Monday, November 14, 2005

George Lakoff

Press credentialsSomewhere along the line I came across the Heartland Democrats of America blog, and thought it was pretty cool. I wasn't sure what their deal was, but I liked the idea of being out there talking about Democratic values in a confident way.

When I saw that they were going to have George Lakoff in, I decided it was time to make this blog pay for itself, and I cadged the snazzy press pass you see right there.

George Lakoff is has taken on a mythic status among Democratic wonks. His basic insight is, like all good ideas, fairly obvious once you hear it.

Al Gore, Mike Dukakis and John Kerry are all smart guys, skilled policy analysts and losing presidential candidates. Each failed for similar reasons, people agreed with their policy positions, they just didn't like or trust them.

Lakoff's argument is that Republicans figured out this particular mistake long ago. In talking to Reagan's chief strategist, Richard Worthland, Lakoff found the exact opposite pattern. In polls, people disagreed with Reagan's take on the issues. But they liked him, and they voted for him for four reasons:

  1. identity
  2. trust
  3. values
  4. authenticity
Reagan got people to identify with him, and you can't do that if you aren't projecting your own identity. They trusted him, they felt like he shared their values, and for all these reasons, they felt like Reagan was authentic.

The path to electoral success, Lakoff argues (and I agree) is not chasing polls. Polls can tell you how other people see an issue, and that's only useful for finding out how to talk about your views with them, not for setting your views. Understanding how people see issues means understanding what mental frames they are seeing the issue through, and what metaphors they are using to understand new ideas.

Understanding those things lets you explain to them how you see things, and bring people to appreciate and understand your thinking, not just the facts. This is what is called "reframing the issue."

Back in June, Mark Schmitt came across a California politician saying:

I'm going to do it the way every good politician does: By reframing the issue.
Message received, right? By last June, every politician and politically astute wonk was talking about "reframing" this and "strong father" that. That said, I heard things about it last night that I hadn't heard in most of that discussion, real and meaningful nuance that got lost in the public discussion. Much the way that the message of
What's the Matter with Kansas?
got lost in the translation, I think a lot of people took incomplete messages from Lakoff's writing.

In the questions at the end, an audience member pointed out, and Dr. Lakoff agreed, that the key to the process is to have a conversation with some intellectually compatible friends about what you believe without talking about facts and figures. Don't say "now to reframe X," just talk in terms of "What do you care about?"

George Lakoff (right) and Jason Kander of HDAJason Kander took that message to hear. In February, the lawyer and National Guard officer created Heartland Democrats of America to reframe the Democratic party in Missouri and Kansas. He discussed his ideas with Dr. Lakoff, and with his blessing identified five key frames for presenting a vision of the party to the area. To his knowledge, HDA is the only group working to reframe the Democratic party as a whole, not just particular issues.

HDA is taking their frames – opportunity, responsibility, community, trust, and service – and beginning a campaign on the ground and in the air. Using paid and free media (like this), they're talking about how Democrats see issues and see government. While they see themselves getting involved on particular issues from time to time, the focus is building the coalition of Democrats to encompass everyone from Green party activists to moderate Republicans.

In addition to a traditional media campaign, HDA is hiring workers and training volunteers to head out to rural Missouri. What they're finding is that there are "too many people who are not involved, and don't know how to get involved." The ground game gives those people options and gets them involved in changing things, the goal being to get them to be more than "just upset people in their houses."

In his speech, Dr. Lakoff drew on many of the same themes that Mr. Kander mentioned in our chat before the speech, and he described how the five themes listed above play into Democratic politics. Even without his prominent endorsement on HDA's website ("brilliant strategy," "strongly support," "very excited," "innovative approach") it's clear that Dr. Lakoff is not just an abstract inspiration, but an active participant in HDA's development, and that this is an experiment in a new kind of Democratic politics.

Unlike groups like MoveOn.org and some of the other party surrogates that have come along in recent years, HDA doesn't aim to move the party. The goal is simply to broaden the base and help the public understand who we are and what we stand for. There are good lessons here for many of the party's leaders, and Dr. Lakoff expressed some veiled frustration at the institutional reluctance to change.

In less than a year, HDA has done a lot, and bringing Dr. Lakoff out to kick off the 355 days of the electoral cycle shows just how far they've come, and suggests that there's a lot here that leaders need to hear, and I'm glad to see that the voters, especially the rural voters, will be hearing this message, too.

As Kander said in introducing Dr. Lakoff, "It's a good day to be a Democrat."

More anon.
"The Heart of Saturday Night" by Tom Waits from the album The Heart of Saturday Night (1974, 3:53).