I haven’t been blogging much lately. I pride myself on variety, but the only thing I’ve really been paying attention to recently is politics. I don’t want this blog to become a political blog.
However, I’m going to post one more politically oriented piece, because I want all liberals and progressives in this country to understand the implications. It’s not about my ideas. I want to summarize the book, “Don’t Think of an Elephant,” by Dr. George Lakoff, a neural scientist. Despite his heavyweight scientific credentials, the book is very accessible and easy to read.
Dr. Lakoff wrote the first version of the book in 2008 to explain to liberals and progressives (I’m just going to say liberals from now on) how and why the Republicans have been able to direct the national dialogue and get Tea Party candidates into legislative seats locally, statewide, and nationally. He shows how our brain’s wiring leads to conservatism or liberalism. Reading his book opened my eyes wide, and I’m hoping all liberal politicians will read it, too.
Lakoff talks in terms of “frames.” Frames are concepts we have in our brains that are evoked by words. So when I say “taxes,” it evokes “pay for our infrastructure and services” in my liberal brain. A conservative’s brain has a frame that taxes are bad, a burden. So when Republicans in the George W. era came up with the term, “tax relief,” conservatives saw it as saving them from the bad thing, making the Republicans heroic. The problem is, the rest of the culture—especially the media—picked up that verbiage. Every time “tax relief” is repeated, it becomes a more firmly entrenched frame.
Republicans did the same thing with the Affordable Care Act by calling it Obamacare, which everyone (me included) immediately started using. It evokes a negative frame with conservatives, so much so that there are many Republicans who have only just now discovered they are losing their health insurance. They thought they were safe because they weren’t on Obamacare—they were on the ACA.
The Republicans have been doing this effectively and successfully for the past 40 years. We liberals are wa-a-a-a-ay behind. Let’s see how they do it.
Morality and Politics
Lakoff states that all politics is moral. By this he means that people vote according to their morality, not necessarily according to self-interest. (I know, how could they possibly vote for an amoral beast like Trump? Bear with me.)
Morality for conservatives looks something like this:
- Society needs a strong leader. Like a strict father, he knows best and will tell us what the right thing to do is. This is why many conservatives are deeply religious. Religion provides a strict, clear guide to behavior and thought. Trump is seen as a strong leader in this mold.
- Children are born bad and they have to be “made” good with the direction of a strict father who teaches them right from wrong. By extension, this applies to citizens and their leadership.
- People need to do what they are told. If they fail to do so, they must be punished. Without punishment, there can be no morality.
- Wealthy people are admired because obviously, they are doing the right thing. Religious people see riches as God’s blessing on the deserving (helped along by the evangelicals who have for some time now encouraged their followers to “seed” the blessings of wealth by giving to their churches, in the expectation that God will return it to them many-fold). The wealthy create jobs, and their money trickles down to the lower orders (despite the fact this has been debunked over and over it is firmly entrenched in the conservative brain).
- Poor people are obviously undeserving because they are poor. They choose to be poor. We should not give them “free stuff” like food stamps, healthcare, education, early childhood enrichment, etc., because that will just make them more lazy and undeserving. This is why Republicans want to cut taxes—not to provide “tax relief” to the working class, but to cut social services entirely if possible.
- Moral people take responsibility for themselves and do not need “free stuff.” Morality is linked to prosperity. Prosperity is linked to self-interest, therefore morality is linked to self-interest. (Hence voting your morality is seen as voting for your self-interest, whether or not that is the case in fact.)
- Government is bad because it takes our hard-earned money and spends it foolishly by providing services (“free stuff”) to the undeserving. We need taxes so that we have a strong military, however.
- Liberals are bad people. They just want free stuff. They have bad morals, as evidenced by their support for abortion and LGBTQ rights. Liberals want to raise taxes so they can give away your money to the undeserving. They are stupid because they don’t see things the way conservatives do. And if you are a Breitbart News follower, liberals are behind everything evil.
- Women are not equal to men. They do not have or deserve authority because they are weak and emotional. They need a strong man to show them the right way.
There’s more, but this ought to be sufficient to set the stage and explain why deeply religious people voted for Trump. Rationally, you might think that a billionaire with two divorces and five children by three different wives, multiple affairs, a suspected child rapist, a confessed sexual assaulter, someone who cheats his contractors and doesn’t pay taxes and possibly is a Russian collaborator would not be the first choice for religious Christians. But they saw him as a strong leader who will build a wall, keep out the Muslims, and protect us. Despite his four bankruptcies, they also view him as an incredibly successful businessman. And he promised to cut taxes and bring back jobs to America. All of this is seen as virtuous.
Rather than rationally comparing Trump’s record with their espoused beliefs, they made Trump’s record conform to their beliefs and ignored the rest—assisted by the fake news that conservatives have been marinating in for the past three or four decades.
The world is a zero-sum game to conservatives; if you want to win, someone else has to lose. So in order for them to win, the Others—people of color, people of non-Christian beliefs, differently gendered people, foreigners—have to lose.
Obviously, not all conservatives have the entire mindset described above, but they all believe consciously or unconsciously in some part of it. If you are a liberal, this might be a bit hard to swallow. It seems too simplistic, but it’s true for many people at least some of the time. Many conservatives really do see you as a “libtard”—a stupid person with no morals who is probably unemployed and taking “free stuff” that conservatives imagine they are paying for with their taxes—and it pisses them off. I have seen this personally as I have wandered around the social media scene.
I’m not going to spend time on liberal morality, as presumably you, a liberal, already understand it. If there’s a conservative out there who by some weird chance has read this far and really wants to understand liberal morality, I would be happy to explain if you ask nicely.
A bad example of President Nixon’s framing gives us an idea of how framing does and does not work. During the Watergate scandal, Nixon famously said, “I am not a crook.” So everyone thought of him as a crook, as this was repeated over and over and over.
Repetition strengthens frames. So when using conservatives’ language and frames, we are handing them the argument. It’s critical to come up with frames that fit your argument and that cannot be used against you. It is critical not to repeat conservative framing, such as “alternative facts.” There is no such thing; what we’re talking about here is lies.
To come up with effective framing requires understanding the conservative point of view. Let’s take that hottest of hot potatoes, abortion. Conservatives have been conditioned by decades of propaganda to view abortion as murder. Liberals have rejected this without replacing it with anything more compelling than a “Republican War on Women.” This plays well with liberals, but conservatives believe that women need to be controlled, so it doesn’t resonate with them.
Let’s try framing it in terms of one of the conservatives’ most powerful words: liberty. When you tell women they cannot have abortions, you are removing their liberty and personal responsibility, but worse—it’s a short step from there to telling women how many children they may or may not have, as they did in China. Or telling them they can’t have children. You cannot be free when government has placed a restriction on your right to have or not have children.
A personal note here. The conservatives have used “pro-life” with great effect in contrast to the liberal “pro-choice.” Pro-choice says you’re just selfish; you are placing your own needs over the precious life of a child, as opposed to the obvious virtue of pro-life. I am using “pro-child”; every child born has the right to be cared for, fed, clothed, given an education and provided with the tools required for a happy and productive life within his or her abilities. No mention of abortion is made, but hidden within the frame of pro-child is an unstated support for abortion if the fetus is unwanted (as a way to begin life, being unwanted has a very poor outlook), too sick to survive, or a threat to the mother’s life.
Conservative politicians are also attacking pensions, Medicare and Social Security. The word “entitlement” is the actual language of the law for Medicare and Social Security. The conservatives easily began framing these services as “free stuff,” the sort of thing “entitled people” demand, when in fact they are either deferred earned salaries in the case of Social Security and pensions, or paid for in the form of premiums, as in Medicare. We must start pushing back on the term “entitlements” and even “benefits,” and begin pushing the concept of “deferred salaries” and “single-payer healthcare.”
How to Engage with Conservatives
There are essentially two types of conservatives from a communications standpoint. One group is composed of idealogues who are firmly entrenched in their beliefs and resist other ideas completely. You can’t engage with this group.
A second, and perhaps larger group of conservatives are those who hold both conservative and liberal ideas:
This “bi-conceptual” group can be appealed to by avoiding conservative framing and language and by following the following tactics laid out by Dr. Lakoff:
- Remember that your liberal values are the true values of America. Be proud of them.
- Remember that conservatives approve of a strong father-type of government. They don’t view it as dangerous, but as protective.
- Show respect. If you do not treat conservatives with respect and indicate that you have at least heard them out, they will slam the door. Don’t get into a shouting match.
- Distinguish between normal conservatives and nasty idealogues (like Steve Bannon). The everyday conservative usually has some progressive ideas that can be tapped into. Idealogues don’t, so don’t try. Most conservatives are more like you than not.
- Be calm. Getting angry or defensive signals weakness and lack of conviction. (Remember that when you encounter those very sore winners on Facebook!)
- Be passionate without losing control by becoming defensive.
- Don’t give them any opportunity to slam you into their stereotype of a liberal: weak, bleeding heart, unpatriotic, uninformed, elitist, wants free stuff.
- Rather than arguing or negating , ask questions. When a person is unclear on the stand s/he is taking, trying to justify an unjustifiable stand can become clear without you saying anything. Frames trump facts, so if the conservative in question accepts your frame, the rest of the conversation is just common sense within that frame.
- Never repeat their frames. If someone says “Liberals are just lazy and want free stuff,” do not repeat their verbiage. Say something like, “I have a job. I’ve worked all my life and paid taxes.”
- Be informed. If you get into a conversation on a topic in which you are poorly informed, there’s no winning it. Choose your battles and engage only in the ones you can win.
- Think and talk at the level of values. Point out how your values support their values. We all want freedom, clean air and water, forests, lakes and rivers. Many conservatives, for instance, are hunters and fishermen. They don’t want our national parks turned into oil wells and mines any more than you do.
This blog piece only skims the surface of “Don’t Think of an Elephant.” I hope I have presented a few of Lakoff’s ideas accurately, but please read the book to gain a deeper understanding of how to win this cultural war that we didn’t ask for, but we’re fighting anyway.
If you thought this piece had information of value to others, please feel free to share it in any way you please. Good luck in the days and maybe weeks or years to come; I believe that traditional liberal American values will win in the end. I have to.
P.S. Obscene, angry comments will be deleted without reply. Respectful comments or questions will be answered.
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For the next three weeks, I will be traveling in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, researching my next book, the third in the trilogy starting with “The Obsidian Mirror.” The second book, “Fire in the Ocean,” which takes place primarily on Moloka ‘i, HI, is due out later this year from Diversion Books. I won’t be sipping margaritas on the beach at Cancun, but I will be blogging about the trip daily (or almost daily), starting on Saturday. I hope you enjoy!