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George Lakoff: How Right-Wingers Scam People Into Buying Their Toxic Philosophy

Here is what progressives can learn from right-wing messaging.

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So here you have the president come out week after week, and David Axelrod coming out, saying this is a wonderful plan and here are the provisions. David Axelrod at one point sent out a memo to all the people on the Obama list -- 13 million -- saying go to your neighbors and here are 24 points of the plan to remember, but just to make it easier there are three groups of eight. Nobody remembers those three groups of eight. Meanwhile the other guys are saying government takeover and death panels.

JH: A while back, I interviewed Richard Viguerie, who is a longtime conservative activist. He said something very interesting to me. He said that his fellow travelers were descendants of monarchists, and as a result, they were very receptive to top-down messaging strategy in a way that liberals are not.

We do see this again and again where you get very similar talking points from the lowest level of the conservative blogosphere to members of the Senate Republican Caucus. Is there a tendency for liberals or progressive people to not be as easily swayed by messages that are coming from above?

GL: No. They’re just as easily swayed. Turn on MSNBC and you’ll hear the same messages every night. You get talking points from the DNC and they’re all about policies. You’re going to talk about this policy and that policy and so on, but you’re not going to talk about morality.

There was a period when I was involved with a think tank called the Rockridge Institute, and MoveOn, when it was a young organization, asked its members for the 2004 election what they wanted to see in the future of the country. They thought they would get hundreds and hundreds of new proposals. They had people pair up and have a discourse about the kinds of things they wanted to see. We got a big stack of all these things and started going through them. After about the first half inch, they were all the same. Everybody said the same thing.

If you go and look at progressive foundations and look at their mission statements there are between a dozen and two dozens things they all say, and then they’re all the same. Progressive are just the same as conservatives on it, but they don’t know how to communicate their messages. What they wind up doing is talking about policies, rather than the moral basis of those policies.

JH: I think one of the most important trends in our politics these days is the mainstreaming of extremism on the Right. I certainly remember when Bill Clinton was in office you had these militia guys running around. There were these crazy conspiracy theories – Clinton was accused of drug trafficking and murdering a bunch of his political opponents. Those views were kind of consigned to the fringe -- your crazy right-wing uncle would forward chain emails with this stuff.

Now you see politicians like Michele Bachmann who believe that energy efficient lightbulbs are some sort of UN plot to undermine the free enterprise system. You have elected politicians going on Fox and saying that Obama wasn’t born in this country. In the book, you talk about this trend. How does this new extremism fit into your analogy about families? You've long said that conservatives look toward a strict father figure in governance, and liberals tend to embrace a more nurturing parent model.

GL: This goes back to 1996 to a book I wrote called Moral Politics, which talks about that at great length. The idea is this: we understand that we have two very different family models in this country. They rise from two different understandings of morality. Morality as nurturing and morality as obedience to legitimate authority. Those give rise to different types of families. A strict father family has a father who is the ultimate authority which cannot be challenged. His job is to teach kids right from wrong, assuming he knows that, and his wife’s job is to uphold his views. The children are taught right from wrong by punishment, and painful enough punishment so that they’ll try to discipline themselves to do right and not wrong. And then if they have that discipline they can go out into the world and be prosperous. If they’re not prosperous that means they’re not disciplined and so they deserve their poverty.

 
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