who respect the values of the wealthy and successful.
  • Argue against your opponents by quoting them, using their language and negating that language. Negating a frame reinforces the frame, as in the sentence “Don’t think of an elephant!” This practice will mostly reinforce the views of your opponent.
  • Privatization: When significant public resources become owned or controlled by private corporations, the public has lost an essential element of freedom.
  • Fear: When you are emotionally gripped by fear, you are not free.

Such strategies miss the opportunity to present an overriding moral stand that fits the individual issues, while saying clearly what ideals Democrats stand for as Democrats. There happens to be such an overriding ideal that most Democrats authentically believe in.

I work in the brain and cognitive sciences. I study how people think and how language works. The most basic result is that most thought is unconscious – about 98 percent (a reasonable ballpark figure). My job here is to do my best to make the unconscious conscious. Here goes!

All politics is moral. When a politician says to do something, he is implicitly claiming that it is the right thing to do. No political will over say, do what I say because it’s wrong – pure evil! None will ever say, “Do what I say, though it doesn’t matter.” When politicians’ policy prescriptions differ widely, it because their sense of what is right is very different. In short, they have different moral systems. That is true of progressives and conservatives alike. The political proposals conservatives and progressives make are based on different moral systems.

Progressive and conservatives have very different understandings of democracy. For progressives empathy is at the center of the very idea of democracy. Democracy is a governing system in which citizens care about their fellow citizens and work through their government to provide public resources for all. In short, in a democracy, the private depends on the public.

Elisabeth Warren says it out loud. If you have a business it depends on public resources: roads, bridges, the Interstate highway system, sewers, a water supply, airports and air traffic control, the Federal Reserve, a patent office, public education for your employees, public health, the electric grid, the satellite communication system, the internet, and all the government research behind computer science. You can’t run a business without these. Private enterprise depends on the public.

The same is true of individuals, who depend on public resources like clean air, clean water, enough food, safe food and products, public safety, access to education and health care, housing, employment – as well as those roads, bridges, sewers, satellite communication, electric grid, and so on. And most important – voting in free elections, choosing the government to provide those resources. Private life depends on the public.

What public resources provide is freedom. Most progressive issues are freedom issues.

And one more, which had a major effect in the 2014 election:

  • Voting: Without the ability to vote in free elections you are not free.
  • Health: If you get cancer or even break a leg and don’t have health care, you are not free.
  • Education: Without education, you lack the knowledge and skills not just ot earn a decent living, but also to even be aware of the possibilities of life. Without education, you are therefore not free.
  • Women: If you are denied control over your body, you are not free.
  • Marriage: If you are in love and are denied the ability to marry with a publicly declared lifetime commitment, you are not free.
  • Vast income inequality: When the economic gains that most people have worked go not the those who worked for them for go only to the wealthiest of the wealthy, those who did the work — most people — are not free.
  • Race: When you are treated with suspicion and disdain, you are not free.
  • Corporate Control: When corporations control your life for their benefit and not yours, you are not free.

As FDR pointed out, Freedom From Fear is a vital freedom. In the 2014 election, conservative played on fear – of Isis and Ebola.

Every progressive instinctively knows all this, but very few say it. Instead, progressives tend to talk not about such values, but instead about facts, policies, and programs.

Conservatives, on the other hand, have a very different view of democracy. For them democracy is supposed to provide them with the liberty to do what they want, without being responsible for others and without others being responsible for them. For them, there is only personal responsibility, not social responsibility. Indeed, providing public resources is, to a conservative, immoral, taking away personal responsibility, making people dependent, lazy, unable to take care of themselves. Removing public resources is seen as providing incentives, and individual liberty is seen as the condition in which you can carry out your incentives.

This is very much what conservative morality is about. If you cannot succeed through personal responsibility, you deserve what you get.

But these are not just two equally valid, though opposite, moral systems. Because the private really does depend on the public, because personal responsibility without public resources gets you nowhere, the conservative view of democracy has radically false consequences. It is immoral because it lacks empathy, but it also just plain false.

If Cartesian rationalism were true, we wouldn’t be in the mess we’re in. If all reason were conscious, and if being human were, by definition, being a rational animal, and if rationality were logic, then the facts would set us all free. But human reason doesn’t work that way. We us embodied brains. , whose neural structures constitute frames and conceptual metaphors.

All thought is physical. We think using the neural systems in our brains. Thought works by frames – neural circuitry that we use to comprehend the world. The sad fact is that we can only understand what our brains allow us to understand. As a result, just pointing out the facts to conservatives cannot work. Facts are crucial, but they make sense primarily relative to their moral importance.

Our hope lies in biconceptualism. Most of us are partly conservative and partly progressive – mostly one but partly the other, so far as issues are concerned. There is no ideology of the moderate. Moderate conservatives have some progressive views, and conversely. Circuitry for both moral systems are present in the biconceptual brain, applying to different issues.

All words are defined with respect to frame-circuits. The more one hears conservative language, the stronger the conservative moral system gets in your brain. The same for progressive language. The more progressives speak in their own language, the stronger their frame circuitry gets in the brains of bi-conceptuals who hear them, who already have a version of that system.

The moral: Progressivism supports freedom. The private depends on the public. If you believe it, say it. Moral ideals matter. Authenticity matters.

A Note on Organization

It takes some training to avoid the common strategy problems, to get insight into what your unconscious beliefs really are, and to learn how to express those beliefs effectively. Democratic strategists, like Republicans, offer trainings. The training should focus on the new, not the old, strategies, and should be more widely offered to citizens who want to speak publicly in their communities.

The 2014 election has spurred this discussion but it goes beyond elections. The American public needs an understanding of what progressive democratic values are, all the time, every day, day after day. This requires both training and some organizing. For details on such an organization, contact The Forward Institute, Scott Wittkopf, Director, about the Wisconsin Freedom Campaign, which is about to start.

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