By Scott Wittkopf
Let’s look into the future. There will come a time when progressives and Democrats begin to acknowledge more recent (than the 17th Century) developments in the science of thought. Political communication will account for the importance of unconscious emotion in motivating our actions, and how language can effectively frame ideas so that people not only hear, but actually accept fundamental truths about the world around them.
How powerful WOULD it be if all the candidates were focused on a new, better strategy – based on science?
This vision of a better, more effective strategy is nothing new. In fact, scientists like George Lakoff been providing the evidence for a better strategy for decades. While Democratic candidates continue to adhere to outdated, ineffective, and literally losing strategies, the science continues to evolve. Here in my home state of Wisconsin, most Democratic candidates for governor are repeating the mistakes of every previous Democratic candidate for governor to challenge Scott Walker.
Same old, unsuccessful same old
At the moment, most of the Democratic candidates in Wisconsin are focusing their attention on attacking Scott Walker (and trying to connect him to Donald Trump). In doing so, they make the textbook mistake of repeating and reinforcing their ideas. In addition, the candidates for the most part continue to focus on the minutiae of policy issues. While this ticks off the boxes of major issue groups and donors, it fails to unify or motivate people. Point of note – all of the Democratic challengers (Tom Barrett twice and Mary Burke) who have already lost to Scott Walker followed the same strategy. What’s the definition of insanity?
Back to the original question – how powerful WOULD it be if all the candidates were focused on a new, better strategy – based on science? Here’s how that would look:
1. Every issue and policy progressives believe in arise from a widely accepted and understood value that humans are hard-wired for – EMPATHY. As such, the debate would be framed around that moral worldview. From George Lakoff:
“Freedom is the most powerful concept in American politics, and Republicans are actively trying to erode it. Policies are not about numbers and statistics – they’re about people, democracy, and freedom. Communications should center on values, morality, and the lives of ordinary Americans. We must tell a clear, cohesive story about who we are and what we stand for. If we’re fighting over “entitlement programs” and budget numbers, we’re losing. We know from cognitive and behavioral science that policy talk and statistics lack effect. People respond to stories that touch their emotional and moral cores…Everything must flow – by conscious design – from our unifying values and principles.”
The progressive idea of freedom defines every policy and issue we care about, and those are the stories we should tell. My freedom in our democracy comes with a responsibility for other people’s freedom. And when I act on my caring for others’ freedom, I am acting morally. Think “The Golden Rule” – or some other expression of empathy in every religion on Earth. FDR was a genius at this, when he communicated the idea that to live a meaningful life in America meant living free from want, free from fear; and to have the freedom of speech and freedom to practice (or not practice) religion.
Consistently evoking the progressive idea of freedom, and that it provides everyone a better future is a powerful idea in the face of authoritarianism.
2. Our government, “The Public”, is (or ought to be) all of us. In fact, we the people ARE the government. Therefore, we should emphasize the necessary connection between the people and The Public, and how acting on our empathy (caring for others) through “The Public” is the foundation of our democracy, economy, and prosperity. One of the great successes of the conservative messaging machine dominance has been to drive a wedge between the people and their government. We must remove that wedge so people once again engage in our democracy and government. From George Lakoff:
“Democracy is about citizens caring about other citizens, and providing public resources that allow all of us to advance, prosper, and thrive. This is the very ideal of American opportunity – and we can’t let Republicans destroy this in an abstract beltway battle over budget cuts. We must focus attention on the bigger picture – on the main purpose of our government, the promotion of the public good.”
Once you think about it in this frame, it becomes easy to communicate everything we do through The Public to express how we care for others (even people we don’t know), and how our acting through progressive values makes life better for everyone. These are investments we make in each other: roads, bridges, ports, education, telecommunications, computer science, research, military defense, etc. I’m sure you can think of more!
3. Knowing the metaphors and ideas evoked by conservatives are powerful will help stop you using them. Knowing and communicating progressive metaphors and ideas will help you keep progressive ideas alive, and help people see fundamental truth about our world, nation, and themselves. A timely example from Dr. Lakoff:
“American politics revolves around the central metaphor of Nation as Family. Conservatives have a strict hierarchical model, while progressives have a nurturant model. As part of the family metaphor, Republicans will wrongly try to portray the national deficit as a family budget. They will tell a story about how, if a family needs to trim its budget, it must trim its costs. They will depict crucial public safety net programs as excess luxuries that must be cut in order to “balance” the budget. Unfortunately, this metaphor makes sense to many Americans who are familiar with family budgets (but not national budgets). Yet this comparison is completely false. Our national budget is radically different from a family budget in every way. And even if we looked at the national budget as a family budget, the Republican approach is akin to putting grandma out on the street so that your rich uncle can buy another Ferrari.”
These metaphors are powerful, and literally shape people’s thoughts and actions. Knowing how to recognize and change them is more important now than ever.
4. Understand history, and study past crises to know how current Republican policies will impact people’s lives and freedom. Then have a strategic approach to communicating history’s lessons, and a plan for a better future communicated using progressive ideas and values based on empathy. Another timely example from George Lakoff:
“Republicans are doing to the nation what they did to Kansas in 2012. They are enacting massive tax cuts and promoting a false promise of economic growth. There may be some positive short-term news in the stock market, which Republicans will portray as economic success. Yet in the longer term, this could crash the economy and hurt tens of millions of people. We must remind people of what happened in Kansas, foreshadow a similar disaster on the national level, and ensure that Republicans are held accountable for their actions when the downturn comes. At the same time, we must advance a positive empathetic campaign for a more fair and equitable plan. If we do not prime and “pre-suade” people to support a Democratic plan, they may be susceptible to divisive Republican propaganda (anti immigrant, anti-poor) once the next recession hits.”
A better strategy for progressive communications is necessary, because the idea of political communications is now “weaponized.” Conservative Republicans have learned and effectively put into practice a coordinated, systematic war on people’s thoughts and ideas. They are so successful, that for millions of people, the only “truth” is the one that fits their message…their frame.
Four basic steps
Progressives and Democrats can be profoundly successful in communicating fundamental truths to people – and have a profound impact on political discourse – by communicating the truth in a way that will be heard and accepted by people. A strategy that effectively communicates truth to people is very powerful, and consists of these four steps:
1. Every debate must be framed around empathy – the core value for every progressive issue.
2. Emphasize “The Public” as necessary to prosperity, freedom and democracy; and define “The Public” as “we the people” acting together for a better future for all.
3. Know and recognize conservative metaphors and ideas. Avoid them, and change them by evoking progressive ideas based on empathy for every issue.
4. Know history, and effectively communicate looming crises effects on people’s lives and freedom. Then provide a truthful, better future using progressive moral ideas based on caring for others, kindness, and compassion.
It’s not hard to imagine how powerful and influential this approach would be. Were this to be applied, say by every Democratic candidate for Wisconsin governor, it would completely dominate the campaign. This would render Scott Walker’s ideas and message futile for the majority of people, because they would have been inundated with ideas and a vision in the progressive frame. The progressive frame would then also become the dominant frame of the campaign.
That’s how Democrats win.