Friday Talking Points [137] -- Listen To Westen And Lakoff, Democrats!

[ Posted Friday, September 3rd, 2010 – 16:24 UTC ]

Last week, I heard an interesting take on the political scene: that both parties seem to be trying mightily to lose the upcoming midterm elections. Republicans, in a natural Republican cycle, are nominating some candidates who are so extreme they may lose races which should have been easy Republican wins. Democrats seem paralyzed with fear, even though populist anger should be working to their advantage, since Republicans have never met a Wall Street bank or gigantic corporation that they couldn't love and carry water for. Both parties are registering record low approval rates from the public -- Democrats in the low 30s, and Republicans even worse in the low 20s. This being the American political system, though, there's really only two choices, and right now the public isn't getting behind either of them.

Both political parties seem to be bent on internecine fracas, heading into election season. On the Democratic side, Rahm Emanuel was recently quoted (he reportedly spoke the words a while ago, but a new book out from "former car czar" Steve Rattner includes the passage) once more belittling a big part of the Democratic base (this time it was Union labor's turn to be smacked). The White House, tellingly, is not denying the quote. We would repeat the quote here, but since it contains unseemly language (par for the Rahm Emanuel course), you'll just have to follow the link to read it.

Thanks, Rahm! That's just what we need right now to solve that old "enthusiasm gap," right?


The Republicans, on the other hand, are dealing with their own intra-party civil war, which is not limited to just the party's leaders repeatedly insulting the base. Instead, the base is rising up and transforming the party, much to the horror of the party's establishment. The next battle in this ongoing war will take place in Delaware, where Republican voters have a choice between an establishment Republican candidate who will almost certainly coast to victory and gain the Republicans not just a Senate seat, but the one vacated by Joe Biden -- or they can choose the Tea Party candidate, who is (as usual) a wee bit extreme, thereby putting the race back into the "tossup" category. The Delaware Republican Party seems to have learned a lesson or two from the situation in Alaska, and is currently savaging the Tea Party candidate. But the Tea Partier may get an infusion of lots of Tea Party money, so this race will be very interesting to watch (Delaware, one assumes, isn't that expensive of a media market in which to buy lots of ads).

Democrats did have one gleeful moment last week, as a video of the Republican running to keep her job as Arizona's governor went viral in a big way. So, if you're feeling down and want to see what will doubtlessly become the new dictionary definition of the phrase "not ready for primetime," check it out. Or if you really want a laugh, check out what Craig Ferguson did with it. In other amusing news, Rudy Giuliani's consulting firm appears to be on the skids.

Jollification aside, though, we're still one week away from Congress returning to briefly do their job (or at least give the appearance of doing so), before they award themselves another month or so off, in order to campaign. Labor Day is right around the corner (or perhaps blowing past the corner at 75 miles per hour, if you live in the hurricane zone -- which contains, my television assures me, everything east of about Denver).

One last thing worth mentioning before we roll up our sleeves and dig into this week's muck is that I want to clearly deny any rumors that the White House is taking my columns seriously. This was pointed out to me by eagle-eyed readers who noticed that three days after I wrote an article titled "How About A Press Conference, Mister President?" the White House announced a press conference will be held next Friday. This is the sheerest of coincidences, we assure you, and in no way means my columns are required reading in the West Wing. After all, I've given them much better advice than that, which they've utterly failed to act upon -- so I aver, once again, that the whole thing was entirely coincidental.

Heh. Self-depreciating humor (and backhanded egotism) aside, though, let's get to taking a look at the week that was.


Most Impressive Democrat of the Week

President Obama gave a rather impressive speech Tuesday, to remind Americans that he had followed through on his campaign promise on Iraq. He also got the Israelis and Palestinians talking together once again. All around, a pretty impressive week. But we've been giving him too many awards of late, so he'll have to settle just for an Honorable Mention this week. Also, we don't want to give the White House an award on a week where they (coincidentally, I assure you) followed my advice, because it would be so unseemly. Ahem.

Instead, we're handing the Most Impressive Democrat Of The Week award to a group who is valiantly fighting a Senate battle in a state the Democrats probably don't have a prayer of winning. Republican Senator David Vitter, famous for "living Republican family values" by boinking prostitutes in kinky sex scenes, is up for re-election. Astonishingly, many Louisiana voters have not heard of the scandals surrounding the Senator (and his choice of aides, in case the whole boinking prostitutes thing wasn't enough). So the Louisiana Democratic Party decided to put together an informative video, to keep voters informed about what their elected representative has been up to in his spare time.

Now, Louisiana has a reputation for hard-hitting politics. This video certainly lives up to that reputation. It's playfully called "Forgotten Crimes," and is five-and-a-half minutes of fun to watch. After all, if the voters in Louisiana have somehow forgotten what Vitter was up to, then we certainly think they need a little reminding, don't you?

Vitter, at this point, seems likely to win re-election. In other words, some might see this as a lost cause. Which is why it's such an impressive effort -- you don't stop fighting political battles just because you think the odds are against you, you do what you can to better your party's chances. For valiantly fighting this fight, the Louisiana Democratic Party (specifically, whoever came up with and approved this video) wins this week's Most Impressive Democrat Of The Week award.

Democrats everywhere would do well to follow their example.

[Congratulate the Louisiana Democratic Party via their official contact page, or at the video's Forgotten Crimes site, to let them know you appreciate their efforts.]


Most Disappointing Democrat of the Week

Sadly, we have two awards to hand out in the Most Disappointing Democrat Of The Week category.

Our first, with special "nepotism" oak leaf clusters, goes to Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson, from Texas. Johnson, as a member of the Congressional Black Caucus, gets to hand out free scholarships to qualified students in her district. Instead of doing so, she decided her grandchildren and other family members (none of whom even live in her district) were so much more deserving of this free ride to college. Also, they were cuter than all the other applicants. And not just one or two of them, but six of them (four of her own relatives, and two grandchildren of a top aide) -- one-third of the total scholarships awarded.

Johnson maintains she did so unknowingly. Um, OK. Even though the foundation apparently made her certify that the awards weren't going to her relatives. Instead, she blames the media for the whole thing:

This for me has been quite challenging because I believe it was intended to cast me in an unfair light that was intended to distort my image before my constituents and those who know of my personal commitment to public service. This article gave the appearance that I overlooked the needs of a segment of my constituency to benefit my family; this was not the case.

As previously said: "Um, OK." For not owning up to her own obvious nepotism (and for the nepotism itself), Representative Johnson wins a Most Disappointing Democrat Of The Week award.

But she's not alone this week, as Senator Dianne Feinstein moves into fourth place on the all-time MDDOTW list, winning her seventh award this week. This moves her up from a fifth-place tie with Jay Rockefeller IV to a fourth-place tie with Joe Lieberman, we should mention, for completeness' sake.

DiFi, as we like to call here in California, presents an interesting qualification conundrum to the MDDOTW awards committee here, since the question always arises: "DiFi's such a DINO that we pretty much expect her to be disappointing, so can you really call it 'disappointing' when her actions just vindicate our already-low expectations?" But then we come to our senses, and leave such navel-gazing to Zen masters. "Of course DiFi's fair game for the MDDOTW," we say to ourselves, "and she should be glad we don't hand her one every single week for that matter!"

Ahem. We seem to have veered off into being unseemly once again, which we of course apologize for.

But it's hard not to get annoyed at DiFi, because she makes it all too easy to do so. It was announced this week that DiFi will be co-chair of the effort to defeat a proposition before California voters this year which would legalize the recreational use of marijuana.

Now, virtually every Democrat in office or running for office has come out against Proposition 19, which is kind of to be expected. Republicans have been using the blunt object of "soft on crime" against Democrats since Nixon's time, which has made Democrats terrified of taking any political risks in this area -- especially when it comes to the subject of the "War On Drugs." Pretty much every Democrat who is running for office this year in California, from Barbara Boxer to Jerry Brown, has come out against Prop 19. As stated, this was to be expected.

But DiFi wasn't content to merely oppose it, she decided to lead the effort. Even this might be seen as somewhat excusable, were she in the midst of a tough re-election campaign. But she isn't. She doesn't have to defend her seat for years. So, instead of working hard for her fellow Democrat Barbara Boxer (who is in a very tough campaign) or -- I don't know, doing the nation's business, perhaps -- Feinstein will be spending her time for the next few months leading a political effort in her state in the hopes that it will be politically advantageous for her to do so.

Which, as we said, is almost expected from DiFi at this point -- but is still disappointing. Which is why Senator Feinstein gets our second Most Disappointing Democrat Of The Week award this week. Thanks a lot, DiFi, for confirming our low expectations of you for the seventh time. Enjoy your position on the "big board" with Joe Lieberman, you've earned it.

[Contact Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson on her House contact page, and Senator Dianne Feinstein on her Senate contact page, to let them know what you think of their actions.]


Friday Talking Points

Volume 137 (9/3/10)

Last week, I highlighted two articles I thought were well-written and to the point. This week I am going to do the same. But, while last time I did so in the opening segment, this week these two excerpts are going to take the place of the talking points, because they are so important for Democrats to hear right now. The two articles are from Drew Westen and George Lakoff, who are two of the best and brightest minds on the Democratic side when it comes to framing a message to the people.

I am an admitted amateur in this field. Each week I scribble down rantings and ravings which pop into my fevered brain, in an effort to convince Democrats that there are indeed good ways to speak about current issues. This, I should note, is a hit-or-miss type of thing. Some of what I write makes sense, some of it falls flatter than a pancake. Which is why I admit often that I hold merely amateur status in this game. But these two guys are professionals, and know what the heck they're talking about. And what they're talking about is how Democrats should be talking.

While I kidded earlier about "required reading," I am not kidding now when I say that these two articles (and pretty much everything else they've written) really should be required reading for all Democrats in office or otherwise involved with the Democratic Party.

The first piece is by Drew Westen, author of the book The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation. He comes from the field of psychiatry. If you've ever wondered about the fundamental way Democrats almost always lose the framing and messaging battles with Republicans, you should get a copy of his book and read it.

His recent article is titled "What Created the Populist Explosion and How Democrats Can Avoid the Shrapnel in November." In it, he writes:

To say that the American people are angry is an understatement. The political brain of Americans today reflects a volatile mixture of fear and fury, and when you mix those together, you get an explosion. The only question at this point is how to mitigate the damage when the bomb detonates in November.

The bad news is that it's too late for Democrats to do what would have been both good policy and good politics (and what the House actually did do), namely to pass a major jobs bill when it was clear that the private sector couldn't keep Americans employed. The "Obama Doctrine" should have been that Americans who want to work and have the ability to contribute to our productivity as a nation should have the right to work, and that if the private sector can't meet the demand for jobs, we have plenty of roads and bridges to fix, new energy sources to develop and manufacture, and schools to build and renovate so our kids and workers returning for training can compete in the 21st century global economy. From having spent much of the last four years testing messages on a range of issues, from immigration to taxes and deficits, I can say with some certainty that nothing John Boehner or Eric Cantor could say could come within 30 points of generating the enthusiasm -- particularly among swing voters -- of a message that began, "We don't have a shortage of work ethic in this country, we have a shortage of work." That message resonates across the political spectrum. And it isn't even the strongest message we've tested in the last weeks or months that beats back the toughest deficit-cutting language the other side can muster.

But it's too late for that. The administration opted for an alternative doctrine, which Larry Summers enunciated on This Week several months ago: that unemployment is going to remain high for the foreseeable future and eventually come down -- as if there's nothing we can do about it -- and that they will push here and there for small symbolic measures whose symbolism tends to escape people who are out of work. It's hard to be excited by symbolism when your children are hungry or the bank is repossessing your home -- although you didn't do anything to deserve it -- while the people who did are once again making out like bandits.

Although the situation looks bleak for Democrats in November, it ain't over 'til it's over. Republicans are shooting themselves in the foot all over the country, running Tea Party candidates who are so far to the right you can't see Middle America from their porch. And some endangered Democrats will likely see victory in November from theirs if they understand the public mood and speak to it.

What is that public mood? It can be characterized by a single phrase -- populist anger -- and it cuts across partisan lines. On the right, it is alloyed with racial anxiety and prejudice. On the left, it is alloyed with tremendous disappointment at what could have been if we had the kind of bold leadership for which times like these cry out. And among people in the vast political center, populist anger is alloyed with anxiety and uncertainty -- about their jobs, their homes, and their children's future.

Westen goes on to present "A Tragedy in Two Acts" which reviews how we got to where we are now. It is depressingly accurate. He then suggests a course of action:

But there were red flags already by the end of Obama's first week in office that led me to offer the following advice to the new administration: Tell the story of how we got in this mess or you'll own it. Tell a coherent story about deficit spending. Re-brand government because there's only one story out there now (Reagan's), and it's not one that supports a progressive agenda. Never let attacks go unanswered, because doing so only emboldens your opposition and leads the public to believe that you have no answers to them. And if you throw a bipartisan party and no one comes, don't throw another one. All of what followed has been as predictable as it has been unfortunate. A year and a half later, the White House hasn't consistently done any of these things, although the President is now intermittently doing some of them, and when he does, he does them well.

The question today is whether Democrats can channel the populist anger we are seeing around the country this late in the game. The answer is that we'd better try. Having recently tested messages on economics and jobs, including how to talk about deficits and taxes -- widely assumed to be Democrats' Achilles Heel, particularly now -- there is little question that if Democrats and progressives from center to left simply say what they believe in ways that are evocative, values-driven, and speak to people's worries and anger, many stand a good chance of surviving November, particularly when their opponents have nothing to say other than warmed-over rhetoric about cutting taxes to millionaires and multinationals and fiscal restraint except where it cuts into profits of their campaign contributors. Even the most evocative boilerplate conservative messages fall flat against honest messages that speak to the need to get Americans working again. And on issue after issue, no message is more resonant right now than one that sides with working and middle class Americans and small business owners against special interests, big business, and their lobbyists.

Westen then follows with specific things Democrats can still do (if they have the political backbone) before this year's election. The article is long, but well worth reading in full.

The second article on my must-read list for Democrats is by George Lakoff, who comes from a linguistic and cognitive science background, and who wrote the incomparable books The Political Mind: Why You Can't Understand 21st-Century American Politics with an 18th-Century Brain and Don't Think of an Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate -- The Essential Guide for Progressives, both of which should also be seen as required reading by anyone attempting to craft a Democratic political message.

His recent article is titled "The Cry for Democratic Moral Leadership and Effective Communication," and should be seen as a companion piece to Westen's (Lakoff even links to Westen's piece in his first sentence, and ends his first paragraph (ellipsis in original): "I agree fully with everything he says. But..." He then goes on to suggest a slightly modified course of action, adding to Westen's "kitchen table economics" message.

This election is about more than just jobs, mortgages, and adequate health care. All politics is moral. All political leaders say to do what they propose because it is right. No political leaders say to do what they say because it is wrong. Morality is behind everything in politics -- and progressives and conservatives have different moral systems.

In the conservative moral system, the highest value is preserving and extending the moral system itself. That is why they keep saying no to Obama's proposals, even voting against their own ideas when Obama accepts them. To give Obama any victory at all would be a blow to their moral system. Their moral system requires non-cooperation. That is a major thing the Obama administration has not understood.

The conservatives understand the centrality of morality. They attacked the Obama health care plan as immoral for violating the moral principles of freedom ("government takeover") and reverence for life ("death panels.") The Obama administration made a policy case, not a moral case. The conservatives have characterized the bailouts as thievery and Obama's ties to Wall St. as immoral -- as being in bed with the thieves. The attacks on government are seen as moral attacks, with government seen as taking money out of working people's pockets and giving it to people who don't deserve it. Whether it is the birthers, or the anti-Muslims, or the anti-immigrants, of the pro-lifers, the attack is a moral attack. The Tea Party cry is moral -- for "freedom" (see my book Whose Freedom?), for God, for patriotism. Even jobless benefits are seen as giving money to people who are not working and don't deserve it. Even Social Security that workers have earned, that are deferred payments for work, are seen as undeserving people "sucking on the tits of the government."

The moral case is not answered just by good policy that will help people who need help -- as Westen proposed. The good policies -- extending unemployment benefits, help to small businesses, help for teachers and firemen, limits on credit card rates, restrictions on rate increases and service reductions by HMO's -- in themselves fit a progressive moral system, but don't in themselves make a case for progressive moral leadership.

Lakoff then makes the point that swing voters are really swing thinkers, with very different blends of opinions on different subjects. The way to swing them over, he argues, is to reinforce the moral argument Democrats should regularly be making (but, sadly, do not make, for the most part), and not get sucked in to playing defense on the Republican narrative. He continues:

We haven't heard that kind of moral leadership since the inauguration. Americans are longing for it. And those moral values really do motivate every kitchen table policy!

It is morality, not just the right policy, that excites voters, that moves them to action -- that creates movements. Legislative action must come from a moral center, with moral language repeated over and over.

What should be avoided, besides policy-wonk and pure-policy discourse? Again, the answer comes from Neuroscience 101. Offense not defense. Argue for your values. Frame all issues in terms of your values. Avoid their language, even in arguing against them. There is a reason that I wrote a book called, Don't Think of an Elephant! Don't list their arguments and argue against them using their language. It just activates their arguments in the brains of listeners.

Don't move to the right in your discourse or action. That will just strengthen the conservative moral system in the brains of swing thinkers. Frame your arguments from your moral position.

Lakoff's piece is not long, but it is worth reading every word Lakoff writes. Both these articles, I say again, should be required reading for not only Democratic candidates for office, but by everyone on their campaign team as well.

I apologize for the serious nature of the talking points this week, but it just frustrates me no end to watch Democrats' inability to "get" either Westen or Lakoff's basic message, which can easily be summed up as: tell a story. Create a narrative. Show how you and your party fit into this narrative. Explain the Republicans' narrative in complete opposition, and explain why yours is so much better. This is really basic stuff, in other words.

Any such Democrat, at any time, should be able to answer the fundamental voter's questions: "Why should I vote for you? Why should I vote for Democrats?" The answer should be a mix of what Westen proposes and what Lakoff urges: "You should vote for me because Democrats are trying to get A, B, and C done and Republicans are fighting against us. You should vote for Democrats because we believe X, Y, and Z as our bedrock guiding principles, and we think those are the values America wants for the future."

As I said, this stuff really isn't all that hard. Next week, I'll be back to my own ham-handed efforts to demonstrate how this can be done. For now, I will leave you with Lakoff's final paragraph, as a stark warning to Democratic candidates:

The Democrats cannot take their base for granted. Only moral leadership backed by actions and communicated effectively can excite the Obama base once more. Without that excitement, the Democrats will lose big.


All-time award winners leaderboard, by rank
Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant
Cross-posted at: Democratic Underground
Cross-posted at: The Huffington Post


-- Chris Weigant


5 Comments on “Friday Talking Points [137] -- Listen To Westen And Lakoff, Democrats!”

  1. [1] 
    Hawk Owl wrote:

    I've been on vacation for two weeks and got used to breathing fresh air (i.e., not paying much attention to news, analysis, commentary, or other forms of ranting) -- save for reading the "New Yorker" article by Jane Mayer on the Koch brothers financing of the Tea Party agenda surreptitiously. When I wondered, then, what had happened to my pulse rate & blood pressure I went hiking in the Sangre de Cristo mountains until I breathed easy again.

    Re-emerging into life as we know it, that is, reading today's column & the comments on how both parties seem bent on shooting themselves in the foot (feet?) a thought occurred to me which I've not seen anywhere else -- has our political system come to seem uncannily resonant of Baghdad's since their indeterminate election?

    You have some folks who are hell-bent on sabotaging
    the other's every move (so they can point to how "ineffective" they are), another focused on bureaucratic & system "solutions" barely tied to the everyday problems of ordinary people, others who ride the anger/adrenalin train for all it's worth in a cloud of moralistic hate mongering against various 'enemies" and calling for an Armaggedon against "Them" of various ilks. Meanwhile nothing gets done.

    Reminds me of Obama's most trenchant remark since he was elected, in his Stat of the Union Address: "You were elected to GOVERN; it's time you started doing so." Which applies in both directions, of course.

    Enough; my blood pressure's rising again. Thank you for your kind attention.

  2. [2] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    Hawk Owl -

    Sounds like you had a good time! Welcome back.

    Interestingly, from the opposite direction, a similar thought flitted through my mind the other night. I was watching Joe Biden being interviewed on the PBS News Hour (or MacNeil-Lehrer as I still call it), and he was talking about the political situation in Iraq. He said something along the lines of "the only political solution is for the Iraqis to form a government that includes all of the four major political parties. If the (Sunni/Shi'ite, I forget which, would have to look it up) form a government on their own, the government won't work." The thought that went through my mind was: "That's even harder than trying to get Democrats and Republicans to work together in our country, and look how well that's been going recently."



  3. [3] 
    Michale wrote:

    "DiFi's such a DINO that we pretty much expect her to be disappointing, so can you really call it 'disappointing' when her actions just vindicate our already-low expectations?"

    Ouch... And the ref take a point away!!

    Don't beat around the bush, CW.. Tell us what you REALLY think.. :D

    On the right, it is alloyed with racial anxiety and prejudice.

    Right there, Westen blows it...

    He buys into the stereotyping Urban Legend that, if you are on the Right, you MUST be racist and prejudice...

    Sorry, CW.. Westen doesn't deserve to be on the same planet that you are on... :D


  4. [4] 
    akadjian wrote:

    Idunno, CW. If you're an "amateur," you're setting the bar pretty high.

    And I've finally realized that this is not only #1 on my list of disappointments w/ the Obama administration, but the only thing that's on my list anymore.

    Obama won with a moral argument for change.

    He came in with broad support from the American people for resetting the agenda. And I think he's worked tirelessly behind the scenes to help make this happen.

    But in the meantime, he's lost the high ground. People don't know why he's doing what he's doing and what Democrats believe in. Instead, they're being defined by the opposition.

    Hadn't seen Westen's latest article, but this is exactly what I want to see Obama say when he talks about the economy: "We don't have a shortage of work ethic in this country, we have a shortage of work."

    A philosophy. A belief. Not a policy announcement.

    I want to hear him say things like:
    "Those who have benefited the most from the hard work of Americans have a responsibility to our country."

    Or, "Small businesses are the backbone of our economy. We have to ensure they survive in order to ensure competition."

    Or, "If our country fails, we all fail. It doesn't matter how successful or well run your business is."

    Then ... introduce policy. Then the American people might better understand what Democrats stand for.

    As it is, it seems like all they stand for is compromise.

    Why is it that Alan Grayson is the number 1 target of conservatives? Because he's one of the few people who seem to get this.

    Apologies for the rant, CW. But you touched a nerve. It's hard to believe that the Dems can't see this and makes me wonder what's going on. What are they afraid of?


    p.s. To be a little less cynical, I'd like to introduce someone who could be a future star for progressives, Justin Coussoule.

    He is running against none other than John Boehner here in Southern Ohio.

    His odds are long in a district that votes RA ("Republican anything") but he's running a nice campaign and it's great to see up-and-coming progressives like him.

    And I think it's a beautiful thing that he's challenging Boehner to a debate. Would love to see it!

  5. [5] 
    Chris1962 wrote:

    Obama won with a moral argument for change.

    He came in with broad support from the American people for resetting the agenda. And I think he's worked tirelessly behind the scenes to help make this happen.

    But in the meantime, he's lost the high ground.

    Obama's big problem is that he isn't believable anymore. He made a moral argument for "change" in the form of a public option, and no mandate, and lower HC insurance costs. Only no sooner did he hit the White House when his campaign Health Care promises changed into the complete opposite.

    He'd also said that unemployment would not go over 8%. IOW, he SAID a whole lot on the campaign trail, only he never came through. 9.5% unemployment has just risen to 9.6% unemployment.

    And, now, here we have an electorate that's been screaming about all the spending, and Obama's about to come out with a plan to spend a couple of hundred billion more. Plus, he's got members of congress turning on him with respect to the Bush tax cuts for the "wealthy." And I suspect it's not because certain candidates are catching crap on the campaign trail but because they know that unless they create stability and confidence for Business, these temporary small business tax credits and temporary payroll breaks are not gonna do a thing except waste a couple more tens of billions of dollars, such as occurred with his mortgage-saving initiative.

    Here's something I found pretty interesting:

    Bloomberg in line to replace Geithner?

    I was wondering what Bloomberg was doing on the golf course with him the other day.

Comments for this article are closed.