When democratic political leaders go to college they tend to study things like political science, economics, law, and public policy. These fields tend to use a scientifically false theory of human reason -- Enlightenment reason. It posits that reason is conscious, that it can fit the world directly, that it is logical (in the sense of mathematical logic), that emotion gets in the way of reason, that reason is there to serve self-interest, and that language is neutral and applies directly to the world.
The brain and cognitive sciences have shown that every part of this is false. . . .
Conservatives who are savvy about marketing their ideas are closer to the way people really think than Democrats are, because people who teach marketing tend to be up on how the brain and language work. And over the past three decades they have not just built an effective message machine, but they repeated messages that have changed the brains of a great many Americans. . . .
Many people are "bi-conceptual," this is, they have both conservative and progressive moral systems and apply them in different issue areas. These are sometimes called "independents," "swing voters," moderates," "the center," etc. They are the crucial segment of the electorate to address. Each moral system is represented by a circuit in their brains. The more one circuit is activated and strengthened the more the other is weakened. Conservatives have moved them to the right by repeating conservative moral messages 24/7. The Democrats need to activate and strengthen the progressive moral circuitry in their brains. That means using only progressive language and progressive arguments, and not moving to the right or using the right's language. This is the opposite of "moving to the center." There is no ideology of the center, just combinations of progressive and conservative views. (George Lakoff: "Untellable Truths")
In classical rhetoric, the name for verbal representation that correlates with this brain circuitry is the "commonplace". The commonplace is part of a system of cliches and commonly accepted moral truths that a particular group accepts uncritically as describing the way things are or ought to be. A typical conservative commonplace is that people need to be independent, to stand on their own two feet, and should never take charity, much less government handouts, because governments in their essence are tyrannical, corrupt, and corrupting. The bigger they are, the more tyrannical, corrupt, and corrupting.
A typical liberal commonplace is that we're all in this together, and that we have a responsibility to promote the common good, and good government and the political process are tools to accomplish that. For someone like Glenn Beck, the phrase "social justice" is code for socialism and dependency; for liberals it means making sure that the non-rich and and non-powerful get a fair shake. There was a time when the New Deal dominated Main Street American commonplace thinking; since the eighties Libertarian Social Darwinism with a Reaganite smile does.
How has this come to pass? Lakoff argues, and I agree, that sophisticated messaging by GOP communications strategists has changed the brain circuitry of many Americans. These Americans have come to accept as "commonplace" what Americans forty years ago rejected as extremist and nuts.
Progressives tend to be the educated, reasonable types described in the first excerpted paragraph above. Obama, and the cohort I call 'pragmatic progressives' all value 'reasonableness'. But the problem lies in that they accept working within a rhetorical frame defined by the far more sophisticated GOP messaging machine. There are substantive reasons that Progressives have ceded so much of the center to the Right [Democratic Party identification with abortion, for instance, has pushed a lot of solid New Deal Catholics into the Reagan Coalition], but even more dismaying has been the utter failure of Progressives to even understand, much less to fight with some effectiveness, the larger, long-term rhetorical war that has been waged now so effectively by the Right since the late seventies/early eighties.
Lakoff's entire post is worth reading. It's very much in tune with what I've been writing about here for the last several weeks. His point and mine has been that it's not enough to point out or become outraged that the Right is delusional, irrational, fact challenged, etc. That does not move the ball forward; it just makes those so accused want to dig in even deeper. Rather the goal has to be positive messaging to win the hearts and minds especially of the people in the center whose brain circuitry is influenced by both conservative and progressive moral arguments.
There is no center. The center is defined by ambivalence, and it's up for grabs. It will be won by whichever side has the more compelling message, and that's a battle the Right has all but won on Main Street for three decades now.
The Right is winning that battle by default because Progressives do not even understand how this game is being played. As a result, progressives get their clocks cleaned time and time again. That's the source of the impotent rage we saw yesterday from congressional Progressives. They can rant at Obama all they want; the fact is that although the president has been outmaneuvered once again, if those congressional Progressives were in his position, they wouldn't have done much better.
The progressive Dems are criticizing Obama for being ineffective tactically, but the war has to be won by having a superior strategy, not just superior tactics. And I don't see any progressive Dems who have a superior strategy. I don't see Obama as the bad guy in this kerfuffle; I see him as someone who is typical of the well-meaning Pragmatic Progressive that just doesn't understand the nature of the game or what the stakes are. He's playing by one set of rules, and his opponents by a completely different set. His opponents know it, and he apparently doesn't. And until he figures this out, he will continue to get his clock cleaned.
In the war to control the center, Progressives have to win the fight to control the commonplaces that dominate the thinking of the center. As Lakoff says, that doesn't mean moving to the center, but rather winning over the center. Unlike people who are on the extremist right whose brain circuitry makes it impossible to respond positively to progressive values, the Main Street Center still has some brain infrastructure that can be worked with. But Progressives simply don't know how to communicate with people who don't think exactly the way they do, and so time and again they alienate rather than win over the people they need most to win the long-term war they are fighting for the soul of the country.
Lakoff in his section near the end entitled "Untellable Truths" goes into some detail about the commonplaces that Progressives need to promote to win the center. There are several, but among them these are key:
- Huge discrepancies in wealth are a danger to democracy and a cause for major public alarm. The enormous accumulation of wealth at the top of American society means unfair access to scarce resources, a restriction on access to necessities for many, and a grossly unfair distribution of power -- power over the media and political power.
- Tax "cuts," "breaks," and "loopholes" sound good (wouldn't you like one?) even for super-wealthy individuals and corporations. What they really mean is that money is being transferred from poorer people to richer people: The poor and middle are giving money to the rich! Why? Money that would otherwise go to their necessities: food, education, health, housing, safety, and so on is instead going into the pockets of super-wealthy people who don't need it.
- Markets in a democracy have a fundamentally moral as well as economic function. Working people who produce goods and services are necessary for businesses and should be paid in line with profits and productivity. Salary scales in private industry are a matter of public, not just private concern. Middle-class salaries have not gone up in 30 years, while the income of the top 1 percent has zoomed upward astronomically. This is a moral issue.
These are issues that the Main-Street center can be mobilized around. Nothing positive is going to happen until someone figures out how to do it.