Democratic Strategies Lost Big. Here’s Why and How to Fix It.

It is time to shine a light on the perpetually losing strategies used by Democrats, and particularly on the Democratic infrastructure that promotes those strategies.

I am asking whether the old strategies can be separated from the community of strategists, so that new strategies can be adopted by that community that are authentic, moral, and fully general.

The strategists form an infrastructure that all Democrats have come to depend on—candidates, elected officials, Democrats in government, and citizens who align, or might align, either morally or practically with progressive policies. This well-funded, and well-connected strategic infrastructure includes public relations firms, pollsters, consultants, researchers, trainers, communication specialists, speechwriters, and their funders.

Democrats depend on this expensive infrastructure. The strategists seem to assume that their strategies are natural and obvious, the best that can be done. It is time to look closely at these strategies and question them. The same mistakes, if they are mistakes, should not be repeated.

You probably noticed some of these strategies during the 2014 election:
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New Book! – The ALL NEW Don’t Think of an Elephant! Know Your Values and Frame the Debate

New Book! – The ALL NEW Don’t Think of an Elephant! Know Your Values and Frame the Debate

PRESS RELEASE: The Elephant! Returns: “The Father of Framing” Offers Bold New Strategies Ten years after writing the definitive and bestselling book on political debate and messaging, George Lakoff returns with new strategies about how to frame the key political issues being debated today: climate change, inequality, immigration, education, personhood, abortion, marriage, healthcare, and more.

The ALL NEW Don’t Think of an Elephant! Know Your Values and Frame the Debate picks up where the original book left off, but delving deeper into:

    How framing works;
    How to frame an integrated progressive worldview covering all issues;
    How framing your values makes facts, policies, and deep truths come alive;
    How framing on key political issues—from taxes and spending to healthcare and gay marriage—has evolved over the past decade;
    How to counter propaganda and slogans using positive frames;
    How to speak to “biconceptuals”—people with elements of both progressive and conservative worldviews; and,
    How to think about complex issues like climate and the increasing wealth gap.

This book is the essential progressive guide for the issues that define our future: climate, inequality, immigration, health care, and more. (preorder your copy today, books ship in early-mid September) Continue reading

Charles Fillmore, Discoverer of Frame Semantics, Dies in SF at 84: He Figured Out How Framing Works

Charles J. Fillmore, one of the world’s greatest linguists — ever — died last Thursday, February 13, at the age of 84 in San Francisco. He was the discoverer of frame semantics, who did the essential research on the nature of framing in thought and language. He discovered that we think, largely unconsciously, in terms of conceptual frames — mental structures that organize our thought. Further, he found that every word is mentally defined in terms of frame structures. Our current understanding of “framing” in social and political discourse derives ultimately from his research, whose importance stretches well beyond linguistics to social and political thought — and all of intellectual life. The world has lost a scholar of the greatest significance.

“Chuck,” as he was known throughout the linguistics world, got his PhD from the University of Michigan in 1961 and taught at Ohio State University until 1971, when he came to the University of California at Berkeley. Chuck’s wife of 40 years, Lily Wong Fillmore, put herself through college and then through graduate school at Stanford, winding up as Professor of Education at Berkeley. She was his constant companion, sounding board, alter ego, the greatest cheer in his life, and much more. Continue reading

SOTU 2014: The Cognitive Power of the President

There are enough people guessing what the president will do. This is about what he almost certainly won’t do, but what I would like him to do.

The president has material power without the Congress, and personally, I would like to see him use it. He could issue an executive order for the government to grant contracts only to companies that pay their workers above some higher minimum wage. Or he could reject the XL pipeline on two national security grounds: its contribution to global warming and the dangers of leaks, explosions; and he could stop the virtual pipeline of dangerous tar sands and fracked oil shipments by train and waterway by insisting immediately on safe puncture-proof tanks. He could direct federal agencies to monitor and control dangerous chemical use and storage to prevent future versions the Great West Virginia Water Disaster. I would love to see him act in dozens, if not hundreds, of areas for the public good, and give the moral grounds in the SOTU. Continue reading

The NY Times Uncovers Conservative Attacks and Then Prints One; Both Are On The Front Page

The NY Times has many virtues and some important flaws. Both were evident on the paper’s front page this week and there is a lot to be learned by what did and did not appear there.

For decades, Republican conservatives have constructed and carried out extensive, well-planned, long-term communication campaigns to change public discourse and the way the public thinks. It has been done very effectively and, for the most part, not secretly. The NY Times finally began reporting on this effort on Thursday, November 21, 2013 in a fine piece by Jonathan Weisman and Sheryl Gay Stolberg.

The Times reported on the House Republicans’ memo on how to attack the Affordable Care Act through a “multilayered sequence assault,” gathering stories “through social media letters from constituents, or meeting back home” and a new GOP website. The Times also reported on the “closed door” strategy sessions, going back to last year. Continue reading

Systemic Causation and Syria: Obama’s Framing Problem

HuffPo
This is the second of two articles analyzing the mode of thought and the language in public discourse on Syria from the perspective of cognitive science and linguistics.

Every language in the world has a way in its grammar to express direct causation: a local application of force that has a local effect in place and time. You pick up a glass of water and drink it: direct causation. You bomb a hospital, destroying it and killing those inside: direct causation.

No language in the world has a way in its grammar to express systemic causation. You drill a lot more oil, burn a lot more gas, put a lot more CO2 in the air, the earth’s atmosphere heats up, more moisture evaporates from the oceans yielding bigger storms in certain places and more droughts and fires in other places: systemic causation. The world ecology is a system — like the world economy and the human brain. Continue reading

Obama Reframes Syria: Metaphor and War Revisited

HuffPo
President Obama has reframed his position on Syria, adjusting the Red Line metaphor: It wasn’t his Red Line, not his responsibility for drawing it. It was the Red Line drawn by the world, by the international community — both legally by international treaty, and morally by universal revulsion against the use of poison gas by Assad. It was also America’s Red Line, imposed by America’s commitment to live up to such treaties. Continue reading

Why Ultra-Conservatives Like the Sequester

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By George Lakoff

Paul Krugman, Joe Stiglitz, Robert Reich and other major economists have pointed out that the deficit is not an urgent economic problem and that, to the contrary, the economy would be helped by an increase in public investment and harmed by drastic cuts. The Sequester would hurt the economy, millions of people, and the country as a whole. Continue reading

How the State of the Union Worked

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By George Lakoff

Political journalists have a job to do — to examine the SOTU’s long list of proposals. They are doing that job, many are doing it well, and I’ll leave it to them. Instead, I want to discuss what in the long run is a deeper question: How did the SOTU help to change public discourse? What is the change? And technically, how did it work? Continue reading

Michigan’s New Corporate Servitude Law: It Takes Away Worker Rights

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By George Lakoff

Michigan has just passed a corporate servitude law. It is designed to take away many of the worker rights that unions have conferred throughout their history: the right to a living wage. The right to equal pay for women. The right to deferred payments in the form of pensions. The right to negotiate workplace standards and working conditions. The right to overtime pay. Continue reading

Why It’s Hard to Replace the ‘Fiscal Cliff’ Metaphor

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By George Lakoff

Writers on economics have been talking since the election about why the “fiscal cliff” metaphor is misleading. Alternative metaphors have been offered like the fiscal hill, fiscal curb, and fiscal showdown, as if one metaphor could easily be replaced by another that makes more sense of the real situation. But none of the alternatives has stuck, nor has the fiscal cliff metaphor been abandoned. Why? Why do some metaphors have far more staying power than others, even when they give a misleading picture of a crucial national issue?

The reason has to do with the way that metaphorical thought and language work in the brain. From a cognitive linguistics perspective, “fiscal cliff” is not a simple metaphor bringing “fiscal” together with “cliff.” It is instead a linguistic metaphor that is understood via a highly integrated cascade of other deeper and more general conceptual metaphors.

A cascade is a neural circuit containing and coordinating neural circuits in various parts of the brain.

Because we think with our brains, every thought we have is physical, constituted by neural circuitry. Because about 98 percent of conscious thought has an unconscious neural substrate, we are rarely aware of conceptual metaphors. And because the brain is a physical system governed by conservation of energy, a tightly integrated cascade of neural metaphor circuits is more likely to be learned, remembered, and readily activated. Continue reading

Global Warming Systemically Caused Hurricane Sandy

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By George Lakoff

Yes, global warming systemically caused Hurricane Sandy — and the Midwest droughts and the fires in Colorado and Texas, as well as other extreme weather disasters around the world. Let’s say it out loud, it was causation, systemic causation.

Systemic causation is familiar. Smoking is a systemic cause of lung cancer. HIV is a systemic cause of AIDS. Working in coal mines is a systemic cause of black lung disease. Driving while drunk is a systemic cause of auto accidents. Sex without contraception is a systemic cause of unwanted pregnancies.

There is a difference between systemic and direct causation. Punching someone in the nose is direct causation. Throwing a rock through a window is direct causation. Picking up a glass of water and taking a drink is direct causation. Slicing bread is direct causation. Stealing your wallet is direct causation. Any application of force to something or someone that always produces an immediate change to that thing or person is direct causation. When causation is direct, the word cause is unproblematic.

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Moral Leadership: What Obama Has to Show Tomorrow In the Debate Performance, and for Real

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By George Lakoff

As Nate Silver, NY Times polling expert put it, “Instant polls conducted after the debate are suggestive of something between a tie and a modest win for Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr.”

Biden held his own and maybe a bit more. That was important. But President Obama has to do a lot better than that. He has to go beyond the policy wonk to be a moral leader once more. Here’s how Jennifer Granholm put it on her Current TV show video.

On the whole, the public and especially the undecided voters don’t keep track of policy details and which numbers are right. The worst thing the president can do is to just compare details of policy. That just elevates Romney to the status of an equal, who can come back with lies that will sound just as good if not better to most of the undecided.

The TV debates are not primarily about policy details and the numbers in themselves. As Ronald Reagan showed, the debates are about choosing a moral leader. And we do this through a performance.

Reagan didn’t debate policy details and numbers. Instead he did the following:

  • Stated his values.
  • Connected with the viewers by projecting empathy.
  • Communicated clearly.
  • Appeared authentic, appeared to be saying what he believed.
  • Was positive and upbeat.

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What to Watch for in the Presidential Debates

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By George Lakoff and Elisabeth Wehling

I’ve been applying cognitive linguistics and neuroscience to politics in six books over the past two decades. The ideas in those books were on display in many of the speeches at the Democratic National Convention. Look for them in the debates. They include:

  • All politics is based on moral values, with strict conservatives and progressives having different moral values.
  • There are also morally complex voters — moderates, independents, swing voters — who are progressive on some issues and conservative on others.
  • All issues are conceptually “framed” — that is, they have a mental structure that fits one’s moral system.
  • Facts matter, but only when they clearly fit one’s morally-based frames. Facts and figures, when used, should create a moral point in a memorable way. And if the facts don’t fit your frames, the frames stay and the facts are ignored or ridiculed.
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Obama Defends Freedom of Religion: Be Not Afraid of Mitt Romney

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By George Lakoff and Elisabeth Wehling

Do you believe in freedom of religion? President Obama does, and he is defending Americans’ freedom of religion against Mitt Romney and Fox News in the administration of his health care bill.

The president allows each woman to decide for herself whether or not to ask her insurance company to cover contraception. If this violates a woman’s religious principles, she would never ask. A woman would make such a request only if contraception fit her principles. In short, the President has guaranteed that each woman can act according to her religious principles. He has made a strong defense of freedom of religion.

In difficult cases, he has extended freedom of religion even further, beyond people to churches and houses of worship. Insurance companies are required to cover contraception with no co-pays for the women whose health care they are covering. This guarantees freedom of religion for the women covered, and does not affect insurance companies, which are neither people nor religious institutions.

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The Public: Obama’s and Romney’s Opposed Visions for a Free America

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By George Lakoff and Elisabeth Wehling

America is divided about its future. Should it keep and expand the system that brought past opportunity, prosperity and freedom? Or should it dismantle that system?

President Obama recently reminded us that private life, private enterprise, and personal freedom depend on what the public provides.

“The Internet didn’t get invented on its own. Government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off the Internet. (…) when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together. There are some things, just like fighting fires, we don’t do on our own. (…) So we say to ourselves, ever since the founding of this country (…) there are some things we do better together. That’s how we funded the GI Bill. That’s how we created the middle class. That’s how we built the Golden Gate Bridge or the Hoover Dam. That’s how we invented the Internet. That’s how we sent a man to the moon. We rise or fall together as one nation and as one people (…) I still believe in that idea. You’re not on your own, we’re in this together. (…) If you were successful, (…) somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. “

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The Sacredness of Life and Liberty

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By George Lakoff and Elisabeth Wehling

The NY Times, on June 5, 2012, reported that so-called “morning-after pills” work by preventing women’s eggs from being fertilized, and not by preventing fertilized eggs from being implanted in the womb. The latest scientific findings show that “the pills delay ovulation, the release of eggs from ovaries that occurs before eggs are fertilized, and some pills also thicken cervical mucus so sperm have trouble swimming.”

In short, morning-after pills do not operate on fertilized eggs at all. Why should this matter? Because many conservative Republicans, as well as the official Catholic Church, believe the metaphor that Fertilized Eggs Are People, and that preventing such egg-people from being implanted in the womb constitutes “abortion,” and hence, in their view, baby-killing. The Times article correctly reports that “it turns out that the politically charged debate over morning-after pills and abortion, a divisive issue in this election year, is probably rooted in outdated or incorrect scientific guesses about how the pills work.”

That’s the truth. Does the truth matter?

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Appreciating Undocumented Americans

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By George Lakoff and Elisabeth Wehling

This week on Independence Day, President Obama greeted new US citizens at the White House, taking the opportunity to speak once more about the need for comprehensive immigration reform, “We have to remain a nation of immigrants. And that’s why (…) we’re lifting the shadow of deportation from deserving young people who were brought to this country as children. It’s why we still need a DREAM Act to keep talented young people who want to contribute to our society and serve our country.”

Immigration is an important issue for Obama, and it will be discussed throughout this election campaign. The question is how it will be discussed.

Just about two weeks ago, on June 22, Obama gave his speech on immigration at the 2012 NALEO conference in Florida. In some parts, Obama clearly and beautifully stated his moral understanding of the issue: undocumented immigrants are in many ways already citizens – they contribute to the American society and economy through hard work, they love the country they live in, they are patriots, they share their lives with other Americans every day, they take on individual and social responsibility. The president offered more than just freedom; he offered appreciation.

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What Hath Roberts Wrought?

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By George Lakoff and Elisabeth Wehling

Democrats all over America are claiming victory in the Chief Justice Roberts’ vote to uphold the constitutionality of the President’s Health Care Law. Conservatives all over America are campaigning all the harder for a president and a congress that will overthrow the law in the future.

Thomas Friedman in his NY Times column praises Roberts to skies for putting the country ahead of ideology. Others have seen Roberts as saving “his court” from the appearance of ideological control.

But Roberts is a conservative, and a very smart, forward-looking one at that. What Roberts accomplished on one issue was to enshrine two conservative ideologies — without the Democrats even noticing while they were cheering. He did this by using the Court’s ability to turn metaphors into law. He accomplished this with two votes.

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Metaphor and Health Care: On The Power to Make Metaphor Into Law

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By George Lakoff and Elisabeth Wehling

Perhaps as early as today, the conservative–dominated Roberts Court will choose a metaphor that will affect millions of people and perhaps change the history of our country very much for the worse.

Back in 1978, linguists Michael Reddy and George Lakoff, working independently, demonstrated that metaphor is fundamentally a matter of thought, and that metaphorical language is secondary. Conceptual metaphors shape our understanding and can determine how we reason. Consequently, metaphor is central to law, as Citizens United showed by expanding the common legal metaphor Corporations Are Persons, with vast political consequences.
Today’s likely judgment was prefigured in the 2008 Republican presidential race when Rudolph Giuliani likened health care to a flat screen TV. If you want a flat screen TV, buy one; and if you don’t have the money, go earn it. If you can’t, too bad, you don’t deserve it. The same with health care, he argued, imposing the metaphor that Health Care Is A Product.

This was a sign that conservative strategists were looking for a way to impose this metaphor.
Barack Obama helped them. He bought into that metaphor when he chose the Interstate Commerce clause as the constitutional basis of his health care act. He had an alternative — Medicare for All — since Congress has the duty to provide for the general welfare.

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Obama vs. Romney: The Framing Matchup, Round One

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By George Lakoff and Elisabeth Wehling

Framing is (or should be) about moral values, deep truths, and the policies that flow from them.
As of their kickoff speeches in Ohio, Romney and Obama have both chosen economics as their major campaign theme. And thus the question of how they frame the economy will be crucial throughout the campaign. Their two speeches could not be more different.

Where Romney talks morality (conservative style), Obama mainly talks policy. Where Romney reframes Obama, Obama does not reframe Romney. In fact, he reinforces Romney’s frames in the first part of his speech by repeating Romney’s language word for word – without spelling out his own values explicitly.

Where Romney’s framing is moral, simple and straightforward, Obama’s is policy-oriented, filled with numbers, details, and so many proposals that they challenge ordinary understanding.

Where Obama talks mainly about economic fairness, Romney reframes it as economic freedom.
Here’s a discussion of Obama’s speech.

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Economics and Morality: Paul Krugman’s Framing

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By George Lakoff and Elisabeth Wehling

In his June 11, 2012 op-ed in the New York Times, Paul Krugman goes beyond economic analysis to bring up the morality and the conceptual framing that determines economic policy. He speaks of “the people the economy is supposed to serve” — “the unemployed,” and “workers”– and “the mentality that sees economic pain as somehow redeeming.”

Krugman is right to bring these matters up. Markets are not provided by nature. They are constructed — by laws, rules, and institutions. All of these have moral bases of one sort or another. Hence, all markets are moral, according to someone’s sense of morality. The only question is, Whose morality? In contemporary America, it is conservative versus progressive morality that governs forms of economic policy. The systems of morality behind economic policies need to be discussed.

Most Democrats, consciously or mostly unconsciously, use a moral view deriving from an idealized notion of nurturant parenting, a morality based on caring about their fellow citizens, and acting responsibly both for themselves and others with what President Obama has called “an ethic of excellence” — doing one’s best not just for oneself, but for one’s family, community, and country, and for the world. Government on this view has two moral missions: to protect and empower everyone equally.

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