Column: Meta-rhetorical politics

I’ve briefly mentioned rhetoric and values in past columns, but columns are short, and I couldn’t spread the context thick enough. Here’s what I wanted to say but couldn’t.

Most voters lack higher understanding of the political rhetoric they consume and adopt into their language. Even the “politically aware” lack a particular meta-awareness. People assume that the political divide is about policy, that their own ideology is logical and that people reason to the right conclusions if they know “the facts.” This is quaint, but wrong.

At the convergence of cognitive science and linguistics, there is the concept of a frame. Frames are the mental context that gives words their meaning — unconscious molds that shape your thoughts, your beliefs and your ethical sensibilities. Things “make sense” because they fit preexisting frames in your mind.

When I say there are competing moral conceptions of democracy, I don’t mean it like a flippant metaphor. These frames are literally wired into the brain. There is a conservative moral framework, a shared context that believes democracy’s purpose is to guarantee liberty and individual self-interest, to enforce a strict (material) model of success and failure and to prevent social deviance. Cognitive linguist George Lakoff calls it “strict father” morality — the government is a metaphorical (sometimes literal) patriarch that rewards and punishes his children to whip them into a particular shape. And there is what Lakoff calls the “nurturing parent” view, a gender-neutrally titled, empathetic morality that sees democracy’s purpose to strengthen society itself, protect the disadvantaged, repair injustices and empower citizen achievement. Chances are one morality intuitively makes more sense to you than the other.

Most people get their news in snippets. Political strategists fight to frame issues so their moral visions are reproduced in those snippets. If you control the language of politics, you can control political beliefs.

Republican pollster Frank Luntz and others devised “death tax,” “job creators” and “energy security” to describe estate inheritance tax, millionaires and drilling for oil, respectively. People like the idea of “helping the poor,” but they don’t like “welfare.”

A buzzword like “government takeover of health care” isn’t repeated because it’s true (it was actually Politifact’s 2010 Lie of the Year), but because it polled strongly in focus groups and targets what Luntz calls a “USA Today audience.”

Consider taxation. The right offers “tax relief,” implying taxation is a burden or theft, robbing workers of their earnings. The left sees taxation as a social contract, the transaction that supports a functioning society, because nobody is truly “self-made” without government and other social support. The call for the rich to “pay their fair share” implies that the rich rightfully owe a duty like everybody else but have hoarded it by rigging the system. Whether you agree with these connections or not, they make immediate sense. Your brain already makes them unconsciously. You think like a Republican or a Democrat without even noticing.

But the sides are not equally matched. Much of my leftist self-hatred stews because I see Democrats failing to frame issues in ways that are actually beneficial. Every time Democrats repeat the phrase “tax relief,” it reinforces the conservative unconscious. They’re constantly fucking this up.

Progressives are generally ignorant of effective framing or they fancy themselves too intellectual for it. They would rather discuss policy because they think values-based campaigning is primitive, but they’re building their ivory towers to the clouds when the real fight is in the manure pits below. This is where Democrats are unequivocally dense, and it proves that Republicans as a whole are years ahead when it comes to framing issues for their strategic advantage.

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