Disaster Messaging

Democrats are constantly resorting to disaster messaging. Here’s a description the typical situation.

• The Republicans outmessage the Democrats. The Democrats, having no effective response, face disaster: They lose politically, either in electoral support or failure on crucial legislation.
• The Democrats then take polls and do focus groups. The pollsters discover that extremist Republicans control the most common (“mainstream”) way of thinking and talking about the given issue.
• The pollsters recommend that Democrats move to the right: adopt conservative Republican language and a less extreme version of conservative policy, along with weakened versions of some Democratic ideas.
• The Democrats believe that, if they follow this advice, they can gain enough independent and Republican support to pass legislation that, at least, will be some improvement on the extreme Republican position.
• Otherwise, the pollsters warn, Democrats will lose popular support — and elections — to the Republicans, because “mainstream” thought and language resides with the Republicans.
• Believing the pollsters, the Democrats change their policy and their messaging, and move to the right.
• The Republicans demand even more and refuse to support the Democrats.

We have seen this on issues like health care, immigration, global warming, finance reform, and so on. We are seeing it again on the Death Gusher in the Gulf. It happens even with a Democratic president and a Democratic majority in both houses of Congress.

Why? Is there anything the Democrats can do about it? First, it has to be understood. It doesn’t just happen.

The Difference Between Framing and Messaging

Framing is the most commonplace thing we do with thought and language. Frames are the cognitive structures we think with. They are physical, embodied in neural circuitry. Frames come in systems. Their circuitry is strengthened and often made permanent through use: the more the circuits are used, the stronger they get. Effective frames are not isolated. They build on, and extend, other frames already established.

All words are defined in terms of conceptual frames. When the words are heard, the frames are strengthened — not just the immediate frames, but the whole system.

Fit matters. The brain is a “best-fit” system. The better a new frame “fits” existing frames, the more effective it will be; that is, the more people will think, and make decisions, using that frame.

Continue reading “Disaster Messaging”

Little Words Mean Life or Death: Framing Health Care

“Little words can mean death or life to someone.”

-Electra, in Sophocles’ tragedy, Electra.

People die who could be saved. People suffer who could recover. Those are the consequences of the private insurance-based health care system in America today. Continue reading “Little Words Mean Life or Death: Framing Health Care”

Unstuck in time, or Castro! Negroes! Duck and Cover!

In October, 1962, Mrs. Goode’s third grade class at Houston’s Longfellow Elementary School filed out of its classroom in “the shacks,” temporary wooden structures used to relieve overcrowding. We were headed for the playground when a couple of jets roared overhead. I’ll never forget that moment, because I turned to the boy behind me in line and mumbled, “Is this it?” By “it” I meant an expected nuclear attack. Continue reading “Unstuck in time, or Castro! Negroes! Duck and Cover!”

Secession and Racism

And now, just after the inauguration of America’s first black president, comes loud talk of secession and nullification. What a coincidence.

It seems like only yesterday that right-wingers were condemning critics of a president as un-American, chanting “Proud to be an American,” and branding as traitors to America those opposed to state torture. Today, they say their enemy is America. Oh yeah, and these are the same people who decried so-called “situation ethics.” Continue reading “Secession and Racism”

Beyond 2008: Hard Work

Pundits almost never get post-presidential election analyses right. Remember 2004’s “value voters” who, it was believed, emerged from the church sanctuaries to re-elect George W. Bush? Stupid exit poll methodology contributed to that blunder. Usually, it’s the need to connect election outcomes to their pre-election narratives, biases, and expectations that lead political commentators to build awkward and feeble rope bridges across the deep holes in their logic. Continue reading “Beyond 2008: Hard Work”

Bush as Empty Cargo Shorts: How Perfect Is That

Austin, Texas was once a laid-back, creative haven full of college students, hippies, affable red necks and university professors. Even the conservative Democrats in power in the late ’60s and early ’70s went to pot-god Willie Nelson concerts.

George W. and Laura Bush, Karl Rove, Alberto Gonzalez, Karen Hughes – these people who held the Texas governor’s mansion from 1994-2000 just aren’t Austin’s idea of hip. So how did they captivate the city just a coupla decades later? Continue reading “Bush as Empty Cargo Shorts: How Perfect Is That”