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.