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A new, better Democratic strategy

Published November 28, 2004

What are the Democrats to do now? After losing the presidency again and allowing Republicans to solidify their control of Congress, the Democrats are in reconnoiter mode. They are anxiously trying to figure out a winning strategy before they go the way of the Whigs.

If Democrats are looking for their own version of Karl Rove, they just might find him in Berkeley linguist George Lakoff. While New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof is wondering aloud whether Democrats should embrace guns, and a handful of party leaders are suggesting Democrats allow for some "flexibility" on abortion rights, Lakoff is saying the opposite.

In his bestselling book, Don't Think of an Elephant!: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate, Lakoff says that tilting to the right is precisely the wrong strategy for progressives. He says such a move would alienate the base and reinforce the conservative world view for swing voters. Instead, he suggests that Democrats start promoting their own values by properly framing the debate.

Conservatives have been extremely effective at using semantics to promote their politics: "prolife, family values, the death tax, partial-birth abortion." Such verbiage puts opponents instantly on the defensive. Lakoff says that Democrats have to come up with their own arsenal of phrases that have simplistic, inherent appeal. They have to dump their tendency toward wonkish policy-speak.

The better educated of the electorate already trends Democratic, the trick is to capture the imagination of those Americans with a more casual attachment to complex public policy.

Lakoff is a cognitive scientist who understands how humans process and act on information. He says, much to the astonishment of the Democratic establishment, "people do not necessarily vote in their self-interest. They vote their identity. They vote their values."

This is what author Thomas Frank was getting at in his brilliant book, What's the Matter with Kansas?, in which he reports that the poorest county in Kansas dependably votes Republican despite the GOP's consistent favoritism of the wealthy.

These voters are the "moral values" folks who vote Republican because they identify with its antigay, antiabortion, proguns and pro-God-in-government agenda. It doesn't matter that the Democrats are more likely to support access to the health care they need or fund the public schools they rely upon, Republicans share their "values."

And from where does one's set of value derive? According to Lakoff, it is all tied up in one's view of the family.

Why is it that conservatives have uniform positions on abortion, the environment, gun control, foreign policy and tort reform? What do all these issues have to do with one another? And, why is it that progressives hold exactly the opposite position on every issue?

Each group's world view is a natural outgrowth of varying family models, Lakoff says. Conservatives hold the "strict father" model and progressives hold to the "nurturant parent" model.

In the strict father model, the father is the moral authority who knows absolute right and wrong. He physically punishes disobedience as way to develop internal discipline in children. This gives children a moral compass, steeling them to compete successfully in a evil, dog-eat-dog world. Morality is tied to self-reliance and prosperity.

Applying this approach to social programs reveals why conservatives are so often opposed to having government help those in need. They see it as immoral to give to people who have not earned the help. They worry that aid programs promote malingering. This perspective also promotes a unilateralism in foreign policy, since the United States, as father figure to the world, knows best.

Lakoff says this view governs the politics of somewhere between 35 and 40 percent of Americans.

On the other side is the progressive nurturant parent model, a gender-neutral approach, that says a parent's job is to nurture and care for children and bring them up to nurture others. The goal is to create a better world.

Protection of children from crime and terrorism is part of the nurturant model but so is protection from a toxic environment, dangerous working conditions and unsafe food. That's why progressives are so ready to enlist government as a force against these harms. Fairness, freedom, two-way communication and personal fulfillment are nurturant values, says Lakoff. He believes another 35 to 40 percent of the population see politics through this lense. The remainder are the folks in the middle, or the elusive swing voters.

For Democrats to successfully regroup, according to Lakoff, they have to convince swing voters to "activate (the nurturant) world view and moral system in their political decisions." That means using the language of progressive values and offering initiatives that compliment those values.

He is on to something. In the news biz we know that great visions and small stories are always more compelling than cold, hard facts. It's time for Democrats to do a better job explaining why a nurturing world offers a more promising future than one centered on the rod.

[Last modified November 28, 2004, 00:42:21]

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