Wise Up, Democrats and Progressives!

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When I read reports this week that some at the Baltimore Democratic Retreat were saying that there was nothing wrong with our messaging in the recent election, I got angry!

We must learn how to communicate in an entirely new way to return to power and serve the American people as they deserve.

This Blog post is a quick guide to what every single one of us can do to resist Trumpism, and retake at least one of the Houses of Congress in 2018. That must be our goal.

First, we have to admit this: we lost the election (in the Electoral College). It was ours to lose, and we did.

  • We lost to a man who bragged about grabbing women’s genitals.
  • We lost to a man who denigrated the handicapped, minorities, and just about every demographic except white males.
  • We lost to a man who is clearly self-obsessed, vindictive and chaotic.
  • We lost to a practiced liar who lives in his own, illusory world.
  • Not to put too fine a point on it: We lost to a throughly horrible human being.

We lost because we have forgotten how to communicate with the white working middle-class. We are using outmoded forms of discourse that deny the clear findings of Neuroscience and Cognitive science. (More on this below.)

So what do we do about it?

  1. By all means, keep up the peaceful protests. I am very proud of my fellow Americans who are doing this.
  2. Every time The Donald or his Administration puts forward one of the outrageous lies (like the press not covering most terrorists attacks), we need to blast the lie with hard facts for the record. Read this on the lies!
  3. Download The Indivisible Guide and follow its prescriptions: Tea Party tactics with the evil ideals of the Tea Party removed. The hostile crowds at GOP local town halls are wonderful to see! Hold their feet to the fire!indiv
  4. Join local organizations for action, and especially if you live in a secure blue district like I do, adopt a swing district at Swing Left.logo
  5. We must go beyond being right. Of course we’re right. But as Rahm Emanuel reminded us at Stanford this week, we have to win in order to put those right ideas into action. Being right and losing doesn’t help.
  6. Amid the resistance and action, take time to first educate yourself about modern messaging, and then contact your Democratic Congressional Delegation, and every Democratic group or official you can and give them the links to the educational materials I give below, and insist that they and their staff study these and change.

Framing the Discourse

I have already recommended a lot of reading. Here is the one to begin with: the work of George Lakoff.


George Lakoff has retired as Distinguished Professor of Cognitive Science and Linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley. He is now Director of the Center for the Neural Mind & Society (cnms.berkeley.edu).

George Lakoff is a UC Berkeley linguist and cognitive scientist. Here is his website.

  1. First download the free PDF Thinking Points and read it. thinking-points
  2. Read his Don’t Think of an Elephant that explains how people think and how to persuade them. the-all-new-dont-think-of-an-elephant_george-lakoff-e1418105189992
  3. If you want to go deeper into the foundations of why this works, read his Moral Politics.moral-politics-e1375934767687

4. Here’s another great guide:


Here is Wikipedia’s summary of Lakoff’s research and results:

Lakoff argues that the differences in opinions between liberals and conservatives follow from the fact that they subscribe with different strength to two different central metaphors about the relationship of the state to its citizens. Both, he claims, see governance through metaphors of the family. Conservatives would subscribe more strongly and more often to a model that he calls the “strict father model” and has a family structured around a strong, dominant “father” (government), and assumes that the “children” (citizens) need to be disciplined to be made into responsible “adults” (morality, self-financing). Once the “children” are “adults”, though, the “father” should not interfere with their lives: the government should stay out of the business of those in society who have proved their responsibility. In contrast, Lakoff argues that liberals place more support in a model of the family, which he calls the “nurturant parent model“, based on “nurturant values”, where both “mothers” and “fathers” work to keep the essentially good “children” away from “corrupting influences” (pollution, social injustice, poverty, etc.). Lakoff says that most people have a blend of both metaphors applied at different times, and that political speech works primarily by invoking these metaphors and urging the subscription of one over the other.[11]

Lakoff further argues that one of the reasons liberals have had difficulty since the 1980s is that they have not been as aware of their own guiding metaphors, and have too often accepted conservative terminology framed in a way to promote the strict father metaphor. Lakoff insists that liberals must cease using terms like partial birth abortion and tax relief because they are manufactured specifically to allow the possibilities of only certain types of opinions. Tax relief for example, implies explicitly that taxes are an affliction, something someone would want “relief” from. To use the terms of another metaphoric worldview, Lakoff insists, is to unconsciously support it. Liberals must support linguistic think tanks in the same way that conservatives do if they are going to succeed in appealing to those in the country who share their metaphors.[12]

Further, Layoff demonstrates that the deep structures of thinking are not rational in the Enlightenment sense of that term. Rather, a central world view metaphor is translated into many corollaries and this usually conditions the way we perceive reality, and analyze facts.

This central metaphor is essential to peoples’ conceptions of themselves, and therefore, any attack on either the central metaphor or its corollaries is an attack on the person him- or herself.

Any fact that is contrary to the metaphor/corollaries is problematic. Here is Lakoff:

We know from experiments that conscious perception is not immediate. To recognize a visual input, a sound, or a touch input you have to have in your brain neural circuitry that is able to recognize it— that fits it. What if your sense input doesn’t fit what is in your brain? Your brain changes it, if possible, to make it fit. Inputs from the senses presented to the eyes, ears, or touch take about one hundred milliseconds (a tenth of a second) before they can become conscious.

That is so fast for conscious functioning that we don’t notice any difference between the input to the senses and our conscious perception. But neurons fire on the scale of one millisecond (one thousandth of a second), and it take three to five milliseconds to fire again. It takes many neurons and a sequence of neural firings to take a sense input and turn it into a conscious perception. In that time, it is common for the visual, sound, or touch system to make a change, cancelling out part of what is present to the senses and creating a new input that fits the circuitry already in your brain.

This does not just happen in experiments with flashes of light, beeps, fast touches on the arm, and pictures and sounds of someone pronouncing syllables. It also happens with facts presented in language.

If the facts don’t fit one’s worldview, one of several things can happen:

• The fact may be changed to fit your worldview.

• The fact may be ignored.

• The fact may be rejected and possibly ridiculed.

• Or the facts, if threatening to your worldview, may be attacked.

All of these happen in political discourse. Deep and persisting moral worldviews tend to be part of your brain circuitry and tend to become part of your identity. In most cases, the neural wiring— and your identity— stay, and the facts are ignored, dismissed, ridiculed, or attacked. It takes extraordinary openness, training, and awareness of this phenomenon to pay critical attention to the vast number of facts we are presented with each day. Few members of the general public— or those in politics or the media— fit this profile.

This isn’t always so. Some facts are so traumatic that they effect a deep change. Such a change happened to me when I saw the image of the Twin Towers falling on 9/ 11— and when I heard of the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and John and Robert Kennedy. They also happened to me in the early 1970s when I read the earliest report that the temperature of the earth’s atmosphere had recently risen one degree centigrade.

Recalling my MIT thermodynamics course, I had a traumatic realization: That is a huge amount of heat that would have massive horrible effects! But one degree sounds small and most people dismissed the report or never seriously entertained that fact, if they even noticed it. We now know why.

— Lakoff, George. Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think, Third Edition. University of Chicago Press. Kindle Edition.

This explains why arguing facts doesn’t work well with those whose central metaphor is different from ours.

Happily, there are those who have some of both central metaphors, and they can be worked with.

In addition, Liberals can appeal to Conservatives by sharing values, and arguing from them. This requires an entirely new way of speaking about things.

A telling fact is that most liberal students who plan to go into politics take political science courses. Conservatives take marketing. It shows! Let’s start taking Marketing as well as Political Science!

Yankeedom’s Preaching

The central Liberal coalition in America is led by Yankeedom (see the work of Colin Woodard). Yankees and those like me who have been initiated into the ways of Yankeedom, and our allies, can be preachy. We come by it from our colonial heritage.


Not that many people like being preached at. An excellent example is the Super Bowl LI commercial lineup.

I loved all the liberal ones, but I have otherwise liberal friends that felt preached-at, and resented the intrusion into the game.

We need to rethink our messaging and avoid being preachy. Lady Gaga got it. She didn’t compromise, and showed that liberals are patriotic.

Remember, the goal is not to make ourselves feel good, or to just be right (which we are). The goal is to win. And to do that, we have to convince others.

Let’s win, Brothers and Sisters!

— Steven A. Armstrong
Tutor, Editor, Consultant

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