Linguists advise Democrats to talk the moral high ground

Despite the noted speaking skills of some Democratic Party leaders, a University of California, Berkeley, cognitive linguistics professor believes they still need help translating their political messages into voting booth success.

In the  just-published “The Little Blue Book: The Essential Guide to Thinking and Talking Democratic,”  George Lakoff and co-author Elisabeth Wehling offer tips to Democratic politicians headed for November’s general election.

One of their top tips?: “All politics is moral, and morality trumps policy. Talk about the moral bases of your policy positions openly and regularly,”” the “Little Blue Book” advises.

The authors contend that conservatives have defined the frames around the country’s central political issues and connected them more effectively than Democrats to moral foundations, and have communicated them so extensively that Democrats should follow suit. They say Democratic candidates should go on the offense and supplement policy proposal facts and figures with moral reasoning and deep ideas.

For example, Lakoff and Wehling, a linguistics graduate student at UC Berkeley and a political strategist, write that, while most Americans overwhelmingly approve of the individual policies in the Affordable Healthcare Act (ACA), morality trumped policy as Republican opposition to the law centered not on individual policies but on conservative moral grounds – such as freedom from “government takeover” and government “death panels.” Democrats, they say, could have more effectively countered the Republican arguments by tapping the ACA’s promotion of progressive values that support healthy lives that are “free” of illness.

And the linguists say that Democrats also faltered in their advocacy of health care reform by basing it on the Constitution’s interstate commerce clause, classifying heath care as a commodity rather than a Congressional duty to promote the general welfare, which is a moral matter.

Conservatives also have made the term “job creators” part of the contemporary vocabulary but liberals, the authors say, fail to counter that view by observing that there is no profit without workers and by championing workers as “profit creators.”

Framing, they constantly note, is a matter of ideas, not merely language.

“They (conservatives) frame public debate in their own language over the whole range of issues,” according to “The Little Blue Book.” “And once they get the public thinking their way, they can control the media, elect their candidates, pass their legislation, and create a new status quo.”

Lakoff and Wehling also encourage Democratic candidates with another tip:  Do not repeat the opposition’s terminology, because that only reinforces the opposition’s moral world views.

“By repeating their language, you repeat their ideas, enabling the ideas and the values behind the language to enter the brains of the public,” as the cognitive and brain sciences show, the book advises.

A sampling from the book’s list of recommended word substitutions for progressives includes:

  • “The American Ideal” instead of “The American Dream,” which emphasizes morality and excellence instead of a concept based more on what money can buy
  • “Worker-earned” health care in place of “employer-paid” health care
  • “Deferred pay” instead of “benefits and pensions”
  • “Earned security” instead of “entitlements” (for Social Security, Medicare, unemployment, etc.)

On the list of politically- and morally-charged terms for progressives to avoid:

  • “Class warfare,” because of its Marxist frame
  • “Taxing the rich,” because it presents taxes as punishment

The authors make a distinction between moderate conservatives and their extreme counterparts, who they say give so great a priority to conservative moral values that they eliminate or minimize moral complexity and compromise. This is sometimes seen, they said,  in the Tea Party platforms and conservative activist Grover Norquist’s successful effort to get political candidates and members of Congress to pledge not to increase taxes for any reason.

“Not only does their moral system not allow compromise, but extreme conservatives believe that if this intransigence leads to a nonfunctioning government, so much the better, since that would prove that government doesn’t work,” reads “The Little Blue Book.” “And if it leads to a failure to fund ongoing social programs, so much the better, since those programs need to go.”

Lakoff has used neuroscience and cognitive science to analyze moral politics and metaphors before.  In 2004, he wrote “Don’t Think of an Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate,” “Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think” and “Whose Freedom?” in 1996, and “The Political Mind” in 1998. Each book extends the cognitive science-based analysis further.

But Lakoff and Wehling say what is new in “The Little Blue Book” is the positive emphasis on how to recognize and tell deep truths when conservative framing hides them.

They also suggest aspiring Democratic politicians study cognitive and brain sciences. Those fields reveal much about human reason, which is mostly unconscious and constantly uses conceptual frames, metaphors, images, narratives and emotion.