Lakoff: Why Conservative Lies Spread and What Progressives Can Do to Fight Them
Democrats are constantly resorting to disaster messaging. Here's a description of the typical situation.
- The Republicans outmessage the Democrats. The Democrats, having no effective response, face disaster: They lose politically, either in electoral support or failure on crucial legislation.
- The Democrats then take polls and do focus groups. The pollsters discover that extremist Republicans control the most common ("mainstream") way of thinking and talking about the given issue.
- The pollsters recommend that Democrats move to the right: adopt conservative Republican language and a less extreme version of conservative policy, along with weakened versions of some Democratic ideas.
- The Democrats believe that, if they follow this advice, they can gain enough independent and Republican support to pass legislation that, at least, will be some improvement on the extreme Republican position.
- Otherwise, the pollsters warn, Democrats will lose popular support -- and elections -- to the Republicans, because "mainstream" thought and language resides with the Republicans.
- Believing the pollsters, the Democrats change their policy and their messaging, and move to the right.
- The Republicans demand even more and refuse to support the Democrats.
We have seen this on issues like health care, immigration, global warming, finance reform, and so on. We are seeing it again on the Death Gusher in the Gulf. It happens even with a Democratic president and a Democratic majority in both houses of Congress.
Why? Is there anything the Democrats can do about it? First, it has to be understood. It doesn't just happen.
The Difference Between Framing and Messaging
Framing is the most commonplace thing we do with thought and language. Frames are the cognitive structures we think with. They are physical, embodied in neural circuitry. Frames come in systems. Their circuitry is strengthened and often made permanent through use: the more the circuits are used, the stronger they get. Effective frames are not isolated. They build on, and extend, other frames already established. All words are defined in terms of conceptual frames. When the words are heard, the frames are strengthened -- not just the immediate frames, but the whole system.
Fit matters. The brain is a "best-fit" system. The better a new frame "fits" existing frames, the more effective it will be; that is, the more people will think, and make decisions, using that frame.
The activation of one brain circuit may either activate or inhibit another. A frame that fits a system will activate other frames in the system and make them stronger. Strongly activated frames will weaken frames that they inhibit.
There are progressive and conservative frame systems. Activating the conservative frame system, weakens the progressive frame system -- both individual frames for particular issues, but also the system as a whole.
That is how framing works. There are consequences.
High-Level, Moral Frames Matter More
Higher-level frames, deeper in the system, have a disproportionate effect.
The more the language of frame is repeated, the stronger the frame gets, along with the system the frame is in. And the weaker the frames of the contradictory system gets. The stronger high-level frames are, the more effective frames that fit them will be. And the less effective frames that contradict them will be.
In politics, the high-level frames are the moral systems that define what is "right" for a conservative or progressive.
Most Framing is Unconscious
Frames are conceptual; they are the elements of thought. Most thought is unconscious. Words activate frames. We are rarely conscious of the frames that are activated by the words we hear. Yet those frames are there in our brain circuitry, and more we hear the words, the stronger the frames get, even though we aren't aware of it.