…was the original title of a BBC report examining American politics and the question, “Why do people often vote against their own interests?” The Brits seem to be fascinated with our politics. Not that they have a better system or more ethical politicians, but maybe it helps put their own politics in perspective. The article explores the idea that often, those that will gain the most benefit from a proposed government program tend to be the same ones who are most vehemently opposed. “In Texas, where barely two-thirds of the population have full health insurance and over a fifth of all children have no coverage at all, opposition to the legislation is currently running at 87%.”
What is it about American politics that creates two such polar opposites? One side hears “Public Option” and thinks of happy people having control over their health needs. The other side hears “Public Option” and thinks “Government Takeover” of the health care system. Democrats have long thought that if you supply the people with the facts to make informed decisions, they will make the right choices. Republicans learned many years ago that people don’t hear facts, they hear only in terms of their emotions. We have allowed conservatives to preempt certain words like, Freedom, Liberty and Family Values. Voters doze off as Al Gore spouts endless statistics to support the reality of climate change. Republicans holler “Cap and Tax, Big Government” and use no facts whatsoever. And they win. If you want to propose a bill to clearcut our forests, you call it the “Healthy Forests Initiative” and don’t even mention trees. Thomas Frank believes, “voters’ preference for emotional engagement over reasonable argument has allowed the Republican Party to blind them to their own real interests.” We don’t want to hear facts, we want morality plays and conservatives get it.
Right-wing politics has become a vehicle for channeling this popular anger against intellectual snobs. The result is that many of America’s poorest citizens have a deep emotional attachment to a party that serves the interests of its richest.
“It’s like a French Revolution in reverse in which the workers come pouring down the street screaming more power to the aristocracy.”
The right pushes incessantly for “tax relief” as if it always applies equally to everybody and is always a good thing, but as a result, we see wealth becoming more and more concentrated at the top, workers being stripped of their rights and Wall Street paying out immense bonuses to millionaires. Frank Luntz right-wing pollster and political consultant is the main Republican wordsmith. He is famous for his best seller, Words That Work: It’s Not What You Say, It’s What People Hear. Luntz advises conservatives on specific words that sell. He authored the memo “The 14 Words Never to Use” which advises Republicans against using such charged words and phrases as outsourcing, globalization and tax reform. Who advises Democrats on what words to use? Liberal pundits regularly criticize right-wing leaders for factual errors. No one listens. Republicans get it, the words you use are what matters. Democrats don’t understand.
George Lakoff, linguist and cognitive scientist, says it best.
A lot of liberals believe that the facts will set you free. It’s in our inheritance from the enlightenment. Where, in the enlightenment that everybody is a rational person, all you have to do is just tell them the facts, they’ll reason to the right conclusion. It’s false. And the Republicans have learned that it’s false. They’ve set up a frame, they set up a narrative, and they set it up in terms of their values. And they get it as part of normal, everyday language and normal everyday thought. Once they’ve done that, the facts are irrelevant unless the Democrats can learn to re-frame the issues from their point of view, and then make the facts fit other frames.
Language matters. Democrats have a point of view. We have values. We believe in empathy for our fellow human beings. We believe that the government can play a constructive role in human welfare. We believe that every citizen has a responsibility to make things better. We believe in using the common wealth for the common good. We hold strong majorities in both the House and Senate, and yet, we let conservative rhetoric drive our conversation. We believe, as Franklin Roosevelt said, “we all go up, or else we all go down, as one people“. We need to learn how to communicate our principles more effectively and stop letting the minority drive the discussion.