I stopped writing about politics when Obama was elected in 2008, 40 years after I first got paid to write about politics. In fact, I disengaged from politics because I did not want that negativity in my life any longer. I even disconnected from mental health politics, and confined my activity to teaching recovery principles and skills to people with difficulties and the professionals who deal with them.
I’m not going to knock right wingers for acting like right wingers, and doing what they promised to do in the 2010 election. I’m upset with Democrats and progressives for losing every political argument, and most elections, since 1980. And I’m upset with Obama for losing control of the debates over his programs since 2008.
This week, the budget writing committee in my state told community mental health centers to disregard their mandate to serve everyone with a mental illness. Triage people, and serve as many as you can within your appropriation, they were told. The number of people eligible for services now, who won’t be served next year if this budget passes, is estimated in the thousands. Republicans have veto-proof majorities in both houses of the Legislature.
The next day, the same House Finance Committee voted to eliminate collective bargaining for public employees. When their contract ends, without a new one, they do not continue to serve under the terms of the old contract. They become “employees at will.” The government can lay them off or impose lower salaries unilaterally, and the employees have no recourse. And what’s to stop a school board, or the state, from refusing to bargain until the contract runs out and they can do whatever they want.
I think this Legislature is more radical than most New Hampshire people. I think the pendulum will swing back toward the center in two or four years, but what will happen in the meantime? In 2003, the state elected a radical conservative governor, who became the first in 86 years to lose his campaign for a second term.
Nationwide, Democrats have been losing political arguments, and most elections, since 1968. The reason is easy to say, hard to fix, and the Democrats have shown no sign of starting to change in all this time.
Obama lost control over the health insurance debate the minute he called it “health care reform.” As poll after poll showed during that year, most Americans like their health care. They hate the health insurance system, and elected Obama to reform it. He did to a great extent, but nobody knows what’s in the program, or when it kicks in. Meanwhile, the expression “health care reform” triggers images of government bureaucrats screwing around with Dr. Welby, and their own doctors, whom they like. That’s the expression the mainstream media picked up, and embedded in people’s minds. It became the frame, the label, in people’s minds whenever they thought of the issue.
He lost control of the economic recovery debate when the word “bailout” became part of everyday language, in the mainstream media and everyday conversation. It became the frame in people’s minds whenever they thought about the issue.
Here are some other frames the right wing has gotten into the mainstream media and popular unconscious:
- A tax on a small number of large inheritances is “the death tax.”
- Tax cuts for people making more than $250,000 is “tax reform,” a “tax cut,” or “tax relief.” Democrats, trying to popularize their own frame, call it “tax cuts for the rich.” That fails on two levels: it uses the Republican words “tax cut,” which people want, and “for the rich” is OK with middle class people because they hope to be rich someday.
Democrats still can’t figure out why so many people favor tax cuts that don’t help them, that are against their economic interest. It’s because Republicans own the expressions for tax cuts and tax relief. When the Democrats use them, people think of Republican initiatives, not Democrat versions of the Republican initiatives.
It’s about values. Tax cuts are Republican values. Democrats value government programs and high taxes. These frames are so ingrained in people that no amount of facts, figures, and five-point programs can change the response that has become unconscious.
People vote values, not facts, figures, and programs. Republicans run on value-laden frames, and strategic initiatives with hidden agendas. . Democrats respond with facts, figures, and programs.
Tax cuts are not just about lowering taxes. They’re about starving the welfare state, which Republican state legislatures are doing now in the name of balancing budgets
In fact, the expression “government programs” has been framed by Republicans as “wasteful government programs.” Lawsuits against corporations that damage people with negligence have been framed as “frivolous lawsuits.”
“Tort reform” is so important to Republicans, not because of frivolous lawsuits. Medical malpractice lawyers, who don’t get paid unless they win, limit those themselves. They don’t take cases they don’t think they can win.
Tort reform (caps on jury awards) limits the ability of individuals and government agencies to hold corporations accountable for their negligence. It also limits the income of trial lawyers, who are among the Democrats’ biggest financial supporters.
Republicans don’t say that. They keep recycling stories about someone who won millions from a jury because a waitress spilled coffee in his lap. (Those awards are very rare, and almost never collected. Plaintiffs don’t have resources to battle endless appeals, so they settle for less.)
The only strategic initiative the Democrats are offering now is the green revolution. An commitment to improve the environment on a scale comparable to the commitment to put a man on the moon in 10 years would have this fallout:
- Cleaner, safer air and water
- Stimulus to research and development, which this country is best at. Developing products and methods we can sell abroad, which we will buying from abroad pretty soon.
- More manufacturing jobs, which the country has been hemorrhaging, destroying whole communities as well as individuals and families.
- Stronger national security as we need less imported oil. Stronger relationships with friendly countries.
- A stronger economy as we become less dependent on giant corporations to supply our oil. Fewer giant spills in offshore wells, and explosions in refineries on the outskirts of cities.
But the Republicans have stymied this initiative with the slogan “government should not pick winners,” and ”global warming is not scientifically proved.”
George Lakoff’s linguistic analyses of why progressives keep losing elections and debates on issues have been in print, in several books, for a decade. Most of his analyses are based on two principles: framing, and the authoritarian/nurturing family paradigms.
You have to be my age to remember when liberal was not a nasty name, and the flag and patriotism were not Republican issues. It happened when liberals became associated with the social upheavals of the late ‘60’s: the young hippies, black “militants,” political activists, and their older supporters, challenged the idea that the U.S. was a good country. Presidential candidates George McGovern, Walter Mondale, and Mike Dukakis, plus the ill-fated presidency of Jimmy Carter allowed the right wing to frame the as unpatriotic, ineffectual big spenders.
They did it by funding multi-million-dollar right wing think tanks to produce research, books, studies, and catchy language to insert into the public consciousness through the media. They have TV studios in their offices, so TV can interview them easily, often as disinterested experts, not hired guns with political agendas. The right bought media outlets – Fox News, AM Radio, local TV stations — and they reframed the word “media” as “liberal media.”
Conservatives can get jobs in think tanks when they lose elections.
Between elections, Democrats do nothing for their intellectuals and phrase-makers. They expect people to volunteer or become temporary retainers with good government as their only reward. But at some point, young political activists get older, tired of living upstairs from a Chinese restaurant and driving old Volkswagens. They want a house, wife, children, and decent car. But there is no place for them to make a living in liberal politics. So they go to law school or something.
They expect the media, which is more lazy than liberal, and is downsizing, to fact-check and balance conservative claims at no cost.
Lakoff’s analysis of the two family models is the difference between authoritarian fathers and nurturing families. These are generalizations. Everybody is a little of both, with one dominating, or with two co-existing in different situations. Lots of Reagan voters liked the Cosby show, for example.
Authoritarian fathers (many of whom are mothers) believe the world is an evil, dangerous place, His job is to provide for his family in that hostile environment. Children are born lazy and bad. Parents must impose discipline, so they will become good, independent adults. Parents who need help from the government have not done their jobs, and are bad. Rich people have done their jobs and deserve whatever they have or can get.
Nurturing parents believe the world and their children are basically good, and can be made better. When bad things happen, they can be corrected.
People elect governments that tend to reflect whichever paradigm dominates their minds. So we have two shooting wars, not counting the one in Libya, and a war on drugs, terror, and crime. Unmarried teen-agers who get pregnant are bad, and deserve whatever they get, including poverty and an unwanted baby. If society takes care of these people, it is rewarding and reinforcing bad behavior. That is immoral, not moral. Helping the rich is not only moral, but good public policy. It rewards good behavior.
Lakoff has had these ideas in print for 10 years. When are the Democrats going to listen and do something about it?