on the second meeting of the ypsi-arbor progressive book club

We had the second meeting of the book club Thursday night, and I think it went really well. It went so well in fact, I began wondering if it might be possible to webcast future meetings. I think that’s probably a bit too ambitious, and I suspect that being broadcast might inhibit some folks, but I would like to find a way to leverage what we’re doing here somehow. And, I think that others really might get some value out of hearing what we’re talking about here in Michigan. (I’ve traded emails with a few mm.com readers about setting up branches of the book club in their areas, but so far I don’t think anyone’s taken any significant steps to do so.) Short of broadcasting our discussions, one alternative would just be for me to take notes. I tried this time, however, and I just couldn’t keep up, so I don’t think that’ll work too well… With all of that said, I do, however, have some thoughts on the material covered in this week’s meeting, and here they are. (Hopefully, a few other members of the club might drop by and add their thoughts in the comments section.)

– First off, I should mention that this month’s book was “Don’t Think of an Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate–The Essential Guide for Progressives” by linguist George Lakoff. The consensus was, I believe, that it built nicely on the work we’d done last month, after reading Thomas Frank’s “What’s the Matter with Kansas?: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America.” Lakoff’s underlying theory, for those of you unfamiliar with his work, is that Republicans have, over the course of the past few decades, been extremely successful at building an infrastructure (i.e. well-funded think tanks with in-house television studios), selecting messages that resonate with people (often against their own self interests), and relentlessly hammering those messages into the heads of the American people. While the Democrats sat idly by, the Republicans, according to Lakoff, framed the debates in such a way that they’d win even if they lost. (How can you really lose if your position is “pro life“?) The phrases “family values,” “liberal media,” “pro-life,” and “compassionate conservativism,” didn’t just come about overnight. They were the subject of focus group after focus group, and, once they were decided on, the Republicans were of a single voice in spreading them. They repeated these and other things to the American people until they became true in their minds. The Democrats, Lakoff would say, have a lot of catching up to do.

– Several of us had not only read the Lakoff book, but also the recently leaked ’05 playbook of Republican strategist Frank Luntz (essentially the source material for Lakoff’s academic work). Personally, I liked Lakoff’s work a lot more until I read Luntz. Once I read Luntz, however, and his very precise commands to Republicans (…something along the lines of, “if you want to be elected, say this…..”), I began to think of Lakoff as perhaps too academic. While Lakoff makes some great points, and even suggested a few great ideas as to how we could reframe the debates we find ourselves in now, he just isn’t as tactical about it. After having read both documents, my feeling is that our side needs a Luntz, someone to take Lakoff’s ideas, and boil them down to simple talking points for wide distribution to all Progressives seeking office.

– Once everything else is stripped away, Lakoff sees Republicans as followers of a “strict father” paradigm in which there are absolute rights and wrongs, and good citizens are made through hard work, discipline and obedience. Conversely, Lakoff sees Progressives as adherents to a “nurturant parent” paradigm in which people are empathetic and responsible toward one another, and believe in two-way communication, freedom, and broad prosperity. (The Republicans, according to Lakoff, believe that those deserving to be prosperous will be, and that the non-prosperous deserve their lot in life as well.)

– Lakoff points out the value of “strategic initiatives.” Republicans, for instance, as you all know, have been demonizing trial lawyers and pushing for tort reform recently, trying to limit the amounts awarded to individuals that bring suit against corporations. In doing this, according to Lakoff, they not only further ingratiate themselves to American corporations, but they also cut the revenues of a major Democratic funding group, the trial lawyers. In this case they also, as Lakoff points out, in one stroke “prohibit all of the potential lawsuits that will be the basis of future environmental legislation and regulation.” They’re killing multiple birds with one stone: they’re strengthening corporations, weakening their opposition, and making environmental regulation less likely. (Lakoff suggests that the New Apollo project for alternative energy could be one such strategic initiative for Progressives, as it creates job, puts us on the road to energy independence, helps to protect the environment, etc.)

– Making people aware of the facts alone, in the opinion of Lakoff, will not change things, no matter how well we make the case. According to Lakoff, “One of the fundamental findings of cognitive science is that people think in terms of frames and metaphors — conceptual structures… The frames are in the synapses of our brains, physically present in the form of neural circuitry. When the facts don’t fit the frames, the frames are kept and the facts ignored.”

– Lakoff thinks part of the appeal of the Republican party is that their entire philosophy can be said in ten words: “strong defense, free markets, lower taxes, smaller government, family values.” (Of course they aren’t all true, but those are the messages they are disseminating.) He suggests that the Progressives try defining their philosophy in a similar way. Here are the ten words he suggests: “stronger America, broad prosperity, better future, effective government, mutual responsibility.” (He goes into some detail on each in the book.)

– Our discussion of the book was fairly far reaching. Regarding the construction of new frames, several ideas were brought up. For example, instead of regarding the American media as “the press,” or, worse yet, the “liberal media,” it was brought up that several people have begun referring to them as the “corporate media.” Clearly it will take some time to undo the well-cultivated perception of the American press as liberal, but the term “corporate media,” I think, fits the bill perfectly… The idea of portraying the Republicans as the “cheap labor” party was also discussed, as were other things.

– My number one take-away from the event was the realization that the unionization of Wal-Mart (I told you the discussion was far reaching) might be a strategic initiative worthy of my time and energy. Not only would having the workforce of the largest employer in the US go union be a good thing for the individual workers involved, but it would also put economics, and the growing division between rich and poor, back in the spotlight. (As Thomas Frank pointed out in “What’s the Matter with Kansas,” the issue has, over the past few decades, been kept hidden.) What’s more, union members are significantly more likely to vote for Progressive candidates and support Progressive causes. And, a shift like this would be in keeping with the changing shift of focus from “shareholder value” to the broader “stakeholder value” as suggested by Lakoff. (Meaning that we need to look at not just how a company enriches its shareholders, but how it brings prosperity to everyone associated with it, shareholders and employees alike.)… So, with that in mind, I think I’m going to be doing more to lobby for an increase to the minimum wage, and seeing how, if at all, I can help bring a union to Wal-Mart.

OK, there was a lot more I wanted to say, especially about the Luntz document (which essentially tells Republicans to blame 9/11 for every economic and diplomatic problem they’ve created) and the idea of aggressively going after “war profiteers,” but it’ll have to wait for another day. I’m too tired to think about this any more tonight.

Good night, my invisible friends.

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12 Comments

  1. Posted March 13, 2005 at 7:03 am | Permalink

    Thanks for the overview. My intentions have been stomped by my need for sleep, though I really want to participate. sigh…gotta get through this semester first.

  2. Posted March 13, 2005 at 9:50 am | Permalink

    Did you see the interview with Frank Luntz on Frontline? They have the video up too, it’s the 5th segment. Really scary stuff.

  3. mark
    Posted March 13, 2005 at 10:18 am | Permalink

    Luntz is brilliant, and, yes, I’ve seen the Frontline segment. He’s equally terrible and brilliant. Goebbels would no doubt be proud… Part of me doesn’t think that we should follow him down that path, but part of me realizes that the truth alone doesn’t necessarily win elections.

    Here, since I brought up Goebbels, is a link to a little BBC (who haven’t quoted me lately) piece that I found interesting. Here’s how it starts:

    The story of the Nazi rise to power in the Germany of the 1930s is often seen as a classic example of how to achieve political ends through propaganda. The Nazis themselves were certainly convinced of its effectiveness, and Adolf Hitler devoted two chapters in his book Mein Kampf (‘My Struggle’, 1925), to an analysis of its use. He saw propaganda as a vehicle of political salesmanship in a mass market, and argued that it was a way of conveying a message to the bulk of the German people, not to intellectuals.

  4. Kevin Dole 2
    Posted March 13, 2005 at 3:30 pm | Permalink

    “When the facts don

  5. Posted March 13, 2005 at 9:04 pm | Permalink

    Seeing that you recently read Lakoff’s “Elephant,” I wanted to urge you also to check out my recent diary at Daily Kos, titled “Framing vs. Fencing: A post-Lakoff analysis,” which has generated a fair number of responses.

    My concern is that while we Democrats, Greens, progressives, liberals, et al. are mastering framing, the Luntzes and Roves are using their headstart on us for a different, uglier purpose: To convince Americans never to listen to our carefully-framed arguments and values.

    If that’s true, we need to begin combating their latest push, even as we develop our own frames.

    Give it a look, if interested — Click here, or if that doesn’t work, click my website. Thanks.

  6. Posted March 14, 2005 at 10:01 am | Permalink

    mark, I’m all for the webcast idea. It might even be possible to use EMU’s on-site technology in tandem with a local public access cable station to get it broadcast on television.

    To be truly subversive, i suggest that if this comes to pass we should all wear suede-elbowed sportscoats, drink lattes, and use a bunch of french phrases to appear like the evil liberal elite we really are.

    Barring that, we need to have some sort of john stossel/rush/coulter/etc character to serve as a foil. We should also have a secondary camera for closeups, so that when one of us says something particularly witty we can turn, norman fell-like, towards the audience and give a knowing grin.

  7. Ken
    Posted March 14, 2005 at 10:09 am | Permalink

    Don’t forget the laugh track.

  8. brett
    Posted March 14, 2005 at 11:21 am | Permalink

    I had hoped there would be a live studio audience, actually.

  9. Posted March 14, 2005 at 9:07 pm | Permalink

    Will we have to wear makeup? It tends to make me break out:-(

  10. Posted March 14, 2005 at 9:33 pm | Permalink

    well, then i guess your only options are to be filmed in dark silhouette, or else we could cover your face with a mosaic blur in post-production.

  11. mark
    Posted March 15, 2005 at 7:33 am | Permalink

    I was going to suggest that we all just make puppets of ourselves.

  12. chris
    Posted March 15, 2005 at 9:47 am | Permalink

    How can de-subsidized farmers be tapped in the crusade? I am not kidding…I believe farmers are the key.

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