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Don’t think of an elephant, or a millionaire, or a tax cut, while reading this

George Lakoff:  “What policies are proposed and adopted depend on how Americans understand policy and politics. That understanding depends on communication. In that, the Democrats — both the president and his progressive critics — have surrendered. The Democrats have left effective communication to the conservatives, who have taken advantage of their superior communications all too well.”

Lakoff, the liberal linguist based at UCal-Berkeley, is out with a long op-ed titled “Untellable Truths”, from which the paragraph above is taken, applying his long-standing arguments about arguments to the current Dem vs. Repub argument over tax cuts for millionaires.

Oops. I did it again. Lakoff says that liberals railing against “tax cuts for millionaires” play directly into the hands of the righties.

I’ve wanted to read a piece like this for a few weeks, a piece about “framing” and the conservative superiority in the message wars. Like many liberals, I’ve been increasingly frustrated with liberals’ ability to lose the political battles even though they have (according to me) the superior facts and arguments on their side. (Of course, fool that I am, I always try to keep my mind open to the possibility that my own ideological predispositions blind me on the question of which side really has the superior facts and arguments.)

Forget about it, advises Lakoff, at least that last bit about facts and arguments. Stop trying to point out the factual and logical flaws in what the righties say about tax cuts. Try to stop using the word tax at all, since the Repubs own it and every mention of it somehow helps them.  It isn’t about facts and arguments. And liberals (oops, “progressives,” word choices matter much more ) lose the arguments in large part because they believe in rationality based on a social science-y model of rationality. Here, from the new op-ed, is how Lakoff dismisses rationality addicts like me:

“When democratic political leaders go to college, they tend to study things like political science, economics, law and public policy. These fields tend to use a scientifically false theory of human reason – enlightenment reason. It posits that reason is conscious, that it can fit the world directly, that it is logical (in the sense of mathematical logic), that emotion gets in the way of reason, that reason is there to serve self-interest and that language is neutral and applies directly to the world.

“The brain and cognitive sciences have shown that every part of this is false. Reason is physical; it does not fit the world directly, but only through the brain and body; it uses frames and conceptual metaphors (which are neural circuits grounded in the body); it requires emotion; it serves empathic connections and moral values as well as self-interest, and language fits frames in the brain, not the external world in any direct way.”

Conservatives/Republicans understand that winning the argument in political terms is not about argument but about marketing. Lakoff:

“Conservatives who are savvy about marketing their ideas are closer to the way people really think than Democrats are, because people who teach marketing tend to be up on how the brain and language work. And over the past three decades, they have not just built an effective message machine, but they repeated messages that have changed the brains of a great many Americans.”

Lakoff has been trying for some years to get liberals — progressives — to take into account how language affects the brain, perhaps most famously in the 2004 bestseller: “Don’t Think of an Elephant! Know Your Values and Frame the Debate.” But apparently it ain’t working. He seizes the current to explain again how words interact with the brains of us naked apes:

“Let’s start with an example, the slogan, ‘No tax cuts for millionaires.’ First, ‘no.’ As I have repeatedly pointed out, negating a frame activates the frame in the brains of listeners, as when Christine O’Donnell said, ‘I am not a witch,’ or Nixon said, ‘I am not a crook.’ Putting ‘no’ first activates the idea ‘Tax cuts for millionaires.’

“Next, ‘millionaires.’ Think of the TV show ‘So You Want to Be a Millionaire’ or the movies ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ and ‘How to Marry a Millionaire.’ To most Americans, being a millionaire is a good thing to aspire to.

“Then, there is ‘tax.’ To progressives, taxes are forms of revenue allowing the government to do what is necessary for Americans as a whole – unemployment insurance, Social Security, health care, education, food safety, environmental improvements, infrastructure building and maintenance, and so on.

“But the conservative message machine, over the past 30 years, has come to own the word ‘tax.’ They have changed its meaning to most Americans. They have been able to make ‘tax’ mean ‘money the government takes out of the pockets of people who have earned it in order to give it to people who haven’t earned it and don’t deserve it.’ Thus, ‘tax relief’ assumes that taxation is an affliction to be cured and a ‘tax cut’ is a good thing in general. Hence, conservatives make the argument, ‘No one should have their taxes raised.’

“The conservative slogan activates the conservative view of taxes. But the progressive slogan, ‘No tax cuts for millionaires,’ also activates the conservative view of taxes! The progressives are helping the conservatives.

“The conservatives have a superior message machine: Dozens of think tanks with communications facilities, framing experts, training institutes, a national roster of speakers, booking agents to books their speakers in the media and civic groups and owned medias like Fox News and a great deal of talk radio. Their audience will hear, over and over, ‘No one should have their taxes raised.’

“There is no comparable progressive message machine. But even if one were to be built, the Democrats might still be using messages that are either ineffective or that help the conservatives. Why?”

Finally, Lakoff tells progressives what to do instead of “reason:”

“‘Don’t use conservative language, since it will activate their moral system in the brains of listeners. Don’t try to negate their arguments. That will only make their arguments more prominent. Use your own language and your own arguments. Truth squads and wonk rooms are insufficient.

“If there is a teachable communication moment for President Obama, this is it. Bring back ‘empathy’ – ‘the most important thing my mother taught me.’ Speak of ‘empathy’ for ‘people who are hurting.’ Say again how empathy is basis of democracy (‘caring for your fellow citizens’), how we have a responsibility to act on that empathy: social as well as personal responsibility. Bring the central role of empathy in democracy to the media. And make it clear that personal responsibility alone is anti-patriotic, the opposite of what America is fundamentally about. That is the first step in telling our most important untellable truths. And it is a necessary step in loosening the conservative grip on public discourse.”

Comments (11)

  1. Submitted by Craig Westover on 12/14/2010 - 11:10 am.

    I sincerely hope the left is consistent in identifying as “progressives” rather than “liberals” so the latter term might return to its original meaning — those who oppose centralization of power in government and champion the primacy of individual sovereignty, the sanctity of private property, and preservation of the rule of law.

    As for the article, there are three ways to communicate: deception, perception and conception. Deception is easy. It is lying — knowing the truth but intentionally communicating something different. This article is about changing perceptions — not changing the facts, but communicating to change perception irrespective of the facts. The difference between communicating to change perceptions and lying is in order to lie one must know the truth; communicating to change perceptions, the truth doesn’t matter. The end justifies the means.

    Conceptual communication is making the best logical reasoned case for one’s point of view, including its weaknesses and how one might deal with them. Conceptual communication understands that nothing kills a bad product faster than good marketing. It is the high road, which apparently Mr. Lakoff no longer aspires too. The end, indeed, he implies, justifies the means. That is a sad commentary, but not surprising coming from the ideology that gave us Saul Alinsky.

  2. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 12/14/2010 - 11:36 am.

    Right ON, Mr. Lakoff!! I read “Don’t Think of an Elephant” a few years ago, and recent events (and campaigns) only reinforce what he has to say.

    Like Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann is either stupifyingly ignorant, or a pathological liar, but it doesn’t make any difference to the majority of voters in her district.


    Because she sells that message of ignorance based on falehood, those “truths” that are absolutely not true, convincingly and relentlessly. Like every successful demagogue, she appeals to emotion rather than reason, and voters in her district buy it because they don’t want a policy lecture from some uppity professor – no matter that the professor might actually know what s/he is talking about – they want someone to speak to their hearts about human problems and how “others” keep those problems from being solved.

    Obama, Dayton, Klobuchar, Franken, and any other surviving politicians of progressive bent who hope to survive had better pay close attention to Lakoff and emulate the methods (and language) he’s advocating. Even people representing solidly progressive districts and areas, like Keith Ellison, ought to be paying attention – not just for their personal survival politically, but because “framing the message” has crucial implications for the survival of democracy and what has been the world’s most inventive and productive economy. Lakoff is absolutely correct that the Republican message resonates with the public not because it’s true – it manifestly is not – but because Republicans have learned, indeed, many of them, like Bachmann, have mastered, the art of marketing themselves and their ideas.

    “Sell the sizzle, not the steak” has implications and applications in politics, as well.

  3. Submitted by Brian Simon on 12/14/2010 - 12:37 pm.

    The Dem messaging problem goes back a very long way. More immediately, the Obama administration has, to a certain extent, given up on messaging. They did an excellent job during the campaign, and the simple slogan ‘hope’ connected positively with voters in a way that others’ campaigns did not (what was Hillary’s slogan? ‘in it to win it?’ McCain’s? ‘Freedom First’ (or is that t-paw)?). But the Obama WH does not have a message now, they’re trying to govern, and they’re trying to do it rationally and pragmatically, and in the meantime, they’re losing their base.

    What they need to do is remind themselves why they’re doing what they do. This is where the Repubs do a fantastic job – they equate everything they do to ‘liberty’. Who’s against liberty? Nobody. Personal responsibility? Everybody’s for that. The Repubs harp on why they do what they do & the frame the debate to fit that ‘why’ in a way that connects with people. Dems generally & the Obama admin specifically aren’t telling people why they do what they do. Why do I worry about ‘why’? This is best explained by Simon Sinek, who wrote a book called ‘start with why’. Its about connecting with people at a baser level, in the part of the brain that overrules Reason. Here’s how he puts it:

    The Repubs are doing this. Obama did it during the campaign, but is not doing it now. Dems generally don’t; I’d argue a guy like Wellstone was the exception.

  4. Submitted by Sheila Kihne on 12/14/2010 - 01:12 pm.

    Poor little liberals! It’s sad that you have to speak in another language to try to sell your failed ideas. You tried making paying more taxes “patriotic” and you tried calling terrorism “man-caused disaster”….I mean, you’re right! Why would any reasonable person think you’re full of bunk?

    Boys, your ideas belong in the halls of academia, and no place else.

  5. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 12/14/2010 - 01:47 pm.

    It IS sad that sensible people have to resort to the same kinds of rhetorical tricks that the right wing has mastered. The failed ideas, for the most part, are on the right, as the past decade has demonstrated.

    Meanwhile, Sheila, paying taxes IS patriotic, unless you’re under the mistaken impression that all those weapons and equipment are being donated to the armed services for free.

    As for “terrorism” and “man-caused disaster,” speak for yourself. Terrorism is just that.

  6. Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 12/14/2010 - 04:24 pm.

    These would be good recommendations except for one glaring problem.

    Those who are the base of the “conservative” movement have been raised by families, in communities, in schools, and yes, even churches that have beaten (literally or figuratively) the empathy out of them.

    These people are incapable of empathy.

    Appealing to the “better angels of their nature” gets you exactly what we’ve gotten with President Obama: the desire to be civil and reasonable and negotiate acceptable compromise in the face of opposition that regards any compromise as the kind of capitulation practiced only by losers. For them the only acceptable “compromise” is your complete, unconditional surrender.

    The only personality aspects left to them; the only thing they understand is battle. Everything is a battle. You either win or you lose. You identify the enemy and defeat them or they defeat you.

    The great failing of the Democrats is their absolute inability to recognize that they’re not working with psychologically healthy people.

    They are completely failing to recognize the level of psychological dysfunction they’re up against and, consequently, completely failing to rise to the challenge of identifying for the American public who the enemies of the American people really are, what they’re doing to destroy our nation from inside our own boundaries (selling the US Treasury off to China by borrowing money to protect our wealthiest citizens from paying taxes), and what’s inevitably going to happen if we let them continue to get away with it.

    We either join the battle and make it into a true battle or we’ve already lost.

  7. Submitted by Sheila Kihne on 12/14/2010 - 06:58 pm.

    Then by all means! Put them into the government-run schools and the one of the ISAIAH churches and beat that empathy right back into them. It’s your moral duty.

  8. Submitted by Jon Kingstad on 12/14/2010 - 07:42 pm.

    I don’t entirely disagree with Lakoff. But I disagree with his examples because these don’t really exemplify a problem with framing or winning people to a side of the debate. All of the polls show that most Americans were behind letting the tax cuts expire. Public opinion has not factored into these policy proposals.

    The problem with things like health care and now the tax cuts expiring is lack of any conviction or principles in the leadership. Or simply lack of leadership. If Obama turns out to be a one term President, he can thank his own ineptitude.

  9. Submitted by Tim Larson on 12/14/2010 - 09:26 pm.

    #6//They are completely failing to recognize the level of psychological dysfunction they’re up against

    And where is your empathy for the psychologically dysfunctional?

    Did you write this while looking in a mirror?

  10. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 12/15/2010 - 09:24 am.

    The reason “liberals” have difficulty contrasting their arguments with conservatives is because on very basic level they share the ideology. Neo-liberalism was the basis of Reaganomics and bush tax policy. It was Jimmy Carter who launched the first wave of massive economic deregulation, and Clinton likewise pursued a bubble theory of economics. In fact Clinton is currently advocating bubble economies. The recent spectacle where Obama handed off his press conference to Clinton, wherein they both argued in favor of Bush tax cuts and economics simply demonstrates the convergence of Democratic and Republican priorities.

    Lakoff’s offering a mundane observation that actually misses the point. It assumes we have liberals in the US that are trying to act as antidotes to conservative excess. In fact we have a Democratic party that more often than not acts as an apologist for Republican policy. Sure, one explanation is that liberals are just bad arguers, but the most obvious explanation, and the one supported by the facts is that Democrats simply aren’t arguing. It was Democrats that abandoned every progressive plank in Obama’s platform. They weren’t driven to this by superior Republican arguments, they did it enthusiastically. Franken and Ellison’s problem is that they’re party isn’t a liberal party, not simply that they can’t make effective liberal arguments.

    The reason Democrats don’t articulate an effective liberal vision is because they aren’t liberals. It’s like asking a dog to play the violin and then deciding he can’t do it because he’s tone deaf.

    I’m a liberal, I know a lot of liberals, we have no problem constructing effective and compelling arguments around liberal agenda’s. The Reason you’re not getting effective liberal arguments from Democrats is much more basic. I voted for Obama, I got a third Bush presidency, despite handing the Democrats a massive victory in 2008. That’s not a linguistic phenomena, it’s a political and ideological phenomena.

    As for abandoning reason, liberals along with everyone else did that 30 years ago. I just wrote a blog entry about the era of American unreason. Adopting the Republican mode of high school debate is unlikely to solve any problems, and it wouldn’t be a new strategy.

  11. Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 12/15/2010 - 10:22 am.

    I have a great deal of empathy for dysfunctional “conservatives” just as soon as they get sick of living lives that create nothing but carnage for themselves and the people around them.

    Prior to their realization that they are largely their own (and the rest of our) worst enemies, however, they can only be confronted in the hopes of assisting them in more rapidly hitting the “bottom” to which their addiction to relying on the chase after money, power, security and stability and those leaders who seem strong enough to offer them guarantees of such things (which, of course, can never be guaranteed) will inevitably bring them.

    Or, in a shorter version: it is quite impossible to help those who are not (yet) looking for help.

    Being nice to dysfunctional people only enables them to continue to rehearse their dysfunctions, damaging others and themselves in the process, allowing them to depend on you to help them when they’ve made a mess of things and, thereby, allowing yourself to be made co-dependent (of course such things are often necessary in life or death situations).

    The types of “conservative” emotional dysfunctions of which I’m writing (as opposed to actual conservative thought) are so rampant in our society today that it’s likely we’ll all hit a very serious level of societal destruction before we finally bring ourselves to such misery as a nation that we start looking for the help we need to begin to live in healthier ways.

    At that point, a GREAT DEAL of empathy will be needed indeed, but it’s quite likely that those who have caused the crash will have none for those others whose lives they have destroyed. Indeed, they will blame the crash they have engineered on everyone else.

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