Don’t Think Of An Elephant, Think Like An Elephant

Over the next few days, (hopefully not weeks) all of the political blogs and websites will be hashing out why the Democrats lost a Senate seat in a supposedly safe state.  Blame will be cast about with abandon, then predictably, the spinning will commence. There will be chaos for awhile, people will be sacked, reputations will be ruined.  I’m reminded of the scene in “Wall Street” when the boss, explaining his reasons for firing an under-performing broker says, “somebody has to take the blame, ain’t gonna be me.”  Maybe this is necessary, but I can guarantee one thing…if the ugliness and childishness I’ve witnessed within our State Party takes hold at the DNC, we will lose big next November.  However, our last Primary could have been a disaster, and though the process did in fact bitterly divide us, we managed to come together on Election Day and produce a landslide victory.  Quick…what did we  convince voters to support?

If your answer didn’t include the words Hope and Change, and only those words, you were wrong.

You know why I believe this?  Because the Right quickly began mocking it.  I saw a bumper sticker on a car last week that read “Hows that hopey changey thing workin out for ya?”  Take a glance at the Right leaning blogs and you will see that ridiculing the notion that hope and change are good things is a recurring theme.  Before long, you will see weak-kneed (Blue Dog) Democrats distancing themselves from the phrase as fast as possible.

I remember when Lakoff was all the rage among us Progressives.  In fact, I cautioned at the time that perhaps too much emphasis was placed on “framing” when considering ways to combat the Rove political machine.  I was concerned that Democrats would view framing as a magic formula, and that merely changing around a few words or coming up with a catchy slogan would somehow assure we could push back the ocean.  I argued that nuance was difficult but vital to our cause in the long run.

Boy, was I wrong.

Here,  Lakoff makes a compelling argument that the entire health-care message was bungled from the beginning.  Many of his assertions ring true, in particular that Axelrod, who oversaw messaging during the campaign, reverted back to “policy speak” once ensconced in the White House.  A 24 point plan is impressive, comprehensive, and quite probably necessary, but next to impossible to sell.  That policy speak has been the strategy for virtually every White House initiative, from the Stimulus to Cap and trade.  Lastly, and I think most importantly, that those in decision making positions as well as Liberal opinion makers have ignored or even dismissed the importance of the effectiveness of words on the human (American) brain:

There is a painful irony in all this and I am aware of it constantly. Highly educated progressives, who argue for the importance of science, have been ignoring or rejecting the science of the brain and mind. Why?

I’m certainly no scientist, in fact, I’m a salesman.  I’m a pretty good salesman.  In my old line of work, if you weren’t good or incredibly lucky, you starved.  It didn’t take me long to discard the cookie-cutter type of training I received and develop some tactics that were effective in the real world, which for me, was the parking lot.  Walking up to a total stranger on a car lot and then progressing to the point where they are signing documents putting them in significant debt for five years requires a certain, unteachable skill-set.  Language matters.  When I approached someone, I never asked if they needed help.  Why?  Because nine times out of ten, they will reflexively say no.  Its human nature.  People have their guard up when they arrive at your lot.  So, instead, I began to ask, “is anyone answering your questions?”  A “no” answer here creates a natural opening for you.  I never asked people if they had a trade.  Instead, I would casually inquire as to what they were currently driving.  This is called pre-qualifying, and you can teach the principle, but not the application thereof.

There is an episode of the West Wing that captures this idea perfectly.  An aide to the President is struggling with how to craft an argument against a Republican initiative to reduce the Earned Income Tax Credit.  He spends a great deal of time researching the policy arguments but finds it frustrating trying to garner support even among his West Wing peers.  Then, a media consultant tells him that his trouble isn’t his argument, its the phrasing, or, if you prefer, the framing.  Before long, he comes up with “the poor tax.”  Someone in the episode then declares, “I can sell that.”

We’ve tried appealing to voter’s best interests.  We’ve tried mocking.  We’ve tried endless debunking.  Perhaps its time to place less emphasis on accuracy and more on digestibility.  We certainly don’t need to scuttle Hope and Change.  We need to decide if we are going to listen to those who hob-nob with the hoi polloi on a daily basis, and who just might tell us how best to reach them in November.  Our opponents have an entire infrastructure set up to do just this, and they have a huge head start, but I believe we can close that gap in short order.  At least I can hope.

7 Comments

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7 responses to “Don’t Think Of An Elephant, Think Like An Elephant

  1. The Missus

    Good post. I am ashamed I can’t really comment. I feel as though I’ve been put in a time machine and it’s 2003 or 2004.

  2. I feel as though I’ve been put in a time machine and it’s 2003 or 2004.

    Me too. Sorta. Only worse.

    I just spoke with someone I campaigned with back in 2004. She hasn’t missed an election for which she was eligible to vote for over 40 years. Her first campaign was when she was 20-years-old — too young to vote at that time (you had to be 21 then).

    And she said she’s never voting again. She’s disgusted.

    I think the biggest lesson from Massachusetts was that the “base” was not energized. Millions of Democrats did not vote. And we have the same argument for healthcare: the base is not energized. All the news we hear is bad: Stupak Amendments. No public option. Yada Yada.

    You know, Republicans embrace their base, Democrats run from theirs. How’s that working for ya, Dems?

    Put THAT on a bumper sticker.

  3. nashvilleforallofus

    Funny how the Massachusetts defeat, along with the lack of any health reform, reveals that it’s not all about words. Those who govern have to have more than words in order to effectively fulfill their obligations.

    Still, words are important, and I’m as much of a student of Lakoff, Luntz, and the Heath brothers (“Make It Stick”) as the next guy. It’s helpful to know where the switch is that triggers your viewpoint in the heart of your audience. It’s also helpful not to be afraid of the effective communicators in the opposition. We don’t have to refute what they say as much as we have to be more effective with what we say.

  4. Funny how the Massachusetts defeat, along with the lack of any health reform, reveals that it’s not all about words. Those who govern have to have more than words in order to effectively fulfill their obligations.

    Still, words are important, and I’m as much of a student of Lakoff, Luntz, and the Heath brothers (“Make It Stick”) as the next guy. It’s helpful to know where the switch is that triggers your viewpoint in the heart of your audience. It’s also helpful not to be afraid of the effective communicators in the opposition. We don’t have to refute what they say as much as we have to be more effective with what we say.

  5. democommie

    Mack:

    Great post; so was your post on Haiti.

    John:

    I agree with your comments, up to a point. The problem, really, is that the rightards do a “Gish Gallop” of shouted out lies that take far too long to refute adequately. The advantage, for them, in using such dishonest tactics is that they either see them stand as accepted truth or their opposition has little or no time to craft effective counter arguments. The “Death Panel” b.s. is a case in point.

  6. I feel like there are just too many who have given up hope that Congress will actually accomplish anything, no matter which group of idiots is in charge. The Dems don’t know what they believe in – and they haven’t since 1968 – and the Republican base has been shouted into submission.

    A centrist party could clean up.

  7. Jim: Agreed. As for the centrist party, if you want to give a new party a whirl, we need Instant Runoff Voting, so that votes can’t be “wasted.”

    democommie: Thanks for introducing me to the term “Gish Gallop,” which is a helpful shorthand for the Gatling Gun of sheer nonsense that some wield. My point is that proactively finding your own core beliefs and truth in your audience and making that part of themselves something they’re more aware of is infinitely better than trying to knock down every bullet of the opposition.

    The DP concept you referred to above is a prime example – it doesn’t try to refute any specific argument of health care reform advocates; it creates a separate and completely new monster that focuses on a core belief of the audience – fear of change – and turns that switch. Advocates, instead of hoping and praying that the Gish Gallops of the opposition will never appear (good luck!), need to focus on their compelling story of how their plan aligns with the identity and gut instinct of every American – in many ways – and proceed accordingly.

    Mack said above that he does this in his approach to car buyers. He knows that people on a car lot are looking for information, and Mack makes it his job to communicate how his service aligns with what they’re already looking for. He asks a question that makes that crystal clear: “Is anyone answering your questions?” What Mack doesn’t do is anticipate that people will say they don’t need any help and then repeat that back to them and attempt to argue the other side. Imagine him walking up on the lot and starting with, “I know you will say that you don’t need anyone to help you, but let me explain why you do.”

    Lakoff’s point is that when you find and turn on key values that are already in your audience – values that make your viewpoint or plan an obvious conclusion – that is how you find common ground.

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