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:
Formulate expressions of progressive policies that align with A, B, and C. While not forgetting about D and E.
Showing how right wing policies actually fail to align with A, B, and C.
Rebutting anything from the right wing about our policies not aligning with A, B, and C
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.
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.
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!)
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).
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).
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:
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.
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”).
Our (“us”) American ways of respect for diversity and individualism (group, fairness) and even our Constitution (authority) are being mocked by these attackers.
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.
(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.
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.
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.
So, I keep hearing that a problem with Occupy Wall Street (OWS) is the lack of demands, and I think this is actually a feature of OWS right now. If they had demands, then their overall message of suffering would get sidelined, I think. OWS should not be (at this point anyway) about demands, it should be about a message of deep unfairness and unbalance in the economy, a structural inbalance that’s caused by excessive influence of the financial and business sectors in politics. So there’s a message, but there are no demands in that. In fact, if you think of the right wing positions, there are not really demands, except stupid simplistic ones that we don’t believe, there are just positions – taxes are bad, government is bad, business is good, states are better than Feds, the government is corrupt. Some demands come out of there, but they are extremely inchoate – Lower Taxes! Smaller Government! But mostly they are just about positions.
So what OWS needs is some good positions – these are what Lakoff calls “frames” in a certain way. And OWS needs its positions to be highly simplified versions of things like “no special treatment for financial companies.” That does not roll off the tongue. Compare it to “taxes are bad.” We need phrases like that, that resonate, that are simple, that overly simplify, but that are simple to say and remember, and get the point across. It’s always harder to do this for positive messages – the right wing is all about negative messages, and those are easy.
But let’s think about the simplest possible trope here, in comparison to “x is bad,” which is the right wing trope. The simplest alternative is “x is good.” What can we say is good without sounding stupid? Or at least having a resonant position? “Police are good.” “Having a police force is good.” “Public education is a good thing.” Not quite as tripping off the tongue as the taxes one. Another possibility is “Government is good.” That sounds way too Big Brother-ish. I wonder if there is a version of that trope, though, that could work?
Tomorrow, a lot more on how to turn the weak-kneed “x is good” into something really compelling.
Have you noticed that 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 I’ve listed below. I’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
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.
Are You Seething Yet?
I hope you’re getting angry as you read this, and thinking “how can we change this?” And the answer is that one of the first things we need to do it take responsibility for using language effectively as progressives.
So, inspired in part by Mike Lofgren’s Goodbye to All That: Reflections of a GOP Operative Who Left the Cult (also mentioned in this post), the purpose of this series of articles is to explore and explain (with examples!) how the progressive left can start using language much more effectively to support its positions and policies. My goal is to help individuals in the progressive movement articulate their positions in such a way that swing voters, in particular, will be drawn to them, and to give the progressive movement as a whole a blueprint for creating a messaging platform that can counteract the massive right wing message machine that’s been gaining hegemony in our political discourse for the past 40 years.
This builds on work done recently by Joe Brewer, in his Progressive Strategy Handbook, and it builds on research and theories from a wide range of cognitive psychologist, moral philosophers, behavioral economists, and ad men.
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 well discuss later) 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 them 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.
Why, and more importantly, How?
The series will have two main thrusts. One goal is to provide a theoretical background to this whole thing – the excellent use of marketing by the right wing message machine, where liberals have gone wrong, how people make moral decisions, the role of cognitive biases in peoples’ decision making, and so on. But in addition, I want give you, through examples and guidance, the ability to take existing messaging and improve it, to make it much stronger and more effective for enabling people to subscribe to the progressive position.
I don’t think fixing politics is “as simple as” doing a better job of using language, and applying positioning and marketing to the progressive policies. But I do think that if you’re not doing that when progressives are in such a deep hole, and when, as a result, a lot of people are making political decisions that are arguably against their best interests, that something should be done.
My goals in writing these pieces is to take the ideas of a variety of thinkers such as George Lakoff, Jonathan Haidt, Dan Ariely, Al Ries and Trout, Jim Mintz (Marketing In The Public Sector), and thousands of Madison Avenue copywriters and ad men, and combine them into a new way of talking about progressive politics. One that will be more resonant to individuals who might not consider themselves progressive or even liberal, and one that will be more resistant to the predations of the conservative spin or marketing machine.