Why Democrats Fail

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You may get tired of me talking about framing, but poor framing largely led to the mess we’re in.

I’m a baby boomer whose political consciousness first bloomed in opposition to the war in Viet Nam.  We had a song back then that encapsulates liberals’ current framing problem, particularly the line, “We’re knee-deep in the big muddy and the big fool says to push on:

Right now, an insane clown posse of rich, angry, old, white, men control the WH, the Congress, the Senate, SCOTUS, and most State legislatures.  One or two more state houses, and the fascists will be able to call a Constitutional Convention and permanently re-wire our democracy into a theocracy.  We’re really neck-deep in this big muddy and I, for one, believe that it’s the definition of insanity to continue to do what we’ve been doing.

George Lakoff is another old, white guy who sometimes, IMHO, fails to grasp the roles of sexism* and racism, but his discussions of framing are important.  And here’s a new discussion of his work that I really believe is worth reading.  Lakoff, as the article notes, contends that, “voters don’t vote their self-interest, they vote their values.”  This is an issue that drives “our side” mad.  We wonder “What’s the Matter with Kansas?  Kansas, which has now twice voted for a governor whose deliberate implementation of “conservative values” has brought the state to the edge of economic collapse, and which shows no sign of reversing course, is a great example.  Kansas voters may be harming their own self-interest, but they vote their values.  And, so, we liberals keep assuming that, well, gee, now that the people in Kansas have had an absolute, objective demonstration of the fact that cutting taxes on corporations and gutting protections for people doesn’t work, surely they’ll now begin to vote for Democrats.  But they don’t.

We saw another example of the phenomenon this week when Republicans voted to remove protections for Americans with pre-existing medical conditions.  Those Americans come, overwhelmingly, from states that voted for Trump, who was obviously, always going to gut those protections.  Those voters harmed their own self-interest, often voting to put themselves to death, but they voted their values, which include hating black people, Muslims, immigrants, and women.

Stop and consider how Rush Limbaugh and Fox “News” spew anger into the lymphatic systems of millions of old men and contrast that to how Al Gore or John Kerry tried to explain, logically, often with charts, graphs, and words such as “lock box,” and “balanced budget,” and “reform[ing] the intelligence system, so policy is guided by facts and facts are never distorted by politics.”  Which worked?

Here’s, IMHO, the crux of Lakoff’s explanation for why liberals regularly lose the framing wars:

Progressives are still living in the world of Descartes and the Enlightenment, Lakoff said, a neat world governed by the rules of logic. Descartes said, “I think therefore I am,” but Lakoff claims that we are embodied beings and that 98 percent of thought is unconscious.

I’m a lawyer.  I live for the exact way that words, and statues, and logic matter.  But I have to accept that I’M NOT THE NORM.   The people whom Layoff calls “progressives,” need to grok that while they may love logic, most people just don’t live in that castle.  Thus, he explains that, “Democrats [unlike Republicans] . . . focus instead on rationality, facts, and policies.”  And so, while progressives are talking about the mechanics of raising the minimum wage or about bringing job-creating solar power to impoverished communities in Appalachia, Lakoff insists that:

the way to get at people’s political opinions is by talking about values, rather than specific arguments about specific issues. He believes conservatives are much better at this than liberals and have been for a very long time. “They have a much better track record of crafting political appeals by way of the appropriate value statements for their audience.”

The reason Democrats have such a hard time with Lakoff’s message, . . . “is because [Lakoff] is going up against something very deep-rooted, something that goes back to the Enlightenment. He would argue that the Enlightenment approach to political persuasion was never appropriate… “Every time I hear a political candidate say the word ‘percent,’ I think of ‘Oh God, they haven’t read George’.”

Thus, Lakoff argues that:

Democrats are decades behind in understanding how to frame issues in a way that can reach swing voters.

“Protection is part of the progressive moral system, but it has not been celebrated enough,” Lakoff writes in Don’t Think of an Elephant. For example, progressives should start calling federal regulations “protections.” If they start re-framing Trump’s promise as “getting rid of two-thirds of federal protections — and spell out what some of those environmental and health and water quality “protections” are — there might be less support for repealing federal regulations, Lakoff said.

“Every progressive knows that regulations are protections, but they don’t say it,” he added. Similarly, “taxes” are actually “investments in public resources.” Government investment pays for the infrastructure on which private industry and everything else is built, Lakoff said. “Roads, bridges, public education, national banks, the patent office, the judicial system, interstate commerce, basic science for drug development — all of that is financed by government investments.” Yet Democrats allow Republicans to frame the debate in terms of tax “relief,” he said.

Lakoff rejects the notion, held by way too many Democratic leaders and members of the media, that Democrats must move to the center.

Lakoff believes it’s a mistake for Democratic politicians to move toward the center in an effort to reach more moderate voters. The Republicans have moved further to the right, and they continue to win elections. What Democrats need to do is articulate their message in terms of metaphors that voters can understand, and stick to their core values, Lakoff said.

We have never had a central opposition figure — Trump — who was easier for us to push back against on an EMOTIONAL level.  We have never had a central opposition figure — Trump — who was easier for us to push back against on a VALUES level.  If we can’t harness people’s emotions and values to resist Trump, I’m not sure when we will.  We need to push back against Trump (and to tar all Republicans who voted for/supported his attack on health care) on an EMOTIONAL level & a VALUES level.  We need to keep pointing out how he attacks American values and how Democrats support those values.

I’ll add to this that Democrats have far too often, in the past four decades or so, been way too reactive rather than proactive.  We spend more of our time fighting off conservative attacks than we do attacking.  But we all know that a good defense is actually a good offense.  One simple example is that, for decades, Democrats simply fought off Republican attacks on Social Security.  It was only when Atrios began to push back and suggest that Democrats should, instead, argue for increases in Social Security benefits, that Elizabeth Warren and a few others began to go on the offensive.  And Democrats are STILL way behind in advocating for:  sensible protections against gun violence (see what I did there?), freedom-protection for access to birth control and abortion (see what I did there?), protections against state/police authoritarianism (see what I did there?), freedom to drink lead-free water (see what I did there?), and freedom from government interference in marriage and family (see what I did there?).

We’ve got to start getting framing right and, for those of us who ARE swayed by facts, figures, and carefully-laid-out policies, that’s going to take some work because it means communicating in a way that’s not the way we normally communicate.  But we’d better learn.

* It’s always fascinating to me that Lakoff talks about the “Strict Father” world view vs. the “Nurturing Parent” world view.  It’s the kind of obviously awkward distinction that HAS to signal that something odd, subconscious, and important is going on.  Because the normal way to frame this would be the “Strict Father” world view vs. the “Nurturing Mother” world view.  (He could make it Strict Parent vs. Nurturing Parent, but he knows, at least instinctually,  that the “father” part of it is important to right-wingers.  And acknowledging that would require acknowledging the role of sexism in this entire mess.)  But Professor Lakoff simply can’t bring himself to say that.  One of the items in my bucket list is to meet him and ask him about this.  But, for now, I’ll just assume that, old white guy that he is, he can never get comfortable admitting that it’s Strict Fathers vs. Nurturing Mothers.

Picture found here.

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10 responses to “Why Democrats Fail

  1. What’s ironic is that I’ve been arguing for years that freedom from government intrusion into marriage is a properly CONSERVATIVE value. Most of the people who use that label have no clue what it actually means. With a handful like you becoming Republican, I could drive these hate-mongers far away from the mainstream and give the adults some space to work.

  2. I just sent emails to Elizabeth Warren & Chuck Schumer suggesting that the Dems needed to do SOMETHING/really, Anything, to let people know that (1) their party was different than the Republicans and in ways other than by saying ‘No’ to them; and (2) they, the Democrats in Congress, were trying to pass legislation encompassing those differences, not just sitting there gnashing teeth. Would you consider sending this to those 2 individuals and anyone else you prefer — or, allow me to do so? Because even if, best case scenario, the Democrats/Progressives/Whoever are doing something — no one out here in the Real World knows about it.

  3. When Descartes said “I think, therefore I am”, he did not actually intend “think” to mean “to reason” or to use logic. He meant the full gamut of what we do with our minds, including to feel and imagine and desire. He was also well aware that most people make emotional rather than thoughtfully considered responses to circumstances and events. He felt people needed to learn to use the powers of reason, and 400 years later it’s clear people still need to learn to do that. But, that aside, I think one thing you Americans need to do is prevent the right from using the term “values”. Just the word has such a positive connotation; who could possibly be against values? What the right shouts about (emotionally) (without presenting any arguments) is their ideology. Reframe all their talk about values into talk about ideology. They don’t have “family values” — they have a patriarchal ideology. They don’t value the freedom to carry arms — they have a rabid ideology of “every man for himself” that requires guns to back up the claim. They don’t value independence — they have an ideology that losers deserve to suffer. And, as far as Lakoff’s use of “strict father” goes, I wrote in my own last blog post about the ten-letter word men just won’t speak. They’re too bloody ashamed, it would seem.

  4. Reblogged this on Mysa.

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