Why The Democrats' Response to the Pledge Has Been Inadequate

The Democratic response to the Republican
Pledge to America has been factual about its economics. The September
26, 2010 Sunday NY Times editorial goes through the economic details,
and Democrats have been citing the economic facts from the Congressional
Budget Office. As Dan Pfeiffer reports on the White House blog, the
Republicans are proposing:

  • Tax cuts
    for millionaires and billionaires by borrowing $700 billion we can't
  • Tax hikes
    for 110 million middle-class families and millions of small businesses;
  • Cutting
    rules and oversight for special interests like big oil, big insurance,
    credit card and mortgage companies and Wall Street banks;
  • Doing nothing
    to stop the outsourcing of American jobs or to end tax breaks that are
    given to companies that ship jobs overseas;
  • All while
    adding trillions to our nation's deficit.

Their plan is also
notable for what it doesn't talk about: protecting Social Security
and Medicare from privatization schemes; investing in high-quality education
for our nation's children; growing key industries like clean energy
and manufacturing; and rebuilding our crumbling roads, rails and runways.

This is the same
agenda that caused the deepest recession since the Great Depression...

The Democrats who have checked out
the facts have echoed President Obama's judgment of the Pledge: It's

I agree. And if the voting public
voted on the basis of the economic details, plus the Democrats' system
of values, the Republicans wouldn't have a chance in hell in the November

But the polls show otherwise. What
do we conclude? The voting public does not vote on the basis of the
economic details, and the voting public does not fully accept the Democrats'
system of values as they apply in this election.

I will make a bet. When the new polls
come out next week, the Democrats' response to the Republican pledge
will not have turned around the Republican lead in the polls.

In short, the Democrats' response
to the Republican Pledge may well be irrelevant. Why? And why
does the President have such a hard time defending his accomplishments?

Pundits have been looking for a simple
answer. But the answer is complex and depends on understanding how the
minds and brains of voters work. Here are ten basic principles:

First, all politics is moral. People
vote for values they identify with, for what they see as right, not

Second, the facts alone don't set
you free. Facts matter, but they must be understandable, that is, framed
for normal human beings, and framed so as to be relevant to the moral
views that define a voter's identity.

Third, there are two very different
moral views at play in our country's politics. Liberal and conservative
moral systems are inconsistent as they apply to most major issues. There
is no neutral worldview, no worldview of the "center."

Fourth, there are, however, a significant
number of voters --as many as 15 to 20 percent -- who have both
worldviews, but may apply them to different issues in all sorts of ways.
Some may be conservative on social issues, but liberal on economic issues,
or conversely. Some may be "up in the air" -- not sure about given
issues. I call these "bi-conceptual" voters. These are the
voters who most matter in this election, as in most others.

Five, because people think with their
brains, all ideas are physical. They occur in brain circuits called
"frames." Bi-conceptual voters exist because inconsistent ideas
can exist in the same brain due to what is called "mutual inhibition,"
in which the activation of one frame inhibits (that is, turns off) the
other. The more a conservative frame is activated, the stronger it gets
and the weaker the corresponding liberal frame gets. What activates
frames? Language.

Sixth, what follows from all this is
that liberals should never use conservative language (e.g., "tax relief"
and "entitlements") because it activates conservative frames and
weakens their own case. Liberals should not "move to the right"
and adopt conservative positions since that will only make bi-conceptuals
more likely to vote conservative. The reason is that conservative language
and ideas just strengthen the conservative circuitry in their brains
and weakens their liberal brain-circuitry.

Moreover, when you negate a frame,
you strengthen it. When a liberal argues point by point against a conservative
argument, he or she is repeating the conservative argument and hence
strengthening its hold on the brain.

Seventh, in political discourse, numbers
in themselves are meaningless. They can be made meaningful only in everyday
terms and in moral terms. In themselves, numbers from the Congressional
Budget Office don't mean much to most people. The facts alone, not
properly framed, won't be convincing. This means avoiding policy-wonk
talk, the kind of talk the Obama administration has been using nonstop.

Eighth, people tend to adapt their
baseline expectations to what they already have. That is why the President
gets little appreciation for what he has already accomplished.
If he's done it, we take it for granted. People also tend to be risk-averse.
That is why conservative attacks on the president and the Democrats
can be taken seriously, even if they are not based on hard economic
facts. The moral: Always go on offense not defense. Liberal morality
means more than just empathy for one's countrymen. It means social
and well as personal responsibility and it means excellence -- doing
your best as a commitment to family, community and country. And it means
framing in terms of such moral views and in terms of risk aversion,
not just past accomplishments.

Ninth, there is no reason without emotion.
Without emotion, you don't know what to want and what to avoid. Rationality
requires the proper emotionality. Reagan knew how to connect emotionally
without going into a tirade. So did Obama when he ran for President.

Tenth, repetition matters. The language
that people hear most often repeated activates and strengthens the corresponding
frames in their brains. Conservatives are better at marketing their
ideas. They are better at framing, because they understand the primacy
of morality, how their moral system works, and how to talk to bi-conceptuals.
They have a much more extensive communication system, built over three
decades, with think tanks, training institutes, recruited speakers,
owned media, and booking agencies -- in addition to ads and bloggers.
Their messages are affecting the brains of voters 24/7, every day in
every electoral district.

We can now see why the Democrats have
been failing in their communications. Their message system is inadequate.
They need to build it up significantly, starting as soon as possible.
They need to find and address bi-conceptuals. They need to speak from
their own moral perspective. They need to connect emotionally with voters.
The need to stop trying to be bi-partisan; that just helps Republicans,
who know enough not to be bipartisan in the current electoral
situation. And they need to understand how language activates frames
in the brain.

The Democratic strategy so far has
been to see each race as separate, with no overall Democratic vision.
Bill Clinton sees this as a mistake and I agree. The Republicans have
presented a vision, whatever one thinks of the detailed proposals. The
NY Times editorial pooh-poohs the pledge's "breathless mimicry of
the Declaration of Independence." But that is most of what their audience
will read, not the 48 pages of proposals.

In his campaign, Barack Obama articulated
beautifully the Democratic moral vision of America. America is based
on citizens caring about, and for, each other. The values of empathy,
social as well as personal responsibility, and an ethic of excellence
lead to a government of, by, and for the people, with values like freedom
and fairness, and a governmental responsibility to protect and empower
the people. That is a Democratic view of America. It calls on Americans
to come together in difficult times, and it characterizes the party's,
as well as the President's, moral compass.

Finally, Democrats also need to understand
what framing is and isn't. Framing is normal. You activate frames
with every word you speak. Careful framing is needed to communicate
effectively -- to get your values across and to get the facts out to
voters in language they can understand at an appropriate level and appreciate
morally. Can framing be used to manipulate and deceive? Yes, by unscrupulous
people. Can framing be used express our deepest values and to tell our
most important truths? Definitely! There's no other way. If you use
language, you cannot avoid framing. What matters is how you do it.

The usual pundits keep asking what's
wrong with the Democrats' communication. As we have seen, it isn't
one simple thing. It's complicated. But it all centers on understanding
how the mind and brain really work.

Many Democrats work with a major disadvantage:
They tend to have an inadequate view of human reason. Human brains work
via frames, metaphors, images, emotions, stereotypes and narratives,
all of which have their own "logics." Brains work by adjustment
of baseline expectations upward in response to improvements, and by
risk aversion. And brains use mutual inhibition, which allows them to
hold contradictory moral views at once and apply them to different cases.

Every social science program in America
should include a required course on how the cognitive and brain sciences
shed crucial light on political and social issues. We cannot afford
another generation of social scientists who don't understand how the
brain works, and why that matters.

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