cross-posted at MN Progressive project
The Democratic Party of the my senate district recently started a book club with the intention of focusing on messaging and explaining Democratic values (no, you need not live in the district to attend). The first meeting discussed one of the preeminent books on the subject, Don't Think of an Elephant by George Lakoff. Always a worthwhile subject, made more timely by the riots in Baltimore and a huge messaging fail that's a prime example of the biggest way Democrats screw this up. Well, we said at the end of the book club we should think of some examples to add to what Lakoff provided. Might have been nice if subsequent events hadn't made it so easy.
Let me put it his way: President Obama spoke for about 15 minutes on the Baltimore riots and the context in which they occurred, but he used the word "thug", and nobody heard a single other word he said. Seriously, without digging up the video, name anything else he said. The president violated one of the rules of messaging, and the mayor of Baltimore committed the exact same violation. Never use your opponent's words. If you do want to dig up the video, I dug it up for you.
It's OK if you don't get "framing" and "messaging" to such an extent that you could explain them to someone else. It's enough for most of us to learn some dos and don'ts, so you can at least recognize it when you hear it and avoid some mistakes. One of those don'ts is don't use your opponent's words because your opponent has likely chosen those words to build or activate the audiences' frames in a way that favor your opponent. You play into that by using the opponent's words. You don't have to get just what frame is being activated to be aware that when we hear the same word or phrase being used by Fox News, conservative talk radio, Republican politicians, and our conservative friends, it's on purpose. In this case, the word used over and over again is "thug". Even if you didn't get that "thug" was being used as a racial code word to make you think "black" when you hear "thug", the fact that it was repeated frequently should have told you it's a word to avoid. So what harm did the president and the mayor of Baltimore do?
Though "thug" has become a racial dogwhistle, a term used for terms that sound neutral but with a meaning only conservatives can hear, a lot of liberals have figured it out. There was an active pushback against the use of the word, not that the pushback has gone away, it never goes away entirely, but it was undermined when the president and the mayor used the word too to denounce rioters. What they thought they were saying was "violence is wrong", but what they actually said was "blacks are violent". No wonder the conservative bubble burst with joy, because the use of the disputed word by the president and, to a degree lesser but still significant, the mayor, who is also a black Democrat, validated what had been spewed all day on Fox News. How can you call us racist if your president uses the same word to describe black people acting violently?
Conservatives were engaging in deliberate conflation. That's a term which means putting two things together so your audience will assume an association. Admittedly I think it's just my term, or at least I don't recall Lakoff using it (pending a means of doing a keyword search in paper), so don't blame him if you don't like it. Conflation just means confusing one thing with another, but I'm using it to mean deliberately and repeatedly putting two things together to form an association which likely isn't there, or you wouldn't have to resort to it. You might put two things consistently in the same paragraph if not the same sentence. Conservatives put "thug" and "black" together, over and over, to activate a frame. Maybe verbally, or by using "thug" over video of black people. And this is not the only example of the technique I'll be pointing to.
What frame does "thug" activate? Unless you're new to America or you've lived under a rock, you know many (most?) whites think of blacks as violent and criminally inclined. Everyone understands "thug" to mean a violent person with criminal intent. By conflating "black" and "thug", conservatives activate that frame in the audience's mind. Arguing against a frame is really tough, and if it seems like stories on police violence toward unarmed black civilians don't sink in, and neither do statistics on blacks being arrested more often and getting stiffer sentences than whites, that's why. "Thug" fits the frame while blacks as victims doesn't. If you've wondered why it seems so natural to your conservative friends to send you links alleging criminal tendencies on the part of the victim, while it seems irrelevant to you when the victim wasn't engaging in criminal activity when they were attacked by police, that's why. Apparently your conservative friend thinks you'll agree the victim was to blame once you're reminded that blacks are criminals. Any conservatives reading this are probably feeling greatly offended now by the thought that they're being called racist, but they probably aren't even conscious of any of bias. It's the frame they start with. So every time we use their word, especially when a president uses it, but a little bit when any us do, we validate that frame.
If you want an alternative word, try "rioter". It's amazing to hear conservative pundits decry complaints "thug" is racist by proclaiming they have no other word to use for people who are rioting. Really, Dana Perino, when watching a riot, when talking about people who are rioting, you just can't come up with another noun for the participants?
If you're reaching for the dictionary definition of "thug" and you object to the word no longer being racially neutral, bad news: language evolves. Meaning and usage changes. Did you even notice I used "fail" as a noun in both the title and text? "Fail" isn't a noun. It's a verb; at least such was the case a few years ago. Now it's a noun with a subtly different usage than "failure". I admit being surprised the first time I found myself using it that way.
Some good news: I can offer a current example of a messaging success, in terms of obeying that rule to not use the other side's words. In his chapter "Framing 101", Lakoff used the example of the phrase "tax relief" to sell the Bush tax cuts, and Democrats at the time fell for it. Republicans in the Minnesota legislature are currently trying to use it to sell their proposal to cut taxes for rich people and I've seen some reporters covering the legislature repeat it, and of course getting the press to repeat your word choices like an objective phrase is part of successful messaging. However, the legislative DFLers haven't fallen for it. Kudos. I don't know if they fully grasp the framing, or just know not to use the Republicans' language, but I do know I haven't heard a DFL legislator say "tax relief". Lakoff explained that we need "relief" only if something is onerous, so putting "relief" after "tax" was a means of spreading the message that taxes are too high, and Democratic use made that seem like objective reality. Everybody dislikes paying taxes even when they recognize the necessity, and of course conservative propaganda has been anti-tax for decades, so the public was already carrying a frame that taxes are bad and we're taxed too much. The objective reality that Americans are more lightly taxed than they used to be or in comparison to other developed nations just bounced off because it didn't fit the frame.
An example of deliberate conflation Lakoff used, unsurprisingly since he was writing in 2004, was the sales campaign for the invasion of Iraq. War supporters put "911" close to "Iraq" with great frequency to embed the association in the audience's minds. Even when supporters didn't say something like, "Iraq was behind 911", they didn't have to. The proximity of the two words was enough to make it the frame through which the war was understood. Thus why it took years to get the public to understand there was no association --- the lack of connection didn't fit the frame.
Deliberate conflation was used again by Republicans after the 2008-2009 recession and financial crisis, and Democrats made two messaging mistakes to help them along. One mistake was once again using the other side's words, and the other was using jargon without explaining it. Unfortunately, these mistakes played a role in spreading what Paul Krugman recently dubbed "The austerity delusion". Republicans activated the frame we all carry that debt is immoral and dangerous by referring to the deficit whenever talking about rising unemployment, job losses, bank bailouts, or just anything to do with the economy that seemed to be plunging into the second Great Depression. Funny, they understood the need for fiscal stimulus when the president was Republican. At least Bush did since, credit where it's due, he signed the 2008 stimulus bill. It was too small and inefficient, but the right idea. But suddenly when Obama is president, the deficit becomes the biggest problem. Democrats should have explained that the rise in the deficit was the result of our economic problems, not the cause, and in fact necessary to start recovering, but they didn't. Instead they chose to agree that the deficit was a terrible thing and had to be a priority, and look at how us Democrats are trying to restrain it. In other words, they validated the Republicans' conflation; in other other words, they reinforced the frame.
Democrats simultaneously made the jargon error, by talking about the need for a fiscal stimulus without remembering that few people besides economists had a clue what a "stimulus" was. They handed Republicans a prime opportunity to demonize the word, and demonize they did. "Stimulus" is now a word no politician dares use, except as an attack. Americans might have liked the "recovery act" as the eventual stimulus bill was referred to, but Republicans had succeeded in creating fear of deficits and opposition to the stimulus among people in desperate need of the job creation the stimulus and deficit would bring. The American Reinvestment and Recovery Act, actually well-named in messaging terms, was half the size economists said it needed to be, was too much tax cuts instead of spending, and it's been pulling teeth to get any more stimulus no matter how well aimed or badly needed. In fact, this last recession was the first one where the government actually cut jobs. In other words, the austerians had won the debate so thoroughly that we did mostly the opposite of what we needed to do. At least we had some stimulus and less austerity than we could have had. The Europeans went all in on austerity, and whereas we refer to the biggest recession since the Great Depression, they pretty much can just call it the Second Great Depression.
So again, there's no need to understand the theory to avoid pitfalls. To "don't use the other side's words", add "don't use jargon without explaining it", or to change that into a do, "do keep in mind the meanings others will attach to words". If you do that, you're more likely to remember that jargon has no meaning to a general audience. If you want to apply what you've learned, then in the case of "deficit", be aware that we're not framing the debate about the last recession. We're framing the debate for the next recession. Yes, that's awkward when bragging about how rapidly the budget deficit has fallen since 2009. On the one hand that's just the objective truth, it's politically beneficial to point it out, and undeniably fun to throw that in Republicans' faces when they repeat the false claim that the deficit is still shooting up. On the other hand, doing so plays into giving the deficit undue importance, and that will bite us the next time we need a stimulus. It might work if we follow up by making sure it's understood that the plunge of the deficit is the result of the improving economy, not the cause, like the rise of the deficit was the result of the bad economy and not the cause. Focusing on the deficit in a weak economy is like thinking you're curing your cold by wiping up your sneeze, but we'll never get that point across by nodding stupidly when some shallow person compares government spending to a family budget.
I suppose that adds one more don't. Don't indulge bad metaphors like a family budget, because now you're arguing within a misleading frame.