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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

LaKoff Looks at the Trump-Clinton Match, Urges Dems to Mobilize Values-Driven Campaign

In his HuffPo article “Understanding Trump,” Psycholinguist George Lakoff, author of “Dont Think Like an Elephant” and other works, takes an in-depth look at the 2016 presidential election and finds an emblematic contest between leaders of the nurturing ‘Mommy’ and authoritarian ‘Daddy’ parties.

It’s hard to imagine a more authoritarian personality than Donald “I alone can fix it” Trump to head the ‘Daddy party.” As presidential candidates go, he is the all-time poster boy for name-calling, bellowing authoritarianism and narcissistic male chauvinism. He favors simplistic “solutions,” like building a wall between the U.S. and Mexico, banning Muslim immigrants and openly using torture and assassination of family members of terrorists as political remedies. Google ‘Trump Mussolini’ and you get around 468,000 hits.

As the first woman and mother nominated presidential candidate by one of the two major parties, Clinton is quite literally a perfect fit for leader of the “Mommy party.” In addition, she has acquired a polished skill-set as a negotiator and advocate during her career roles as First Lady, Senator from New York and Secretary of State, as well as during her earlier work as an advocate for the Childrens Defense Fund. However, nurturing Moms can also be pretty tough, as Bernie Sanders, Martin O’Malley and others who have done political battle with Clinton can attest.

The nomines of the two major parties set the stage for a full-blown Lakoffian analysis of the political messages and Lakoff provides it. Among his insights:

…In a world governed by personal responsibility and discipline, those who win deserve to win. Why does Donald Trump publicly insult other candidates and political leaders mercilessly? Quite simply, because he knows he can win an onstage TV insult game. In strict conservative eyes, that makes him a formidable winning candidate who deserves to be a winning candidate. Electoral competition is seen as a battle. Insults that stick are seen as victories — deserved victories.

Consider Trump’s statement that John McCain is not a war hero. The reasoning: McCain got shot down. Heroes are winners. They defeat big bad guys. They don’t get shot down. People who get shot down, beaten up, and stuck in a cage are losers, not winners.

The strict father logic extends further. The basic idea is that authority is justified by morality (the strict father version), and that, in a well-ordered world, there should be (and traditionally has been) a moral hierarchy in which those who have traditionally dominated should dominate. The hierarchy is: God above Man, Man above Nature, The Disciplined (Strong) above the Undisciplined (Weak), The Rich above the Poor, Employers above Employees, Adults above Children, Western culture above other cultures, Am,erica above other countries. The hierarchy extends to: Men above women, Whites above Nonwhites, Christians above nonChristians, Straights above Gays.

We see these tendencies in most of the Republican presidential candidates, as well as in Trump, and on the whole, conservative policies flow from the strict father worldview and this hierarchy.

However, cautions Lakoff, Trump’s “lack of policy detail doesn’t matter” because,

I recently heard a brilliant and articulate Clinton surrogate argue against a group of Trump supporters that Trump has presented no policy plans for increasing jobs, increasing economics growth, improving education, gaining international respect, etc. This is the basic Clinton campaign argument. Hillary has the experience, the policy know-how, she can get things done, it’s all on her website. Trump has none of this. What Hillary’s campaign says is true. And it is irrelevant.

Trump supporters and other radical Republican extremists could not care less, and for a good reason. Their job is to impose their view of strict father morality in all areas of life. If they have the Congress, and the Presidency and the Supreme Court, they could achieve this. They don’t need to name policies, because the Republicans already of hundreds of policies ready to go. They just need to be in complete power.

Further, adds Lakoff, “an estimated 98 percent of thought is unconscious. Conscious thought is the tip of the iceberg…Unconscious thought works by certain basic mechanisms. Trump uses them instinctively to turn people’s brains toward what he wants: Absolute authority, money, power, celebrity.”

According to Lakoff, the “mechanisms” of manipulating unconscious thought, including: repetition; framing; leveraging well-known examples; grammar and using terms like “radical Islamic terorrism”; stretchy metaphors, like “some past ideal state, or the nation as a family with a Big Daddy in charge, or how Obama symbolizes all that is wrong with America; parroting racial and ethnic stereotypes.

Lakoff provides a section on “How can Democrats do better?” His important tips include this cornerstone commandment: “Remember not to repeat false conservative claims and then rebut them with the facts. Instead, go positive. Give a positive truthful framing to undermine claims to the contrary. Use the facts to support positively-framed truth. Use repetition.”

In terms of volume and tone, Lakoff also advises, “Keep out of nasty exchanges and attacks. Keep out of shouting matches. One can speak powerfully without shouting. Obama sets the pace: Civility, values, positivity, good humor, and real empathy are powerful. Calmness and empathy in the face of fury are powerful.”

But Lakoff believes Democrats rely too much on  quoting facts and numbers to make a point, and too little on stating values. He is particularly good urging Dems to state the good that government does, in the spirit of Elizabeth Warren’s “pay it forward” speech. As Lakoff explains:

…Progressive thought is built on empathy, on citizens caring about other citizens and working through our government to provide public resources for all, both businesses and individuals. Use history. That’s how America started. The public resources used by businesses were not only roads and bridges, but public education, a national bank, a patent office, courts for business cases, interstate commerce support, and of course the criminal justice system. From the beginning, the Private Depended on Public Resources, both private lives and private enterprise.

Over time those resources have included sewers, water and electricity, research universities and research support: computer science (via the NSF), the internet (ARPA), pharmaceuticals and modern medicine (the NIH), satellite communication (NASA and NOA), and GPS systems and cell phones (the Defense Department). Private enterprise and private life utterly depend on public resources. Have you ever said this? Elizabeth Warren has. Almost no other public figures. And stop defending “the government.” Talk about the public, the people, Americans, the American people, public servants, and good government. And take back freedom. Public resources provide for freedom in private enterprise and private life.

The conservatives are committed to privatizing just about everything and to eliminating funding for most public resources. The contribution of public resources to our freedoms cannot be overstated. Start saying it.

And don’t forget the police. Effective respectful policing is a public resource. Chief David O. Brown of the Dallas Police got it right. Training, community policing, knowing the people you protect. And don’t ask too much of the police: citizens have a responsibility to provide funding so that police don’t have to do jobs that should be done by others.

Every Democratic candidate, from presidential on down to school board elections, should master a good soundbite and argument describing the absolutely essential things only government can do to refute government-bashing blowhards. At present government-bashers get more media coverage than those who point out the essential services government provides for the public good, without which life would be a nightmare. Dems can score extra points by linking this argument to the need for infrastructure upgrades, a priority which polls indicate has overwhelming popular support.

Lakoff advises Dems to give identity politics a rest. There is no winning electoral coalition that doesn’t express compassion and concern for the hardships endured by all groups. Above all, he concludes, remember that “Values come first, facts and policies follow in the service of values. They matter, but they always support values.”

Democrats should give some thought to Lakoff’s ideas. His emphasis on values speaks to the very reason why there is a Democratic Party and the urgent need to vigorously and pro-actively affirm Democratic values, instead of getting lured into the trap of merely responding to the Trump/GOP frames. Democrats have to dominate the national, state and local conversations with value-driven discussions of creative ideas, credible solutions and a positive vision for the future.

One comment on “LaKoff Looks at the Trump-Clinton Match, Urges Dems to Mobilize Values-Driven Campaign

  1. Rick B on

    The correct name of Lakoff’s book is “Don’t Think OF an Elephant.”

    Lakoff’s ideas are very good. Democrats shouldn’t just just “give thought” to them. They should rehearse them, practice them, and use them regularly


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