How Newt Gingrich Destroyed American Politics

by McKay Coppins, November 2018 Issue, The Atlantic

McKay Coppins is a staff writer at The Atlantic and the author of The Wilderness, a book about the battle over the of the Republican Party.

(Highlighting done by Phyllis Stenerson, website Editor)

Newt Gingrich is an important man, a man of refined tastes, accustomed to a certain lifestyle, and so when he visits the zoo, he does not merely stand with all the other patrons to look at the tortoises—he goes inside the tank.

On this particular afternoon in late March, the former speaker of the House can be found shuffling giddily around a damp, 90‑degree enclosure at the Philadelphia Zoo—a rumpled suit draped over his elephantine frame, plastic booties wrapped around his feet—as he tickles and strokes and paws at the giant shelled reptiles, declaring them “very cool.”

It’s a weird scene, and after a few minutes, onlookers begin to gather on the other side of the glass—craning their necks and snapping pictures with their phones and asking each other, Is that who I think it is? The attention would be enough to make a lesser man—say, a sweaty magazine writer who followed his subject into the tortoise tank for reasons that are now escaping him—grow self-conscious. But Gingrich, for whom all of this rather closely approximates a natural habitat, barely seems to notice.

A well-known animal fanatic, Gingrich was the one who suggested we meet at the Philadelphia Zoo. He used to come here as a kid, and has fond memories of family picnics on warm afternoons, gazing up at the giraffes and rhinos and dreaming of one day becoming a zookeeper. But we aren’t here just for the nostalgia.

“There is,” he explained soon after arriving, “a lot we can learn from the natural world.”

Since then, Gingrich has spent much of the day using zoo animals to teach me about politics and human affairs. In the reptile room, I learn that the evolutionary stability of the crocodile (“Ninety million years, and they haven’t changed much”) illustrates the folly of pursuing change for its own sake: “If you’re doing something right, keep doing it.”

Outside the lion pen, Gingrich treats me to a brief discourse on gender theory: “The male lion procreates, protects the pride, and sleeps. The females hunt, and as soon as they find something, the male knocks them over and takes the best portion. It’s the opposite of every American feminist vision of the world—but it’s a fact!”

But the most important lesson comes as we wander through Monkey Junction. Gingrich tells me about one of his favorite books, Chimpanzee Politics, in which the primatologist Frans de Waal documents the complex rivalries and coalitions that govern communities of chimps. De Waal’s thesis is that human politics, in all its brutality and ugliness, is “part of an evolutionary heritage we share with our close relatives”—and Gingrich clearly agrees.

For several minutes, he lectures me about the perils of failing to understand the animal kingdom. Disney, he says, has done us a disservice with whitewashed movies like The Lion King, in which friendly jungle cats get along with their zebra neighbors instead of attacking them and devouring their carcasses. And for all the famous feel-good photos of Jane Goodall interacting with chimps in the wild, he tells me, her later work showed that she was “horrified” to find her beloved creatures killing one another for sport, and feasting on baby chimps.

It is crucial, Gingrich says, that we humans see the animal kingdom from which we evolved for what it really is: “A very competitive, challenging world, at every level.”

As he pauses to catch his breath, I peer out over the sprawling primate reserve. Spider monkeys swing wildly from bar to bar on an elaborate jungle gym, while black-and-white lemurs leap and tumble over one another, and a hulking gorilla grunts in the distance.

At a loss for what to say, I start to mutter something about the viciousness of the animal world—but Gingrich cuts me off. “It’s not viciousness,” he corrects me, his voice suddenly stern. “It’s natural.”

There’s something about Newt Gingrich that seems to capture the spirit of America circa 2018. With his immense head and white mop of hair; his cold, boyish grin; and his high, raspy voice, he has the air of a late-empire Roman senator—a walking bundle of appetites and excesses and hubris and wit. In conversation, he toggles unnervingly between grandiose pronouncements about “Western civilization” and partisan cheap shots that seem tailored for cable news. It’s a combination of self-righteousness and smallness, of pomposity and pettiness, that personifies the decadence of this era.

In the clamorous story of Donald Trump’s Washington, it would be easy to mistake Gingrich for a minor character. A loyal Trump ally in 2016, Gingrich forwent a high-powered post in the administration and has instead spent the years since the election cashing in on his access—churning out books (three Trump hagiographies, one spy thriller), working the speaking circuit (where he commands as much as $75,000 per talk for his insights on the president), and popping up on Fox News as a paid contributor. He spends much of his time in Rome, where his wife, Callista, serves as Trump’s ambassador to the Vatican and where, he likes to boast, “We have yet to find a bad restaurant.”

But few figures in modern history have done more than Gingrich to lay the groundwork for Trump’s rise. During his two decades in Congress, he pioneered a style of partisan combat—replete with name-calling, conspiracy theories, and strategic obstructionism—that poisoned America’s political culture and plunged Washington into permanent dysfunction. Gingrich’s career can perhaps be best understood as a grand exercise in devolution—an effort to strip American politics of the civilizing traits it had developed over time and return it to its most primal essence.

When I ask him how he views his legacy, Gingrich takes me on a tour of a Western world gripped by crisis. In Washington, chaos reigns as institutional authority crumbles. Throughout America, right-wing Trumpites and left-wing resisters are treating midterm races like calamitous fronts in a civil war that must be won at all costs. And in Europe, populist revolts are wreaking havoc in capitals across the Continent.

Twenty-five years after engineering the Republican Revolution, Gingrich can draw a direct line from his work in Congress to the upheaval now taking place around the globe. But as he surveys the wreckage of the modern political landscape, he is not regretful. He’s gleeful.

“The old order is dying,” he tells me. “Almost everywhere you have freedom, you have a very deep discontent that the system isn’t working.”

And that’s a good thing? I ask.

“It’s essential,” he says, “if you want Western civilization to survive.”

On June 24, 1978, Gingrich stood to address a gathering of College Republicans at a Holiday Inn near the Atlanta airport. It was a natural audience for him. At 35, he was more youthful-looking than the average congressional candidate, with fashionably robust sideburns and a cool-professor charisma that had made him one of the more popular faculty members at West Georgia College.

But Gingrich had not come to deliver an academic lecture to the young activists before him—he had come to foment revolution.

“One of the great problems we have in the Republican Party is that we don’t encourage you to be nasty,” he told the group. “We encourage you to be neat, obedient, and loyal, and faithful, and all those Boy Scout words, which would be great around the campfire but are lousy in politics.”

For their party to succeed, Gingrich went on, the next generation of Republicans would have to learn to “raise hell,” to stop being so “nice,” to realize that politics was, above all, a cutthroat “war for power”—and to start acting like it.

The speech received little attention at the time. Gingrich was, after all, an obscure, untenured professor whose political experience consisted of two failed congressional bids. But when, a few months later, he was finally elected to the House of Representatives on his third try, he went to Washington a man obsessed with becoming the kind of leader he had described that day in Atlanta.

The GOP was then at its lowest point in modern history. Scores of Republican lawmakers had been wiped out in the aftermath of Watergate, and those who’d survived seemed, to Gingrich, sadly resigned to a “permanent minority” mind-set. “It was like death,” he recalls of the mood in the caucus. “They were morally and psychologically shattered.”

But Gingrich had a plan. The way he saw it, Republicans would never be able to take back the House as long as they kept compromising with the Democrats out of some high-minded civic desire to keep congressional business humming along. His strategy was to blow up the bipartisan coalitions that were essential to legislating, and then seize on the resulting dysfunction to wage a populist crusade against the institution of Congress itself. “His idea,” says Norm Ornstein, a political scientist who knew Gingrich at the time, “was to build toward a national election where people were so disgusted by Washington and the way it was operating that they would throw the ins out and bring the outs in.”

Gingrich recruited a cadre of young bomb throwers—a group of 12 congressmen he christened the Conservative Opportunity Society—and together they stalked the halls of Capitol Hill, searching for trouble and TV cameras. Their emergence was not, at first, greeted with enthusiasm by the more moderate Republican leadership. They were too noisy, too brash, too hostile to the old guard’s cherished sense of decorum. They even looked different—sporting blow-dried pompadours while their more camera-shy elders smeared Brylcreem on their comb-overs.

Gingrich and his cohort showed little interest in legislating, a task that had heretofore been seen as the primary responsibility of elected legislators. Bob Livingston, a Louisiana Republican who had been elected to Congress a year before Gingrich, marveled at the way the hard-charging Georgian rose to prominence by ignoring the traditional path taken by new lawmakers. “My idea was to work within the committee structure, take care of my district, and just pay attention to the legislative process,” Livingston told me. “But Newt came in as a revolutionary.”

For revolutionary purposes, the House of Representatives was less a governing body than an arena for conflict and drama. And Gingrich found ways to put on a show. He recognized an opportunity in the newly installed C-span cameras, and began delivering tirades against Democrats to an empty chamber, knowing that his remarks would be beamed to viewers across the country.

As his profile grew, Gingrich took aim at the moderates in his own party—calling Bob Dole the “tax collector for the welfare state”—and baited Democratic leaders with all manner of epithet and insult: pro-communist, un-American, tyrannical. In 1984, one of his floor speeches prompted a red-faced eruption from Speaker Tip O’Neill, who said of Gingrich’s attacks, “It’s the lowest thing that I’ve ever seen in my 32 years in Congress!” The episode landed them both on the nightly news, and Gingrich, knowing the score, declared victory. “I am now a famous person,” he gloated to The Washington Post.

It’s hard to overstate just how radical these actions were at the time. Although Congress had been a volatile place during periods of American history—with fistfights and canings and representatives bellowing violent threats at one another—by the middle of the 20th century, lawmakers had largely coalesced around a stabilizing set of norms and traditions. Entrenched committee chairs may have dabbled in petty corruption, and Democratic leaders may have pushed around the Republican minority when they were in a pinch, but as a rule, comity reigned. “Most members still believed in the idea that the Framers had in mind,” says Thomas Mann, a scholar who studies Congress. “They believed in genuine deliberation and compromise … and they had institutional loyalty.”

This ethos was perhaps best embodied by Republican Minority Leader Bob Michel, an amiable World War II veteran known around Washington for his aversion to swearing—doggone it and by Jiminy were fixtures of his vocabulary—as well as his penchant for carpooling and golfing with Democratic colleagues. Michel was no liberal, but he believed that the best way to serve conservatism, and his country, was by working honestly with Democratic leaders—pulling legislation inch by inch to the right when he could, and protecting the good faith that made aisle-crossing possible.

Gingrich was unimpressed by Michel’s conciliatory approach. “He represented a culture which had been defeated consistently,” he recalls. More important, Gingrich intuited that the old dynamics that had produced public servants like Michel were crumbling. Tectonic shifts in American politics—particularly around issues of race and civil rights—had triggered an ideological sorting between the two parties. Liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats (two groups that had been well represented in Congress) were beginning to vanish, and with them, the cross-party partnerships that had fostered cooperation.

This polarization didn’t originate with Gingrich, but he took advantage of it, as he set out to circumvent the old power structures and build his own. Rather than letting the party bosses in Washington decide which candidates deserved institutional support, he took control of a group called gopac and used it to recruit and train an army of mini-Newts to run for office.

Gingrich hustled to keep his cause—and himself—in the press. “If you’re not in The Washington Post every day, you might as well not exist,” he told one reporter. His secret to capturing headlines was simple, he explained to supporters: “The No. 1 fact about the news media is they love fights … When you give them confrontations, you get attention; when you get attention, you can educate.”

Effective as these tactics were in the short term, they had a corrosive effect on the way Congress operated. “Gradually, it went from legislating, to the weaponization of legislating, to the permanent campaign, to the permanent war,” Mann says. “It’s like he took a wrecking ball to the most powerful and influential legislature in the world.”

But Gingrich looks back with pride on the transformations he set in motion. “Noise became a proxy for status,” he tells me. And no one was noisier than Newt.

We are in the petting zoo, examining the goats, when Gingrich decides to tell me about the moment he first glimpsed his destiny as one of history’s great men.

It was 1958, and he was 15 years old. His family was visiting Verdun, a small city in northeastern France where 300,000 people had been killed during World War I. The battlefield was still scarred by cannon fire, and young Newt spent the day wandering around, taking in the details. He found a rusted helmet on the ground, saw the ossuary where the bones of dead soldiers were piled high. “I realized countries can die,” he says—and he decided it would be up to him to make sure that America didn’t.

This is an important scene in the Newt Gingrich creation myth, and he has turned to it repeatedly over the years to satisfy journalists and biographers searching for a “Rosebud” moment. But the rest of Gingrich’s childhood may be just as instructive. His mother struggled with manic depression, and spent much of her adult life in a fog of medication. His stepfather was a brooding, violent man who showed little affection for “Newtie,” the pudgy, flat-footed, bookish boy his wife had foisted upon him. Gingrich moved around a lot and had few friends his age; he spent more time alone in his room reading books about dinosaurs than he did playing with the neighborhood kids.

But this is not the stuff Gingrich likes to talk about. When asked, he describes his childhood as ordinary, even “idyllic,” allowing only glimpses of the full picture when you press him for details. Those family picnics at the zoo that he has been reminiscing about all day? They weren’t with his parents, it turns out, but his aunts, who were looking for ways to make their lonely nephew happy.

“People like me are what stand between us and Auschwitz,” Gingrich once told a reporter.

It was in Verdun that Gingrich found an identity, a sense of purpose. “I decided then that I basically had three jobs,” he tells me. “Figure out what we had to do to survive”—the we here being proponents of Western civilization, the threats being vague and unspecified—“figure out how to explain it so that the American people would give us permission, and figure out how to implement it once they gave us permission. That’s what I’ve done since August of ’58.”

The next year, Gingrich turned in a 180-page term paper about the balance of global power, and announced to his teacher that his family was moving to Georgia, where he planned to start a Republican Party in the then–heavily Democratic state and get himself elected to Congress.

Gingrich immersed himself in war histories and dystopian fiction and books about techno-futurism—and as the years went on, he became fixated on the idea that he was a world-historic hero. He has described himself as a “transformational figure” and “the most serious, systematic revolutionary of modern times.” To one reporter, he declared, “I want to shift the entire planet. And I’m doing it.” To another, he said, “People like me are what stand between us and Auschwitz.”

As Gingrich tells me about his epiphany in Verdun, a man in a baseball cap approaches us in full fanboy mode. “Newt Gingrich!” he exclaims. “Good to see you, man. I love you on Fox.”

“Thank you,” Gingrich replies. “Please keep watching.”

This has been happening all day—fans coming up to request selfies, or to shake his hand, or to thank him for his work in “draining the swamp.” It’s a reminder that to a certain swath of America, Gingrich is not some washed-up partisan hack; he’s a towering statesman, a visionary hero, the man he set out to be.

After the superfan leaves, I make a passing observation about how many admirers Gingrich has at the zoo.

“I think you’d be surprised,” he tells me, his voice dripping with condescension. “You get outside of Washington and New York and there are an amazing number of people like this who show up.”

By 1988, Gingrich’s plan to conquer Congress via sabotage was well under way. As his national profile had risen, so too had his influence within the Republican caucus—his original quorum of 12 disciples having expanded to dozens of sharp-elbowed House conservatives who looked to him for guidance.

Gingrich encouraged them to go after their enemies with catchy, alliterative nicknames—“Daffy Dukakis,” “the loony left”—and schooled them in the art of partisan blood sport. Through gopac, he sent out cassette tapes and memos to Republican candidates across the country who wanted to “speak like Newt,” providing them with carefully honed attack lines and creating, quite literally, a new vocabulary for a generation of conservatives. One memo, titled “Language: A Key Mechanism of Control,” included a list of recommended words to use in describing Democrats: sick, pathetic, lie, anti-flag, traitors, radical, corrupt.

“People started asking, ‘Who’s the meanest, nastiest son of a bitch we can get to fight back?’ And, of course, that was Newt Gingrich.”

The goal was to reframe the boring policy debates in Washington as a national battle between good and evil, white hats versus black—a fight for the very soul of America. Through this prism, any news story could be turned into a wedge. Woody Allen had an affair with his partner’s adoptive daughter? “It fits the Democratic Party platform perfectly,” Gingrich declared. A deranged South Carolina woman murdered her two children? A symptom of a “sick” society, Gingrich intoned—and “the only way you can get change is to vote Republican.”

Gingrich was not above mining the darkest reaches of the right-wing fever swamps for material. When Vince Foster, a staffer in the Clinton White House, committed suicide, Gingrich publicly flirted with fringe conspiracy theories that suggested he had been assassinated. “He took these things that were confined to the margins of the conservative movement and mainstreamed them,” says David Brock, who worked as a conservative journalist at the time, covering the various Clinton scandals, before later becoming a Democratic operative. “What I think he saw was the potential for using them to throw sand in the gears of Clinton’s ability to govern.”

Despite his growing grassroots following, Gingrich remained unpopular among a certain contingent of congressional Republicans, who were scandalized by his tactics. But that started to change when Democrats elected Texas Congressman Jim Wright as speaker. Whereas Tip O’Neill had been known for working across party lines, Wright came off as gruff and power-hungry—and his efforts to sideline the Republican minority enraged even many of the GOP’s mild-mannered moderates. “People started asking, ‘Who’s the meanest, nastiest son of a bitch we can get to fight back?’ ” recalls Mickey Edwards, a Republican who was then representing Oklahoma in the House. “And, of course, that was Newt Gingrich.”

Gingrich unleashed a smear campaign aimed at taking Wright down. He reportedly circulated unsupported rumors about a scandal involving a teenage congressional page, and tried to tie Wright to shady foreign-lobbying practices. Finally, one allegation gained traction—that Wright had used $60,000 in book royalties to evade limits on outside income. Watergate, this was not. But it was enough to force Wright’s resignation, and hand Gingrich the scalp he so craved.

The episode cemented Gingrich’s status as the de facto leader of the GOP in Washington. Heading into the 1994 midterms, he rallied Republicans around the idea of turning Election Day into a national referendum. On September 27, more than 300 candidates gathered outside the Capitol to sign the “Contract With America,” a document of Gingrich’s creation that outlined 10 bills Republicans promised to pass if they took control of the House.

“Today, on these steps, we offer this contract as a first step towards renewing American civilization,” Gingrich proclaimed.

While candidates fanned out across the country to campaign on the contract, Gingrich and his fellow Republican leaders in Congress held fast to their strategy of gridlock. As Election Day approached, they maneuvered to block every piece of legislation they could—even those that might ordinarily have received bipartisan support, like a lobbying-reform bill—on the theory that voters would blame Democrats for the paralysis.

Pundits, aghast at the brazenness of the strategy, predicted backlash from voters—but few seemed to notice. Even some Republicans were surprised by what they were getting away with. Bill Kristol, then a GOP strategist, marveled at the success of his party’s “principled obstructionism.” An up-and-coming senator named Mitch McConnell was quoted crowing that opposing the Democrats’ agenda “gives gridlock a good name.” When the 103rd Congress adjourned in October, The Washington Post declared it “perhaps the worst Congress” in 50 years.

Yet Gingrich’s plan worked. By the time voters went to the polls, exit surveys revealed widespread frustration with Congress and a deep appetite for change. Republicans achieved one of the most sweeping electoral victories in modern American history. They picked up 54 seats in the House and seized state legislatures and governorships across the country; for the first time in 40 years, the GOP took control of both houses of Congress.

On election night, Republicans packed into a ballroom in the Atlanta suburbs, waving placards that read liberals, your time is up! and sporting rush limbaugh for president T‑shirts. The band played “Happy Days Are Here Again” and Gingrich—the next speaker of the House, the new philosopher-king of the Republican Party—took the stage to raucous cheers.

With victory in hand, Gingrich did his best to play the statesman, saying he would “reach out to every Democrat who wants to work with us” and promising to be “speaker of the House, not speaker of the Republican Party.”

But the true spirit of the Republican Revolution was best captured by the event’s emcee, a local talk-radio host in Atlanta who had hitched his star to the Newt wagon early on. Grinning out at the audience, he announced that a package had just arrived at the White House with some Tylenol in it.

President Clinton, joked Sean Hannity, was about to “feel the pain.”

The freshman Republicans who entered Congress in January 1995 were lawmakers created in the image of Newt: young, confrontational, and determined to inflict radical change on Washington.

Gingrich encouraged this revolutionary zeal, quoting Thomas Paine—“We have it in our power to begin the world over again”—and working to instill a conviction among his followers that they were political gate-crashers, come to leave their dent on American history. What Gingrich didn’t tell them—or perhaps refused to believe himself—was that in Congress, history is seldom made without consensus-building and horse-trading. From the creation of interstate highways to the passage of civil-rights legislation, the most significant, lasting acts of Congress have been achieved by lawmakers who deftly maneuver through the legislative process and work with members of both parties.

On January 4, Speaker Gingrich gaveled Congress into session, and promptly got to work transforming America. Over the next 100 days, he and his fellow Republicans worked feverishly to pass bills with names that sounded like they’d come from Republican Mad Libs—the American Dream Restoration Act, the Taking Back Our Streets Act, the Fiscal Responsibility Act. But when the dust settled, America didn’t look all that different. Almost all of the House’s big-ticket bills got snuffed out in the Senate, or died by way of presidential veto.

Instead, the most enduring aspects of Gingrich’s speakership would be his tactical innovations. Determined to keep Republicans in power, Gingrich reoriented the congressional schedule around filling campaign war chests, shortening the official work week to three days so that members had time to dial for dollars. From 1994 to 1998, Republicans raised an unprecedented $1 billion, and ushered in a new era of money in politics.

Gingrich’s famous budget battles with Bill Clinton in 1995 gave way to another great partisan invention: the weaponized government shutdown. There had been federal funding lapses before, but they tended to be minor affairs that lasted only a day or two. Gingrich’s shutdown, by contrast, furloughed hundreds of thousands of government workers for several weeks at Christmastime, so Republicans could use their paychecks as a bartering chip in negotiations with the White House. The gambit was a bust—voters blamed the GOP for the crisis, and Gingrich was castigated in the press—but it ensured that the shutdown threat would loom over every congressional standoff from that point on.

There were real accomplishments during Gingrich’s speakership, too—a tax cut, a bipartisan health-care deal, even a balanced federal budget—and for a time, truly historic triumphs seemed within reach. Over the course of several secret meetings at the White House in the fall of 1997, Gingrich told me, he and Clinton sketched out plans for a center-right coalition that would undertake big, challenging projects such as a wholesale reform of Social Security.

But by then, the poisonous politics Gingrich had injected into Washington’s bloodstream had escaped his control. So when the stories started coming out in early 1998—the ones about the president and the intern, the cigar and the blue dress—and the party faithful were clamoring for Clinton’s head on a pike, and Gingrich’s acolytes in the House were stomping their feet and crying for blood … well, he knew what he had to do.

This is “the most systematic, deliberate obstruction-of-justice cover-up and effort to avoid the truth we have ever seen in American history!” Gingrich declared of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, pledging that he would keep banging the drum until Clinton was impeached. “I will never again, as long as I am speaker, make a speech without commenting on this topic.”

As speaker, Gingrich reoriented the congressional schedule around filling campaign war chests, shortening the official work week to three days so that members had time to dial for dollars. (Amy Lombard)

Never mind that Republicans had no real chance of getting the impeachment through the Senate. Removing the president wasn’t the point; this was an opportunity to humiliate the Democrats. Politics was a “war for power,” just as Gingrich had prophesied all those years ago—and he wasn’t about to give up the fight.

The rest is immortalized in the history books that line Gingrich’s library. The GOP’s impeachment crusade backfired with voters, Republicans lost seats in the House—and Gingrich was driven out of his job by the same bloodthirsty brigade he’d helped elect. “I’m willing to lead,” he sniffed on his way out the door, “but I’m not willing to preside over people who are cannibals.”

The great irony of Gingrich’s rise and reign is that, in the end, he did fundamentally transform America—just not in the ways he’d hoped. He thought he was enshrining a new era of conservative government. In fact, he was enshrining an attitude—angry, combative, tribal—that would infect politics for decades to come.

In the years since he left the House, Gingrich has only doubled down. When GOP leaders huddled at a Capitol Hill steak house on the night of President Barack Obama’s inauguration, Gingrich was there to advocate a strategy of complete obstruction. And when Senator Ted Cruz led a mob of Tea Party torchbearers in shutting down the government over Obamacare, Gingrich was there to argue that shutdowns are “a normal part of the constitutional process.”

Mickey Edwards, the Oklahoma Republican, who served in the House for 16 years, told me he believes Gingrich is responsible for turning Congress into a place where partisan allegiance is prized above all else. He noted that during Watergate, President Richard Nixon was forced to resign only because leaders of his own party broke ranks to hold him accountable—a dynamic Edwards views as impossible in the post-Gingrich era. “He created a situation where you now stand with your party at all costs and at all times, no matter what,” Edwards said. “Our whole system in America is based on the Madisonian idea of power checking power. Newt has been a big part of eroding that.”

But when I ask Gingrich what he thinks of the notion that he played a part in toxifying Washington, he bristles. “I took everything the Democrats had done brilliantly to dominate and taught Republicans how to do it,” he tells me. “Which made me a bad person because when Republicans dominate, it must be bad.” He adopts a singsong whine to imitate his critics in the political establishment: “ ‘Oh, the mean, nasty Republicans actually got to win, and we hate it, because we’re a Democratic city, our real estate’s based on big government, and the value of my house will go down if they balance the budget.’ That’s the heart of this.”

These days, Gingrich seems to be revising his legacy in real time—shifting the story away from the ideological sea change that his populist disruption was supposed to enable, and toward the act of populist disruption itself. He places his own rise to power and Trump’s in the same grand American narrative. There have been four great political “waves” in the past half century, he tells me: “Goldwater, Reagan, Gingrich, then Trump.” But when I press him to explain what connects those four “waves” philosophically, the best he can do is say they were all “anti-liberal.”

Political scientists who study our era of extreme polarization will tell you that the driving force behind American politics today is not actually partisanship, but negative partisanship—that is, hatred of the other team more than loyalty to one’s own. Gingrich’s speakership was both a symptom and an accelerant of that phenomenon.

On December 19, 1998, Gingrich cast his final vote as a congressman—a vote to impeach Bill Clinton for lying under oath about an affair. By the time it was revealed that the ex-speaker had been secretly carrying on an illicit relationship with a young congressional aide named Callista throughout his impeachment crusade, almost no one was surprised.* This was, after all, the same man who had famously been accused by his first wife (whom he’d met as a teenager, when she was his geometry teacher) of trying to discuss divorce terms when she was in the hospital recovering from tumor-removal surgery, the same man who had for a time reportedly restricted his extramarital dalliances to oral sex so that he could claim he’d never slept with another woman. (Gingrich declined to comment on these allegations.)

Detractors could call it hypocrisy if they wanted; Gingrich might not even argue. (“It doesn’t matter what I do,” he once rationalized, according to one of his ex-wives. “People need to hear what I have to say.”) But if he had taught America one lesson, it was that any sin could be absolved, any trespass forgiven, as long as you picked the right targets and swung at them hard enough.

When Gingrich’s personal life became an issue during his short-lived presidential campaign in 2012, he knew just who to swing at. Asked during a primary debate about an allegation that he’d requested an open marriage with his second wife, Gingrich took a deep breath, gathered all the righteous indignation he could muster, and let loose one of the most remarkable—and effective—non sequiturs in the history of campaign rhetoric: “I think the destructive, vicious, negative nature of much of the news media makes it harder to govern this country, harder to attract decent people to run for public office—and I am appalled that you would begin a presidential debate on a topic like that.”

The CNN moderator grew flustered, the audience erupted in a standing ovation, and a few days later, the voters of South Carolina delivered Gingrich a decisive victory in the Republican primary.

Gingrich says there have been four great political “waves” in the past half century: “Goldwater, Reagan, Gingrich, then Trump.” (Amy Lombard)

After a few hours at the zoo, Gingrich is ready for the next leg of our field trip, so we squeeze into the back of a black SUV and start driving across town toward the Academy of Natural Sciences, where there are some “really neat” dinosaur fossils he would like to show me.

One of the hard things about talking with Gingrich is that he weaves partisan attack lines into casual conversation so matter-of-factly—and so frequently—that after a while they begin to take on a white-noise quality. He will say something like “I mean, the party of socialism and anti-Semitism is probably not very desirable as a governing party,” and you won’t bother challenging him, or fact-checking him, or arching an eyebrow—in fact, you might not even notice. His smarter-than-thou persona seems so impenetrable, his mind so unchangeable, that after a while you just give up on anything approaching a regular human conversation.

But the zoo appears to have put Gingrich in high spirits, and for the first time all day, he seems relaxed, loose, even a little gossipy. Slurping from a McDonald’s cup as we ride through the streets of Philadelphia, he shares stray observations from the 2016 campaign trail—Trump really is a fast-food obsessive, Gingrich confides, but “I’m told they currently have him on a diet”—and tosses in a bit of Clinton concern-trolling for good measure.

“I’ve known Hillary since ’93. I think it would be extraordinarily hard to be married to Bill Clinton and lose twice,” he tells me. “It reinforces the whole sense that he was the real deal and she wasn’t.” Alas, he says, it’s been sad to see his old friend resort to bitter recriminations since her defeat. “The way she is handling it is self-destructive.”

It is difficult to identify any coherent set of ideas animating Gingrich’s support for the president.

When Trump first began thinking seriously about running for president, he turned to Gingrich for advice. The two men had known each other for years—the Gingriches were members of Trump’s golf club in Virginia—and one morning in January 2015 they found themselves in Des Moines, Iowa, for a conservative conference. Over breakfast at the downtown Marriott, Trump peppered Newt and Callista with questions about running for president—most pressingly, how much it would cost him to fund a campaign through the South Carolina primary. Gingrich estimated that it would take about $70 million or $80 million to be competitive.

As Gingrich tells it, Trump considered this and then replied, “Seventy to 80 million—that would be a yacht. This would be a lot more fun than a yacht!”

And so began the campaign that Gingrich would call “a watershed moment for America’s future.” Early on, Gingrich set himself apart from other prominent conservatives by talking up Trump’s candidacy on TV and defending him against attacks from the GOP establishment. “Newt watched the Trump phenomenon take hold and metastasize, and he saw the parallels” to his own rise, says Kellyanne Conway, a senior adviser to the president who worked with Gingrich in the 1990s. “He recognized the echoes of ‘You can’t do this, this is a joke, you’re unelectable, don’t even try, you should be bowing to the people who have credentials.’ Newt had heard that all before.” Trump’s response—to cast all his skeptics as part of the same corrupt class of insiders and crooks—borrowed from the strategy Gingrich had modeled, Conway told me: “Long before there was ‘Drain the swamp,’ there was Newt’s ‘Throw the bums out.’ ”

Once Trump clinched the nomination, he rewarded Gingrich by putting him on the vice-presidential short list. For a while it looked like it might really happen. Gingrich had the support of influential inner-circlers like Sean Hannity, who flew him out on a private jet to meet with Trump on the campaign trail. But alas, a Trump-Gingrich ticket was not to be. There were, it turned out, certain optical issues that would have proved difficult to spin. As Ed Rollins, who ran a pro-Trump super pac, put it at the time, “It’d be a ticket with six former wives, kind of like a Henry VIII thing.”

After Trump was elected, Gingrich’s name was floated for several high-profile administration posts. Eager to affirm his centrality in this hinge-of-history moment, he started publicly implying that he had turned down the job of secretary of state in favor of a sweeping, self-designed role with ambiguous responsibilities—“general planner,” he called it, or “senior planner,” or maybe “chief planner.”

In fact, according to a transition official, Gingrich had little interest in giving up his lucrative private-sector side hustles, and was never really in the running for a Cabinet position. Instead, he had two requests: that Trump’s team leak that he was being considered for high office, and that Callista, a lifelong Catholic, be named ambassador to the Holy See. (Gingrich disputes this account.)

The Vatican gig was widely coveted, and there was some concern that Callista’s public history of adultery would prompt the pope to reject her appointment. But the Gingriches were friendly with a number of American cardinals, and Callista’s nomination sailed through. In Washington, the appointment was seen as a testament to the self-parodic nature of the Trump era—but in Rome, the arrangement has worked surprisingly well. Robert Mickens, a longtime Vatican journalist, told me that Callista is generally viewed as the ceremonial face of the embassy, while Newt—who told me he talks to the White House 10 to 15 times a week—acts as the “shadow ambassador.”

“Donald Trump is the grizzly bear in The Revenant,” Gingrich once gushed. “If you get his attention, he will get awake … He will walk over, bite your face off, and sit on you.”

Meanwhile, back in the States, Gingrich got to work marketing himself as the premier public intellectual of the Trump era. Ever since he was a young congressman, he had labored to cultivate a cerebral image, often schlepping piles of books into meetings on Capitol Hill. As an exercise in self-branding, at least, the effort seems to have worked: When I sent an email asking Paul Ryan what he thought of Gingrich, he responded with a pro forma statement describing the former speaker as an “ideas guy” twice in the space of six sentences.

Yet wading through Gingrich’s various books, articles, and think-tank speeches about Trump, it is difficult to identify any coherent set of “ideas” animating his support for the president. He is not a natural booster for the economic nationalism espoused by people like Steve Bannon, nor does he seem particularly smitten with the isolationism Trump championed on the stump.

Instead, Gingrich seems drawn to Trump the larger-than-life leader—virile and masculine, dynamic and strong, brimming with “total energy” as he mows down every enemy in his path. “Donald Trump is the grizzly bear in The Revenant,” Gingrich gushed during a December 2016 speech on “The Principles of Trumpism” at the Heritage Foundation. “If you get his attention, he will get awake … He will walk over, bite your face off, and sit on you.”

In Trump, Gingrich has found the apotheosis of the primate politics he has been practicing his entire life—nasty, vicious, and unconcerned with those pesky “Boy Scout words” as he fights in the Darwinian struggle that is American life today. “Trump’s America and the post-American society that the anti-Trump coalition represents are incapable of coexisting,” Gingrich writes in his most recent book. “One will simply defeat the other. There is no room for compromise. Trump has understood this perfectly since day one.”

For much of 2018, Gingrich has been channeling his energies toward shaping the GOP’s midterm strategy—writing messaging memos and fielding phone calls from candidates across the country. (During one early-morning meeting a couple of months after our zoo trip, our conversation is repeatedly interrupted by Gingrich’s cellphone blaring the ’70s disco song “Dancing Queen,” his chosen ringtone.) Gingrich tells me he’s advising party leaders to “stick to really big themes” in their midterm messaging, and then offers the following as examples: “Tax cuts lead to economic growth”; “We need work rather than welfare”; “MS-13 is really bad.”

He predicts that if Democrats win back the House, they will try to impeach Trump—but he is bullish about the president’s chances of survival.

“The problem the Democrats are gonna have is really simple,” he tells me. “Everything they’re gonna charge Trump with will be irrelevant to most Americans.” He says that most of the “explosive revelations” that have come out of the Russia investigation are unintelligible to the average person. “You’re driving your kids to soccer, you’re worried about your mom in the nursing home, and you’re thinking about your job, and you’re going, This is Washington crap.”

I ask Gingrich whether he, as someone who follows Washington crap rather closely and does not have kids to drive to soccer, worries at all about the mounting evidence of coordination between Russians and the Trump campaign.

Gingrich guffaws. “The idea that you would worry about what [Michael] Cohen said, or what some porn star may or may not have done before she was arrested by the Cincinnati police”—he is revving up now, and his voice is getting higher—“I mean, this whole thing is a parody! I tell everybody: We live in the age of the Kardashians. This is all Kardashian politics. Noise followed by noise followed by hysteria followed by more noise, creating big enough celebrity status so you can sell the hats with your name on it and become a millionaire.”

This sounds like it’s intended as a criticism of our political culture, but given his loyalty to Trump—arguably the world’s most successful practitioner of “Kardashian politics”—I can’t quite tell. When I point out the apparent dissonance, Gingrich is ready with a counter.

“If you want to see genius, look at the hat,” he tells me. “What does the hat say?”

“Make America great again?” I respond.

Gingrich nods triumphantly, as though he’s just achieved checkmate. “It doesn’t say Donald Trump.”

A few hours after parting ways with Gingrich, I take my seat in a cavernous downtown-Philadelphia theater, where more than 2,000 people are waiting to hear him speak. The crowd of mostly white, mostly well-dressed attendees isn’t particularly partisan—the event is part of a lecture series that includes speakers like Gloria Steinem and Dave Barry—but at this moment of political upheaval, they seem eager to hear from a seasoned Washington insider.

Shortly after 8 o’clock, Gingrich takes the stage. “How many of you find what’s going on kind of confusing?” he asks. “Raise your hand.” Hundreds of hands go up, as laughter ripples across the theater. “Any of you who do not find this confusing,” he says, “are delusional.”

And yet, over the next 75 minutes, Gingrich doesn’t offer much clarity. Instead, he begins with a travelogue of his day at the zoo (“It was a wonderful break from that other zoo!”), and then lurches into a rambling story about the T. rex skull he used to display in his office when he was speaker. He reminisces about Time making him Man of the Year in 1995, and spends several minutes describing the technological advancements in private space travel, a favorite hobbyhorse of his. At one point, he pauses to lavish praise on the restaurant scene in Rome; at another, he simply starts listing impressive titles he has held over the course of his career.

From my seat in the balcony, I’m struck by how thoroughly Gingrich seems to be enjoying himself—not just onstage, but in the luxurious quasi-retirement he has carved out. He is dabbling in geopolitics, dining in fine Italian restaurants. When he feels like traveling, he crisscrosses the Atlantic in business class, opining on the issues of the day from bicontinental TV studios and giving speeches for $600 a minute. There is time for reading, and writing, and midday zoo trips—and even he will admit, “It’s a very fun life.” The world may be burning, but Newt Gingrich is enjoying the spoils.

As he nears the end of his remarks, Gingrich adopts a somber tone. “I will tell you,” he says, “I could never quite have imagined our political structure being as chaotic as it currently is … I could never quite have imagined the kind of political gridlock that we’ve gotten into.”

For a moment, it sounds almost as if Gingrich is on the brink of a confession—an acknowledgment of what he has wrought; an apology, perhaps, for setting us on this course. But it turns out he is just setting up an attack line aimed at congressional Democrats for opposing a Republican spending bill. I should have known.

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By the time Gingrich shuffles offstage, many in the audience seem to have lost patience with him. As we file out of the theater, I catch snippets of grumpy reviews: Waste of time … He didn’t even answer the questions … The last speaker was much better … One man grumbles, “I think that guy’s done more to fuck up our democracy than anyone.”

That may seem like an overly harsh assessment. But tomorrow morning, when these people turn on the news, they will see footage of a reckless president who ascended to the White House on the power of televised politics. In a few months, their airwaves will be polluted with nasty attack ads. They will read stories about partisan impeachment efforts, and looming government shutdowns, and lawmakers more adept at name-calling than passing legislation. And though he won’t be there to say it in person, Gingrich will be somewhere out in the world—at a trattoria along Via Veneto, or perched comfortably in a cable-news greenroom—thinking, You’re welcome.


This article appears in the November 2018 print edition with the headline “Newt Gingrich Says You’re Welcome.”

The NY Times Uncovers Conservative Attacks and Then Prints One; Both Are On The Front Page

By George Lakoff, http://georgelakoff.com, November 24, 2013

Excerpt

…For decades, Republican conservatives have constructed and carried out extensive, well-planned, long-term communication campaigns to change public discourse and the way the public thinks. It has been done very effectively and, for the most part, not secretly…deeper and systematic efforts by conservatives extending back four decades and the nature of the underlying general ideologypart of an attempt to change the idea of what America is about. The Times missed the think tanks, the framing professionals, the training institutes, the booking agencies, the Wednesday morning meetings on both national and state levels, and the role of ALEC in the states — all set out in the Lewis Powell memo more than four decades ago and carried out since then as part of seamless system directed at changing the brains of Americans.

I do mean changing brains. Because all thought is physical, carried out by neural circuitry, every change in how we understand anything is a brain change, and conservatives are effectively using the techniques that marketers have developed for changing brains, and they’ve been using them for decades…

we should begin by discussing some basic cognitive linguistics… all words are cognitively defined relative to conceptual “frames” — structures we all use to think all the time. Frames don’t float in the air; they are neural circuits in our brains. Frames in politics are not neutral; they reflect an underlying value system. That means that language in politics is not neutral. Political words do not just pick out something in the world. They reflect value-based frames. If you successfully frame public discourse, you win the debate.

A common neuroscience estimate is that about 98 percent of thought is unconscious and automatic, carried out by the neural system….Since frames carry value-based inferences with them, successfully framing public discourse means getting the public to adopt your values, and hence winning over the public by unconscious brain change, not by open discussion of the values inherent in the frames and the values that undergird the frames.

I have always suggested to progressives to know their values and state their real values clearly, using frames they really believe. Values trump mere facts presented without the values that make them meaningful. Honest values-based framing is the opposite of spin — the deceptive use of language to avoid embarrassment.

The reason that those of us in the cognitive and brain sciences write so passionately about framing issues is that unconscious thought and framing are not generally understood — especially in progressive circles. Most progressives who went to college studied what is called Enlightenment reason, a theory of reason coming from Descartes around 1650 — and which was historically important in 1650. The Cartesian theory of how reason works has since been largely disproved in the cognitive and brain sciences…

conservatives have successfully reframed economic terms to fit their values, and that the economic terms in public discourse no longer mean what they do in economics classes…By framing language to fit conservative values and by getting their framing of the language to dominate public debate, conservatives change the public’s brains by the following mechanism.

Liberals…will not be aware of their own unconscious values, will take then for granted, and will think that all they have to do is state the facts and the public will be convinced rationally. The facts are crucial, but they need to framed in moral terms to make moral sense and a moral impact…

The word at issue is “redistribution.” The subject matter is the flow of wealth in the society and what it should be. This is a fundamentally moral issue, and the major political framings reflect two different moral views of democracy itself.

The liberal view of democracy…was based on the idea that citizens care about other citizens and work responsibly (with both personal and social responsibility) through their government to provide public resources for all.Conservatives have a very different view of democracy. They believe that democracy gives them the “liberty” to pursue their own interests without the government standing in their way or helping them. Their moral principle is individual responsibility, not social responsibility. If you haven’t developed the discipline to make it on your own, then you should fail…This is the conservative frame for redistribution: it is taking away money that you hard-working Americans have earned and deserve, and “redistributing” it to those who haven’t earned it and don’t deserve it…most liberals…do not comprehend that the word “redistribution” has been redefined in terms of a conservative frame, and to use the word is to help conservatives in their moral crusade to undermine progressive values and the traditional view of liberal democracy…For liberals, democracy is defined by equality, and by the “self-evident” “inalienable rights of life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness,” where health is inherent to those values…The Republican brain change mechanism is not only worth a front-page discussion of its own, but deserves itself to brought into public discourse and reported on regularly.

Full text

The NY Times has many virtues and some important flaws. Both were evident on the paper’s front page this week and there is a lot to be learned by what did and did not appear there.

For decades, Republican conservatives have constructed and carried out extensive, well-planned, long-term communication campaigns to change public discourse and the way the public thinks. It has been done very effectively and, for the most part, not secretly. The NY Times finally began reporting on this effort on Thursday, November 21, 2013 in a fine piece by Jonathan Weisman and Sheryl Gay Stolberg.

The Times reported on the House Republicans’ memo on how to attack the Affordable Care Act through a “multilayered sequence assault,” gathering stories “through social media letters from constituents, or meeting back home” and a new GOP website. The Times also reported on the “closed door” strategy sessions, going back to last year.

It’s a start, and it’s about time. What the Times missed was the far deeper and systematic efforts by conservatives extending back four decades and the nature of the underlying general ideology covering dozens of issues that have been served by these efforts. The Times also missed the reason why the attack on the ACA is more than just anti-Obama politics, but rather part of an attempt to change the idea of what America is about. The Times missed the think tanks, the framing professionals, the training institutes, the booking agencies, the Wednesday morning meetings on both national and state levels, and the role of ALEC in the states — all set out in the Lewis Powell memo more than four decades ago and carried out since then as part of seamless system directed at changing the brains of Americans.

I do mean changing brains. Because all thought is physical, carried out by neural circuitry, every change in how we understand anything is a brain change, and conservatives are effectively using the techniques that marketers have developed for changing brains, and they’ve been using them for decades, at least since the notorious Lewis Powell Memo in 1971.

Full disclosure: I began writing about conservative framing in my 1996 book Moral Politics, and about the conservative brain changing machine in my 2004 book Don’t Think of an Elephant!, p. 15 (click to see the discussion at: http://www.chelseagreen.com/bookstore/item/dont_think_of_an_elephant:paperback/chapter_1). For the Powell memo, just google “Lewis Powell memo.”

At least, the Times did get an important part of it right on Thursday, and we should be grateful.

Then, on Sunday, November 24, 2013, the Times published on its front page what looked like a news story, but was a conservative column called “White House Memo” by John Harwood, who is CNBC’s Chief Washington Correspondent, and who previously worked as the Wall Street Journal’s political editor and chief political correspondent. It’s one thing to publish a blatant conservative attack on President Obama in a column on the op-ed page or in the Sunday Review, and another to publish it on the front page, as if it were a news story.

The Harwood column is illuminating in its attack mode, which is quite artful and an excellent example of conservative attacks. To appreciate it, we should begin by discussing some basic cognitive linguistics. As the great linguist Charles Fillmore discovered in 1975, all words are cognitively defined relative to conceptual “frames” — structures we all use to think all the time. Frames don’t float in the air; they are neural circuits in our brains. Frames in politics are not neutral; they reflect an underlying value system. That means that language in politics is not neutral. Political words do not just pick out something in the world. They reflect value-based frames. If you successfully frame public discourse, you win the debate.

A common neuroscience estimate is that about 98 percent of thought is unconscious and automatic, carried out by the neural system. Daniel Kahneman has since brought frame-based unconscious thought into the public arena in what he has called “System 1 thinking.” Since frames carry value-based inferences with them, successfully framing public discourse means getting the public to adopt your values, and hence winning over the public by unconscious brain change, not by open discussion of the values inherent in the frames and the values that undergird the frames.

I have always suggested to progressives to know their values and state their real values clearly, using frames they really believe. Values trump mere facts presented without the values that make them meaningful. Honest values-based framing is the opposite of spin — the deceptive use of language to avoid embarrassment.

The reason that those of us in the cognitive and brain sciences write so passionately about framing issues is that unconscious thought and framing are not generally understood — especially in progressive circles. Most progressives who went to college studied what is called Enlightenment reason, a theory of reason coming from Descartes around 1650 — and which was historically important in 1650. The Cartesian theory of how reason works has since been largely disproved in the cognitive and brain sciences.

The Cartesian theory assumes that all thought is conscious, that it is literal (that is, it fits the world directly and uses no frame-based or metaphorical thought), that reason uses a form of mathematical logic (not frame-based logic or metaphorical logic), and that words are neutral and fit the world directly. Many liberal economists have been trained in this mode of thought and assume that the language used in economic theory is neutral and just fits the world as it is. They are usually not trained in frame semantics, cognitive linguistics, and related fields. The same is often true of liberal journalists as well. Both often miss the fact that conservatives have successfully reframed economic terms to fit their values, and that the economic terms in public discourse no longer mean what they do in economics classes.

Part of what the Cartesian theory of reason misses is the real brain mechanism that allows the conservative communication theory to be effective. By framing language to fit conservative values and by getting their framing of the language to dominate public debate, conservatives change the public’s brains by the following mechanism. When a frame circuit is activated in the brain, its synapses are strengthened. This means that the probability of future activation is raised and probability of the frame becoming permanent in the brain is raised. Whenever a word defined by that frame is used, the frame is activated and strengthened. When conservatives successfully reframe a word in public discourse, that word activates conservative frames and with those frames, the conservative value system on which the frames are based. When progressives naively use conservatively reframed words, they help the conservative cause by strengthening the conservative value system in the brains of the public.

Liberals, in adhering to the old Cartesian theory of reason, will not be aware of their own unconscious values, will take then for granted, and will think that all they have to do is state the facts and the public will be convinced rationally. The facts are crucial, but they need to framed in moral terms to make moral sense and a moral impact.

To those who have a liberal Cartesian theory of reason, the attempt to warn the public and other liberals about the way language really works and to warn liberals not to use conservative framing will be seen as hiding the facts and misleading the public. That is what the Times columnist and CNBC Chief Washington correspondent, John Harwood used in his manipulative NY Times column.

The word at issue is “redistribution.” The subject matter is the flow of wealth in the society and what it should be. This is a fundamentally moral issue, and the major political framings reflect two different moral views of democracy itself.

The liberal view of democracy goes back to the founding of the nation, as historian Lynn Hunt of UCLA has shown in her book Inventing Human Rights. American democracy was based on the idea that citizens care about other citizens and work responsibly (with both personal and social responsibility) through their government to provide public resources for all. From the beginning, that meant roads and bridges, public education, hospitals, a patent office, a national bank, a justice system, controlling the flow of interstate commerce, and so on. Nowadays it includes much more — the development of the internet, satellite communications, the power grid, food safety monitoring, government research, and so on. Without those public resources, citizens cannot live reasonable lives, businesses cannot run, and a market economy would be impossible. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness require all this and health care. Unless you can get health care, your life is in jeopardy, as well as your freedom: if you have cancer and no health care, you are not free; if you break you leg and have no access to health care, you are not free, and so on. And if you are injured or sick and cannot maintain health, your life, liberty and happiness are all in jeopardy.

Under this view of democracy, the flow of wealth should guarantee the affordability of health care as a basic moral principle of democracy. If wealth has flowed in violation of this principle, that flow of wealth has been immoral, unpatriotic, and needs reform. So when liberals point out that productivity has risen greatly while salaries have not, they are talking about fairness in the flow of wealth: If you work for a living, you should earn a fair salary, that is, you should earn a living wage, which should be enough to guarantee adequate health care. Pensions are delayed payments of wages for work already done, and taking away pensions is theft. Employment is the purchase of labor by an employer with a negotiated price for the labor. Since corporations have more power in those negotiations than employees, unions are necessary to help make negotiations fair for the price of labor. When it is observed that most of the wealth in the past decade has flowed to the one percent, that means that fairness and the most fundamental of American principles have been violated and salaries and public resources have been inadequate and unfairly low.

The Affordable Care Act, from this perspective, is a move toward reform — toward a moral flow of wealth in line with the founding principles of the nation. I believe that President Obama, and most liberals, understand the intentions of Affordable Care Act in that way.

Conservatives have a very different view of democracy. They believe that democracy gives them the “liberty” to pursue their own interests without the government standing in their way or helping them. Their moral principle is individual responsibility, not social responsibility. If you haven’t developed the discipline to make it on your own, then you should fail — and if you can’t afford health care, so be it. Health care is seen as a “product” and citizens should not be paying for other citizens’ products. Rudy Giuliani, as a good conservative, likened health care to flat- screen TVs. Conservatives say that no one should be paying for anyone else (except their children and family members). Using public resources is seen as making you weak, taking away incentives for you to work for yourself. And they see it as making hard-working moral citizens pay for immoral slackers. This is the conservative frame for redistribution: it is taking away money that you hard-working Americans have earned and deserve, and “redistributing” it to those who haven’t earned it and don’t deserve it. For conservatives, this happens whenever there are public resources paid for by taxpayers. Therefore they believe that all public resources should be banned — and the affordable Care Act is a major special case and just the start.

That’s why John Boehner said, in explaining why the House has scheduled only 113 days to meet out of 365, said “We need to repeal old laws. Not pass new ones.” That is why the House conservatives saw it as moral to shut down the government and to let the sequester happen. They are ways to cut public resources.

Under this view of democracy, money previously made was made properly and using tax money for public resources is “redistribution.” “Using my money to pay for someone else” is inherently unfair in the conservative tradition. Conservatives over the past four decades have framed the word “redistribution” that way. Use of the word activates the conservative framing in general, not just the framing of the Affordable Care Act, but of the nature of democracy itself.

Because most liberals, including liberal economists, still believe in and use the inadequate Cartesian theory of reason, they do not comprehend that the word “redistribution” has been redefined in terms of a conservative frame, and to use the word is to help conservatives in their moral crusade to undermine progressive values and the traditional view of liberal democracy.

At this point we turn to the NY Times story, “Don’t Dare Call The Health Law ‘Redistribution’”on the front page, and inside “The economic policy that dare not speak its name.” John Harwood writes the following:

“These days the word is particularly toxic at the White House, where it has been hidden away to make the Affordable Care Act more palatable to the public and less a target for Republicans, who have long accused the Democrats of seeking “socialized medicine.” But the redistribution of wealth has always been a central feature of the law and lies at the heart of the insurance market disruptions driving political attacks this fall.”

Note that he uses the word “redistribution” without quotation marks, as if it were simply a fact and as if the Republican attacks were just true and the White house was trying to hide the truth. He later calls the Affordable Care Act a “semantic sidestep” on this issue.

Harwood goes on to cite the president’s misstatement that if you like your insurance you can keep it. I suspect that the president assumed that no one would like inadequate insurance if they could get much better, and adequate, insurance for the same price, which they might have been able to if the website had not failed. The president knew that no company was forced to cancel inadequate insurance, and incorrectly assumed that they wouldn’t. Yes, the president made those incorrect assumptions. But here is how Harwood comments:

Hiding in plain sight behind that pledge — visible to health policy experts but not the general public — was the redistribution required to extend health coverage to those who had been either locked out or priced out of the market.

Now some of that redistribution has come clearly into view.

The law, for example, banned rate discrimination against women, which insurance companies called “gender rating” to account for their higher health costs. But that raised the relative burden borne by men. The law also limited how much insurers can charge older Americans, who use more health care over all. But that raised the relative burden on younger people.

And the law required insurers to offer coverage to Americans with pre-existing conditions, which eased costs for less healthy people but raised prices for others who had been charged lower rates because of their good health.

“The A.C.A. is very much about redistribution, whether or not its advocates acknowledge that this is the case,” wrote Reihan Salam on the website of the conservative National Review.

Here again, the “redistribution” word is used in a conservative frame without quotation marks as if the frame were simply true, and the citation is from a major conservative publication, where the word is used with a conservative frame.

The issue is what democracy is about and what health care in a democracy is about. For liberals, democracy is defined by equality, and by the “self-evident” “inalienable rights of life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness,” where health is inherent to those values. Under such a conception of democracy, health should never be denied because one belongs to a demographic group that fate had given more ailments and injuries.

Conservatives are helped when “redistribution”, which they have successfully reframed their way, is used by certain liberal economists, who naïvely believe that the word is neutral because economists use it as a technical term.

Harwood begins framing his piece by discussing the case of Rebecca M. Blank.

Ms. Blank is a noted academic economist, having been one of three members of President Clinton’s Council of Economic Advisers. From 2009 to 2013 she served as Deputy Secretary of Commerce in the Obama Administration, and has since left for the grand opportunity to become chancellor of the University of Wisconsin.

In 2011, she was considered for Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers while serving in the Commerce Department. Harwood reports that she was passed over for the post because of something she had written in 1992:

“A commitment to economic justice necessarily implies a commitment to a redistribution of economic resources, so that the poor and the dispossessed are more fully included in the economic system.”

Harwood quotes William Daley, Obama’s chief of staff at the time, as saying, “Redistribution is a loaded word that conjures up all sorts of unfairness in people’s minds.” The Republicans wield it “as a hammer” against Democrats, he said, adding, “It’s a word that in the political world, you just don’t use.” Daley is right that it is a loaded word, in just the sense noted above, namely, that it has been framed by conservatives to fit their ideology and using it activates their frame and their ideology in people’s brains, thus helping conservatives. In 2011, Obama was up for re-election and Daley judged that having Republicans dig up that quote would help them launch an unfair attack against the president.

Harwood reports the affair as if Obama had something to hide, rather than not wanting a conservatively framed concept to be falsely attributed to him. Harwood is clever. First, he quotes another liberal economist, Jonathan Gruber, who uses the word naively as a neutral technical economic term. Then at the end of the article, he reports an Obama slip at a talk in Elyria, Ohio 18 months earlier. The slip involved Obama’s use of a negative. In Don’t Think of an Elephant!, I pointed out that negating a word, activates the meaning of the word. If I tell you not to think of an elephant, you will think of an elephant. Here is the Obama slip that Harwood cites, “Understand this is not a redistribution argument … This is not about taking from rich people to give to poor people.” That was the slip, and Harwood searched back 18 months to Elyria, Ohio to find it. But then the president caught himself and said positively what he meant. “This is about us together making investments in our country so everybody’s got a fair shot.”

Here’s the take-away from these two pieces in the Times this week. First, there was a tiny glimpse of the huge conservative Republican communication system, with no account of its history, it’s extent, or how it works to change people’s brains. I hope the Times will go on to do more and better in the future. Second, the Times printed on its front page a classic example of how the conservative system works, naively presenting it at face value without any serious framing analysis. The Times missed the conservative reframing of the word “redistribution,” missed the difference in the views of morality and democracy that lie behind the framing difference, missed the use of the conservatively reframed word as neutral by liberal economists, missed what it means for a word to be “loaded,” and succumbed like other journalists trained on Cartesian reason in helping conservatism keep its hold on public discourse.

Harwood is a smart political operative. His technique is a classic example of the Republican message machine reported on in Thursday’s Times, and is well worth serious study. The Republican brain change mechanism is not only worth a front-page discussion of its own, but deserves itself to brought into public discourse and reported on regularly.

http://georgelakoff.com/2013/11/24/the-ny-times-uncovers-conservative-attacks-and-then-prints-one-both-are-on-the-front-page/#more-2662

Our Inconsistent Ethical Instincts

by Matthew Hutson, New York Times, March 30, 2013

Excerpt

MORAL quandaries often pit concerns about principles against concerns about practical consequences…We like to believe that the principled side of the equation is rooted in deep, reasoned conviction. But a growing wealth of research shows that those values often prove to be finicky, inconsistent intuitions, swayed by ethically irrelevant factors… Even the way a scenario is worded can influence our judgments, as lawyers and politicians well know….knowing that our instincts are so sensitive to outside factors can prevent us from settling on our first response. Objective moral truth doesn’t exist, and these studies show that even if it did, our grasp of it would be tenuous. But we can encourage consistency in moral reasoning by viewing issues from many angles, discussing them with other people and monitoring our emotions closely…

Full text

MORAL quandaries often pit concerns about principles against concerns about practical consequences. Should we ban assault rifles and large sodas, restricting people’s liberties for the sake of physical health and safety? Should we allow drone killings or torture, if violating one person’s rights could save a thousand lives?

We like to believe that the principled side of the equation is rooted in deep, reasoned conviction. But a growing wealth of research shows that those values often prove to be finicky, inconsistent intuitions, swayed by ethically irrelevant factors. What you say now you might disagree with in five minutes. And such wavering has implications for both public policy and our personal lives.

Philosophers and psychologists often distinguish between two ethical frameworks. A utilitarian perspective evaluates an action purely by its consequences. If it does good, it’s good.

A deontological approach, meanwhile, also takes into account aspects of the action itself, like whether it adheres to certain rules. Do not kill, even if killing does good.

No one adheres strictly to either philosophy, and it turns out we can be nudged one way or the other for illogical reasons.

For a recent paper to be published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, subjects were made to think either abstractly or concretely — say, by writing about the distant or near future. Those who were primed to think abstractly were more accepting of a hypothetical surgery that would kill a man so that one of his glands could be used to save thousands of others from a deadly disease. In other words, a very simple manipulation of mind-set that did not change the specifics of the case led to very different responses.

Class can also play a role. Another paper, in the March issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, shows that upper-income people tend to have less empathy than those from lower-income strata, and so are more willing to sacrifice individuals for the greater good.

Upper-income subjects took more money from another subject to multiply it and give to others, and found it more acceptable to push a fat man in front of a trolley to save five others on the track — both outcome-oriented responses.

But asking subjects to focus on the feelings of the person losing the money made wealthier respondents less likely to accept such a trade-off.

Other recent research shows similar results: stressing subjects, rushing them or reminding them of their mortality all reduce utilitarian responses, most likely by preventing them from controlling their emotions.

Even the way a scenario is worded can influence our judgments, as lawyers and politicians well know. In one study, subjects read a number of variations of the classic trolley dilemma: should you turn a runaway trolley away from five people and onto a track with only one? When flipping the switch was described as saving the people on the first track, subjects tended to support it. When it was described as killing someone on the second, they did not. Same situation, different answers.

And other published studies have shown that our moods can make misdeeds seem more or less sinful. Ethical violations become less offensive after people watch a humor program like “Saturday Night Live.” But they become more offensive after reading “Chicken Soup for the Soul,” which triggers emotional elevation, or after smelling a mock-flatulence spray, which triggers disgust.

The scenarios in these papers are somewhat contrived (trolleys and such), but they have real-world analogues: deciding whether to fire a loyal employee for the good of the company, or whether to donate to a single sick child rather than to an aid organization that could save several.

Regardless of whether you endorse following the rules or calculating benefits, knowing that our instincts are so sensitive to outside factors can prevent us from settling on our first response. Objective moral truth doesn’t exist, and these studies show that even if it did, our grasp of it would be tenuous.

But we can encourage consistency in moral reasoning by viewing issues from many angles, discussing them with other people and monitoring our emotions closely. In recognizing our psychological quirks, we just might find answers we can live with.

Matthew Hutson, the author of “The 7 Laws of Magical Thinking: How Irrational Beliefs Keep Us Happy, Healthy, and Sane,” is writing a book on taboos.

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/31/opinion/sunday/how-firm-are-our-principles.htm

How Frank Luntz Is Killing the GOP

by Brett C. Di Resta, Huffington Post.com,  04/ 9/2012

Excerpt

..Frank Luntz is a top Republican pollster and wordsmith. Luntz is best known for working with Republicans on language, making sure that Republican talking points are soothing to the ear of Americans. The motto on his website is “its not what you say, it’s what they hear.” His strategy has been an unbridled success for the GOP. Republicans have learned that it’s not what they are selling, but how they sell it that is important. So the inheritance tax became the death tax. And anti-environmental bills get very green-friendly names, like Clear Skies… the GOP learned how to use the right poll-tested words…Another problem with winning with Luntz-style politics is that it has led to hubris; Republicans believe they can talk their way out of anything. Just look at their strategy in the war against women…RNC Chairman Reince Priebus blamed the media…No politician has shown greater adherence to verbiage and less fidelity to substance than Mitt Romney. Romney…

Full text

This post isn’t what you expect. I’m not here to bury Frank Luntz, but to praise him. For those not familiar, Frank Luntz is a top Republican pollster and wordsmith. Luntz is best known for working with Republicans on language, making sure that Republican talking points are soothing to the ear of Americans. The motto on his website is “its not what you say, it’s what they hear.”

His strategy has been an unbridled success for the GOP. Republicans have learned that it’s not what they are selling, but how they sell it that is important. So the inheritance tax became the death tax. And anti-environmental bills get very green-friendly names, like Clear Skies. Let’s just say the Pink Slime folks ought to have put Mr. Luntz on their speed dial.

More recently, the focus on language as opposed to substance, has led to foolish policy prescriptions. In 2011, the Ryan budget plan was a debacle. Citizens rebelled against the idea of ending Medicare as an entitlement while cutting taxes for the rich. After such a debacle one would think Republicans would change their policy, right?

Not the party of Luntz. As a Politico story laid out, the GOP just changed the way they talked about the plan.

And perhaps most important, the GOP learned how to use the right poll-tested words… Last year, (Republicans) were blindsided by the backlash to the Wisconsin Republican’s plan. It was immediately framed by Democrats as ending Medicare, crushing Medicaid while keeping taxes low for the rich. Ryan, who was being pitched as a presidential prospect for the party, receded as his plan came under attack from all sides.

The 2012 plan is — simply put — to not talk about the plan too much.

And there you have the modern GOP in a nutshell. When America hates their policies, they don’t change it or heaven forbid, compromise. No, they just use new “poll-tested words.”

Another problem with winning with Luntz-style politics is that it has led to hubris; Republicans believe they can talk their way out of anything. Just look at their strategy in the war against women.

Poll after poll shows that the GOP’s policies, be it transvaginal ultrasounds or making contraception coverage harder to get, have been a disaster with women. A recent Gallup poll indicates an 18-point gender gap in favor of President Obama.

But you wouldn’t know it was a problem by the GOP response. South Carolina Governor and VP contender Nikki Haley went on television and said, “Women don’t care about contraception.” RNC Chairman Reince Priebus blamed the media for the GOP’s problem with women. It’s as if the GOP is trying to pull the Jedi Mind Trick on the entire population.

Now, at the top of the ticket, we have a Luntzian candidate in its purest form. No politician has shown greater adherence to verbiage and less fidelity to substance than Mitt Romney. Romney, the true heir to Luntz, may cost the GOP in the end. And that may be too good for words.

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/brett-c-di-resta/how-frank-luntz-is-killin_b_1411525.html

Why are “Wedge Issues” Essential to Republican Rule?

BUZZFLASH NEWS ANALYSIS,   23 July 2006

Excerpt

While they have the public and the media distracted with red hot emotional topics, they go off and make the wealthy wealthier, increase our national debt, dismantle the Constitution, and take away government social services. Wedge issues are a powerful distraction — and allow the right wing to accomplish their goals while the public is preoccupied with some trumped up emotional issue that the Busheviks could care less about… wedge issues are emotional in appeal. They bypass the cognitive function of the brain and go right to a subconscious emotional response. Name any Republican wedge issue from immigration, to abortion, to gay marriage, to flag burning… “the war on terrorism” … and you run head into an emotional, not a reasoned, hook…. Basically, the Republican “rule by emotional appeal” boils down to a big brother elitism whose message to Americans is simply this: “Don’t think. We’ll do the thinking for you. Just follow.”

Full text

Why are “wedge issues” so important to the modern Republican Party?

First of all, wedge issues are emotional in appeal. They bypass the cognitive function of the brain and go right to a subconscious emotional response. Name any Republican wedge issue from immigration, to abortion, to gay marriage, to flag burning — not to mention the granddaddy of them all: “the war on terrorism” and FEAR — and you run head into an emotional, not a reasoned, hook.

In short, the Republicans are tremendously skilled at employing the art of the demagogue to get Americans — around half at any given time — to avoid reasoned discussion of public policy. They do this by appealing to emotional, instinctual reactions that are not processed through a thoughtful process. It’s called pressing a hot button.

Second of all, the Republicans use wedge issues to, essentially, pickpocket the American public and dismantle the American government.

While they have the public and the media distracted with red hot emotional topics, they go off and make the wealthy wealthier, increase our national debt, dismantle the Constitution, and take away government social services. Wedge issues are a powerful distraction — and allow the right wing to accomplish their goals while the public is preoccupied with some trumped up emotional issue that the Busheviks could care less about.

Finally, wedge issues are a tremendous fundraising tool for the right wing. In fact, the campaigns of right wing candidates were financed by the money generated by right wing wedge issue direct mail. Richard Viguerie was the guru who started the direct mail juggernaut for GOP candidates — and organizations — and he’s still going strong. It shouldn’t be forgotten that Rove came to the fore in Texas politics as a direct mail consultant.

In short, wedge issues that press the hot buttons of right wing donors sell big time. We heard Viguerie speak recently and he referred to “pre-sold” wedge issues. In essence, these are topics like “gay marriage,” “abortion,” and “war on terror” that you include in the first sentence of a GOP direct mail piece and you are guaranteed a good response because they have such visceral impact on Stepford GOP followers.

Progressives and Democrats have far fewer “pre-sold” appeals — except for the mention of Bush and Cheney — because progressives and Democrats think more before acting. That may sound snobbish, but it’s true from a direct mail perspective.

Basically, the Republican “rule by emotional appeal” boils down to a big brother elitism whose message to Americans is simply this: “Don’t think. We’ll do the thinking for you. Just follow.”

http://www.truth-out.org/buzzflash/commentary/item/79-why-are-wedge-issues-essential-to-republican-rule

In Public ‘Conversation’ on Guns, a Rhetorical Shift

By NATE SILVER, December 14, 2012

Friday’s mass shooting at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., has already touched off a heated political debate. Opponents of stricter regulation on gun ownership have accused their adversaries of politicizing a tragedy. Advocates of more sweeping gun control measures have argued that the Connecticut shootings are a demonstration that laxer gun laws can have dire consequences. Let me sidestep the debate to pose a different question: How often are Americans talking about public policy toward guns? And what language are they using to frame their arguments?

There is, of course, no way to monitor the conversations that take place in living rooms around the country. But we can measure the frequency with which phrases related to gun policy are used by the news media.

If the news coverage is any guide, there has been a change of tone in recent years in the public conversation about guns. The two-word phrase “gun control” is being used considerably less often than it was 10 or 20 years ago. But the phrase “gun rights” is being used more often. And the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution is being invoked more frequently in the discussion.

In the chart below, I’ve tracked the number of news articles that used the terms “gun control,” “gun rights,” “gun violence” and “Second Amendment” in American newspapers, according to the database NewsLibrary.com. (Because the number of articles in the database changes over time, the figures are normalized to reflect the overall volume of database coverage in any given year, with the numbers representing how often the gun-related phrases were used per 1,000 articles on any subject.)

The usage of all four phrases, but particularly the term “gun control,” has been subject to sharp but temporary shifts based on news events.

In 1993 and 1994, when Congress was debating a ban on assault weapons, the phrase “gun control” was used about three times per 1,000 news articles. Use of the term was even higher after the mass shootings in Columbine, Colo., peaking at 3.7 instances per 1,000 articles in 1999. It reached a low point in 2010, when the term “gun control” was used 0.3 times per 1,000 articles — less than one-tenth as often as in the year after the Columbine shootings.

Averaging the frequency of usage over a five-year period reduces the effect of these news-driven fluctuations and reveals a reasonably clear long-term trend. In recent years, the term “gun control” has been used only about half as often as it was in the 1980s and about one-quarter as often as in the 1990s and early 2000s.

But other phrases related to gun policy have become more common in news coverage.

The term “Second Amendment” was rarely employed in the 1980s, but it has become much more commonplace since then. (Since 2008, the term “Second Amendment” has been used more often than “gun control.”) A related phrase, “gun rights,” has also come into more common usage.

The term “gun violence” peaked in 1999, the year of the Columbine shootings. But it has also been on a long-term increase. Since 2010, it has been used 0.33 times per 1,000 news articles — far more often than during the 1980s, when it was invoked 0.02 times per 1,000 articles.

The change in rhetoric may reflect the increasing polarization in the debate over gun policy. “Gun control,” a relatively neutral term, has been used less and less often. But more politically charged phrases, like “gun violence” and “gun rights,” have become more common. Those who advocate greater restrictions on gun ownership may have determined that their most persuasive argument is to talk about the consequences of increased access to guns — as opposed to the weedy debate about what rights the Second Amendment may or may not convey to gun owners. For opponents of stricter gun laws, the debate has increasingly become one about Constitutional protections. Certainly, many opponents of gun control measures also argue that efforts to restrict gun ownership could backfire in various ways or will otherwise fail to reduce violence. But broadly speaking, they would prefer that the debate be about what they see as Constitutional rights, rather than the utilitarian consequences of gun control measures.

Their strategy may have been working. The polling evidence suggests that the public has gone from tending to back stricter gun control policies to a more ambiguous position in recent years. There may be some voters who think that the Constitution provides broad latitude to own and carry guns – even if the consequences can sometimes be tragic.

http://fivethirtyeight.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/12/14/in-public-conversation-on-guns-a-rhetorical-shift/?nl=todaysheadlines&emc=edit_th_20121215

Crib Notes for Lakoff’s Latest by Anna Fahey

http://daily.sightline.org, August 9, 2012 

An even littler guide to The Little Blue Book. This post is part of the research project: Flashcards 

Love him or leave him, agree or disagree (…with his science or his conclusions or his politics…), George Lakoff has been enormously successful in getting lots of us thinking about how the brain processes words and language—about framing. 

And while many of his specific frame recommendations over the years may have been too complicated or too lofty to put to work, his insistence more generally that language is never neutral and his pleas to proactively frame the debate and to link our values and moral convictions to policy solutions undoubtedly took us in the right direction. 

Lakoff’s latest framing handbook is hot off the presses: The Little Blue Book: The Essential Guide to Thinking and Talking Democratic (co-authored by Elisabeth Wehling). The book is most successful 1) as a reminder to never check your values and morals at the door when talking policy; and 2) as a thoughtful treatise on how we define our vision for the nation and how we talk about government in moral terms. 

But despite promising sounding chapter titles like “A Phrasebook” and talking points under headings declaring “Here’s what to say,” the book left me hungry for clearer takeaways. 

So, I’ve taken the liberty to distill the Little Blue Book into something even littler—a Flashcard (with longer explanations below.) My aim is to give busy people the “Cliff Notes” version—a pocket guide to Lakoff’s messaging lessons that actually fits in your pocket. 

And in a subsequent post, I’ll distill Lakoff’s talking points for defining the role of government in moral terms. 

First the basics: 

Crib Notes for Lakoff’s Little Blue Book

  • Never check your morals at the door—talk about them! (Always sandwich facts and figures in values.)
  • Don’t repeat the opposition’s language, even when arguing against it.
  • Words don’t mean the same thing to everybody. Explain big ideas—freedom, fairness, democracy—in terms of your moral vision.
  • Say it simply and bring it home—use plain language and tell stories about real people.
  • Start with solid ideas! Words are tools for connecting ideas to our moral values.
  • Practice, practice, practice—and repeat, repeat, repeat. 

Lakoff 101 in a bit more depth—but still quite little 

Oddly, a list of the “Most Important Things” from The Little Blue Book is available on the book’s blog (The Little Blue Blog) and in the publisher’s publicity materials, but not in the book itself, where you have to hunt for them (or guess at them). So, for the Flashcard and for the summary below, I mashed up the “official” top 10 list from the publisher with my own notes from the book—so this is my version of a Lakoff 101. 

  • Never check your moral values at the door—talk about them! Lakoff likes to remind us that “All politics is moral, and morality trumps policy.” All of us have values and morals—the problem is not deciding what they are. The problem is that many of us fail to express the moral dimensions of our policy positions. We make the grave mistake of assuming our values and morals are simply implied or understood. Lakoff urges us to talk about the moral bases of our policy positions openly and regularly.
  • Always sandwich your facts and figures in values and morals. Facts have little meaning outside of frames, metaphors, and moral narratives. Always discuss facts (and policy) within moral frames, because people do not reason outside of those moral frames.
  • “Don’t repeat the opposition’s language or ideas, even when arguing against them.” Instead, use your own language, say what you believe, and express the moral underpinnings for your position. It is particularly important to start with your beliefs (and frames). What comes first provides the lens through which the rest will be viewed. (Remember: Evoking the negative frame reinforces it. Think: “I am not a crook.”)
  • Words don’t mean the same thing to everybody. Explain big ideas—freedom, fairness, democracy—in terms of your moral vision. Don’t take the meaning of big ideas or values for granted. Each comes in at least two versions depending on one’s political worldview. So when you talk about those ideas, make sure you are talking about YOUR version—and taking the time to explain what you mean.
  • Everybody is morally complex—by expressing our morals we find common ground. (See: biconceptual). All of us, but especially “Moderates,” “independents,” and “swing voters” will use conservative moral frames on some issues and progressive moral frames on others. Reinforce the morality you share with others by using YOUR moral language.
  • Say it simply—in plain terms. Stick to basic level words. In cognitive science that means words that tend to be short and concrete (e.g. chair rather than furniture; water or air vs. environment.) Basic level words are more easily remembered. They also tend to more readily bring clear, familiar imagery to mind. They also tend to evoke body reactions (in brain science “motor programs”). Think of the physical reaction we have to the word cat vs. the more abstract concept of animal. Simple words are more potent. (Think: Can I see it, touch it, smell or hear it? Could I draw a picture or pantomime it?)
  • Bring it home—tell stories about real people. People want to know how policies affect their own lives. Share stories about real people and don’t be afraid to talk about yourself and your own motivations. “Share the stories that inspire you to work for this country,” or for your community.
  • Start with solid ideas! Words are good tools connecting ideas to our moral values. Lakoff reminds us that it’s not just words that matter. “If you think you have a language problem, you really have an idea problem,” he insists. Ideas are primary—and the language carries those ideas, evokes those ideas. Words, messages, and language are tools to use to better connect your ideas to your values and morals. To get language right, you have to understand the thoughts and ideas it conjures up.
  • Practice, practice, practice—and repeat, repeat, repeat. It’s often difficult for policy wonks to express values and morals. But if we don’t define central political frames in terms of our own morals and values, they’ll be defined for us. Practice helps us feel comfortable saying it out loud. “Repetition strengthens frames. Repeat your own moral frames over and over, every hour of every day of every year.” 

There are the key lessons in a nutshell. Stay tuned for a distilled take on Lakoff on talking about government. 

And for the record, Sightline’s work is not directed at Democrats in particular as Lakoff and Wehling’s book clearly is (don’t forget, I’ve issued talking points based on the work of Republican pollster Frank Luntz, Ronald Reagan, Michael Bloomberg, and Arnold Schwarzenegger.) But there are some general messaging lessons and useful language from The Little Blue Book that I think are worth sharing with our audiences working toward sustainability policy solutions. 

Sightline Flashcards are messaging memos designed as short, scannable tools for sharing effective communications strategies. Our strategic communications team digests piles of public opinion research, transcripts from speeches, expert advice, and academic studies—from cognitive linguistics and neuroscience to political science, sociology, and psychology—distilling best practices in messaging. Flashcards often focus on values-based communication: strategies for talking about important policies or issue solutions in terms of shared values. 

Want to receive Flashcards by email? Sign up. 

http://daily.sightline.org/2012/08/09/crib-notes-for-lakoffs-latest/

The Conservative Psyche: How Ordinary People Come to Embrace the Cruelty of Paul Ryan and Other Right-Wingers

By Joshua Holland [2] AlterNet [1]  August 14, 2012  |  

Earlier this year, Democratic operatives looking for the best way to define Mitt Romney discovered something interesting about Paul Ryan’s budget. The New York Times reported that when the details of his proposals were run past focus groups, they found that the plan is so cruel that voters [3]simply refused to believe any politician would do such a thing.”

In addition to phasing out the Earned Income Tax Credit that keeps millions of American families above the poverty line and cutting funding for children’s healthcare in half, Jonathan Cohn described [4] the “America that Paul Ryan envisions” like this:

Many millions of working-age Americans would lose health insurance. Senior citizens would anguish over whether to pay their rent or their medical bills, in a way they haven’t since the 1960s. Government would be so starved of resources that, by 2050, it wouldn’t have enough money for core functions like food inspections and highway maintenance.

Ryan’s “roadmap” may be the least serious budget plan [5][5]ever to emerge in Washington, but it is reflective of how far to the right the GOP has moved in recent years. According to a recent study of public attitudes conducted by the Pew Research Center, in 1987, 62 percent of Republicans said “the government should take care of people who cannot take care of themselves,” but that number has now dropped to just 40 percent (PDF [6]). That attitude was on display during a GOP primary debate last fall when moderator Wolf Blitzer asked Ron Paul what fate should befall a healthy person without health insurance who finds himself suddenly facing a catastrophic illness. “Congressman,” Blitzer pressed after Paul sidestepped the question, “are you saying that society should just let him die?” Before Paul had a chance to respond, the audience erupted in cheers [7], with some shouting, “yeah!”

Ryan’s motives aren’t purely ideological; he’s been a magnet for dollars from big GOP donors for years (the $5.4 million [8] in his House campaign account is among the largest war-chests for any representative this cycle). But what about the ordinary people who embrace this kind of ‘screw ‘em, I got mine’ ideology? How can presumably decent people on the Right – people who care about their families and their communities – appear to be so cruel? Don’t they grasp the devastating real-world consequences of what it means for a society to just “let him die”?

While some answers to that question are relatively straightforward, even intuitive, research into the interplay between cognition and ideology offers a deeper understanding of what appears on its face to be an extraordinary deficit of basic human empathy.

Drilling Down

The simplest explanation for this apparent disconnect is the increasing polarization of our media consumption. People on the right tend to consume conservative media, and if you get your news from Fox and listen to Limbaugh, you too would think that Ryan’s roadmap is simply a “serious” proposal to cut the deficit (never mind that it would cut taxes at the top by so much that the budget wouldn’t be balanced for decades to come).

But it goes a bit deeper than that. The contempt a good number of Americans hold for the social welfare state has long been understood through the prism of race. In his classic book, Why Americans Hate Welfare [9], Martin Gilens found that while significant majorities of Americans told pollsters that they wanted more public spending to fight poverty, many were opposed to welfare programs because of widespread “perceptions that welfare recipients are undeserving and blacks are lazy.”

That finding has been confirmed in a number of studies since then. But more recently, psychological research – and some neurobiological studies – have found something else: Liberals and conservatives don’t just differ in their opinions, they have fundamentally different ways of processing information, which in turn leads them to hold markedly divergent sets of facts.

Even more frustrating for those who view politics as a rational pursuit of one’s self-interest, facts don’t actually matter that much. We begin evaluating policies emotionally, according to a deeply ingrained moral framework, and then our brains often work backward, filling in – or inventing — “facts” that conform to that framework.



Dueling Morality Tales



It’s long been understood that people evaluate policy ideas through partisan and ideological lenses. That’s how, for example, a set of conservative, market-oriented healthcare reforms cooked up at the Heritage Foundation and pushed by Republicans for years can suddenly become a Maoist plot when embraced by a Democratic administration.



But according to George Lakoff, a cognitive linguist at UC Berkeley, one has to look beyond mere partisanship to really get the differences in how we process information. Lakoff describes what might be called a hierarchy of understanding, beginning with our conceptions of morality and then evaluating the details through that lens.

In The Little Blue Book: The Essential Guide to Thinking and Talking Democratic [10], Lakoff and co-author Elisabeth Wehling explain that the human “brain is structured in terms of what are called ‘cascades.’”



A cascade is a network of neurons that links many brain circuits. All of the linked circuits must be active at once to produce a given understanding.

Simply put, the brain does not handle single ideas as separate entities: bigger context, a logical construct within which the idea is defined, is evoked in order to grasp its meaning.

Cascades are central to political understanding, because they characterize the logic that structures that understanding.


While liberals and conservatives often see their counterparts as horrible people these days, the reality, according to Lakoff, is that they’re processing information through very different, and often diametrically opposed moral frameworks.



In a recent interview [11] with AlterNet, Lakoff said, “Conservatives have a very different view of democracy, which follows their moral system.”



The basic idea in terms of economics is that democracy gives people the liberty to seek their self interest and their own well-being without worrying or being responsible for the well-being or interest of anybody else. Therefore they say everybody has individual responsibility, not social responsibility, therefore you’re on your own. If you make it that’s wonderful. That’s what the market is about. If you don’t make it, that’s your problem.



But it’s not just about the moral imperative to be self-sufficient – that’s always been central to the right’s moral worldview. But beginning in the early 1960s, with the advent of the Right’s deeply flawed “culture of poverty” narrative [12]*, a defining morality tale about the public sector has been about how it does nothing but foster “dependency.” This, according to today’s conservatives, makes virtually every form of government intervention in the economy profoundly immoral, as it keeps a segment of the population mired in poverty for generations.



This powerful story has only become more deeply entrenched in the conservative worldview with the growing influence of Ayn Rand. Randwasn’t only a schlock novelist, she was also the progenitor of a sweeping “moral philosophy” that justifies the privilege of the wealthy and demonizes not only the slothful, undeserving poor but the lackluster middle-classes as well. Her books provided wide-ranging parables of a world made up of “parasites,” “looters” and “moochers” using the levers of government to steal the fruits of her heroes’ labor.

While Ryan recently disavowed [13] Rand’s philosophy, he’s on the record saying that Rand “makes the best case for the morality of democratic capitalism.” On another occasion, he said, “The reason I got involved in public service, by and large, if I had to credit one thinker, one person, it would be Ayn Rand.” 


This philosophy is constantly reinforced. According to Lakoff, most people have both liberal and conservative moralities that vie for prominence as our brains process information. One “neural circuit is in mutual opposition to another neural circuit” he told AlterNet, and “each of those two inhibit each other.”

For the Fox News crowd, the circuitry of conservative moralism is charged again and again every day. “When one of those circuits is activated over and over, more than the other, the stronger it gets and the weaker the inactive one gets,” said Lakoff. “The stronger one of these circuits gets, the more influence it’s going to have over various issues.”



Shutting Down the Thinking Brain



Princeton psychologist Daniel Kahneman refined earlier theories about how the brain functions on two levels – one instinctive and very quick, the other slower and more deliberate. He described the first as intuitive processing, or “system one cognition,” and the other as a process of reasoning, or “system two cognition.”



And the key point here is it appears that when system one is active, system two shuts down. Or, to put it another way, when we perceive an issue in emotional terms (system one), we make a quick judgment in which we don’t think much about the details. This is common in our daily lives, but takes on real signifigance in our political culture, and while this tendency isn’t limited to a particular ideology, some research suggests that political conservatives are more likely to rely [14] on the kind of snap judgments associated with system one cognition than liberals.



(In his book, The Republican Brain [15], Chris Mooney suggests that there may be powerful evolutionary benefits for having an instinctive, knee-jerk process take over at times. If you were an early human wandering on the savanna and heard a rustling noise in the brush, it was to your advantage to instantly assume there’s a lion coming and have your fight-or-flight instinct kick in. If you paused to weigh the evidence of whether or not it might be a lion, there would be a good chance that you wouldn’t pass your genes onto future generations.) 



Given the cascade of cognition – from a broad moral frame, to the way a specific issue is framed in our discourse and finally to the nitty-gritty details that most people ignore – and given how the fast, instinctive processing can overwhelm our more deliberative, reasoned cognitive process, it’s easy to understand how so many people on the right could be immune to the real-world consequences of doing things like cutting healthcare for poor children. It simply follows – from the overarching moral frame of dependency — that this kind of “tough love,” while perhaps painful in the near term, is ultimately beneficial for those feeling that pain.

Isn’t That a Contradiction?



It is a contradiction in one sense. But researchers have long observed that humans have an excellent capacity to hold contradictory beliefs. A recent study [16] at the University of Kent, for example, found that those who believe Princess Diana was murdered are also more likely than most to think her death was faked.



A number of researchers have posited that we stave off painful cognitive dissonance by a process called “motivated reasoning,” whereby we seek out plausible explanations for complex phenomena in order to make things fit into our previously held belief systems.

Drew Westen, Pavel S. Blagov, Keith Harenski, Clint Kilts, and Stephan Hamann at Emory University describe ([17]) motivated reasoning as a process by which, “people actually seek out information that confirms what they already believe.” This, say the researchers, results in “a form of implicit emotion regulation.”



Writing in the New York Times [18], David Redlawsk, a political scientist atRutgers, explains that “we are all somewhat impervious to new information, preferring the beliefs in which we are already invested.



We often ignore new contradictory information, actively argue against it or discount its source, all in an effort to maintain existing evaluations. Reasoning away contradictions this way is psychologically easier than revising our feelings. In this sense, our emotions color how we perceive “facts.”



Everyone does this, but some research suggests [19] that political conservatives, perhaps because they are more set in their views, and more averse to cognitive dissonance, tend to display more motivated reasoning than liberals.



When you hear someone like Paul Ryan proposing, for example, to shift $4,700 [20] in health costs onto the backs of seniors living at the poverty level by 2022, it’s important to understand that the consequences of those actions – the factual, real-world results of these policies – are often inconsequential to like-minded people on the Right not because they’re (necessarily) bad people, but for the simple reason that the consequences don’t register. 


While a half-dozen analyses paint a sharp picture of the cruelty inherent in the Ryan plan, it is this process of motivated reasoning that allows conservatives to simply block out any details that contradict their ideas about the need to avoid fostering a “culture of dependency.”

And here, one of the apparent differences between conservative and liberal cognitive styles comes into play: the “backfire effect.” The term was coined by political scientists Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler, who found that when conservatives’ erroneous beliefs were confronted by factual rebuttals, they tended to double-down on those beliefs. The same dynamic wasn’t observed with liberals (they weren’t entirely swayed by the facts, but didn’t show the same tendency to believe false information more strongly after being presented with them).

This is not to suggest that Ryan’s plan – now effectively Romney’s as well, despite some efforts to distance himself from it — won’t prove toxic to most people when they get a sense of what it does. That’s because, as Lakoff notes, there are very few people who hold a primarily conservative or liberal moral framework – most have a bit of both. But it does help explain why seemingly ordinary citizens can embrace such such cruel public policies. It also suggests that Ryan’s vision can’t be attacked with facts and figures alone; it has to be challenged with a progressive moral vision of a society that values fairness and understands that in a modern economy, the public sector serves and sustains the private.

* Cultural explanations for why some groups do better than others go back a long way, but the modern iteration of the “culture of poverty” narrative originated with sociologist Oscar Lewis’s 1961 book, The Children of Sanchez.


Source URL: http://www.alternet.org/election-2012/conservative-psyche-how-ordinary-people-come-embrace-cruelty-paul-ryan-and-other-right

Links:
[1] http://www.alternet.org
[2] http://www.alternet.org/authors/joshua-holland
[3] http://digbysblog.blogspot.co.uk/2012/07/they-refused-to-believe-any-politician.html
[4] http://www.tnr.com/blog/plank/106029/ryan-romney-vp-budget-cuts-medicare-medicaid-voucher-tax-cut
[5] http://maddowblog.msnbc.com/_news/2012/03/20/10780200-the-opposite-of-seriousness
[6] http://www.people-press.org/files/legacy-pdf/06-04-12%20Values%20Release.pdf
[7] http://www.mediaite.com/tv/cnntea-party-debate-audience-cheers-letting-uninsured-comatose-man-die/
[8] http://www.opensecrets.org/politicians/summary.php?cid=N00004357
[9] http://www.powells.com/partner/32513/biblio/9780226293646
[10] http://www.amazon.com/The-Little-Blue-Book-Democratic/dp/147670001X
[11] http://www.alternet.org/module/printversion/156057
[12] http://www.alternet.org/teaparty/151830/debunking_the_big_lie_right-wingers_use_to_justify_black_poverty_and_unemployment_/
[13] http://www.forbes.com/sites/rickungar/2012/04/26/ryan-now-rejects-ayn-rand-will-the-real-paul-ryan-please-come-forward/
[14] http://www.alternet.org/story/155210/why_is_the_conservative_brain_more_fearful_the_alternate_reality_right-wingers_inhabit_is_terrifying
[15] http://www.amazon.com/The-Republican-Brain-Science-Science/dp/1118094514
[16] http://kent.academia.edu/RobbieSutton/Papers/1275313/Dead_and_alive_Beliefs_in_contradictory_conspiracy_theories
[17] http://www.mitpressjournals.org/doi/abs/10.1162/jocn.2006.18.11.1947
[18] http://www.nytimes.com/roomfordebate/2011/04/21/barack-obama-and-the-psychology-of-the-birther-myth/a-matter-of-motivated-reasoning
[19] http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/09/14/AR2008091402375_pf.html
[20] http://www.cbpp.org/cms/index.cfm?fa=view&id=3473

http://www.alternet.org/print/election-2012/conservative-psyche-how-ordinary-people-come-embrace-cruelty-paul-ryan-and-other-right

The Fascinating Differences Between The Conservative and Liberal Personality

Psychotherapy Networker By Jared DeFife, Alternet.org, August 20, 2012

Excerpt

…Personality differences are a leading candidate in the race toward understanding the rift between political liberals and conservativestwo common personality traits reliably differentiated individuals with liberal or conservative identifications. Liberals reported greater openness, whereas conservatives reported higher conscientiousness. This means that liberals (at least in their own estimation) saw themselves as more creative, flexible, tolerant of ambiguity, and open to new ideas and experiences. Across the political personality divide, conservatives self-identified as more persistent, orderly, moralistic, and methodical… similar findings on personality and political ideology have emerged in samples across the globe, from North America, Europe, and Australia…Liberals may show greater tolerance for diversity and creativity, but they may also be more impulsive, indecisive, and irresponsible. On the flip side, conservatives may be organized, stable, and thrifty, but also have stronger just-world beliefs (leading to a greater tolerance for inequality), and stronger fears of mortality and ambiguity…Brain scans revealed a larger amygdala in self-identified conservatives and a larger anterior cingulate cortex in liberals, leading the researchers to conclude that conservatives may be more acute at detecting threats around them, whereas liberals may be more adept at handling conflicting information and uncertainty…Other findings implicative for psychotherapy suggest that liberals and conservatives conceptualize different values in their family narratives, and that individuals fail to empathize completely with the nonpolitical concerns and problems of others if they’re perceived as belonging to an opposing political party…

Full text

“There are three things I have learned never to discuss with people: religion, politics, and the Great Pumpkin,” laments Linus van Pelt in a 1961 Peanuts comic strip. Yet in today’s hyperpartisan political climate, religion and politics are obsessively debated, while the “American people” that politicians and reporters constantly refer to seem hopelessly divided. Meanwhile, psychologists are increasingly exploring the political arena, examining not just the ideological differences, but also the numerous factors – temperamental, developmental, biological, and situational – that contribute to the formation and maintenance of partisan political beliefs.

Personality differences are a leading candidate in the race toward understanding the rift between political liberals and conservatives. Using data compiled from nearly 20,000 respondents, Columbia University researcher Dana Carney and colleagues found that two common personality traits reliably differentiated individuals with liberal or conservative identifications. Liberals reported greater openness, whereas conservatives reported higher conscientiousness. This means that liberals (at least in their own estimation) saw themselves as more creative, flexible, tolerant of ambiguity, and open to new ideas and experiences. Across the political personality divide, conservatives self-identified as more persistent, orderly, moralistic, and methodical. These personality differences were even reflected in the bedroom belongings and offices or workspaces of ideological undergrads, with liberal students collecting more CDs, books, movie tickets, and travel paraphernalia, as opposed to their conservative peers, who showed more sports décor, U.S. flags, cleaning supplies, calendars, and uncomfortable furniture. Lest you think that the partisan personality is a uniquely American phenomenon, similar findings on personality and political ideology have emerged in samples across the globe, from North America, Europe, and Australia.

Evidence suggests that these personality differences between liberals and conservatives begin to emerge at an early age. A 20-year longitudinal study by Jack and Jeanne Block showed that those who grew up to be liberals were originally assessed by their preschool teachers as more emotionally expressive, gregarious, and impulsive when compared to those who became conservatives, who were considered more inhibited, uncertain, and controlled. Liberals may show greater tolerance for diversity and creativity, but they may also be more impulsive, indecisive, and irresponsible. On the flip side, conservatives may be organized, stable, and thrifty, but also have stronger just-world beliefs (leading to a greater tolerance for inequality), and stronger fears of mortality and ambiguity. Even recent neuroscience work published in Current Biology from University College London identifies fundamental differences in the partisan brain. Brain scans revealed a larger amygdala in self-identified conservatives and a larger anterior cingulate cortex in liberals, leading the researchers to conclude that conservatives may be more acute at detecting threats around them, whereas liberals may be more adept at handling conflicting information and uncertainty.

Some evidence suggests, however, that we aren’t always so divided. In situations that remind people of death and mortality (such as terrorist attacks or implicitly primed images of funeral hearses and chalk body outlines) conservatives and liberals alike gravitate toward more conservative leaders and beliefs. By contrast, greater acceptance of liberal values occurs during events in which people feel disillusioned by government authorities and the politically powerful (such as the Vietnam War or after the 2008 housing crisis).

Of course, the field of psychology isn’t immune to political biases and partisanship. Liberal psychology professors vastly outnumber their conservative counterparts by as much as 10 to 1 (perhaps conservatives have some justification for a general distrust of science and academia). A similar imbalance was found by Dyer Bilgrave and Robert Deluty in their 2002 survey of more than 200 clinical and counseling psychologists, published in the journal Psychotherapy. They also found that cognitive-behavioral therapists tended to hold more conservative religious and political beliefs than their more liberally oriented psychodynamic and humanistic-oriented colleagues. Other findings implicative for psychotherapy suggest that liberals and conservatives conceptualize different values in their family narratives, and that individuals fail to empathize completely with the nonpolitical concerns and problems of others if they’re perceived as belonging to an opposing political party.

No matter which side of the couch they sit on, therapists are inevitably bound to confront political and moral issues in treatment. In research, practice, and training, therapists are expected to achieve the kind of bipartisan collaboration that politicians seem to only talk about. According to Bilgrave and Deluty, “therapists should ask themselves regularly how their religious and political beliefs, values, and attitudes may be influencing their practice of therapy-how they see clients and their problems, how they help clients frame and understand their concerns, and how and in which direction they encourage clients to act.” But if our partisan personalities are deeply rooted in our early development and wired in our brains, is honest and thoughtful consideration of our own biases and predeterminations enough, or even possible? And when even your furniture choices betray your political persuasions, then what does your office tell patients about you?

Resources

Partisan Personality:

American Psychologist, 61, no. 7: 651-70; Current Biology, 21, no. 8: 677-80; Psychotherapy, 39, no. 3: 245-60.

 

See more stories tagged with:

conservatives [3],

liberals [4]


Source URL: http://www.alternet.org/fascinating-differences-between-conservative-and-liberal-personality

Links:
[1] http://www.psychotherapynetworker.org
[2] http://www.alternet.org/authors/jared-defife
[3] http://www.alternet.org/tags/conservatives-0
[4] http://www.alternet.org/tags/liberals

Framing the issues

Framing the issues: UC Berkeley professor George Lakoff tells how conservatives use language to dominate politics

By Bonnie Azab Powell, NewsCenter | 27 October 2003

BERKELEY – With Republicans controlling the Senate, the House, and the White House and enjoying a large margin of victory for California Governor-elect Arnold Schwarzenegger, it’s clear that the Democratic Party is in crisis. George Lakoff, a UC Berkeley professor of linguistics and cognitive science, thinks he knows why. Conservatives have spent decades defining their ideas, carefully choosing the language with which to present them, and building an infrastructure to communicate them, says Lakoff.

The work has paid off: by dictating the terms of national debate, conservatives have put progressives firmly on the defensive.

In 2000 Lakoff and seven other faculty members from Berkeley and UC Davis joined together to found the Rockridge Institute, one of the few progressive think tanks in existence in the U.S. The institute offers its expertise and research on a nonpartisan basis to help progressives understand how best to get their messages across. The Richard & Rhoda Goldman Distinguished Professor in the College of Letters & Science, Lakoff is the author of “Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think,” first published in 1997 and reissued in 2002, as well as several other books on how language affects our lives. He is taking a sabbatical this year to write three books – none about politics – and to work on several Rockridge Institute research projects.

In a long conversation over coffee at the Free Speech Movement Café, he told the NewsCenter’s Bonnie Azab Powell why the Democrats “just don’t get it,” why Schwarzenegger won the recall election, and why conservatives will continue to define the issues up for debate for the foreseeable future.

Why was the Rockridge Institute created, and how do you define its purpose?

I got tired of cursing the newspaper every morning. I got tired of seeing what was going wrong and not being able to do anything about it.

The background for Rockridge is that conservatives, especially conservative think tanks, have framed virtually every issue from their perspective. They have put a huge amount of money into creating the language for their worldview and getting it out there. Progressives have done virtually nothing. Even the new Center for American Progress, the think tank that John Podesta [former chief of staff for the Clinton administration] is setting up, is not dedicated to this at all. I asked Podesta who was going to do the Center’s framing. He got a blank look, thought for a second and then said, “You!” Which meant they haven’t thought about it at all. And that’s the problem. Liberals don’t get it. They don’t understand what it is they have to be doing.

Rockridge’s job is to reframe public debate, to create balance from a progressive perspective. It’s one thing to analyze language and thought, it’s another thing to create it. That’s what we’re about. It’s a matter of asking ‘What are the central ideas of progressive thought from a moral perspective?’

How does language influence the terms of political debate?

Language always comes with what is called “framing.” Every word is defined relative to a conceptual framework. If you have something like “revolt,” that implies a population that is being ruled unfairly, or assumes it is being ruled unfairly, and that they are throwing off their rulers, which would be considered a good thing. That’s a frame.

If you then add the word “voter” in front of “revolt,” you get a metaphorical meaning saying that the voters are the oppressed people, the governor is the oppressive ruler, that they have ousted him and this is a good thing and all things are good now. All of that comes up when you see a headline like “voter revolt” – something that most people read and never notice. But these things can be affected by reporters and very often, by the campaign people themselves.

Here’s another example of how powerful framing is. In Arnold Schwarzenegger’s acceptance speech, he said, “When the people win, politics as usual loses.” What’s that about? Well, he knows that he’s going to face a Democratic legislature, so what he has done is frame himself and also Republican politicians as the people, while framing Democratic politicians as politics as usual – in advance. The Democratic legislators won’t know what hit them. They’re automatically framed as enemies of the people.

Why do conservatives appear to be so much better at framing?

Because they’ve put billions of dollars into it. Over the last 30 years their think tanks have made a heavy investment in ideas and in language. In 1970, [Supreme Court Justice] Lewis Powell wrote a fateful memo to the National Chamber of Commerce saying that all of our best students are becoming anti-business because of the Vietnam War, and that we needed to do something about it. Powell’s agenda included getting wealthy conservatives to set up professorships, setting up institutes on and off campus where intellectuals would write books from a conservative business perspective, and setting up think tanks. He outlined the whole thing in 1970. They set up the Heritage Foundation in 1973, and the Manhattan Institute after that. [There are many others, including the American Enterprise Institute and the Hoover Institute at Stanford, which date from the 1940s.]

And now, as the New York Times Magazine quoted Paul Weyrich, who started the Heritage Foundation, they have 1,500 conservative radio talk show hosts. They have a huge, very good operation, and they understand their own moral system. They understand what unites conservatives, and they understand how to talk about it, and they are constantly updating their research on how best to express their ideas.

Why haven’t progressives done the same thing?

There’s a systematic reason for that. You can see it in the way that conservative foundations and progressive foundations work. Conservative foundations give large block grants year after year to their think tanks. They say, ‘Here’s several million dollars, do what you need to do.’ And basically, they build infrastructure, they build TV studios, hire intellectuals, set aside money to buy a lot of books to get them on the best-seller lists, hire research assistants for their intellectuals so they do well on TV, and hire agents to put them on TV. They do all of that. Why? Because the conservative moral system, which I analyzed in “Moral Politics,” has as its highest value preserving and defending the “strict father” system itself. And that means building infrastructure. As businessmen, they know how to do this very well.

Meanwhile, liberals’ conceptual system of the “nurturant parent” has as its highest value helping individuals who need help. The progressive foundations and donors give their money to a variety of grassroots organizations. They say, ‘We’re giving you $25,000, but don’t waste a penny of it. Make sure it all goes to the cause, don’t use it for administration, communication, infrastructure, or career development.’ So there’s actually a structural reason built into the worldviews that explains why conservatives have done better.

Back up for a second and explain what you mean by the strict father and nurturant parent frameworks.

Well, the progressive worldview is modeled on a nurturant parent family. Briefly, it assumes that the world is basically good and can be made better and that one must work toward that. Children are born good; parents can make them better. Nurturing involves empathy, and the responsibility to take care of oneself and others for whom we are responsible. On a larger scale, specific policies follow, such as governmental protection in form of a social safety net and government regulation, universal education (to ensure competence, fairness), civil liberties and equal treatment (fairness and freedom), accountability (derived from trust), public service (from responsibility), open government (from open communication), and the promotion of an economy that benefits all and functions to promote these values, which are traditional progressive values in American politics.

The conservative worldview, the strict father model, assumes that the world is dangerous and difficult and that children are born bad and must be made good. The strict father is the moral authority who supports and defends the family, tells his wife what to do, and teaches his kids right from wrong. The only way to do that is through painful discipline – physical punishment that by adulthood will become internal discipline. The good people are the disciplined people. Once grown, the self-reliant, disciplined children are on their own. Those children who remain dependent (who were spoiled, overly willful, or recalcitrant) should be forced to undergo further discipline or be cut free with no support to face the discipline of the outside world.

So, project this onto the nation and you see that to the right wing, the good citizens are the disciplined ones – those who have already become wealthy or at least self-reliant – and those who are on the way. Social programs, meanwhile, “spoil” people by giving them things they haven’t earned and keeping them dependent. The government is there only to protect the nation, maintain order, administer justice (punishment), and to provide for the promotion and orderly conduct of business. In this way, disciplined people become self-reliant. Wealth is a measure of discipline. Taxes beyond the minimum needed for such government take away from the good, disciplined people rewards that they have earned and spend it on those who have not earned it.

 

From that framework, I can see why Schwarzenegger appealed to conservatives.

 

Exactly. In the strict father model, the big thing is discipline and moral authority, and punishment for those who do something wrong. That comes out very clearly in the Bush administration’s foreign and domestic policy. With Schwarzenegger, it’s in his movies: most of the characters that he plays exemplify that moral system. He didn’t have to say a word! He just had to stand up there, and he represents Mr. Discipline. He knows what’s right and wrong, and he’s going to take it to the people. He’s not going to ask permission, or have a discussion, he’s going to do what needs to be done, using force and authority. His very persona represents what conservatives are about.

 

You’ve written a lot about “tax relief” as a frame. How does it work?

 

The phrase “Tax relief” began coming out of the White House starting on the very day of Bush’s inauguration. It got picked up by the newspapers as if it were a neutral term, which it is not. First, you have the frame for “relief.” For there to be relief, there has to be an affliction, an afflicted party, somebody who administers the relief, and an act in which you are relieved of the affliction. The reliever is the hero, and anybody who tries to stop them is the bad guy intent on keeping the affliction going. So, add “tax” to “relief” and you get a metaphor that taxation is an affliction, and anybody against relieving this affliction is a villain.

“Tax relief” has even been picked up by the Democrats. I was asked by the Democratic Caucus in their tax meetings to talk to them, and I told them about the problems of using tax relief. The candidates were on the road. Soon after, Joe Lieberman still used the phrase tax relief in a press conference. You see the Democrats shooting themselves in the foot.

So what should they be calling it?

It’s not just about what you call it, if it’s the same “it.” There’s actually a whole other way to think about it. Taxes are what you pay to be an American, to live in a civilized society that is democratic and offers opportunity, and where there’s an infrastructure that has been paid for by previous taxpayers. This is a huge infrastructure. The highway system, the Internet, the TV system, the public education system, the power grid, the system for training scientists – vast amounts of infrastructure that we all use, which has to be maintained and paid for. Taxes are your dues – you pay your dues to be an American. In addition, the wealthiest Americans use that infrastructure more than anyone else, and they use parts of it that other people don’t. The federal justice system, for example, is nine-tenths devoted to corporate law. The Securities and Exchange Commission and all the apparatus of the Commerce Department are mainly used by the wealthy. And we’re all paying for it.

So taxes could be framed as an issue of patriotism.

It is an issue of patriotism! Are you paying your dues, or are you trying to get something for free at the expense of your country? It’s about being a member. People pay a membership fee to join a country club, for which they get to use the swimming pool and the golf course. But they didn’t pay for them in their membership. They were built and paid for by other people and by this collectivity. It’s the same thing with our country – the country as country club, being a member of a remarkable nation. But what would it take to make the discussion about that? Every Democratic senator and all of their aides and every candidate would have to learn how to talk about it that way. There would have to be a manual. Republicans have one. They have a guy named Frank Luntz, who puts out a 500-page manual every year that goes issue by issue on what the logic of the position is from the Republican side, what the other guys’ logic is, how to attack it, and what language to use.

What are some other examples of issues that progressives should try to reframe?

There are too many examples, that’s the problem. The so-called energy crisis in California should have been called Grand Theft. It was theft, it was the result of deregulation by Pete Wilson, and Davis should have said so from the beginning.

Or take gay marriage, which the right has made a rallying topic. Surveys have been done that say Americans are overwhelmingly against gay marriage. Well, the same surveys show that they also overwhelmingly object to discrimination against gays. These seem to be opposite facts, but they’re not. “Marriage” is about sex. When you say “gay marriage,” it becomes about gay sex, and approving of gay marriage becomes implicitly about approving of gay sex. And while a lot of Americans don’t approve of gay sex, that doesn’t mean they want to discriminate against gay people. Perfectly rational position. Framed in that way, the issue of gay marriage will get a lot of negative reaction. But what if you make the issue “freedom to marry,” or even better, “the right to marry”? That’s a whole different story. Very few people would say they did not support the right to marry who you choose. But the polls don’t ask that question, because the right wing has framed that issue.

Do any of the Democratic Presidential candidates grasp the importance of framing?

None. They don’t get it at all. But they’re in a funny position. The framing changes that have to be made are long-term changes. The conservatives understood this in 1973. By 1980 they had a candidate, Ronald Reagan, who could take all this stuff and run with it. The progressives don’t have a candidate now who understands these things and can talk about them. And in order for a candidate to be able to talk about them, the ideas have to be out there. You have to be able to reference them in a sound bite. Other people have to put these ideas into the public domain, not politicians. The question is, How do you get these ideas out there? There are all kinds of ways, and one of the things the Rockridge Institute is looking at is talking to advocacy groups, which could do this very well. They have more of a budget, they’re spread all over the place, and they have access to the media.

Right now the Democratic Party is into marketing. They pick a number of issues like prescription drugs and Social Security and ask which ones sell best across the spectrum, and they run on those issues. They have no moral perspective, no general values, no identity. People vote their identity, they don’t just vote on the issues, and Democrats don’t understand that. Look at Schwarzenegger, who says nothing about the issues. The Democrats ask, How could anyone vote for this guy? They did because he put forth an identity. Voters knew who he is.

Next: “The ‘free market’ doesn’t exist”  http://www.berkeley.edu/news/media/releases/2003/10/27_lakoff_p2.shtml

George Lakoff dissects “war on terror” and other conservative catchphrases

Read the August 26, 2004, follow-up interview  http://www.berkeley.edu/news/media/releases/2004/08/25_lakoff.shtml

‘Taxes are what you pay to be an American, to live in a civilized society that is democratic and offers opportunity, and where there’s an infrastructure that has been paid for by previous taxpayers.’  -George Lakoff

‘Conservatives understand what unites them, and they understand how to talk about it, and they are constantly updating their research on how best to express their ideas.’-George Lakoff