Obama and the Dems Just Sound Too Wonky on Health Care
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It’s all in the brain. Words activate frame-and-metaphor circuits, which in turn activate worldview circuits. Whenever brain circuitry is activated, the synapses get stronger, and the circuits are easier to activate again. Conservative language will activate conservative frames, which will activate and strengthen the conservative worldview.
Conservative tacticians may not know about brain research, but they know about marketing, and marketing theorists use that brain research. That is why conservatives place such importance on language choice, from the classic “socialized medicine,” to Luntz’s “government takeover” to Palin’s “death panels.” When repeated over and over, the words evoke a conservative worldview, with many of the specific bogeymen — abortion, socialism = communism = nazism, euthanasia, foreigners, taxes, spending, the liberal elite, Big Brother, and so on. The most effective language has emotional appeal and, to conservatives, a moral appeal because it activates the conservative moral worldview. And such language, repeated every day, changes brains, strengthening the synapses of those who listen.
Conservative language will activate and strengthen conservative worldviews — even when negated! I titled a book Don’t Think of an Elephant! to make this point. The classic example is Richard Nixon’s “I am not a crook,” which made everyone think of him as a crook. And yet I’ve heard President Obama say “We don’t want a government takeover,” which activates the idea of a government takeover. Mediamatters.org’s major story, as I write this, is: “The media have debunked the death panels -- more than 40 times.” It then gives a list of 40 cases of debunking, each one of which uses the term “death panels.” And you wonder, after so many debunkings, why it is still believed! Each “debunking” reinforced the idea. The first rule of effective communication is stating the positive in your own terms, not quoting the other side’s language with a negation.
The Conservative Communication System
The serious reporting on role of conservative think tanks began in the mid-1990’s with works such as:
- Buying a Movement: Right-Wing Foundations and American Politics (People for the American Way, 1996).
- Sally Covington, Moving a Public Policy Agenda: The Strategic Philanthropy of Conservative Foundations (National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, 1998).
- Jean Stefancic and Richard Delgado, No Mercy: How Conservative Think Tanks and Foundations Changed America's Social Agenda (Temple University Press, 1996).
In 1996, my Moral Politics appeared, outlining the conservative and progressive moral worldviews and how the conservatives used language to frame public discourse their way.
In 2004, Rob Stein tracked the conservative communications system, traeling the country with his detailed powerpoint, "The Conservative Message Machine Money Matrix." Stein tracked not only conservative think tanks, but also the language experts and training institutes training tens of thousands of conservative spokespeople He also tracked the communications facilities, and the collections of “experts” on every issue, together with a booking agency booking the experts daily on media all over the country. Daily talking points are repeated by those “experts.” The conservative communications system extends into every congressional district, including the districts of democrats. In the case of the Blue Dog Democrats, who come from relatively conservative districts, the Blue Dogs have to deal with constituents who hear conservative framing over and over every day without anything effective countering it. That is a major factor in Blue Dog resistance to administration proposals.
With all this information, you might think that progressives would set up their own communications network going into the heart of conservative districts everywhere, day after day, effectively countering the conservative framing.
It didn’t happen. Instead, PolicySpeak prevailed. The old philosophical theory, which is taught in every policy school, won out. Progressives thought such a communications system would be illegitimate — what the conservatives do. They believe, in 17 th Century fashion, that if they just state the facts, people should reason to the right conclusion.