By Scott Wittkopf
Frame For The Future (1/18/18)
The “surprise” win for Patty Schachtner in Wisconsin’s 10th Senate District continues to be analyzed, as Democrats in Wisconsin see it as a harbinger of things to come in the fall. While there were so many volunteers and organizations that contributed boots on the ground and campaign outreach, the most important lesson for progressives is the candidate herself – and the values and message she herself embodies.
It is true that the campaign had a great organizational effort, and that is not to be diminished. However, it is in Patty herself, and the authentic, empathetic person she is, where the most important and intangible aspect of the election win can be found. This is the most important lesson for progressives, if electoral wins like this are to be repeated.
While Patty’s opponent was focused on an historically successful, conservative message of less taxes, greater personal liberty, and less government in people’s lives (based on authoritarian values of self-interest); the Schechtner campaign did something different from most other Democratic campaigns – she didn’t attack Scott Walker or Donald Trump, or try to connect her opponent to Walker/Trump via an attack strategy. Instead, she communicated her strength – her empathy – a moral responsibility to care for others as yourself (think of The Golden Rule). And what that would mean to the people in Western Wisconsin on important issues.
The first sentence on the home page of her campaign website evokes the progressive frame of empathy:
“While our current elected officials have been busy playing politics, Patty has been busy helping people.”
She then tells you why that’s important to people’s lives in Western Wisconsin (her constituents to whom she is responsible):
“Whether through her work as St. Croix County’s medical examiner addressing the addiction epidemic and mental health crisis, supporting local schools on her school board, or helping community non-profits, Patty is always looking for ways to improve people’s lives.”
Those are critically important ideas to providing a moral foundation for democracy based in empathy. As an elected representative, she will act on her empathy to care for others through our government. This progressive idea of democracy is an effective counter to the authoritarian, self-interested ideas evoked by Republicans. If you are thinking of helping others, and acting on empathy, you cannot think of acting only in your own self-interest. Thanks to mutual inhibition, your brain won’t let you. Yes, both cognitive frames are present in most people – but only one is active at a time. Thus the importance of Patty’s statements above.
Next, she evokes the idea that helping others (acting on empathy) is a Wisconsin value. It’s just something we all do and understand as the morally right thing to do – and that it rises above partisan divides:
“Patty wants to put her common sense approach to work representing Wisconsin’s 10th State Senate District. Patty won’t ask whether an idea is Democratic or Republican, just whether it’s a good idea for Western Wisconsin.”
Why is this sequence important? It accomplishes three important aspects of framing that most progressives miss or ignore:
1. It lays the moral foundation for progressive ideas (based on empathy) immediately.
2. It provides the foundation for a positive vision, for a better future people can act on through their own empathy.
3. This message translates to every issue. Once you are unconsciously “thinking” of progressive values based on empathy, the issue messages and facts supporting them can easily be understood and absorbed.
4. It characterizes this moral foundation as “common sense” after evoking and defining it.
No need to mention, you know…
In addition, the campaign was consistently focused on communicating that positive, progressive vision based on empathy and acting to care for/help others. Kudos to Patty and her campaign for staying out of negative politics, and successfully resisting the siren song of engaging in attacks against Scott Walker – which we know have the cognitive effect of reinforcing his conservative worldview.
Never underestimate the power of an idea that we, as humans, are all hardwired for – it’s a key part of our evolutionary success – empathy. In fact, the human drive for empathy is a large part of the reason that hope overcomes fear, and love conquers hate.
Perhaps the most important aspect of this cognitive framing analysis is that this is just who Patty is – she is authentic and the community knows it. These are the candidates that need to run for progressives to win. Without real, authentic progressives who embody values based on empathy, campaigns will sputter. If you have any doubt that Patty Schachtner believes what she says, consider this quote to the Associated Press after her election:
“My message has always been be kind, be considerate and we need to help people when they’re down,” she said. “We just need to be kind to people who are less fortunate and just help.”
It’s just like The Doctor says [Link to video below]: