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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Lakoff on Lessons of the 2016 Election

Those who have an interest in subtextual political messaging and the psycholinguistic underpinnings of political attitudes have an interesting article to read in George Lakoff’s “A Minority President: Why the polls failed, and what the majority can do” at HuffPo. Lakoff, author of “The ALL NEW Don’t Think of an Elephant!: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate” and “Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think, Third Edition,” writes:

Hillary Clinton won the majority of votes in this year’s presidential election.

The loser, 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.

The issue of moral legitimacy is central for Lakoff, and Clinton’s popular vote majority (actually a plurality at this point as commenter Jack Olson notes below) is a useful reminder that Trump has no mandate for eradicating all of the hard-won reforms of recent years. Trump and the Republicans would like the public to forget that he lost the popular vote by 2 million and rising, which could happen. It is the duty of Democrats and progressives to keep this central fact in the forefront of all political discussions that touch on what the voting public actually wants.

Lakoff argues that “the nature of mind is not a mere technical issue for the cognitive and brain sciences, but that it had everything to do with the outcome of the 2016 election,” and he reviews at length the key ideas of his books, and how they applied in the election:

Conscious thought is a small part of thought — estimates by neuroscientists vary between a general “most” to as much as 98 percent, with consciousness as the tip of the mental iceberg. We do know that people tend to make decisions unconsciously before becoming consciously aware of them. How the neural unconscious functions in decision-making is vitally important for politics.

…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 polls failed because they work by demography, using census data, and other readily accessible data. The census tells us where people live, their age, gender, ethnicity, educational level, marital status, income level, etc. These are objective data, and this kind of data is easy to get and sample. But demographic data leaves out what is most important in elections and in political polling generally: Values! One’s sense of right and wrong. That omission was crucial in this election.

A common observation of contemporary political discussions, from the dining room table to academic forums, is that many low and moderate income people routinely “vote against their own interests.” But economic, or material interests, are not the pivotal principle for many voters, according to Lakoff.

“Everyone likes to think of himself or herself as a good person,” notes Lakoff. “That means that your moral system is a major part of your identity — who you most deeply are. Voting against your moral identity would be a rejection of self. That is why poor conservatives vote against their material interests. They are voting for their moral worldviews to dominate, and for public respect for their values.”

Lakoff has a lot more to say about nurturant family values, the ‘strict father’ paradigm and how such modeling affects political attitudes. Regarding the white working-class, he writes,

Many members of the white working class have strict father morality, even those in unions. Many have their strict father views limited to their home life, but many have them as a major worldview. As conservatives, they believe in individual responsibility, not government “handouts;” they may resent union dues and prefer “right to work” laws; and they may implicitly accept the moral hierarchy and believe they are superior to non-whites, Latinos, non-Christians, and gays and should be in a higher financial and social position. Conservative women may accept their position as inferior to their men, but still see themselves above the rest of the hierarchy. The white working class has been hit hard by income inequality, globalization and outsourcing, computerization, the decline of coal mining, low-wage chain stores driving out small business, and if older, ageism. They are largely uneducated and see themselves as looked down on by the educated “elite” who tell them that everyone should go to college to merit today’s jobs. They also resent “political correctness,” which directs resources to those who need them even more, but are lower on the conservative moral hierarchy. They want the respect of being on the right side of politics, of having their moral views— and hence their deepest identity — confirmed.

It’s not hard to imagine how the need for respect and confirmation played out in the rust belt, where Trump found his treasure trove of voters, who delivered the electoral college victory to him. Lakoff believes, further that the tilt of the Supreme Court became a key consideration for voters who felt their values were disrespected. “All three of these groups — evangelicals, corporatists, and the white working class,” writes Lakoff, “correctly saw the Supreme Court issue as central to upholding their values across the board, on all issues.”

Lakoff cites ten trigger mechanisms to leverage the unconscious thought of voters, among them:

1. Repetition. Words are neurally linked to the circuits that determine their meaning. The more a word is heard, the more the circuit is activated and the stronger it gets, and so the easier it is to fire again. Trump repeats. Win. Win, Win. We’re gonna win so much you’ll get tired of winning.

2. Framing: Crooked Hillary. Framing Hillary as purposely and knowingly committing crimes for her own benefit, which is what a crook does. Repeating makes many people unconsciously think of her that way, even though she has always been found to have been honest and legal by thorough studies by the right-wing Bengazi committee (which found nothing) and the FBI (which found nothing to charge her with.) Yet the framing worked.

There is a common metaphor that Immorality Is Illegality, and that acting against Strict Father Morality (the only kind off morality recognized) is being immoral. Since virtually everything Hillary Clinton has ever done has violated Strict Father Morality, that makes her immoral to strict conservatives. The metaphor makes her actions immoral, which makes her a crook. The chant “Lock her up!” activates this whole line of reasoning.

4. Grammar: Radical Islamic terrorists: “Radical” puts Muslims on a linear scale and “terrorists” imposes a frame on the scale, suggesting that terrorism is built into the religion itself. The grammar suggests that there is something about Islam that has terrorism inherent in it. Imagine calling the Charleston gunman a “radical Republican terrorist.”

Trump is aware of this to at least some extent. As he said to Tony Schwartz, the ghost-writer who wrote The Art of the Deal for him, “I call it truthful hyperbole. It’s an innocent form of exaggeration — and it’s a very effective form of promotion.”

“Our neural minds think in certain patterns,” continues Lakoff. “Trump knows how to exploit them. Whatever other limitations on his knowledge, he knows a lot about using your brain against you to acquire and maintain power and money.”

As for the tendency of the media to echo Trump’s messaging, Lakoff observes that “The head of CBS, Leslie Moonves, for example, said that CBS benefitted by giving Trump free airtime during the campaign. “It may not be good for America, but it’s good for CBS,” he said.”

“More than ever we need courage and imagination in the media. It is crucial, for the history of the country and the world, as well as the planet,” says Lakoff. The media can better serve the public interest by doing some soul-seartching regarding the terminology they use, and to consciously avoid being manipulated by right-wing frames and memes.  For example, notes Lakoff,

One possibility is for journalists to use more accurate language. Take government regulations. Their job is to protect the public from harm and fraud composed by unscrupulous corporations. The Trump administration wants to get rid of “regulations.” They are actually getting rid of protection. Can journalists actually say they are getting rid of protections, saying the word “protection,” and reporting on the harm that would be done by not protecting the public.

Can the media report on corporate poisoning of the public — through introducing lead and other cancer-causing agents into the water through fracking and various manufacturing processes, through making food or toiletries that contain poisonous and cancer-causing ingredients, and on and on. The regulations are there for a purpose — protection. Can the media use the words POISON and CANCER? The public needs to know.

Looking toward the future, Lakoff has some thoughts on what can be done to prevent Trump from further manipulating the public and the media with his ‘strict father’ messaging:

There are certain things that strict fathers cannot be: A Loser, Corrupt, and especially not a Betrayer of Trust.

Trump lost the popular vote. To the American majority, he is a Loser, a minority president. It needs to be said and repeated.

Above all, Trump is a Betrayer of Trust. He is acting like a dictator, and is even supporting Putin’s anti-American policies.

He is betraying trust in a direct way, by refusing to put his business interests in a blind trust. By doing so, and by insisting on his children both running the business and getting classified information, he is using the presidency to make himself incredibly wealthy — just as Putin has. This is Corruption of the highest and most blatant level. Can the media say the words: Corruption, Betrayal of Trust? He ran on a promise to end corruption, to “drain the swamp” in Washington. Instead, he has brought a new and much bigger swamp with him — lobbyists put in charge of one government agency after another, using public funds and the power of the government to serve corporate greed. And the biggest crock in the swamp is Trump himself!

The Trump administration will wreak havoc on the very people who voted for him in those small towns — disaster after disaster. It will be a huge betrayal. The $500 billion in infrastructure — roads and bridges, airports, sewers, eliminating lead water pipes — will probably not make it to those thousands of small rural towns with in-group nurturance for the townspeople. How many factories with good-paying jobs can be brought to such towns? Not thousands. Many of those who voted for Trump will inevitably be among the 20 million who will lose their health care. And they will become even further victims of corporate greed — more profits going to the top one percent and more national corporations, say, fast food and big-box stores paying low wages and offering demeaning jobs will continue to wipe out local businesses. Will this be reported? Will it even be said? And if so, how will it be said in a way that doesn’t wind up promoting Trump?

Trump as betrayer is a powerful image that can help limit his ability to fully institutionalize a kleptocratic government that enriches his wealthy associates at the expense of working people and their families. But the protests must also include an alternative, positive vision. As Lakoff concludes,

By fighting against Trump, many protesters are just showcasing Trump, keeping him in the limelight, rather than highlighting the majority’s positive moral view and viewing the problem with Trump from within the majority’s positive worldview frame. To effectively fight for what is right, you have to first say what is right and why.

Trump’s election confounded pollsters, pundits and Democratic activists who placed too much confidence in their data-driven analyses and high-tech GOTV, and not enough focus on how Democratic messaging frames morals and values. If ever there was a time for Democratic leaders to study Lakoff’s ideas more seriously, that moment has arrived.

Criticizing Trump’s corruption with specifics is essential. But, as Lakoff argues, it is even more important that Democratic messaging spell out the moral dimensions of the society progressives want to create, and the more inclusive is the vision, the better. When a substantial portion of the white working class feels like they are included in such a vision, a stable progressive majority can become a reality.

8 comments on “Lakoff on Lessons of the 2016 Election

  1. Jack Olson on

    Hillary Clinton’s loss is all the more remarkable when you consider that she outspent her opponent by nearly double. CNBC reported that Trump’s campaign spent $240 million compared to the $450 million spent by Clinton’s campaign. The disparity in national campaign staff was even wider. Trump’s staff numbered 130, Clinton’s 800. Since she used far more resources than Trump did and still lost, she must have used her staff and spending much less effectively than he used his.

  2. Victor on

    This analysis is good. But in implementing the suggestions Democrats should avoid getting bogged down in personalistic issues and procedural controversies.

  3. Jack Olson on

    Hillary Clinton did not win a majority of the popular vote in this year’s election. She won a plurality with 48% of the popular vote. Source: Cook Political Report, 11/22/2016


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