Friday, March 16, 2012

Will Obama/Biden 2012 Master the Art of Messaging? Let's Hope So

George Lakoff
First, a little background: George Lakoff, a Cal Berkeley linguistics professor, has long championed the idea of properly framing messages and has taken pains, as a liberal himself, to point out that conservatives successfully mastered how to frame and thus control the policy debates in the public sphere. Liberals, Lakoff contends, have been dismally ineffective at message control. In fact, he claims, liberals perversely and unknowingly support conservative messaging by saying, in effect, "No, you're wrong about that!" while actually repeating conservative distortions.

Lakoff has written a number of very informative books on the subject, including Don't Think of an Elephant! Know Your Values and Frame the Debate, Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think, and Whose Freedom?: The Battle over America's Most Important Idea. I recommend them all.

"Death panels, death taxes, job killers!" Crude but effective, and deadly on target.

I first ran into George Lakoff at an English teachers' conference five years or so ago at Asilomar Conference Grounds in Pacific Grove, CA, where he was keynote speaker (and I was a much more modest tech presenter). Quite by accident, I ended up having dinner with him one night and drinks with him another. He was more than happy -- most teachers are -- to talk about his ideas. I was instantly taken by his message about messaging. it's both compelling and vital.

Here he is on the job a few days ago in a Huffington Post blog:
The same naiveté about messaging, public discourse, and effects on brains is now showing up in liberal discussions of the Republican presidential race. Many Democrats are reacting either with glee ("their field is so ridiculously weak and wacky." -- Maureen Dowd), with outrage (their deficit-reduction proposals would actually raise the deficit -- Paul Krugman), or with incredulity ("Why we're debating a woman's access to birth control is beyond me." -- Debbie Wasserman Schultz). Hendrik Hertzberg dismissed the ultra-conservatives as "a kick line of clowns, knaves, and zealots." Joe Nocera wrote that he hope Santorum would be the Republican candidate, claiming that he is so far to the right that he would be "crushed" -- an "epic defeat," "shock therapy" that would bring back moderate Republicans. Democrats even voted for Santorum in the Michigan primary on the grounds that he would be the weaker candidate and that it would be to the Democrats' advantage if the Republican race dragged on for a long time.
I mention these liberals by name because they are all people I admire and largely agree with. I hope that they are right. And I hope that the liberal discourse of glee, scorn, outrage, incredulity, and support for the most radical conservative will actually win the day for Democrats at all levels. But, frankly, I have my doubts. I think Democrats need much better positive messaging, expressing and repeating liberal moral values -- not just policies-- uniformly across the party. That is not happening.
 At least, perhaps, not until yesterday. Here's a report, entitled "Privileged Sector Versus Private Sector," from today's Daily Kos on what amounts to Joe Biden's campaign 2012 kickoff speech yesterday:
Based [on] this anecdote reported by Molly Ball in The Atlantic, Mitt Romney and his team are genuinely oblivious to the political dangers inherent in his brand of plutocratic capitalism:
One Washington-based Republican adviser recounted an interaction in which a senior member of the Romney team, asked what the campaign planned to do to soften the class-based criticism of Romney, gave a blank look and snapped, "Nobody cares about that crap."
Contrast that attitude with this line from Vice President Joe Biden's campaign kickoff speech yesterday:
Simply stated, we’re about promoting the private sector, they’re about protecting the privileged sector.  (Applause.)  We are for a fair shot and a fair shake.  They’re about no rules, no risks, and no accountability.
I'd say that Biden had sprung a trap, but I think Romney and his team genuinely believe that their brand of plutocratic capitalism is the one and only true form of free enterprise and that anyone who doesn't buy into is guilty of socialism, communism and un-American loathing of the private sector.
In his speech yesterday, Biden dismantled their narrow world view. Democrats do want a strong and growing private sector, and they don't expect government to do everything. Unlike Republicans, however, Democrats are realistic enough to know that you need government to establish and enforce rules of the road to make sure that competition is fair, that sometimes you need to the public sector to step in and support the private sector when the economy is in crisis, and that a strong safety net to prevent poverty makes us a stronger and freer nation.
The key here is that Joe Biden takes it to Romney with a positive frame around the Obama administration's positive support of the public sector as opposed to Romney's negative behavior in support of the "privileged sector" where there are "no rules, no risks, and no accountability."

Now, repeat after me—Romney: me, me, me! Biden: us, us, us!

I have a feeling that George Lakoff would smile if he heard Joe Biden's remarks, and I hope Obama/Biden can keep to positive messaging while framing conservative behavior in the negative light it deserves. Here's the thing: Democrats and liberals can't win with negative attacks on conservative Republicans' cockeyed moral stances. We need to articulate a positive vision with consistent positive language, with an underlying set of moral values that supports it.

That's not as hard as it sounds. More George Lakoff:
The basic moral values in the progressive moral system are empathy and responsibility, both for oneself and others. This leads to a view of government as having certain moral obligations: providing protection and empowerment for everyone equally. This requires a vibrant commitment to the public -- public infrastructure (roads, buildings, sewers), public education, public health, and so on. No private business can prosper at all without such public provisions. The private depends on the public.
These values follow from certain ideal progressive family values, as projected to larger institutions. The progressive family has parents of equal authority. Their central moral role requires empathy with each other and their children, it requires self-responsibility, and responsibility for the well-being of other family members. This means open communication, transparency about family rules, shared decision-making, and need-based fairness.
 Now, can you imagine a more positive, gifted orator than Barack Obama to spearhead this positive articulation of the liberal message to America? I can't. And Joe Biden's a capable sidekick in this epic struggle, not to redeem America, but to convince America that the liberal vision is a moral position worth fighting for.

The jury won't be in until election night 2012. But I for one am hopeful.

That's the spirit.

1 comment:

  1. empathy and responsibility are the most important things in politics and in our everyday life too.
    I've noticed that Obama is a talented orator and you are right about positivity too.
    p.s. Don't Think of an Elephant - i read the extract from the book, and i think this book is a mast have

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