2/20/14

How Progressives Are Losing

It's called "moral framing". It goes deeper than political messaging or communication. Frames are the mental windows through which we see reality -- or what we think is reality. We unconsciously use framing as a shortcut to structure our thinking.

Berkeley professor George Lakoff, who invented the concept of moral framing and has studied it for 50 years, argues that the political right is winning the political battle because it's better at framing than the left.

Every year, he says, the left concedes more ground to the right on the assumption that centrism is good.  But in reality, he says, there is no center. The more ground progressives give, the more ground conservatives take, and the further right the middle moves.

Conservatives are good at framing, says Lakoff, because they're morally committed, which appeals to voters. Liberals, he says, make the mistake of being rational, arguing facts instead of emotions.  Maybe what they're arguing for is in voters' self-interest, he says, but voters don't care about their self-interest. Self-interest isn't sexy.  It doesn't inspire or motivate voters.

Lakoff sees progressive politicians, including many in power, as weak, compromised and increasingly at the mercy of a seemingly unstoppable political wayback machine that runs on demonizing the weak. In Moral Politics, first published in 1996, Lakoff warned that if liberals can't manage to take a unified moral stance, conservatives will continue turning back the clock of progress in America.

While acknowledging that it has done a good job of sticking up for the individual by taking a pro-woman, anti-racist, anti-homophobic stance, Lakoff accuses the left of failing to honor human dignity; to embrace education as a public good; to husband the earth's natural resources; to acknowledge any motive other than profit; to expose the sham of "privatization"; or admit that socialism can sometimes be useful.

Unions, when they express these ideas, are mocked as dinosaurs. But the equivalent positions on the right: that efficiency is king; that big government is bad and must be starved to death; that nothing must come between a business and its profits; that poverty is the lifestyle choice of the weak; that single mothers and immigrants are destroying our society -- have been spared the same kind of "modernizing" scutiny by the left, Lakoff says.

The progressive mindset needs a makeover, he says. Progressives need to stop being so reasonable; stop arguing the evidence, and embrace their own extremes, secure in the knowledge that conservative thinking isn't rational. As an example, Lakoff cites the fact that conservatives oppose equal rights for women, yet despise the poor, ignoring that most poor people are women, whose second-class status ensures that they stay poor.  

If liberals want to win the political war, Lakoff says, the last thing they should do is water down their beliefs.  Rather than just repeat absurd right-wing positions as an invitation to ridicule and argument ("Do you believe what that guy just said? Let me tell you what he said...") liberals need to "go up a level", he said, and expose the immorality underlying the right's positions. An example of a position that begs for this treatment is the conservative call to forbid abortion access to raped women, he said.

It's about time, Lakoff said, that progressives stopped just reacting to the right's positions and started affirmatively taking their own positions.  But liberals, he said:
"...Don't understand their own moral system or the other guy's, they don't know what's at stake, they don't know about framing, they don't know about metaphors, they don't understand the extent to which emotion is rational, they don't understand how vital emotion is, they try to hide their emotion. They do everything wrong..."
The post from Alternet.

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