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).


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.

I Demand No Demands From OWS!

Let's focus on a message, not demandsCreative Commons License photo credit: Jay Santiago
Let's focus on a message, not demands

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.

Some Bads Are More Equal Than Others – Or Why OWS Protesters Should Keep Their Clothes On

Error 404 - Need to avoid tactical errorsCreative Commons License photo credit: mclapics
Error 404 - Need to avoid tactical errors

In my last post I talked about how “Bad is stronger than good” is playing out in the Occupy Wall Street movement, and elsewhere. But I also mentioned some specific tactical mistakes that some people in OWS are making, such as running around nude at OWS events.

In the context of attempting to make OWS a national movement that attracts people from across the political spectrum, people running around naked is a pretty big “bad.”

The reason it’s a bigger bad is related to a whole other set of cognitive concepts that Jonathan Haidt talks about in this TED Talk, which I will try to summarize. Haidt identifies five dimensions along which people make moral – and hence political – decisions. These dimensions are:

  • Fairness/reciprocity
  • Harm/care
  • Group membership
  • Purity/sanctity
  • Authority

Simply put, liberals weight the first two much more strongly than the last three (which many liberals weight negatively, in fact), while conservatives weight all five dimensions strongly – they are equally strong on the first two as liberals, but much much stronger on the last three.

Now, think about the 1%/99% message – the central message of OWS. It’s primarily focused on the first two or Haidt’s dimensions – fairness (it’s not fair that the 1% has been able to amass so much wealth), and harm (because I can’t get a job, I can’t take care of myself or my family). One immensely clever aspect of the OWS movement has to be to articulate the 1%/99% divide, since it also activates the “group membership” dimension – essentially everyone can recognize themselves as being in the 99%.

But OWS has problems with purity/sanctity – because it’s a bunch of people camping out, which is a dirty, smelly experience at best – and with authority – because it’s intrinsically in opposition to various authority figures, such as the police, the city governments, and the owners of the places like Zucchotti Park.

So when you add in a naked man, which is horrendous from a purity/sanctity point of view, and not good at all from an authority and group membership point of view, (and at best neutral on fairness and harm) you suddenly have a very strong set of Bad that outweighs, for conservatives, the fundamental position of OWS. And, to be honest, it doesn’t do much for the liberals who are supporting OWS in the first place either, although they are generally not going to judge.

“Bad Is Stronger Than Good” and Why Occupy Wall Street Is Working

Leo and John - good and badCreative Commons License photo credit: occ4m
Leo and John - good and bad

(Note: This post was drafted before the UC Davis pepper spray incident, which I’ll write about later, but I couldn’t resist using the picture to the right.)

There’s a by now well-proven fact that “bad is stronger than good” – it’s been proven in all kinds of ways, like the fact that you need five good interactions for every bad interaction in order to prevent a divorce, and stuff like that. It’s been very well demonstrated in politics in at least two major ways:

  • Negative campaigning – much much more effective than positive campaigning (we’ll get to some examples why in a bit)
  • The right wing political positioning. Note that it’s all in terms of negatives, at least the main positions – “taxes are bad”, “government is bad.” The main message is a bad message, even if it’s backed up, rhetorically, with good messages – “lower taxes create jobs” or whatever it might be.
  • The left wing political position – almost always in terms of good – “we need higher taxes in order to pay for things that are good for you,” “the Jobs Bill is good for jobs.”
  • And of course the news industry. There is no good news in the news industry – it doesn’t sell, no one reads or watches it! If there’s no bad news today, we’re not going to talk about the good news of the day, we’re going to talk about the anniversary of the last bad news. (I would love to credit the person who gave me that line, but I don’t remember who it was!)

So, what can we learn from this? Especially if we actually want to have a positive political position in general? Well, take a look at some examples. First, our favorite example of a great positioning statement – “Taxes are bad.” Let’s try simply turning that around – “Taxes are good.” Not very compelling is it? Sounds kind of stupid, actually. And that illustrates the problem perfectly. What can we do instead? Well, how can we turn this good into a bad? That is, how can we say something good in a way that makes it sound like we’re against something?

Well, the opposite of taxes is what? Not easy to say, so it’s not going to work to say “<opposite of taxes> are bad.” (Again, the right wing wins!) But we can do something. What do lower taxes cause? Worse services, for one. Who cares about that? Everyone. So we can say something like “Lower taxes cause crime.” That’s not exactly true, but it’s as true as the “taxes are bad” statement for sure. So let’s run with it. Remember, truth is not our highest cause, “directionally true” is more what we’re going for.

So, “Lower taxes cause crime.” What if someone asks you to defend that statement? It’s pretty easy – “Who pays for your police force, the FBI, border patrol? It’s your taxes that pay for that. You cut taxes, you have to cut those guys. Is that what you want?”

Or, “Lower taxes cause lost jobs.” What’s that one about? “When we lower taxes, the first to suffer is not the rich, but the kids, the ones in school whose teachers are laid off, who don’t get textbooks, and who will end up losing their jobs to kids in China or India.”

The point is that, while these positions are a little extreme, they have the great benefit of being a) about bad news, and b) being directionally true. And this kind of thing can be applied to all kinds of political arguments.

Bad is stronger than good at OWS

There are two competing examples of Bad is stronger than Good showing up at OWS. The first is the overall focus of the movement on the 99% and the 1%. The 1% is “bad” – that’s a central tenet. In fact, it’s not so much that they are bad, but that the system is corrupt that allows the 1% to amass so much wealth, while the 99% suffer. So there are two bads here – the system that led to the 1%, and the plight of the 99% – that’s “news” in the sense that it’s bad news. At any time the media can run a story on “This person is a recent college graduate and cannot get a job though he/she has been looking non-stop for six months, eight months, a year, and has had to finally go to work flipping burgers.” (Or whatever the story is – the point is that stories like that, in America, are news – that’s not supposed to happen here.)

And the story of the multi-millionaire who foolishly put gold-plated bathroom fixtures in the six bathrooms of his/her Manhattan penthouse is also always a story.

The images of old ladies being pepper-sprayed, the police hauling off peaceful protesters from Zucchotti Park, and Iraq veterans being sent to the hospital by the police – also all Bad, and all serving to legitimize OWS.

But there’s another side of Bad being stronger than Good at OWS. For example, I head today that there was an Occupy-related march in San Francisco, and one of the marchers was a completely naked man. I have no intrinsic problems with a naked man, but some people do, and they consider it bad. For those people, the bad-ness of a naked man at an OWS event can completely overwhelm the 1%-99% *bad-ness.” And that means that being naked at OWS is a tactical mistake, if you support OWS. BTW, nakedness is a bigger bad than 1%-99%, and it might be bigger than pepper-spraying an old lady, if the old lady was, for example, cursing at police.

I’ll talk more about how Bad Is Stronger Than Good is working at OWS, and how we can tactically take advantage of it, in my next post.

The Truth Doesn’t Matter – A Series On How Progressives Can Make Better Use of Language

Progressives have given up control of language

Bankrupt - the state of progressive languageCreative Commons License photo credit: ralph and jenny
Bankrupt - the state of progressive language

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.