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.

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