Monday, April 11, 2005

Back-off Lackoff

Beware Of Conservative Pundits Bearing Gifts

In a column last week,
David Brooks wheeled out a shiny new Trojan horse and left it, magnanimously, before the gates of Democratic Party headquarters. According to the "concerned" Brooks, the troubles the Democrats have been experiencing at the ballot box over the past quarter century are largely the result of (get this): not enough infighting and a dearth of philosophical argumentation. That's right, the Party that practically invented the eat-your-own credo should be more contentious within its own ranks. If only the Left could have bashed Clinton more. Further, the group trying to shake the latte-sipping, over-educated, elitist label should start having more public philosophical debates. Sure, that will go a long way to re-casting us as the Party of "everyman."

Brooks, out of sheer generosity I suppose, and with the Democrats' best interest in mind, is trying to save us all a lot of time, money, and effort. He lets Democrats know that they need not travel the same road as their Republican counterparts.

We're living in the age of the liberal copycat. Al Franken tries to create a liberal version of Rush. Al Gore announced his TV network yesterday. Many Democrats have tried to create a liberal Heritage Foundation.

The theory is that liberals must create their own version of the conservative pyramid. Conservatives have formed their foundations, think tanks and media outlets into a ruthlessly efficient message machine. Liberals, on the other hand, have been losing because they are too fractious, too nuanced and, well, too freethinking.

Much as I admire my friends on the left for ingeniously explaining their recent defeats without really considering the possibility that maybe the substance of their ideas is the problem, I have to say that this explanation for conservative success and liberal failure is at odds with reality.

Conservatives have not triumphed because they have built a disciplined and efficient message machine.
I see. So all the billions spent, all the resources and intellectual wattage dedicated to creating those think tanks, that massive network of media interests, and all the other points of coordination, that's just wasted money? It hasn't been getting any results? No, according to Brooks, it's just the rigorous level of strife within the Conservative movement which has vaulted them to victory (see Noam Scheiber for how Brooks overstated such intra-movement warfare to begin with). But somehow the misguided GOP faithful continue to throw money into a system that doesn't serve their interests. How odd. I wonder why then, if this model is so inconsequential to electoral outcomes, doesn't David Brooks preach this gospel to his conservative brethren. Why wouldn't he want to save them the cost of his salary?

The truth is, obviously, that this money is well spent. This finely-tuned message-crafting and disseminating matrix has yielded big time results for the GOP. If it didn't, they wouldn't be dedicating all those resources to its upkeep. And yes, the Democrats absolutely need to get a better handle on how to retaliate with their own pyramid of voices and institutions. And no, we shouldn't be taking advice on strategy from Conservative columnists, no matter how pleasant and soft spoken the sheep's clothing might appear. Improving the message is an important step in the process, if not the only step.

There Can't Be Only One

The first question I seem to be asked whenever someone learns that I majored in philosophy as an undergrad (aside from "why did you do that?") is "who is your favorite philosopher?" My response is usually something mildly snarky like, "All of them." Some who know me might be tempted to chalk this up to a general reluctance toward commitment, or my dedicated ecclecticism, but I think there is a method to my wide embrace. Philosophy literally means the love of wisdom in Greek (philos = love, sophia = wisdom), and one of the first things a lover of "wisdom" should discover is that no one philosopher has a monopoly on it. What I appreciated as a student was the different perspective, or weltanschauung, that each philosopher brought to the conversation. Sure some resonate more than others, but I never could understand the urge to become a disciple of any one philosopher, as if the process of learning would or could end there. For me, almost all possess insights that contribute to the grand mosaic of wisdom, truth, understanding, and knowledge.

It is with this mindset that I read and appreciated the cognitive linguist du jour, George Lakoff (his two main works on the subject are Don't Think of an Elephant!: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate and the more comprehensive Moral Politics). What Lakoff offers is a much needed call to arms, as it were, to the Democratic Party to focus on message, language, and the underlying concepts or "frames" that have long been the exclusive quarry of Republican strategists - much to the benefit of their Party. Language matters. Context matters. Message matters. And Lakoff provides a thought provoking opening foray into a topic that the Democratic Party has been neglecting.

publius notes quite eloquently, the language battle began turning the Republicans' way during the era of the "Great Communicator" Ronald Reagan. By setting the terms of the debate, for example by casting budget issues in terms of "big vs. small government," the GOP was able to sell ideas that were previously unpopular when broken out in specifics. Looking at that one language trap, consider how instinctive the reaction is. My own impulse is to favor leaner, smaller government and I'm fairly liberal - the American people overwhelmingly had the same response. But when you ask the same people about individual spending priorities and entitlements, they end up supporting something akin to the present size of government when all is tallied up - what would be called "big" if using the linguistic snare. But try saying, "I support big government" and tell me how it goes on election day.

Lakoff builds on this by providing a background of moral and philosophical frames which most Americans have hard-wired in their world view. One important insight is his observation that when confronted with inconvenient facts, the frame triumphs and the facts are discarded or rationalized. Something along the lines of cognitive dissonace. Thus, a broader strategy than simply being right on the facts or informing the public is needed. His prescribed remedy is multifaceted: it involves fostering an underlying outlook that favors the Democrats and then matching that base of understanding with language and terms that trigger that same outlook. This new medicine has increased his popularity with a Party looking for answers after the November defeat. With Lakoff's meteoric rise to political stardom, however, has come a predictable backlash from certain segments on the Left - along with the well-meaning advice of amiable Republicans like David Brooks who admonish us that it's not the message or the message machine - honest.

Gang Green

The latest attempt to talk the Democrats down from the ledge of language comes from
Joshua Green, a senior editor of The Atlantic. Green, like many critics of Lakoff, overstates his case by claiming that somehow heeding Lakoff's advice is exclusive to other strategies and measures. That in some sense Lakoff's proponents claim that framing alone can cure all of the Democratic Party's maladies. On top of that, Green applies the shallowest definition of "framing" as if all it consisted of was better slogans or buzzwords (Lakoff goes much farther than this, by addressing the message machinery as well as the underlying conceptual framework within which to use the language):

With "messaging efforts" under way throughout the party, more Democrats appear to be coming around to the belief that - election results be damned - what they stand for may not be the problem after all....

Of course, buzzwords are not going to rescue a failing party. That so many Democrats have achieved the Olympian state of denial necessary to believe otherwise suggests that the tempting abstractions of language and messaging have diverted them from a truth that ought to be perfectly clear: rather than being misunderstood, they were understood all too well.
Green's own clever "framing" of the debate in such absolutist terms was echoed by the normally thoughtful Brad Plumer (though in fairness to Brad, in an update to his post he concedes that he may have overstated his case in light of the well reasoned critique in the comments):

So please, no Lakoff. Not yet. Figure out how to do all that other stuff first. But depending on framing and framing alone will condemn the Democrats to irrelevance for decades to come.
That's just wrong gentlemen. First of all, Green and Plumer are conflating "branding" with "framing," though each are important pieces to the puzzle and should not be discarded so casually. The whole concept of "framing," according to Lakoff, requires building an underlying worldview to support narrowly tailored language (brands) which feeds like a loop into that same worldview. This approach, which the GOP has been quietly mastering while telling the Democrats it's a waste of time, is essential to selling political issues to the American people - especially in the age of political consumerism. This is a comprehensive approach to setting the terms of the debate, from fostering the acceptance of favorable myths and narratives, to reinforcing these concepts with an echo chamber capable of drowning out a disorganized opposition. Coturnix explains the process well in the comments on Plumer's site:

Framing is not designing phrases. Framing is building the context in which those phrases work. What you are all talking about is "branding", not framing.

Repubs did their framing job 25 years ago. All they need now is a silly pollster, like Luntz, to test the phrases and suggest which ones to use. The Republican frames are already in people's minds ready to be triggered by language.

Lakoff's job will be to CHANGE PEOPLE'S MINDS, not to invent slogans. He needs to start organizing, coordinating and working on changing the context, on exposing the Repub frames for what they are, and to slowly, over years and decades, replace them with Progressive frames. He is going to try to change the way American's BRAINS WORK. If he is successful in this, it is easy for him to hire some Luntz-like little pollster to fiddle with the slogans that will best trigger the frames. But the frames need to be in people's minds first. That's Lakoff's job and he knows how to do it.

Unfortunately, many people misunderstand Lakoff due to reading only articles and "Elephant" (which is a miserable little pamphlet). Read "Moral Politics" for sure, and if you can, some of his older stuff. Read psychology of child-rearing (Bowlby, Leach, Brazelton). Compare to Dobson. Add Stephen Ducat to the mix. Stir well. Serve cold.
As Coturnix acknowledges, and where Lakoff's critics have the most to contribute to the discussion, Lakoff himself is not necessarily the best "framer" or "brander." But this doesn't mean that listening to him is a waste of time, or that he has not stumbled upon a glaring strategic weakness of the Democratic Party. As long as we can accept that Lakoff is not the sole embodiment of wisdom on this subject, and if we don't fall victim to the foolish, though unlikely, fallacy that a mere rearranging of slogans will solve all of the Democrats' problems, then I think that criticisms like Green's are mostly moot and irrelevant. And as a general rule, if David Brooks is giving advice, take the opposite approach. The Democrats do need a pyramid, but Lakoffian thinking is just one level - not to diminish the importance. In closing, I cede the floor to Ezra Klein who sums up the case well:

But maybe it should come as no surprise that one man's attempts to reframe the Democratic Party would be weaker than the Republican Party's decades-long campaign to frame itself. And therein lies the importance of this book. The right has raced ahead in their use of language, and the Democrats have been unfocused and ineffective in their attempts to catch up. That's partially attributable to a widespread ignorance of the whole topic, and partially to a lack of motivation on our part. But, as I said at the beginning, the Democrats have woken up to their weakness and have begun training for their comeback. Genuflecting before Lakoff is a good first step, we desperately need to learn what he has to teach. That some of his proposals are weak should be no distraction; it just means that, in time, the student will have to surpass the master.
(If the reader is interested, I partake in a little Lakoffian reframing on the issue of taxation here)

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