Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Reclaiming American History Part II - What Was the American Revolution About?

As I argued in a previous post, conservatives have been able to frame American history in a way that feeds into their broader goal of discrediting the role of government in society. They have done this by using history to define the United States as a conservative country. While progressive scholars and activists have spent the last few decades bringing marginalized groups (African Americans, American Indians, women, etc.) into the mainstream of American history, conservatives have focused on portraying the nation's founding in a way that suits their needs. They've done by arguing (1) that the Founding Fathers were deeply religious individuals who supported laissez-faire economic policies and (2) that the Revolutionary War was a revolt against government and taxes.

Because the founding period is the defining moment in a nation's history, conservative efforts to claim the Founding Fathers and Revolutionary War have been politically effective. It can be hard to tease out the precise ways that our understanding of the past influences the politics of today, but it clearly has an effect. For instance, the sense that the United States was founded by people who supported laissez-faire economics causes members of the media to portray various forms of government intervention, such as the 2009 stimulus, as unprecedented and/or vastly different from what the Founding Fathers would have done in similar circumstances. To the extent that most Americans think about history, they tend to adopt the view that the United States started off as a fairly perfect country - with a heroic set of founders - and that current policy should be geared towards keeping the country as moored to the founding principles as possible. This has a subtle but important impact on politics at both the personal and societal level, particularly because it taps into the way in which many of us are wired to appeal to authority and tradition when making political decisions.

Having said all that, what is wrong with the argument that the United States was founded as a conservative country. After all, weren't the Founding Fathers Christians who believed that government had gone too far? Wasn't the Revolution an anti-tax revolt against an oppressive central government?

Well, as any historian will tell you, the story is more complicated. The truth of the matter is that it is impossible to distill any one meaning from the Revolutionary period. There were many Founding Fathers, they disagreed vehemently, and the Revolution meant different things to different people. Moreover, times change. Attempting to apply lessons of the past to the issues of today is complicated by the fact that definitions and concepts are not static. Being a Christian meant something different two hundred years ago compared to what it means today. Same with race, economic policy, and other issues.

Nonetheless, there is a progressive view of the United States' founding that needs to be told. I'm going to lay this out in more detail in a few forthcoming posts, but for now I want to highlight the two key principles that I think progressives should focus on as we seek to reclaim American history from conservatives.

1. The Founding Fathers were forward-thinking individuals that were interested in progress. Although they were wealthy white men who wore powdered wigs, the Founding Fathers did not want to be bound by tradition. Rather, they were obsessed with figuring out ways to move their nation - and all of humanity - forward. They saw this primarily in political terms, specifically through extending democracy, but were deeply interested in scientific, technological, and cultural progress as well. Like progressives today, the Founding Fathers embraced critical inquiry, scientific truth, and, above all, doing something to move history forward.

2. The Revolutionary War was an anti-imperialist revolt. An oppressive government that denied people participation in the political process, not taxes, was the primary cause of the American Revolution. Like progressives today, the Revolutionary generation was deeply worried about concentrated political and economic power. They were inspired to take up arms against the British Empire because they felt that they had no say in the political process. They did not say "No taxation." They said "No taxation without representation."





Sunday, April 15, 2012

Friday, April 13, 2012

Reclaiming American History Part I - Focus on the Founders

[This is the first in a series of posts about how progressives can reclaim American history from the right wing.]

One key component of the conservative messaging success of the past three decades has been their ability to claim American history as their own. Although we have come a long way in how we understand the past, most people still view American history through a conservative lens. They think of the Founding Fathers as Christian conservatives, view the American Revolution as a war against taxes, and believe that the United States grew rich and powerful because of its free enterprise, laissez-faire system.

That these claims are false (or, more accurately, highly misleading), should not distract from the fact that they have an important effect on our political discourse. How we think about the past influences the way we think about the present and the future, and countless academic books and articles that paint a progressive picture of American history have failed to impact the way most Americans really understand the nation's past.

Let me explain in a little more detail.

There are two main ways of thinking about American history, each of which lends itself to different political implications. The first sees the nation's past as a slow but steady progression towards greater freedom and prosperity. According to this view, the United States was a deeply flawed nation at its birth, but for a variety of reasons it has become better over time. This interpretation, which historians often term Whiggish, tends to be held by people on the left and emphasizes the contributions of various social movements, such as the labor movement and the civil rights movement, as engines of progress.

By contrast, many conservatives subscribe to a view of American history in which the United States was born great but has fallen (or struggles to remain great) because we have strayed from the ideals of previous generations. This "declensionist" view tends to focus on valorizing the Founding Fathers and discrediting the 1960s.

So what's the problem? Well, my sense is that, although we've come to accept the contributions that marginalized groups and social movements have played in American history, the declensionist view dominates popular understandings of our nation's past. It is great that we have things like Black History Month, but many people - and not just racists or diehard conservatives - still think that the United States was more free in the 1950s than it is today.

Why is this? One reason is that the media, politicians, and other people who set the terms of public discourse are, by their very nature, concerned with critiquing the present and, as such, have a tendency to look favorably upon the past. Those of us who pay close attention to the ins-and-outs of politics have a hard time stepping back and acknowledging that things are getting better. We have a natural inclination to complain about the here-and-now while longing for bygone days. In this sense, progressives engage in their own forms of declensionist thinking. For example, we hold up Franklin Roosevelt as a tireless champion of liberal values when, in fact, his presidency was characterized by the same sort of hesitancy that gets progressives riled up about Obama.

To my mind, the right wing has capitalized on declensionist tendencies among the public and the media - tendencies which tap into the respect for tradition moral foundation that Jonathan Haidt has talked about - by advancing a conservative vision of the Founding Fathers and other key authority figures in American history. Instead of fighting battles to get marginalized groups included in the story, the right wing has focused on using history to define the United States a conservative country. The main way they've done this is by portraying the Founding Fathers as Christian conservatives and claiming that the American Revolution was a revolt against government and taxes. They've done a lot of other things as well - trying to appropriate the civil rights movement, discrediting the Great Society programs of the 1960s, reminding people that Abe Lincoln was a Republican, etc. - but they have focused the vast majority of their attention on the Founding Fathers and the Revolutionary War.

This is really smart because the Revolutionary Era is, and will forever remain, the defining period in American history. It is what we all inevitably refer back to when we want to understand the "nature" of our country, which is the major contribution that history makes towards informing our political decision-making.

For this reason, I think it is high time that progressives push back on the conservative campaign to claim the Founding Fathers as their own. Over the course of the next few weeks, I'll be focusing on how we can debunk right wing myths about the Founders, particularly the view that they were extremely religious and advocated a laissez-faire approach to economic policy. Stay tuned.



Thursday, April 12, 2012

How Not to Talk About the Budget

Gene Sperling, Director of the White House's National Economic Council, is a smart man. But he was caught badly off guard by CNBC's Maria Bartiromo in an interview on Tuesday.

In a sad scene that we see time and time again, Bartiromo played the part of the clueless media figure parroting right wing talking points, which in this case were false claims about taxes and the budget. (Brian Beutler has a nice rundown of Bartiromo's faulty line of questioning regarding the budget. In short, Congress passes budgets - not the President.) Meanwhile, Sterling was the typical Democrat who struggles to explain complicated issues and ends up coming off as defensive and out of touch.


Here's a link to the full interview and the most talked about part of it:





In the spirit of our mission to help progressives improve their messaging, I'm going to suggest some ways that Sperling could have done a better job in the interview. (I'll only focus on the material in the clip above.)


  1. First off, it appeared that Sperling was unprepared for Bartiromo's aggressive line of questioning. Knowing that she hosts a show that caters to Wall Street, Sperling should have been prepared for attacks on the budget and the Buffett Rule.
  2. Instead of saying "There is about zero truth to anything in the question," Sperling should have said, "Maria, why are you misleading your viewers?" or "It looks like you don't understand how the budget works." In so doing, Sperling could have gone from defense to offense and controlled the rest of the conversation.
  3. See her smile at the 31 second mark in the clip? That's probably in response to Sperling's decision to defend the White House's budget proposal by saying, "It's the most detailed thing that is out in the United States right now." This is true, but it is ineffective political language. When Bartiromo asked, "What budget?," Sperling should have responded by saying, "Haven't you read it?" Again, this puts her on the defensive and shows her for what she is - totally clueless about how government works.
  4. Sperling wisely ignores Bartiromo's question about why no congressional Democrats supported the President's budget. But he could have used this as another opportunity to demonstrate how dumb she is by saying something along the lines of, "Maria, do you not understand that Congress never approves the President's budget proposal?"

There's more to be said, but my main takeaway from the exchange is that, when confronted with right wing talking points, progressives need to avoid the trap of explaining their position on the issues. Instead, one can be more effective by seeming surprised that anyone would believe those talking points. 

If you engage with right wing talking points, even to debunk them, you legitimize them. You play by their rules and on their territory.

If, on the other hand, you treat those talking points as so silly and stupid that you can't believe your conversation partner would believe them, you come off as an authority figure, which we know appeals to moderates and conservatives.  










Thursday, April 5, 2012

Marketing and Politics

People say that "politics is like marketing" in that they have similar goals - convince people to buy something/vote for someone. And political campaigns have a lot of the "slickness" of marketing - flashy videos, high production-value ads, slick soundbites. But it seems that the right wing has really taken the marketing side of politics seriously, while the left wing has at best only taken on those slick trappings. For the last 30-40 years the right wing has gone a lot deeper into the marketing bag of tricks than the left wing.

This is partly because the left has always been mistrustful of "marketing" per se, considering it manipulative and somewhat louche. This is backed up by the left's underlying confidence that rationality and reason will prevail in political discourse - the fundamental Enlightenment position that our Founding Fathers had as well. Reason and rationality will win in the end. An informed and responsible citizenry will consider the realities and facts of a situation, and use reason and logic to determine the best solution or best candidate to address the situation.

But this is not how the world actually works, not nowadays, and not for a large plurality of the citizens. In the days of the Founders when all the participants in the political process were well-educated, highly intelligent, very ambitious white men, this might have been the case (but even so, look at the vituperation in the Federalist Papers). In today's world, this approach is clearly not working. In an age when nearly half of the electorate has been convinced that climate change is not happening or is merely a way for "climate scientists" to get more funding for their research, and more than 30% don't believe in evolution, you clearly need to start using different approaches to talking to people about political situations.

And this is what the right wing has done. Starting about 40 years ago, they began to create a conservative "position" that they could use as the basis for much of their rhetoric. Positioning is the art of creating such a "position" in the mind of a consumer that quickly defines and identifies you, and which carries along with it implicitly all the rest of your identity. For example, Coke has been famous over the years for its positions - "It's the Real Thing." And 7-Up for years had a great position - "The Uncola." Good positions are defensible, and actually put the competition on the defensive. 7-Up's position was unassailable by Coke, because Coke could never not be cola. (Of course, since people would rather drink cola than lemon soda, Coke still prevailed.)

So, as a thought experiment, try to remember the Democrat's position, in the marketing sense. I'll wait ... How about any progressive movement? How's that going? Any luck with that?

Now, try to same experiment for the right wing. Does "No new taxes" leap to mind immediately? Or "Taxes are bad." Or "Smaller government." For 40 years the right wing has been promoting those positions, and they have clearly succeeded.

Now, there's a critical fact to notice here - do the Republicans actually always lower taxes or make government smaller? Of course they don't. But one of the key points about your position is that it doesn't necessarily have to align perfectly with your actions. Was Coke really "The Real Thing" - I don't think that even has any meaning! But it worked to position Coke for years.

And as a result, the right wing has essentially set the agenda - taxes bad, government bad - in spite of not only the rational self-interest of the electorate, but the actual fact that the electorate generally *supports* specific government programs, and that right wing politicians are at least as responsible for government growing as Democrats are.

How do you respond to such a well-entrenched and well-defined position? This will be the subject of future posts, but for now suffice it to say that simply trying to latch onto the competitor's position is NOT the way to win. That's what Pepsi tried for years, and it's what the Democrats have tried for years. And neither of these underdogs was successful.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Rhetorological Fallacies

A friend of the blog passed along this typology of rhetorical and logical fallacies. (See here for the original, full-sized graphic.)



This blog's premise is that people often make political decisions on an irrational basis. Conservatives both inside and outside the Republican Party are aware of this and have exploited it to their advantage, framing issues in a way that has shifted the nation's politics to the right. 

I think the graphic can get us thinking about some of the tactics through which this has been done, and how progressives can flip the tables on conservatives. I don't have time to go into all of the fallacies the visualization lays out, but a few strike me as particularly important. 

Appeal to Tradition
  • Conservatives have done a great job getting people to believe that this is a conservative country. From insisting that the Founding Fathers were Christian moralists who hated government and taxes to claiming that things were so much better in the 1950s (when you could pray in school and women couldn't access contraception) to arguing that the 1960s were a disaster, Republicans have owned both ancient and recent American history. 
  • President Obama and others have pushed back on this to a certain extent. But I think the overall narrative still holds. If you were to walk down the street and ask people about the Founding Fathers, I bet 9/10 would say that they were die-hard Christians who fought for independence because they hated paying taxes. We need to figure out ways to change this misunderstanding because it has a subtle but significant impact on the way people think about politics. 
Appeal to Fear
  • I'm not advocating that Democrats exploit fear the same way that the Bush administration did after 9/11, but it is important in an adversarial democracy such as ours to draw sharp distinctions between different parties. Democrats have and are continuing to do this with issues like the Republican plan to gut Medicare, but I think more can be done here as well.



Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Some Thoughts on President Obama's Speech

I just had a chance to read the transcript of President Obama's speech from earlier today in which he criticized the House Republicans' latest budget disaster plan. In what is being described as the opening salvo for the general election, Obama called out Mitt Romney for supporting a budget that guts social services, Medicaid, and a range of other important programs in order to preserve tax cuts for the rich.

In addition to criticizing Romney by name, Obama called the Republican plan "thinly veiled social Darwinism" that is "so far to the right it makes the Contract with America look like the New Deal." Then, in a question and answer session that followed the speech, the President argued that the Republican Party had become so conservative that even Ronald Reagan "could not get through a Republican primary today."

Most commentators feel that Obama took the gloves off with his remarks. (See TPM's description of the speech, for instance). When judged against the President's usual rhetoric, they're right.

I see it differently. As much as I love allusions to social Darwinism, the New Deal, the Contract with America, and the Republican Party's move to the right, the vast majority of voters have no idea what these are. People want to hear about unemployment, gas prices, health care and other pressing concerns. They don't know - and they don't care - about inside the beltway topics like the ones the President highlighted.

Of course, the audience for the speech (a group of newspaper editors) was very much an inside the beltway crowd. But when I think about the President's rhetoric as a whole, it seems that the overwhelming truth of what he has to say is weighing him down.

The same is true for many of us on the left. We have the facts on our side, and the opposition is so wrong that it is hard to know where to start. The danger is that we focus on enumerating and repeating those facts and lose sight of the often irrational ways in which most people make political decisions.

This was genius of Bill Clinton's response to the national debt question in the 1992 debate, as I noted in my previous post. Clinton didn't worry about giving the right answer. He spoke directly to the questioner's immediate economic needs and concerns. George H.W. Bush, by contrast, gave a very Obamaesque answer - correct on its merits but too complicated for the average voter to understand. Let's hope the President figures out a way to craft a more direct economic message before it's too late.




Monday, April 2, 2012

Go for the Gut

Remember this moment from the 1992 Presidential campaign?




This was one of the moments that swung the election in Clinton's favor. The exchange encapsulated the differences between Clinton and George Bush, Sr. Whereas Bush looked uninterested - checking his watch and seeming annoyed by the question - Clinton demonstrated empathy and concern. (Ross Perot doesn't address the question, as far as I can remember.) The moment when he takes the microphone, steps forward, and looks the questioner in her eyes was classic Clinton. It clearly resonated with the audience and was one of the signature moments of Clinton's political career.

What strikes me as important with regards to what we're discussing here, though, is the fact that Bill Clinton got the question wrong. The questioner asked, "How has the national debt personally affected each of your lives?" (A poorly worded question, to say the least, but a question nonetheless.) But instead of discussing how the national debt impacts the economy, which is what Bush did in his discussion of interest rates, Clinton deflected to his economic record in Arkansas, all while throwing in some digs at Bush.

In other words, he said nothing about the national debt at all. And guess what? It didn't matter.

What Clinton grasped - and what Bushed missed - is that people have no idea what the national debt is. Decades of finger pointing over the national debt and federal budget deficit has served to make people aware that these are bad things. But most people simply think of the national debt as the cause of a bad economy, a tenuous connection to say the least.

This was true in the early 1990s, and it remains true today. And going into the November election, I think we'll see a number of questions like this. My worry is that Obama (and Democrats down the ticket) are prone to give an answer more like George Bush, Sr.'s than like Bill Clinton's.

Fortunately, Mitt Romney is no Bill Clinton. But on many issues - climate change, business regulation, state budgets - conservatives seem to understand that when it comes to getting elected it's less important to be correct on policy and more important to appeal to people's very, very low level of political knowledge.


Friday, March 30, 2012

Politics As Marketing - Positioning

People say that "politics is like marketing" in that they have similar goals - convince people to buy something or vote for someone. And political campaigns have a lot of the "slickness" of marketing - flashy videos, high production-value ads, slick soundbites. But for the last 30-40 years the right wing has really taken the marketing side of politics seriously, while the left wing has at best only taken on those slick trappings.

This is partly because the left has always been mistrustful of "marketing" per se, considering it manipulative and somewhat dirty. This is backed up by the left's underlying (false) confidence that rationality and reason will prevail in political discourse - the fundamental Enlightenment position that our Founding Fathers had as well. Reason and rationality will win in the end. An informed and responsible citizenry will consider the realities and facts of a situation, and use reason and logic to determine the best solution or best candidate to address the situation.

But this is not how political decisions are actually made, not for a large plurality of the citizens. In the days of the Founders when all the participants in the political process were well-educated, highly intelligent, very ambitious white men, this might have been the case (but even so, look at the vituperation in the Federalist Papers). In today's world, this approach is clearly not working. In an age when nearly half of the electorate has been convinced that climate change is not happening or is merely a way for "climate scientists" to get more funding for their research, and more than 30% don't believe in evolution, you clearly need to start using different approaches to talking to people about political situations.

And this is what the right wing has done. Starting about 40 years ago, they began to create a conservative "position" that they could use as the basis for much of their rhetoric. Positioning is the art of creating such a "position" in the mind of a consumer that quickly defines and identifies you, and which carries along with it implicitly all the rest of your identity. For example, Coke has been famous over the years for its positions - "It's the Real Thing." And 7-Up for years had a great position - "The Uncola." Good positions are defensible, and actually put the competition on the defensive. 7-Up's position was unassailable by Coke, because Coke could never not be cola. (Of course, since people would rather drink cola than lemon soda, Coke still prevailed.)

So, as a thought experiment, try to remember the Democrat's position, in the marketing sense. I'll wait ... How about any progressive movement? How's that going? Any luck with that?

Now, try to same experiment for the right wing. Does "No new taxes" leap to mind immediately? Or "Taxes are bad." Or "Smaller government." For 40 years the right wing has been promoting those positions, and they have clearly succeeded.

Now, there's a critical fact to notice here - do the Republicans actually always lower taxes or make government smaller? Of course they don't. But one of the key points about your position is that it doesn't necessarily have to align perfectly with your actions. Was Coke really "The Real Thing" - I don't think that even has any meaning! But it worked to position Coke for years.

As a result of doing this work, the right wing has essentially set the agenda - taxes bad, government bad - in spite of not only the rational self-interest of the electorate, but the actual fact that the electorate generally supports specific government programs, and that right wing politicians are at least as responsible for government growing as Democrats are.

How do you respond to such a well-entrenched and well-defined position? This will be the subject of future posts, but for now suffice it to say that simply trying to latch onto the competitor's position is NOT the way to win. That's what Pepsi tried for years, and it's what the Democrats have tried for years. And neither of these marketing underdogs was successful.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Health Care Framing

With the Supreme Court's oral arguments out of the way and a decision on the Affordable Care Act not expected until June, the battle now begins in earnest over how to frame health care reform. Pema Levy over at Talking Points Memo has a good rundown on how things are expected to play out. Basically, Republicans feel they will benefit electorally if the law is upheld, while Democrats feel that they stand to gain at the ballot box if the Supreme Court strikes down some or all of the ACA. Strategists on the left and right are focused on how the ruling will galvanize their respective bases and see the decision as a key point in the upcoming elections.

Putting aside the real world implications of overturning the law (hint: millions of people will lose their health insurance), one thing that strikes me as important as we start to think about this is how little the political dynamics have changed since 2010. Back then, the law had just passed and no benefits had kicked in. Tea Partiers swarmed congressional town hall meetings, and opposition to the bill hovered around 54%.

Interestingly, this level of opposition has remained largely unchanged in the two years since, even though key parts of the law, such as the provision affording individuals under 26 years of age to remain on their parents' health insurance plans, have been implemented.

Why is this so? There are a number of reasons people still oppose the health care law, but I think a lot of it has to do with the ineffectiveness of the Democratic messaging on the issue. From President Obama on down, Democrats have not put forward the strongest case for why people should support health care reform, which as it is currently designed should appeal to moderates and independents.

Just consider the word "mandate." For most people, the salient feature of "Obamacare" is the fact that the government is going to start forcing people to buy private health insurance. This is true, of course, but Democratic leaders, and progressives as a whole, have done strikingly little to explain what this means. In reality, the mandate is a policy that is meant to prevent people from "free riding" off the system. Since everyone is going to get some form of medical care, we need to make sure that everyone pays at least something.

This is a conservative position (that got its start in the Heritage Foundation, of all places) and has been most famously implemented in Mitt Romney's very own Massachusetts - with very positive results! Indeed, Romney himself has done a better job explaining how the system works than most Democrats.

So how can Democrats better market health care reform, and the mandate in particular? Well, I'd suggest taking a page out of the conservative playbook and arguing that the mandate is needed to make sure everyone contributes their fair share. No free riders. Repeat. No free riders. Individual responsibility, everyone pays, nobody is allowed to cheat. Repeat. You get the point.

As a Californian, I can assure you that this stuff gets traction. I can't tell you how many of my moderate friends make the argument that the California budget is broken because illegal immigrants game the system and receive benefits without paying their fair share. That this argument is incorrect is beside the point. It is a political winner, and hopefully progressives will use the uncertainty over the Supreme Court's forthcoming ruling to rethink how they market health care reform to the public.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Progressives Have Given Up Control of Language - Let's Get it Back!

The right wing has managed to convert a lot of good words, with historically popular meanings, into bad words – “liberal,” “elite,” “government,” “expert,” even “politics.” Every one of those words used to carry a positive connotation in our society (or at least in the case of “politician” a more positive connotation). This transformation is not an accident. It was done via marketing. When you hear the word “liberal” today you subconsciously add in the phrase “tax and spend.” When you hear the word “elite” you might think “not mainstream.” When you hear “government,” you’re likely to think “inefficient” or “too big” or “bureaucracy.” Well, those associations are all ones that have been marketed to you, very effectively, by a right wing message machine.

This “machine” is a well-orchestrated marketing effort that extends from right wing think tanks, to right wing media like the National Review, to the corridors of the Republican national offices, to training and recruiting activities like Young Americans for Freedom. The end result is that conservatives, for the most part, are talking from the same rhetorical playbook, with the same simple positioning messages, reiterated over and over until they sound like truth, rather than opinions – “taxes are bad,” “government is too big,” “media is liberal,” “tax and spend liberals,” Social Security and Medicare are “entitlements” rather than something we the people have paid for, that the rich “create jobs,” and so on.

Where is the equivalent set of marketing messages on the left or progressive side? You can look for one, but you won’t find it. Why is that? There are several reasons, some of which are listed below. We’ll address each of these in (multiple) upcoming articles:
  • Liberals and progressives believe that marketing is manipulative and bad.
  • The left doesn’t realize that they have been undone by a sophisticated and disciplined marketing effort
  • Liberals and progressives believe that “the truth” itself should be stronger than any spin or marketing
  • The left doesn’t really understand how people really make political decisions (even though Lakoff and Haidt and even Luntz have been telling them)
As a result, too many politicians on the left have simply tried to step up to the right’s marketing positions and pledge their allegiance to them: promising to lower taxes, reduce “entitlements,”  rein in government, increase defense spending, and even balance the Federal budget. Trout and Ries, in their book Positioning, have explained how this doesn’t work (which you didn’t need to be told, did you?).

Instead, the left has to actively work to reposition the right wing, while creating a distinct and more compelling position. How do you do this? By communicating a lot better and a lot more consistently.

So What Are We Going To Do About This?


The first and most important thing to learn is that using language well does NOT mean simply telling the truth more clearly. That’s been tried, it doesn’t work, and people that do that have a name in the right wing lexicon – it’s “elite.”

(When the right wing talks about some being an “elite” that is code - but more than code, really, as we'll discuss in a future post - for a “rational” argument, where the speaker sets out the true facts and comes to some conclusions based on those facts.)

There is a ton of research out there that shows that for many – if not most – people, this type of argument – the so-called “Enlightenment-style” argument, as George Lakoff puts it – is not effective. It puts people off, rather than convincing them. In particular, people do not make political or other moral decisions based on these arguments at all. In fact, what research has shown more particularly, is that people respond to arguments that align with their emotional and worldview, irrespective of the form of the argument.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

One more thing

One more quick thing from today's earlier post: a key theme running through our analysis is the importance of empathizing with and respecting conservative points of view. As hard as it might be to stomach at times, understanding how conservatives see the world is critically important if we want to reach out to them. Nobody responds well to put downs and condescension. Conversely, empathy is vital if we want to help those with which we disagree see the light.

Mind you, we're not calling for greater civility, moderation, or bipartisanship in our political discourse. In fact, as we'll show, those buzzwords are often highly effective conservative talking points that we need to push back against. Rather, what is important is understanding why conservatives and many moderates behave the way they do. We need to find out why people who should vote for Democrats - people who support progressive positions on the environment, taxes, regulation, etc. - vote for Republicans. We then need to figure out ways to change this dynamic.

When polled on issue after issue, a majority of Americans support positions that align with the left wing of the Democratic Party. How, then, to explain Republican strength? Simple math indicates that a substantial part of the electorate are closeted progressives: people who support left wing positions but vote Republican. Winning these individuals over to our side - helping them "come out," so to speak - is key if we want to get more Democrats elected and shift our political discourse to the Left.

About This Blog



I thought it might be worthwhile to explain to readers a little of what we're up to with this blog. Simply put, this blog is hoping to jumpstart a discussion on how progressives can make better use of language to win over moderates and conservatives and shift the nation's politics to the Left. 

The defining feature of contemporary American politics, at least for the past three decades, has been the vitality of conservative positions and politicians. Despite all evidence that they are wrong, conservative ideas retain a prominent place in our politics. Even after the disaster that was George W. Bush, Republicans keep moving to the Right, and they keep getting elected. Major newspapers continue to swallow right wing talking points, and millions of Americans still hang on to Rush Limbaugh’s every word.

Why do conservative positions, despite being thoroughly discredited in theory and practice, dominate our political discourse? Why do so many low and middle class Americans vote for Republicans (and against their interests)? Why does the media frame issues in a way that corresponds with right wing rhetoric? And why are even the most progressive Democrats frequently forced to cater to conservative world-views?

Political scientists and historians have accounted for conservatism’s strength in a few different ways, including demographic and structural changes in the electorate (the growth of the Sunbelt and the Civil Rights backlash in the South), the growing influence of business in politics, the role of talk radio and Fox News, and the renewed engagement of Christian evangelicals with politics.

These are all good explanations. Yet none of them fully accounts for conservatism’s enduring strength. One of the main reasons that conservatives have been able to shirt the nation's politics to the Right over the past few decades has been their ability to use language effectively. Indeed, as people like George Lakoff have noted, conservatives have identified, honed, and deployed a rhetorical strategy that exploits key cognitive dynamics. What conservatives say—and how they say it—resonates with many people because it taps into the very wiring of our brains.

We're going to explain this strategy further as we go on in this blog. But most of our attention will go towards the more important task of documenting how progressives can can crack this rhetorical code and turn it to their advantage. The primary goal of this blog will be to lay out concrete steps that progressive organizers, Democratic Party activists, and others can use to win moderates and conservatives to our side. Rather than simply deconstructing conservative communications and marketing strategies, we’ll provide examples of how progressives can start fighting—and winning—the political war of words.

Of course, we can't do this alone, and with this blog we hope to start a more robust discussion about how progressives can improve their communications strategy. This goal stems from a deep frustration at the manner in which progressives market themselves and athe realization that too few people have advanced solutions to this problem. As far as we can tell, few writers have put forward proposals for how progressives can utilize the rhetorical strategies that conservatives have used to such devastating effect. Hopefully you can come along and join us in this important task.

Why us? As a marketing strategist (Nils) and social scientist (Patrick), we are well suited to this work. We have extensive experience analyzing problems, devising solutions, and selling products. We’ve also spent our lives talking with—and winning over—moderates and conservatives. In this blog we'll combine these personal insights with findings from history, linguistics, and cognitive science to provide a guidebook for how to recapture political language from the right wing.

A preview of what's to come: 


  • Explanations of how moral psychology explains how people make political choices, and how progressives can turn these insights to their advantage;

  • Scripts and talking points that you can use when talking with your conservative friends and family about issues of the day;

  • History lessons that debunk right wing claims that the Founding Fathers were conservatives and instead show them for what they were: the progressives their time;

  • Rewrites of President Obama and other Democratic leaders' speeches that attempt to make them more convincing to moderates and conservatives; 

And much more. We're very interested in hearing any suggestions you might have. Feel free to leave suggestions in the comments.





Monday, March 26, 2012

Santorum's Latest Morality Theatrics


Rick Santorum is in the news today for lashing out at a New York Times reporter over the weekend. (Video above)

What makes this interesting to me as I start to think more systematically about the intersection of psychology and political language is the way that this and many of Santorum's previous theatrics tap into the psychology of purity that Jonathan Haidt writes about. Sanctity and degradation are one of the six moral foundations that Haidt has identified as a source of political preference. (For a good primer see his TED talk. I'm all about videos today.)

The sanctity/degradation foundation has traditionally been associated with the Right, and Santorum's outburst is a great example of how conservatives frequently appear to be repulsed by behavior they deem amoral or illegitimate. The object of revulsion can be premarital sex, abortion, or the "liberal media," but the revulsion -- and the corresponding feeling of having the moral high-ground -- is quite real, even if one can safely assume that Santorum is playing to the camera here.

While by no means condoning Santorum's outburst, it is worth considering how progressives could improve their rhetoric to take advantage of the ways our brains process sanctity. Though it is found most often among conservatives, those on the Left also tend to have strong feelings with respect to purity. In his new book, Haidt gives the example of the "spiritual left," which fetishizes cleanliness of body and nature. As Haidt puts it,


"You can see the [Sanctity] foundation's original impurity-avoidance function in New Age  grocery stores, where you'll find a variety of products that promise to cleanse you of 'toxins.' And you'll find the Sanctity foundation underlying some of the moral passions of the environmental movement. Many environmentalists revile industrialism, capitalism, and automobiles not just for the physical pollution they create but also for a more symbolic kind of pollution -- a degradation of nature, and of humanity's original nature, before it was corrupted by industrial capitalism."

(From The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion)


Putting aside any quibbles we might have with Haidt's equivalence of the issues that the Left and Right care about so deeply, he's onto something here. So how should progressives think about this?

Well, the importance of feeling morally superior to one's political opponents is significant, and the sanctity/degradation foundation can be applied less through the specific issues we talk about than through the specific ways in which we talk about them. For example, a wide range of people feel repulsed by environmental degradation. However, progressives tend to talk about these issues in a detached manner. Progressive talking points on the environment usually point towards the "conclusive scientific evidence," the "likelihood that X will lead to Y," or the "well-known basis for such and such policy." Very rarely do progressive leaders engage in rhetoric akin to Santorum's outbursts. I think this is a mistake...not just because environmental issues are more important but because a lot of people who support the environment are wired to prefer people who speak the language of sanctity and purity.

What would this new environmental rhetoric look like? I'll be spelling this out over the coming weeks, but to start with we should encourage progressive politicians to reframe the debate over global warming, and the environment as a whole, as more of an "us vs. them" proposition. "We" are the American people who know, love, and care for this land of ours -- one can appeal to conservatives who like to hunt, fish, and camp this way -- and "they" are the guys in suits who sit at their desks trading oil futures, go out for $100 lunches to lobby politicians to reduce environmental protections, and strike deals with Middle Eastern despots.

More importantly, we should portray polluters as anti-business. Tax breaks are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to regulations that favor "old energy" over "new energy" entrepreneurs, since solar and wind companies can't lobby the government as effectively as Shell, Exxon, and Chevron. Reframing the debate in this manner would allow progressives to demonstrate their superiority on issues of economic innovation.

To cite one recent example: thinking about it this way would have allowed the White House and its supporters to frame the Solyndra affair as an example of venture capitalism. To conservative critiques, progressives should have responded by saying, "So what if Solyndra failed? The government was engaging in a seriously pro-business role of funding innovation. Start ups and emerging companies go belly up all the time, as any businessman knows, and the Obama administration should be commended for taking risks to keep our innovation economy going. Indeed, by funding Solyndra and encouraging other forms of clean energy innovation, the Obama administration can be seen as the most forward-thinking pro-business administration in history. Why do you think that nearly all of the most successful and innovative Silicon Valley entrepreneurs are Democrats? And what is more, the losses cost the government next to nothing compared to the tax breaks conservatives give their oil company brethren."


Thursday, March 22, 2012

How to Take Advantage of the Right Wing Freak Out over Jim Yong Kim

In a VERY surprsing development for those of us who follow the World Bank, President Obama just announced the nomination of Jim Yong Kim, President of Dartmouth and well-known international public health expert, to succeed Robert Zoellick as the Bank's president this June. Given that the US has always chosen the World Bank president, Kim is likely to get the spot, which I think is good, since health issues are becoming more and more salient to the Bank's basic mission.

The interesting thing, at least as far as this blog is concerned, is that we can expect a significant right-wing backlash over this. Back in 2002 Kim published a book, Dying for Growth: Global Inequality and the Health of the Poor, that was praised by none other than Noam Chomsky. Commence the conservative freakout in 3 ... 2 ... 1!

Big problem for Obama in an election season, right? Wrong. The impending conservative freakout over Kim, whom we can expect Santorum/Romney/Fox News/Limbaugh, etc. to call an anti-American socialist any minute now, is a great opportunity for progressives to demonstrate that we're better at foreign policy than they are. I'll explain this in more detail later, but for now I think progressives should hammer on the fact that Kim is a doctor who has saved many lives. Do they oppose doctors? Health care? Do they want people to be sick? Simple but effective, and ties in well with stuff progressives should be saying about health care issues here in the US.

Learn from Reagan


Are we sure that this has nothing to do with Reagan's enduring popularity? Count me as someone who believes in the power of Presidential speeches...at least when they're clear, direct, and tap into bad is stronger than good thinking (more on this soon).

Presidential Speeches Do Work…Sort of


Ezra Klein has a piece in the latest New Yorker on the ineffectiveness of Presidential speeches. Like most of what Ezra writes, it’s great stuff, and I encourage you to read it. (Go on, you can do it!)

As is typical of DC journalists, however, the piece also displays a strikingly poor appreciation of context. To be more specific, the piece fails to consider the significant influence that Presidential rhetoric can have—and has had—on the country’s political discourse.

Before I explain, a few quotes to give you a flavor of the article:

The annual State of the Union address offers the clearest example of the misconception [that Presidential speeches are effective]. The best speechwriters are put on the task. The biggest policy announcements are saved for it. The speech is carried on all the major networks, and Americans have traditionally considered watching it to be something of a civic duty. And yet Gallup, after reviewing polls dating back to 1978, concluded that “these speeches rarely affect a president’s public standing in a meaningful way, despite the amount of attention they receive.” Obama’s 2012 [state of the union] address fit the pattern. His approval rating was forty-six per cent on the day of the speech, and forty-seven per cent a week later…

If speeches don’t make a difference, what does? Another look at the Presidencies of Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan offers an answer. Roosevelt was one of only two Presidents in the twentieth century whose parties won seats in a midterm election. That was in 1934—a year in which the economy grew by ten per cent. But in the midterms of 1938, the year after the economy plunged into a double-dip recession, the Democrats lost seventy-two seats in the House. If Roosevelt had been running for reelection, he, too, would almost certainly have lost…

Presidents win victories because ordinary Americans feel that their lives are going well, and we call those Presidents great communicators, because their public persona is the part of them we know.


Ezra draws mainly on the work of George Edwards, a political scientist at Texas A&M, in making these conclusions. Edwards has made a name for himself by demonstrating that Presidential speeches have no positive impact on a President’s poll numbers. There’s more to the article, but that’s the gist of it.

So what’s the problem? Well, poll numbers are not politics. It goes without saying that the economy is the major factor in determining a President’s popularity. But gauging whether Presidential rhetoric is effective by tracking short-term shifts in approval numbers vastly oversimplifies a complex phenomenon.

I’ve looked at Edwards’ evidence, and it is spot-on: a President’s approval rating does not go up following major speeches. But I’ve also studied history and know enough to say that rhetoric does matter. Even though most of us who write for a living tend to pay too much attention to what people say, there is no question that Presidential speeches can alter political discourse…maybe not so much in the short-term but definitely over the long-haul. FDR’s rhetoric, for example, helped legitimize an expanded role for government in our lives. Moreover, even if it is unpopular with voters, political rhetoric can influence the media and subsequent understandings of a presidential legacy, as was the case with Reagan. (Video clips of him saying “tear down this wall” have done more to shape understandings of the end of the Cold War than hundreds of books.)

Of course, there is no way to clearly measure the precise influence of Presidential rhetoric. And that, to me, is the main lesson that one should take from the work of Edwards and others. Like economists, political scientists have a tendency to valorize numbers…and to dismiss as unimportant anything that can't be quantified. We’ve seen what a disaster exclusively quantitative approaches to economics have had. Let’s not make the same mistake when it comes to politics.








Wednesday, March 21, 2012

How To Turn Facts Into a Story

This sounds darn good, doesn't it?

The Northern European countries earn their prosperity not through low taxation but through high taxation sufficient to pay for government. In five of the seven countries, Denmark, Germany, Norway, Netherlands, and Sweden, government spending as a share of GDP is much higher than in the U.S. These countries enjoy much better public services, better educational outcomes, more gainful employment, higher trade balances, lower poverty, and smaller budget deficits. High-quality government services reach all parts of the society. The U.S., stuck with its politically induced "low-tax trap," ends up with crummy public services, poor educational outcomes, high and rising poverty, and a huge budget deficit. The Northern European countries earn their prosperity not through low taxation but through high taxation sufficient to pay for government. In five of the seven countries, Denmark, Germany, Norway, Netherlands, and Sweden, government spending as a share of GDP is much higher than in the U.S. These countries enjoy much better public services, better educational outcomes, more gainful employment, higher trade balances, lower poverty, and smaller budget deficits. High-quality government services reach all parts of the society. The U.S., stuck with its politically induced "low-tax trap," ends up with crummy public services, poor educational outcomes, high and rising poverty, and a huge budget deficit to boot.
(From How N. Europe Exposes GOP Tax Policy Lies)

The above is a perfect liberal argument, perfectly tuned to NOT convince a conservative. In fact, because of the form of the argument - a set of logical statements that conclude that it's better for everyone (the greatest good for the greatest number) if taxes are higher - conservatives will see it as fundamentally IMMORAL.

This is hard for a liberal to understand, but it's true, and if you accept that, you're much more likely to be able to craft communications that conservatives will accept.

How do you make an argument about the benefits of European levels of taxation in such a way that a conservative will agree with you? Well, this is not the easiest place to start, but let's try.

One approach is to reformat these "facts" into a story about a particular person, someone who's very identifiable for a normal conservative person, like a worker who has a sick child or sister, who, due to the safety net, was able to ensure his daughter was cured of her rare disease without going bankrupt. This would be a lot more effective. And the person could say, "Well, I do have to pay a lot of taxes, but the peace of mind I have in case Monika gets sick again is priceless. I can't imagine the stress it must cause people who don't have level of protection. It's health insurance, but because everyone in the country participates, it means we get the best care, as good or better as I could get anywhere in the world. And compared to the insurance companies, I have a lot more faith that the public insurance plan isn't wasting my money."

Let's do a little analysis here - the original story is very compact, and "self-evidently" compelling if you like that kind of thing. However, the new version of the story is a) engaging, b) human, c) sympathetic, d) reassuring, and e) acts as positioning against a lot of different types of attacks. Because the story is the experience of a single person, rather than a statistic, it's much more compelling as a moral story - statistics always seem suspect from a moral perspective, even if they are "scientifically" more accurate.