Memo To: Democratic Leaders
From: Jude Wanniski
Re: How Not to Get Back on Top
It was Wm Shakespeare who noted that a rose by any other name is a rose, and it was Gertrude Stein who saw it from a woman's point of view, observing that "A Rose is a Rose is a Rose." In last week's New York Times Magazine, Matt Bai offered up a cover story on how you Leaders of the Democratic Party are thinking that the broccoli you have been offering to the nation has not been catching on because people generally don't like broccoli, so from now on, you are are going to sell those yukkie green stalks as "roses," and see if that makes a difference. Bai, who is writing a book on the future of your party, reports on the current craze in Democratic Washington with "framing," as in "framing issues." The article is kind of funny at times, if it is true that high-ranking members of Congress really are falling for this baloney.
I should qualify that. Language does make a difference, over and above ideas. In the late 1970s and 1980s, I was among those "intellectuals" working to turn the Republican Party into a majority party, when it had for several decades even thought of itself as a perpetual minority party. One of my key insights involved the term "fiscal responsibility." Back in those days of the Old Time Religion that put a Balanced Budget at the top of the shrine, Republicans ran and lost on platforms that always included a "fiscal responsibility" plank. Sometime in the late 1970s, I remember a GOP political consultant doing a focus group, and the term "fiscal responsibility" was asked in some manner. The response was totally negative. Only because a follow-up question was asked was it learned that the focus group translated the term into "tax increase."
You may not have notice, Democratic Leaders, but for the last quarter century since the days of Ronald Reagan, Republicans no longer announce themselves as being "fiscally responsible." They know the words are poison. But you can do an Internet search and you will find that YOUR DEMOCRATIC PARTY has nailed that plank into your own party platform. Check out Senator John Kerry in his campaign last fall and you will find him be "fiscally responsible," while President Bush hammered away at "economic growth," which voters translate into "tax cuts." Here are excerpts from Matt Bai's piece, with the last graph in boldface.
The Framing Wars
By Matt Bai
After last November's defeat, Democrats were like aviation investigators sifting through twisted metal in a cornfield, struggling to posit theories about the disaster all around them. Some put the onus on John Kerry, saying he had never found an easily discernable message. Others, including Kerry himself, wrote off the defeat to the unshakable realities of wartime, when voters were supposedly less inclined to jettison a sitting president. Liberal activists blamed mushy centrists. Mushy centrists blamed Michael Moore. As the weeks passed, however, at Washington dinner parties and in public post-mortems, one explanation took hold not just among Washington insiders but among far-flung contributors, activists and bloggers too: the problem wasn't the substance of the party's agenda or its messenger as much as it was the Democrats' inability to communicate coherently. They had allowed Republicans to control the language of the debate, and that had been their undoing.
Even in their weakened state, Democrats resolved not to let it happen again. And improbably, given their post-election gloom, they managed twice in the months that followed to make good on that pledge. The first instance was the skirmish over the plan that the president called Social Security reform and that everybody else, by spring, was calling a legislative disaster. The second test for Democrats was their defense of the filibuster (the time-honored stalling tactic that prevents the majority in the Senate from ending debate), which seemed at the start a hopeless cause but ended in an unlikely stalemate. These victories weren't easy to account for, coming as they did at a time when Republicans seem to own just about everything in Washington but the first-place Nationals. (And they're working on that.) During the first four years of the Bush administration, after all, Democrats had railed just as loudly against giveaways to the wealthy and energy lobbyists, and all they had gotten for their trouble were more tax cuts and more drilling. Something had changed in Washington -- but what?
Democrats thought they knew the answer. Even before the election, a new political word had begun to take hold of the party, beginning on the West Coast and spreading like a virus all the way to the inner offices of the Capitol. That word was ''framing.'' Exactly what it means to ''frame'' issues seems to depend on which Democrat you are talking to, but everyone agrees that it has to do with choosing the language to define a debate and, more important, with fitting individual issues into the contexts of broader story lines. In the months after the election, Democratic consultants and elected officials came to sound like creative-writing teachers, holding forth on the importance of metaphor and narrative.
Republicans, of course, were the ones who had always excelled at framing controversial issues, having invented and popularized loaded phrases like ''tax relief'' and ''partial-birth abortion'' and having achieved a kind of Pravda-esque discipline for disseminating them. But now Democrats said that they had learned to fight back. ''The Democrats have finally reached a level of outrage with what Republicans were doing to them with language,'' Geoff Garin, a leading Democratic pollster, told me in May….
The father of framing is a man named George Lakoff, and his spectacular ascent over the last eight months in many ways tells the story of where Democrats have been since the election. A year ago, Lakoff was an obscure linguistics professor at Berkeley, renowned as one of the great, if controversial, minds in cognitive science but largely unknown outside of it. When he, like many liberals, became exasperated over the drift of the Kerry campaign last summer -- ''I went to bed angry every night,'' he told me -- Lakoff decided to bang out a short book about politics and language, based on theories he had already published with academic presses, that could serve as a kind of handbook for Democratic activists. His agent couldn't find a publishing house that wanted it. Lakoff ended up more or less giving it away to Chelsea Green, a tiny liberal publisher in Vermont.
That book, ''Don't Think of an Elephant!'' is now in its eighth printing, having sold nearly 200,000 copies, first through liberal word of mouth and the blogosphere and then through reviews and the lecture circuit. (On the eve of last fall's election, I came across a Democratic volunteer in Ohio who was handing out a boxful of copies to her friends.) Lakoff has emerged as one of the country's most coveted speakers among liberal groups, up there with Howard Dean, who, as it happens, wrote the foreword to ''Don't Think of an Elephant!'' Lakoff has a DVD titled ''How Democrats and Progressives Can Win: Solutions From George Lakoff,'' and he recently set up his own consulting company….
Through his work on metaphors, Lakoff found an avenue into political discourse. In a seminal 1996 book, ''Moral Politics,'' he asserted that people relate to political ideologies, on an unconscious level, through the metaphorical frame of a family. Conservative politicians, Lakoff suggests, operate under the frame of a strict father, who lays down inflexible rules and imbues his family with a strong moral order. Liberals, on the other hand, are best understood through a frame of the nurturant parent, who teaches his child to pursue personal happiness and care for those around him. (The two models, Lakoff has said, are personified by Arnold Schwarzenegger on one side and Oprah Winfrey on the other.) Most voters, Lakoff suggests, carry some part of both parental frames in the synapses of their brains; which model is ''activated'' -- that is, which they can better relate to -- depends on the language that politicians use and the story that they tell….
The most compelling part of Lakoff's hypothesis is the notion that in order to reach voters, all the individual issues of a political debate must be tied together by some larger frame that feels familiar to us. Lakoff suggests that voters respond to grand metaphors -- whether it is the metaphor of a strict father or something else entirely -- as opposed to specific arguments, and that specific arguments only resonate if they reinforce some grander metaphor….
According to Lakoff, Republicans are skilled at using loaded language, along with constant repetition, to play into the frames in our unconscious minds. Take one of his favorite examples, the phrase ''tax relief.'' It presumes, Lakoff points out, that we are being oppressed by taxes and that we need to be liberated from them. It fits into a familiar frame of persecution, and when such a phrase, repeated over time, enters the everyday lexicon, it biases the debate in favor of conservatives. If Democrats start to talk about their own ''tax relief'' plan, Lakoff says, they have conceded the point that taxes are somehow an unfair burden rather than making the case that they are an investment in the common good. The argument is lost before it begins.
Lakoff informed his political theories by studying the work of Frank Luntz, the Republican pollster who helped Newt Gingrich formulate the Contract With America in 1994. To Lakoff and his followers, Luntz is the very embodiment of Republican deception. His private memos, many of which fell into the hands of Democrats, explain why. In one recent memo, titled ''The 14 Words Never to Use,'' Luntz urged conservatives to restrict themselves to phrases from what he calls, grandly, the ''New American Lexicon.'' Thus, a smart Republican, in Luntz's view, never advocates ''drilling for oil''; he prefers ''exploring for energy.'' He should never criticize the ''government,'' which cleans our streets and pays our firemen; he should attack ''Washington,'' with its ceaseless thirst for taxes and regulations. ''We should never use the word outsourcing,'' Luntz wrote, ''because we will then be asked to defend or end the practice of allowing companies to ship American jobs overseas.''
In Lakoff's view, not only does Luntz's language twist the facts of his agenda but it also renders facts meaningless by actually reprogramming, through long-term repetition, the neural networks inside our brains. And this is where Lakoff's vision gets a little disturbing. According to Lakoff, Democrats have been wrong to assume that people are rational actors who make their decisions based on facts; in reality, he says, cognitive science has proved that all of us are programmed to respond to the frames that have been embedded deep in our unconscious minds, and if the facts don't fit the frame, our brains simply reject them. Lakoff explained to me that the frames in our brains can be ''activated'' by the right combination of words and imagery, and only then, once the brain has been unlocked, can we process the facts being thrown at us….
In May 2003, Senator Byron Dorgan, the North Dakota Democrat, read ''Moral Politics'' and took Lakoff to a Democratic Senate retreat in Cambridge, Md. Lakoff had never met a senator before. ''I knew what they were up against, even if they didn't know what they were up against,'' Lakoff says. ''They were just besieged. My heart went out to them.''
Lakoff gave a presentation, and in the parlance of comedians, he killed. Hillary Clinton invited him to dinner. Tom Daschle, then the minority leader, asked Lakoff if he would rejoin the senators a few days later, during their next caucus meeting at the Capitol, so that he could offer advice about the tax plan they were working on. Lakoff readily agreed, even though he had come East without so much as a jacket or tie. ''I went in there, and it was just this beautiful thing,'' he told me, recalling the caucus meeting. ''All these people I'd just met applauded. They gave me hugs. It was the most amazing thing.''
Of course, the idea that language and narrative matter in politics shouldn't really have come as a revelation to Washington Democrats. Bill Clinton had been an intuitive master of framing. As far back as 1992, Clinton's image of Americans who ''worked hard and played by the rules,'' for instance, had perfectly evoked the metaphor of society as a contest that relied on fairness. And yet despite this, Democrats in Congress were remarkably slow to grasp this dimension of political combat. Having ruled Capitol Hill pretty comfortably for most of the past 60 years, Democrats had never had much reason to think about calibrating their language in order to sell their ideas.
''I can describe, and I've always been able to describe, what Republicans stand for in eight words, and the eight words are lower taxes, less government, strong defense and family values,'' Dorgan, who runs the Democratic Policy Committee in the Senate, told me recently. ''We Democrats, if you ask us about one piece of that, we can meander for 5 or 10 minutes in order to describe who we are and what we stand for. And frankly, it just doesn't compete very well. I'm not talking about the policies. I'm talking about the language.''
Dorgan has become the caucus's chief proponent of framing theory. ''I think getting some help from some people who really understand how to frame some of these issues is long overdue,'' he says, which is why he invited Lakoff back to talk to his colleagues after the 2004 election. Meanwhile, over on the House side, George Miller, a Democrat from the San Francisco area, met Lakoff through a contributor and offered to distribute copies of ''Don't Think of an Elephant!'' to every member of the caucus. The thin paperback became as ubiquitous among Democrats in the Capitol as Mao's Little Red Book once was in the Forbidden City. ''The framing was perfect for us, because we were just arriving in an unscientific way at what Lakoff was arriving at in a scientific way,'' says Representative Nancy Pelosi, the minority leader in the House….
Then there was Richard Yanowitch, a Silicon Valley executive and party donor, who worked with Senate Democrats, providing what he calls ''private-sector type marketing.'' Last December, at Dorgan's request, Reid put Yanowitch in charge of a ''messaging project'' to help devise new language for the party. Another adviser who became a frequent guest on the Hill after the election was Jim Wallis, a left-leaning evangelical minister who wrote ''God's Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn't Get it.'' In January, after addressing a Senate caucus retreat at the Kennedy Center, Wallis wrote a memo to the Democratic Policy Committee titled ''Budgets Are Moral Documents,'' in which he laid out his argument that Democrats needed to ''reframe'' the budget in spiritual terms.
Bush's plan to reform Social Security provided, last winter, the first test of the Democrats' new focus on language and narrative. In retrospect, it shows both the limits of framing and, perhaps, the real reason that Democrats have managed to stymie critical pieces of the Bush agenda.
What had Democrats learned about framing? In the end, the success of the Social Security effort -- and, for that matter, the filibuster campaign -- may have had something to do with language or metaphor, but it probably had more to do with the elusive virtue of party discipline. Pelosi explained it to me this way: for years, the party's leaders had tried to get restless Democrats to stay ''on message,'' to stop freelancing their own rogue proposals and to continue reading from the designated talking points even after it got excruciatingly boring to do so. Consultants like Garin and Margolis had been saying the same thing, but Democratic congressmen, skeptical of the in-crowd of D.C. strategists, had begun to tune them out. ''Listening to people inside Washington did not produce any victories,'' Pelosi said.
But now there were people from outside Washington -- experts from the worlds of academia and Silicon Valley -- who were making the same case. What the framing experts had been telling Democrats on the Hill, aside from all this arcane stuff about narratives and neural science, was that they needed to stay unified and repeat the same few words and phrases over and over again. And these ''outsiders'' had what Reid and Pelosi and their legion of highly paid consultants did not: the patina of scientific credibility. Culturally, this made perfect sense. If you wanted Republican lawmakers to buy into a program, you brought in a guy like Frank Luntz, an unapologetically partisan pollster who dressed like the head of the College Republicans. If you wanted Democrats to pay attention, who better to do the job than an egghead from Berkeley with an armful of impenetrable journal studies on the workings of the brain?
You might say that Lakoff and the others managed to give the old concept of message discipline a new, more persuasive frame -- and that frame was called ''framing.'' ''The framing validates what we're trying to say to them,'' Pelosi said. ''You have a Berkeley professor saying, 'This is how the mind works; this is how people perceive language; this is how you have to be organized in your presentation.' It gives me much more leverage with my members''….
In a devastating critique in The Atlantic's April issue, Marc Cooper, a contributing editor at The Nation, skillfully ridiculed Lakoff as the new progressive icon. ''Much more than an offering of serious political strategy, 'Don't Think of an Elephant!' is a feel-good, self-help book for a stratum of despairing liberals who just can't believe how their common-sense message has been misunderstood by eternally deceived masses,'' Cooper wrote. In Lakoff's view, he continued, American voters are ''redneck, chain-smoking, baby-slapping Christers desperately in need of some gender-free nurturing and political counseling by organic-gardening enthusiasts from Berkeley.''
Whatever you call it, this kind of message discipline will be a crucial piece of what will most likely become, in the weeks ahead, a Democratic push to block Bush's designs on the Supreme Court. In order to stop a nominee, Democrats will have to frame the filibuster battle in the public arena all over again, and this time, they will have to convince voters that it is Bush's specific choice for the nation's highest court -- and not simply a slate of faceless judges -- who represents the reckless arrogance of Republican rule. Even in the hours after O'Connor made her announcement, you could see in Democratic responses the first stirrings of this new campaign.
''If the president abuses his power and nominates someone who threatens to roll back the rights and freedoms of the American people,'' said Ted Kennedy, lifting lines directly from Garin's latest polling memo, ''then the American people will insist that we oppose that nominee, and we intend to do so.'' Meanwhile, Susan McCue, Reid's powerful chief of staff, offered me a preview of the theory to come: ''It goes beyond 'abuse of power.' It's about arrogance, irresponsibility, being out of touch and catering to a narrow, narrow slice of their ideological constituency at the expense of the vast majority of Americans.''
It is not inconceivable that such an argument could sway public opinion; Americans are congenitally disposed to distrust whichever party holds power. The larger question -- too large, perhaps, for most Democrats to want to consider at the moment -- is whether they can do more with language and narrative than simply snipe at Bush's latest initiative or sink his nominees. Here, the Republican example may be instructive. In 1994, Republican lawmakers, having heeded Bill Kristol's advice and refused to engage in the health-care debate, found themselves in a position similar to where Democrats are now; they had weakened the president and spiked his trademark proposal, and they knew from Luntz's polling that the public harbored serious reservations about the Democratic majority in Congress.
What they did next changed the course of American politics. Rather than continue merely to deflect Clinton's agenda, Republicans came up with their own, the Contract With America, which promised 10 major legislative acts that were, at the time, quite provocative. They included reforming welfare, slashing budget deficits, imposing harsher criminal penalties and cutting taxes on small businesses. Those 10 items, taken as a whole, encapsulated a rigid conservative philosophy that had been taking shape for 30 years -- and that would define politics at the end of the 20th century.
By contrast, consider the declaration that House Democrats produced after their session with John Cullinane, the branding expert, last fall. The pamphlet is titled ''The House Democrats' New Partnership for America's Future: Six Core Values for a Strong and Secure Middle Class.'' Under each of the six values -- ''prosperity, national security, fairness, opportunity, community and accountability'' -- is a wish list of vague notions and familiar policy ideas. (''Make health care affordable for every American,'' ''Invest in a fully funded education system that gives every child the skills to succeed'' and so on.) Pelosi is proud of the document, which -- to be fair -- she notes is just a first step toward repackaging the party's agenda. But if you had to pick an unconscious metaphor to attach to it, it would probably be a cotton ball.
Consider, too, George Lakoff's own answer to the Republican mantra. He sums up the Republican message as ''strong defense, free markets, lower taxes, smaller government and family values,'' and in ''Don't Think of an Elephant!'' he proposes some Democratic alternatives: ''Stronger America, broad prosperity, better future, effective government and mutual responsibility.'' Look at the differences between the two. The Republican version is an argument, a series of philosophical assertions that require voters to make concrete choices about the direction of the country. Should we spend more or less on the military? Should government regulate industry or leave it unfettered? Lakoff's formulation, on the other hand, amounts to a vague collection of the least objectionable ideas in American life. Who out there wants to make the case against prosperity and a better future? Who doesn't want an effective government?
What all these middling generalities suggest, perhaps, is that Democrats are still unwilling to put their more concrete convictions about the country into words, either because they don't know what those convictions are or because they lack confidence in the notion that voters can be persuaded to embrace them. Either way, this is where the power of language meets its outer limit. The right words can frame an argument, but they will never stand in its place.
Matt Bai, a contributing writer, covers national politics for the magazine. He is working on a book about the future of the Democrats.