George Lakoff offers a clear opinion on an important aspect of how people learn from election and media presentations. There are a lot of examples of reporting and the concept is clear enough. However, it is an entirely different proposition when applied to real life in posts or comments…for instance, how posts are written, for what audience, and what sort of learning is actually being encouraged:
The Republican presidential campaign is not just about the presidential race. It is about using conservative language to strengthen conservative values in the brains of voters – in campaigns at all levels from Congress to school boards. Part of the Republican strategy is to get liberals to argue against them, repeating conservative language. There is a reason I wrote a book called Don’t Think of an Elephant! When you negate conservative language, you activate conservative ideas and, hence, automatically and unconsciously strengthen the brain circuitry that characterizes conservative values.
As I was writing the paragraphs above, the mail came. In it was material from Public Citizen (an organization I admire) promoting Single Payer Health Care (which I agree with) by arguing against right-wing lies about it. In big, bold type the lies were listed: Single payer is socialized medicine. Single payer will lead to rationing, like in Canada. Costs will skyrocket under single Payer. And so on. After each one, came the negative: Wrong. And then in small, unbolded type, the laundry lists of policy truths. Public Citizen was unconsciously promoting the conservative lies by repeating them in boldface and then negating them.
The same naiveté about messaging, public discourse, and effects on brains is now showing up in liberal discussions of the Republican presidential race. Many Democrats are reacting either with glee (“their field is so ridiculously weak and wacky.” – Maureen Dowd), with outrage (their deficit-reduction proposals would actually raise the deficit – Paul Krugman), or with incredulity (“Why we’re debating a woman’s access to birth control is beyond me.” – Debbie Wasserman Schultz). Hendrik Hertzberg dismissed the ultra-conservatives as “a kick line of clowns, knaves, and zealots.” Joe Nocera wrote that he hope Santorum would be the Republican candidate, claiming that he is so far to the right that he would be “crushed” – an “epic defeat,” “shock therapy” that would bring back moderate Republicans. Democrats even voted for Santorum in the Michigan primary on the grounds that he would be the weaker candidate and that it would be to the Democrats’ advantage if the Republican race dragged on for a long time.
I mention these liberals by name because they are all people I admire and largely agree with. I hope that they are right. And I hope that the liberal discourse of glee, scorn, outrage, incredulity, and support for the most radical conservative will actually win the day for Democrats at all levels. But, frankly, I have my doubts. I think Democrats need much better positive messaging, expressing and repeating liberal moral values – not just policies- uniformly across the party. That is not happening.