I lucked into having dinner and other conversations with UC Berkeley professor and author George Lakoff more than a decade ago while attending a conference. (I had read him previously and was already a fan.) He also wowed the crowd as keynote speaker. He's still at it and is solid gold in the age of Trump.
Here's a taste from a Salon.com interview:
If you’re a conservative going into politics, there’s a good chance you’ll study cognitive science, that is, how people really think and how to market things by advertising. So they know people think using frames and metaphors and narratives and images and emotions and so on. That’s second nature to anybody who’s taken a marketing course. Many of the people who have gone into conservative communications have done that, and know very well how to market their ideas.
Now, if instead you are a progressive, and you go to college and you’re interested in politics, what are you going to study? Well, you’ll study political science, law, public policy, economic theory and so on, but you’re not going to wind up studying marketing, most likely, and you’re not going to study either cognitive science or neuroscience.
What you’ll learn in those courses is what is called Enlightenment reason, from 1650, from Descartes. And here’s what that reasoning says: What makes us human beings is that we are rational animals and rationality is defined in terms of logic. Recall that Descartes was a mathematician and logician. He argued that reasoning is like seeing a logical proof. Secondly, he argued that our ideas can fit the world because, as he said, “God would not lie to us.” The assumption is that ideas directly fit the world.
They’re also, Descartes argued, disembodied. He said that if ideas were embodied, were part of the body, then physical laws would apply to them, and we would not have free will. And in fact, they are embodied, physical laws do apply to them, and we do not have absolute free will. We’re trapped by what the neural systems of our brains have accumulated. We can only see what our brains allow us to understand, and that’s an important thing.
So what he said, basically, was that there are no frames, no embodiment, no metaphor — none of the things people really use to reason. Moreover if we think logically and we all have the same reasoning, if you just tell people the facts, they should reason to the same correct conclusion. And that just isn’t true. And that keeps not being true, and liberals keep making the same mistake year after year after year. So that’s a very important thing.Got that, liberals? We're not doing it right. If reason doesn't work, what does? Lakoff says take over the debate the way conservatives have and Trump did. From Lakoff's latest article: Repetition, repetition, repetition.
Hillary Clinton won the majority of votes in this year’s presidential election.
The loser [Donald Trump], for the majority of voters, will now be a minority president-elect. Don’t let anyone forget it. Keep referring to Trump as the minority president, Mr. Minority and the overall Loser. Constant repetition, with discussion in the media and over social media, questions the legitimacy of the minority president to ignore the values of the majority. The majority, at the very least, needs to keep its values in the public eye and view the minority president’s action through majority American values.Take over the debate, the frame, which should be Trump is the Loser-in-Chief, Mr. Minority. Don't argue with Trump, give him a nickname like Conman Donnie, then frame the debate, which means putting majority values first and not as a rebuttal.
In general, negating a frame just activates the frame and makes it stronger. I wrote a book called “Don’t Think of an Elephant!” to make that point. Liberals are often caught in this trap. If a conservative says, “we should have tax relief,” she is using the metaphor that taxation is an affliction that we need relief from. If a liberal replies, “No, we don’t need tax relief,” she is accepting the idea that taxation is an affliction. The first thing that is, or should be, taught about political language is not to repeat the language of the other side or negate their framing of the issue.
The Clinton campaign consistently violated the lesson of Don’t Think of an Elephant! They used negative campaigning, assuming they could turn Trump’s most outrageous words against him. They kept running ads showing Trump forcefully expressing views that liberals found outrageous. Trump supporters liked him for forcefully saying things that liberals found outrageous. They were ads paid for by the Clinton campaign that raised Trump’s profile with his potential supporters!
The basic lesson comes from a legendary story in framing circles. Lesley Stahl interviewed Ronald Reagan, bringing up stinging criticisms of Reagan. The morning after the interview ran on tv Reagan’s chief of staff called Stahl and thanked her for the interview. “But I was criticizing him,” Stahl replied. The response was jovial, “But if you turned off the sound, he looked terrific. The presidential image is what will be remembered.”
The more neural circuits are activated, the more the stronger their synapses get, and so the more easily they can be activated again and the more likely they will become permanent. The more the public hears one side’s language, or sees one side’s images, the more that side’s frames will be activated, and the more that side’s worldview will be strengthened in the brains of those who watch and listen. This is why political communication systems matter.We can't hope that every journalist will call Trump Conman Donnie, but at least we can hope that the Loser-in-Chief will continually look angry and dismissive during his public appearances and in his middle-school tweets. All the while, Democrats should always argue not for regulations but protections (positive framing) and for a Healthy America for All, emphasizing that the Loser-in-Chief "wants to "Make America Sick Again." Repeat, repeat, repeat.
Trump is not the president, he's Putin's Punk, etc.
Listen, I'm not sure I'm especially good at this, but one thing I know has hamstrung liberals for ages, and that's that we always end up trying to argue civilly and reason with the other side. We can win arguments, but we can't always take the high road. We've tried that, and look where we are. Yes, we've won around the edges, like in the culture wars, but on the big-ticket items, like expanding Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, and on the healthcare front in general, we've flopped. The social safety net has been trimmed, the federal minimum wage hasn't budged in eight years, and union membership has been shrinking since Reagan. So we have to change the argument in order to own the argument.
Lakoff says it's not "right-to-work," as the Republicans argue, but "freedom to negotiate" and "make better deals on wages." Let's co-opt Trump's language. UNIONS MAKE BETTER DEALS. That's a slogan that can win back the working class. Let's get started. Be better liberals. We own American values, we're the majority. Trump's the Minority Man. And read George Lakoff to know how.
Start at georgelakoff.com.