Accelerating The Future Of The Nation

Progressives have gotten a little better at telling stories. We have started to understand that the conservatives have undermined us on family, future, government, jobs. The good news is that the future is actually catching up with them. (The future has a liberal bias!) We saw this with marriage deregulation – all their rhetoric couldn’t prevent it from just happening. But we can help accelerate the future. And we can do it with language.

Let’s do a thought experiment.

Conservatives and people who aren’t dyed-in-the-wool liberals believe that principles A, B, and C are important for making good moral decisions. What the right wing has done is say their policies are aligned with A, B, and C. And they say progressive policies are against A, B, and C. (Irrespective of either the facts about the policies or of how well the policies actually align with A, B, and C.)

On the other hand, liberals say “We think principles A, B, and C are illogical, small-minded, and unimportant. We’re not even going to try to address them. In fact, we’re going to ridicule you for believing them. We’re going to present our policies as aligned with D and E, which are clearly the logical and meaningful ones.” Again, irrespective of whether A, B, and C really are important to consider and whether progressive policies do align with A, B, and C or not.

(The hilarious sub-story to this is that liberals often use those same principles A, B, and C in other domains than politics to inform their decisions, totally blind to the fact that they are being inconsistent between domains.)

There would be six aspects to addressing this thought experiment:

  1. Recognize that this is happening.
  2. Realize that working within the A, B, and C framework is going to be more fruitful. This is the point of this site, and other sites like Talk Like A Liberal and the Winning Words Project.
  3. Formulate expressions of progressive policies that align with A, B, and C. While not forgetting about D and E.
  4. Showing how right wing policies actually fail to align with A, B, and C.
  5. Rebutting anything from the right wing about our policies not aligning with A, B, and C
  6. Getting others, especially Democratic campaigners, to take up the work we do in 3, 4, and 5 and use it in the field

Principles A, B, and C are not just made up for the sake of this example. They are actual dimensions of moral decision making, as discovered by various researchers including Jonathan Haidt (see his TED Talk on this topic). They are:

  • A. In-group loyalty
  • B. Respect for authority
  • C. A sense of purity and sanctity

Principles D and E are not just made up either, they are:

  • D. Fairness and reciprocity
  • E. Prevention of harm to oneself or others

This is a simplification and only part of the story. But it’s basically correct. The rest of the work of this blog is to do steps 1-6 above related to this:

  • Convince you that it’s true.
  • Convince you that it’s important
  • Give you tools to make use of the information.

We progressives can make a lot of progress just focusing on this use of language. Let’s do it.


Who Is The Audience For This Site?

Who is the audience for this site (as well as the Cognitive Politics site and Winning Words)? Is it for progressives, or is it for progressives who need to learn how to communicate effectively with swing voters? I think it’s the latter, and I think we’re doing a bad job of helping those people out. We’ve just become another bunch of screechers – and there are plenty of those on other websites. Our goal should be to help progressive communicators get better at communicating progressive positions, in a whole variety of ways:

  • Better ways to say things
  • What you have to do in a campaign, e.g., to be effective (have a good website, for example, and what that entails)
  • Understand the psychology of the swing voter (without talking down to or about them)
  • Understand the techniques that are being used against you

Know your enemy and their weapons

Ak47 ver. 3In the Reacher books by Lee Child, Jack Reacher always wants to know what kind of weapon is being used against him, because he knows the weaknesses of each one, and then he uses tactics that take advantage of those weaknesses. We’re never going to be a Reacher in this fight, at least not for this election, but we need to do a better job than simply cower under our hands when the opposition brandishes a weapon.

What are we fighting against?

Some of the weapons they are using against us:

  • Lies
  • Redefinition of terms (“liberal”, “entitlement”, “business-friendly,” etc.)
  • Masterful positioning and framing (“taxes are bad,” “government is bad,” liberals “tax and spend”)
  • Ad hominem attacks (that’s what birtherism is, for example)
  • Name-calling (that’s the “elite” problem)
  • Logical fallacies – especially things like the excluded middle
  • Using public opinion as justifications for policies that contravene the opinion (Luntz piece in the WashPo)
  • Appeals to emotional arguments (the Haidt dimensions)
  • Use of “bad is stronger than good”
  • Dependence on several key cognitive biases – the fundamental attribution error, the Dunning-Kruger Effect, the one about facts that contradict a position making the position harder to abandon
  • Using jujitsu and ridicule against our weaknesses – our penchant for being nice, for using logical arguments
  • Using confusing rhetoric – e.g., the First Amendment’s establishment clause means we should be able to pray in schools
  • Using tactics that make the media ineffective (the “left wing media” castigation has resulted in lots of false equivalence because the media are watching their behinds)

I’m sure there are several more that I’m just not thinking of right now.

What do we do about this?

Unfortunately, it’s much easier to make this list than it is to come up with tactics against those weapons. But here is a shot at some of them:

  • Lies – we have to call them out as liars. This is an emotionally very compelling thing to do – no one likes a liar, and people who are betwixt and between will be swayed by the statement.
  • Ridicule – another emotionally compelling thing to do – liberals have typically been too nice, and we should ridicule not just our opponents, but journalists who hew to a “false equivalency”. This is what Jon Stewart, Colbert, and Maher have all been doing, to arguably greater effect than e.g., Krugman, who uses logical arguments.
  • Appeals to emotional arguments – the Haidt dimensions. The good news is that we can do this without lying.
  • Use of “bad is stronger than good” – this is called “negative campaigning” and it’s what works. We need to step up to it, not step away from it. Of course, again, we have the advantage of not having to lie in order to be negative about our opponents – they really *do* want to break America, or at least their policies will lead to a broken America.
  • Regarding the Fundamental Attribution Error, this is where the use of stories about “your neighbors,” “your daughter,” “your brother” are so important. The situations have to be shown to be impacting them, otherwise they are not considered situations but personality flaws. This is going to be one of the hardest ones to deal with for us, for two reasons: 1) It’s so obvious to us that taking care of all of us is the right thing to do (but it’s not clear to swing voters), and 2) this does make the arguments harder to articulate. The truth is more difficult than lies.
  • Positioning and framing – this is more of a long-term effort. The RW message machine was not built in a day, and as the recent Reuters research showed, the current outcome of all that marketing is much different than it was even ten years ago.
  • Defense against ad hominem attacks – there are two ways to go here, both should be used. One is to attack back. This is less desirable. Another is to ridicule these attacks as simply a last gasp of a dying effort, which might work if Obama is well ahead in the polls, for example. Otherwise, mostly it just has to be ignored. In particular, it seems counterproductive to rise to the bait, because that validates it. Another tactic is to get our liberal media friends to ridicule not the ad hominem claims, but the journalists on the right who repeat them, for their gullibility.


Jill Klausen Gets Us Started On A “Progressive Lexicon”

I was chuffed to read this post from Jill Klausen (@jillwklausen) last week about how to start taking back our language from the right wing, instead of simply rolling over. She says we need to start taking a lot more care with our language, and not just use the language that the right wing has been using to set their agenda.

1. Never say Entitlements.

  –Instead, say Earned Benefits.

While the word “entitlement” was originally coined by Democrats as a way to illustrate that the receiver of the attached benefits was entitled to them by having worked to earn them, or having been taxed to support them, it has been re-defined by the right as akin to a spoiled child who acts as if they’re “entitled” even though they are not.

“Earned benefits,” on the other hand, cannot be twisted or misconstrued to mean anything other than what what they are: something the recipient has actually earned, as opposed to something they are being given.

A new lexicon is a critical first step in taking control of our language and our communication. For some reason, it seems that progressive politicians have been letting the right wing control the lexicon and communication style of politics, which has not been in anyone’s interest. Jill’s pushing back, and it’s going to make a difference.

Jill has also started to do some great naming of right wing policies, such as calling Paul Ryan’s so-called budget the #PathToPoverty – a name that’s started to get a little traction in Rob Zerban‘s campaign for Ryan’s seat in Wisconsin.

Link: Return The Democratic Majority To The House And Senate in 2012: 5 Words And Phrases Democrats Should Never Say Again

Get Better At Using Progressive Language – A Series

Since I have some new followers recently, I thought I’d mention and recommend my ongoing series (nine articles so far) on Progressive Language. Originally published in Fall of 2011, the topics are still as juicy and topical as ever. I’d love to hear your thoughts and comments on this topic – it’s a critical conversation as we head into the final lap for the November elections.

This set of articles – which will be growing over time – is meant to form the basis for a cookbook for improving progressive political communication. (And when I say “book” I’m not speaking metaphorically. More on that over the next few weeks!)

Communications Lessons From Religious Movements: Alain de Botton

Alain de Botton at TED speaking on sympathy

The always apropos Maria Popova features Alain de Botton today on Brain Pickings, discussing a topic near and dear to this blog’s heart – on the lessons we can learn from religion for promoting secular movements:

The tension between secularity and religion has endured for centuries, infusing academia and science with a strong and permeating undercurrent of atheism. But if we can divorce the medium from the message, there might be some powerful communication lessons secular movements could learn from religious ones. That’s the premise behind Religion for Atheists: A Non-believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion, a provocative and thoughtful new book by modern philosopher, prolific author, and School of Life founder Alain de Botton, who recently made a passionate case for redefining success.

Religions have been practicing the marketing arts for thousands of years – inspired, of course, by their faith and the help of their Gods – and have perfected a lot of approaches that are applicable in other areas. Indeed, the key concepts I harp on in this blog – such as the use of stories to build empathy, the appeal to authority (and who is a higher authority than the Divine?), and the importance of purity and sanctity – apply directly to church sermons as well as political speeches.

Link: Brain Pickings

“Bad Is Stronger Than Good” Examples

My goal in this blog is to help progressives do a better job with their positioning, and to think about how their positions are coming across to more than just liberals. This is the first in what will be a set of “cookbook” or how-tos that will help you do this with specific examples.

In the context of the fundamental rule that “bad is stronger than good” I’ve been writing about, I want to articulate more of what our problem is as progressives. We have great policies that will improve our lives and the lives of future Americans. And because they are so great, we tend to sell them using “good” arguments – “this will make your life better.” And we also rely a lot on “this will make life more fair,” and “this will prevent harm to people.” So, those all sound totally like good ways to position things if you’re a liberal – it’s good, it’s fair, it prevents harm. But, if you look at those arguments through the lenses of things we know about real cognition, you see a lot of problems:

  • Bad is stronger than good makes “this is good” arguments much weaker than “equivalent” arguments that come from a “bad” standpoint
  • Moral dimensions – liberals are happiest with the fairness and prevention of harm moral dimensions, but less liberal people need more moral dimensions to get a complete picture – they need a purity/sanctity aspect, a membership in a group aspect, and a respect for authority aspect. Adding these dimensions can alienate liberals in some cases – this is slightly tricky – but can make arguments much more compelling to less liberal people.

There’s strong underlying evidence that everyone, literally, wants the goals of progressive policies – a majority of Americans wants public health care, for example. You have to phrase the question right, but if you do, you get the result that people think health care is a public good, and should be treated as such. But, if you simply make the argument that public health care is good for us, it’s more fair, and it will prevent harm to more people, that’s not a very strong argument.

How do you make it stronger? You invoke some group membership. Like “You probably have a friend who’s been bankrupted by a serious illness. And if you don’t, it could still happen to you.” This combines a “bad” argument (bankruptcy due to a serious illness) with a group membership argument (you or a friend of yours). You can invoke an anti-group membership argument, like “The Congress has one of the best health care plans in the world, paid for by you and me. Why should they have something they won’t give us?” That create a “bad group” versus “good group” dichotomy.

What about sanctity and authority in the health care argument? Well, “what would Jesus do?” Does Jesus think our healthcare should be controlled by the money-changers, which is what insurance companies have become? There are many Bible verses that could be used to talk about healthcare. And authority? Eisenhower and Nixon were both in favor of universal healthcare. So were the founders – at least Jefferson and Lincoln. (You might have to do some digging to find the writings or speeches to support concepts like universal health care, but there’s much that’s appropriate to this topic.)

One thing to note is that there are some particular authorities that work in this context, and some that don’t. Not just any president will do, of course. And no current politician is authority enough. You need to go back to Jefferson, Lincoln, Washington, or Jesus or Moses. Of course for smaller scale policies, you can also use the police and the military as your authority – and in particular you need to not flout those authorities in your positions and policies.

For purity and sanctity, Jesus is often good. But remember that part of this is just about cleanliness and anti-disgusting-ness. And about not breaking the taboo-related rules of society (public nudity was one I talked about a few posts ago).


Lowes vs “All-American Muslims” – A Way To View The Controversy

Leaving the realm of “Occupy” stories for a while, let’s see if we can apply the five moral dimensions of political decision making to another topic. I’m thinking of the controversy about the TLC show “All-American Muslims” and the fact that Lowes pulled out as an advertiser due to a “boycott” from an organization called The Florida Family Foundation.  There are several ways to approach this, and I’m going to cover several of them.

First, let’s just think about the situation and how impressive it is – there’s a TV show on a mainstream (cable) channel about Muslims in America that basically treats them as a normal part of American life and just another set of stories to tell about America. That’s impressive in itself – think about whether this would have been possible ten or 15 years ago.

And the response to the “boycott” has been impressive as well. The Florida Family Foundation organization is fairly fringe-y, and although it’s unfortunate that Lowes has pulled out due to the pressure of their boycott, the chances are that Lowes is the loser, much more so than TLC. The mainstream is aghast at Lowes’ response, and it’s clearly violated most Americans’ sense of right and wrong. And so we can recognize that we have made progress in tolerance as a culture, despite some fringe-y people amongst us (and not just in Florida).

What about the five moral dimensions that I keep talking about?

  • I think the “fairness” dimension is obvious, and I won’t spend much time on it
  • The “harm” dimension is also fairly obvious, except I want to point out that positions like FFF’s have led to things like the KKK – which in turn have caused lots of harm to Americans
  • The more interesting dimension is “group/other” – because of the extremity of the boycott, it has served to make American Muslims seem more “us”, and the Florida Family Foundation group seem more “them.” And that definitely puts Florida Family Foundation at a moral disadvantage in this case.
  • On the “purity/sanctity” dimension I think it’s really a wash – the Muslims on this show are clearly devout, but you have to give the Florida Family Foundation people credit for behaving in a way they think is pure.
  • But on the “authority” dimension, Florida Family Foundation loses out – if only because their opposition to having Muslims on TV is so clearly in opposition to the spirit of the Constitution. The Constitution is pretty clear – no discrimination on the basis of religion.

The other really great thing that All-American Muslims has going for it is that it’s all about stories. Stories are the other key dimension of political communication. The All-American Muslim stories, since they tie so strongly into the well-known tropes of earlier “all-American” stories, intrinsically bring you into a sense of group membership with both the teller of the story and the subject of the story.

A fundamental concept in liberalism is that your position should be judged on its merits. Unfortunately, that’s not the way that we, in America at least, judge positions. At least, that’s not the only way, and there is a big group for whom it’s only a part, if anything, of how their moral decisions are made. So it’s why we need to position our moral arguments in the right form. So if you wanted to do a “takedown” of the Florida Family Foundation, for example, in a letter to Lowes protesting their pulling their ads from American Muslim, you might structure it something like this:

  1. Open with a typical story about an all-American family having an all-American experience – the dad’s a policeman, the mom takes care of their four children.
  2. This family happens to be featured on “All-American Muslims.” You note that this all-American family is  under attack (harm) simply because they are Muslim by some members of a fringe fundamentalist sect-based group in Florida (“them”).
  3. Our (“us”) American ways of respect for diversity and individualism (group, fairness) and even our Constitution (authority) are being mocked by these attackers.
  4. Luckily, most Americans recognize that the Jaafars and the rest of the families on the show are just like us, and have responded with overwhelming support.

Lowes will be the loser in this fight if you continue to align with the fringe group rather than with mainstream America. I hope you see the error of this decision and come back into the mainstream and support this show.

That’s a good template for such a letter, although it’s rough, and quickly dashed out as an illustration for a blog post. The key point is that I am tying all of the key moral dimensions into the argument, instead of just relying on fairness and harm, which often happens in these cases.

Note that I’m not being “objective” about this story – I believe the Florida Family Foundation have just as much right to their opinions as I do to mine, but I don’t think that automatically makes their position equally valid. A typical trope in modern journalism is to treat both sides of a controversy as equally legitimate, even if they really aren’t. I don’t deny Florida Family Foundation the right to talk, but I don’t think that makes what they say valid.

Occupy Wall Street is Telling a Morally Compelling Story

(OMG – had the link to Jonathan Haidt’s TED Talk wrong! Fixed now.)

One reason the “Occupy” movement has resonated so well is that they are NOT making an “enlightenment-type” argument, with positions and statements and platforms. Instead, it’s a lot of people (group members, “people just like us”), sharing their stories (stories are much better for engaging other people), and showing how fairness has been violated, how authority (such as the Bible and the law, and of course how local police have often been seen as oppressive) has been violated, and showing how purity and sanctity have been violated (e.g., by doing a great job of cleaning up after themselves).

The story of Occupy Wall Street (OWS) – both from the OWS movement itself, as well as the attacks against it  – is totally aligned with Jonathan Haidt’s taxonomy of moral dimensions (link to excellent TED Talk) that I talked about in a previous post. (The dimensions are fairness, harm/safety, group membership, respect for authority, and a purity/sanctity dimension – liberals often focus on the first two and give short shrift to the last three). Looking at the OWS story, we see the following:

  • The “We are the 99%” message creates an “us vs. them” situation where more or less everyone can be “us,” and the “them” is a small but immensely powerful and privileged group. It’s a very effective story – nearly everyone can look at their paycheck and say “Oh, I’m definitely not making $1 million per year, and I’m a long way from that, too.”
  • And their own actions – cleaning up after themselves, being non-violent – is clearly respectful and sanctimonious, in the good sense of the word. They are clearly taking care of their environment, playing by the rules, cleaning up after themselves, and all that. So the purity/sanctity thing is happening.
  • Of course fairness is at the heart of the argument, and they’re all over that.
  • Their “respect for authority” is kind of a mixed bag – an area where they can maybe do a little better, honestly, but the underlying things are there. They have been working with the police and city halls – that’s the local authority. I think the Ten Commandments and its “Thou Shall Not Steal” is hugely resonant in this story – depicting the “them” as thieves is incredible positioning. And there are the laws and regulations – “we’re just asking for the laws to be enforced” kind of thing, about the financial regulations.

On the other hand, the attacks on OWS from the right wing can teach us a lot about how the experts on the other side make use of the same dimensions (relatively unsuccessfully in this case). First of all, the OWS people are accused of being hippies (dirty), who are having sex all the time (violating purity and sanctity). Earlier on, there was a movement to create another group, the 54% – to invalidate the “group membership” part of the OWS message, although it didn’t really work at all. Along the same lines, they are trying to portray the OWS’ers as students who can’t get jobs – meaning not members of “our” group, but members of a spoiled elite, which is meant to go against both the group membership aspect and the fairness aspect (“those kids had all the advantages, and now when they aren’t handed a job on a silver platter, they go and sit in and have sex all day”).

And there have been many attempts not only to portray the OWS protesters as law-breakers, but also attempts to bait them into taking unlawful action – which happily have so far failed.

The key point for those of us trying to improve the way progressives talk about our policies is that OWS is being incredibly successful, and very difficult to discredit, exactly because of how well it is aligning with the five moral dimensions, and how authentic that alignment is.

Why Fixing The Language of Progressive Politics Will Work, As Told By Steve Jobs

This weekend the Internet has been bubbling with an amazing and inspiring Steve Jobs quote, which I saw thanks to the amazing and inspiring Maria Popova of BrainPickings, that’s apropos of what I’m trying to do on this blog. Politics has been run the way it’s been run for its entire history. There have been changes over time, but for example, right now the pundits and political followers assume there are certain ways that candidates need to talk, certain notes they need to hit, in order to win. This is just the “conventional wisdom.” But as Steve points out, this is just the way things are now – not the way they have to be.

When you grow up you tend to get told that the world is the way it is and your life is just to live your life inside the world, try not to bash into the walls too much, try to have a nice family, have fun, save a little money. That’s a very limited life. Life can be much broader, once you discover one simple fact, and that is that everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you. And you can change it, you can influence it, you can build your own things that other people can use. Once you learn that, you’ll never be the same again.”

The way language is used in politics today, especially the tropes of the right wing, are just some walls that have been constructed to form a very very small room with no windows. But they’re just walls – they can be torn down, and there’s a whole world out there. It’s up to us progressives to break down those walls. The Occupy movement is doing that in one way, with their meme of “The 99%”. I’m attempting to do that another way by giving progressives a way to talk about politics in a new, fresh, effective, and most importantly, non-reactionary way.

Warning: Bad Is Stronger Than Good But It’s Terrible For Running A Country

A few days ago I promised to start working out some positioning statements for OWS (and progressives in general). The point I made was that the right wing has staked out some excellent (although also horrible in practice) positions such as “taxes are bad” and “government is bad.”

I argued that these are great positions from a marketing perspective because they focus on “bad” instead of good (taking advantage of “bad is stronger than good“). “Bad is stronger than good” is an important concept from a marketing standpoint, but there is a counterpoint. As Simone Weil observed,

Imaginary evil is romantic and varied; real evil is gloomy, monotonous, barren, boring. Imaginary good is boring; real good is always new, marvelous, intoxicating.

I ran across this quote yesterday, in Gretchen Rubin‘s The Happiness Project, and it made me realize there are two sides to the “Bad is stronger than Good” meme. While “bad” is useful for marketing, “good” is boring as a marketing message but much better for governing. This is to a large degree the source of the GOP’s big problems, that are just getting bigger – their positions are fundamentally destructive and “gloomy and boring” – they can only take stuff away from us, not create stuff for us. And it points out a critical thing we need to keep in mind as we craft new, stronger positions for progressive policies. Our challenge as progressives is to come up with strong positions – which means they need to reflect the fact that bad is stronger than good, as well as other marketing basics – that also allow us to do effective governing.