One of my favorite grassroots citizens’ groups is creating a “Progressive Freedom Values Dictionary”, which members will use to “speak consistently to others…about what’s at stake in 2014.” The dictionary will be a set of phrases that present issues in a way that promotes the progressive point of view. For example, we will be encouraged to speak exclusively of “privatization of our community’s schools” instead of the more neutral “private school choice” or the Republican phrase, “parental choice.” The group’s effort is part of the growing interest among politically active citizens in “messaging” and “framing.”
I couldn’t gather much enthusiasm for the project despite my full agreement with the list of values statements that accompanied an invitation to participate. Here’s my problem: I will reluctantly concede that professional politicians benefit from speaking in carefully crafted political spin while avoiding give-and-take civic conversation, at least in public. Ever since America’s civic journalism gave way to commercial infotainment, avoiding actual conversation may be the only way elected officials escape being ridiculed for gaffes and going “off message”.
Don’t get me wrong: I wholeheartedly endorse the idea that every American citizen should know the techniques of modern American political message-spinning. I object only to the notion that we should do it. It’s bad enough that our candidates and elected officials are now trained to speak only talking points framed for them by the market researchers, which has destroyed the value of candidates’ debates and press conferences for helping voters understand what the candidates truly believe and think. Our democracy will deteriorate even farther if regular citizens train ourselves to do the same, even in our personal political conversations. We need to understand our neighbors more than we need to debate them.
And if our intention is regrettably limited to selling a political message, speaking in spin won’t work anyway. If you’re suspicious of taxpayer subsidies to big business, how do you react when your neighbor uses the phrase “job-creator”? If you are eager to reduce domestic government spending, how do you react when your cousin talks about “investment in America”? We perceive any regular Joe who uses recognizable partisan talking points in conversation as a brainwashed message-bearer who is not truly present in a sincere exchange of personal thoughts and feelings. In conversations between friends and neighbors, that sort of talk no more influential than elevator music.
We do need to learn to recognize manufactured and focus-group-tested jabber; we do need to know when someone is trying to manipulate us. As Frank Luntz, one of the leading writers who promote and profit from the growing interest in political messaging, wrote in Words That Work, “The tools and techniques invented on Madison Avenue firmly took hold in Washington during the Reagan years, and they continue to drive our politics today.”
For example, when paid pundits debate the “Affordable Care Act” and “socialized medicine”, a naïve citizen won’t recognize that both are trying to manipulate more than to educate, and that neither is likely to deliver straight talk about the national law that now governs the private health insurance market. (Yes, it’s a fact that “Affordable Care Act” is the actual name of the legislation. Even our laws are now named by spinmeisters.)
Luntz’s book is a revealing look inside the Orwellian business of manufacturing public opinion, 324 pages of uninterrupted civic amorality. If you think my use of the adjective ‘Orwellian’ was hyperbole, think again. Luntz writes: “When someone asks me to illustrate the concept of words that work, I tell them to read Orwell’s 1984.” Asked to explain his admiration for Orwell’s vision in a 2007 radio interview, Luntz responded, “To be ‘Orwellian’ is to speak with absolute clarity, to be succinct, to explain what the event is, to talk about what triggers something happening… and to do so without any pejorative whatsoever.”
So don’t look for the words truth or honesty in Luntz’s book. He cannot get past the second page of the introduction without claiming his manipulation skills are useful even in what he considers to be “a day-to-day event like talking your way out of a speeding ticket.”
Fortunately, the group creating the Progressive Freedom Values Dictionary is inspired not by Luntz, but by the teachings of George Lakoff, the leading political-messaging voice from the left. Where Luntz is a technician who cares only that his words work regardless of whether for good or evil, Lakoff emphasizes “Politics is about moral values… In America today, moral issues are central.” Where Luntz considers sincerity irrelevant if not dangerous, Lakoff argues that political communicators should “Be aware of what you believe and repeat it out loud over and over. Be positive. Be authentic. Bring it home. Say it simply.” And where Luntz’s experience is limited to political marketing, Lakoff has the advantage of years of research in cognitive science. His explanations of human thought processes are fascinating and useful.
But Lakoff’s metaphors have their own dangers. We regular-Joe people need to create and strengthen connections among ourselves. To create connections, we need to learn the skills of constructive interpersonal political conversation. And of all the bad habits that prevent connection through conversation, two of the most detrimental are: 1) Trying only to get your own message across rather than engaging in respectful give-and-take dialogue; and 2) Perceiving your conversation partner as an opponent and a caricature rather than as a unique human being with legitimate needs, concerns, and interests. Lakoff’s instructions fall short in both those areas.
Both Luntz and Lakoff approach political communication as if it was entirely a matter of crafting the perfect outgoing message. That works if we’re writing a letter to the editor or scripting a political commercial. But engaged, give-and-take conversation among friends, family, and acquaintances requires listening to our conversation partner and framing not only good statements but good questions.
More troubling is Lakoff’s relentless framing of self-government as a contest between two-and-only-two opposite perspectives and caricaturing them both. Listen to Lakoff and you will learn that “Conservatives and progressives do not just have different goals or values. They have very different modes of thought.” You will learn that “For progressives, democracy begins with citizens caring about each other, taking responsibility both for themselves and for their fellow citizens,” while “for conservatives, democracy is about liberty, individual responsibility, and self-reliance—the freedom to seek one’s self-interest with minimal or no commitment to the interests of others.”
To be fair, Lakoff acknowledges that very few of us are walking, talking caricatures; most of us can and do use both of those models at different times. But still, I doubt you can read one chapter in any of his books without encountering at least one sentence that illustrates the only-two-sides metaphor that keeps our political culture in this seemingly endless dispute mode. If I’m going to have a constructive political conversation with my neighbor, I will do much better if I ask him, not Lakoff, about his values and beliefs, and then listen to my neighbor’s answers without filtering them through any Lakoff-coached preconceptions.
If a wish-granting genie allowed me to give every American the understanding contained in just one political-communications book, it would not be Lakoff’s most recent book, The Little Blue Book: The Essential Guide to Thinking and Talking Democratic. (Why write for only partisans when the discussions in that book are valuable for our entire nation–as they are? Why not write The Essential Guide to Thinking and Talking for Democracy?)
Instead, I would ask the genie to give every American the insights in Deborah Tannen’s The Argument Culture: Stopping America’s War of Words. She writes:
Philosopher John Dewy said, “Democracy begins in conversation.” In conversation we form the interpersonal ties that bind individuals together in relationships; in public discourse, we form similar ties on a larger scale, binding individuals into a community.
In moving (toward dialogue and) away from a narrow view of two-sided debate, we need not give up conflict and criticism altogether. Quite the contrary, we can develop more varied and more constructive ways of expressing opposition and negotiating disagreement.
We need to use our imaginations and ingenuity to find different ways to seek truth and gain knowledge, and add them to … the ingredients for our dialogue stew. It will take creativity to blunt the most dangerous blades of our argument culture. It’s a challenge we must undertake, because our public and private lives are at stake.
The fabric of democracy will always be more of a crazy quilt than smooth satin or bleached muslin. What it cannot be is torn into disconnected pieces. Operating and preserving a government of the people, by the people, for the people requires that we find ways to weave our varied interests, concerns and values into a fabric of rough consensus, and we cannot do that if we study only how to win at messaging while neglecting the skills needed to connect with our neighbors in constructive political conversation.