Who thinks progressives are effective communicators?
I don’t see any hands.
Our communication problem is usually at the top of every post election navel gazing. Yet while we’ve done nothing to really fix this problem, conservative strategists have succeeded so well at messaging that hundreds of millions of people believe things that are the political equivalent of shopping mall Elvis sightings. What do they know that we don’t?
First, let’s take a look at what we’re doing wrong and why.
People don’t think the way we think they think.
We want voters’ brains to accept facts and reason to the conclusions we believe are obvious. It makes us feel that we respect the voter whom, it is only polite to assume, is as capable of rational thought as we believe we are. Unfortunately that’s not how things work. Don’t get me wrong – It’s not impossible for facts and logic to work; they’re simply not very effective. Few people are formally trained in reasoning skills. This is not a slam on anyone, it’s evolution and brain science and you and me are as vulnerable as anyone else. More importantly reasoning is not even our brain’s default position. We are instead guided, mostly unconsciously, by our emotions, our beliefs and our moral values. Brains are brains; that’s just how they work.
Conservative narrative dominates the national conversation because they get this. Conservative strategists, who routinely dismiss facts and reason when they’re inconvenient (or unprofitable), happen to be the masters of cognitive science. For forty years they’ve applied it to exploit the chinks in our conscious and unconscious thought to embed their worldview in the minds of American voters. Liberal strategists, however, have largely ignored the science. This puts us in a tough spot:
It’s like progressives and conservatives are playing baseball, but the games are always on the conservative’s home field!
The effectiveness of conservative messaging strategy and the resulting dominance of the conservative worldview in conversation and in the media forces our candidates to sound more like conservatives -and to believe they must move right to win. What are seen as tactical necessities for this election completely undermine our strategic goal of winning future elections or accomplishing progressive initiatives. I don’t blame the candidates. We have not built the foundation in voters’ brains for our candidates to win with our values. It’s as if we’ve attached a ball and chain to each one of them.
Conservative messaging so dominates our national dialog that even our strategists believe that’s where voters actually are. But that’s not where the voters are. Poll after poll shows that when you get down to the details on issues from gay rights to the environment to health care, voters are with us -even when they don’t seem to know it (ex: Americans love the features of the Affordable Care Act but hate Obamacare)!
If people aren’t listening to reason, then why are we reasoning with them?
Our mission is the same as a zombie’s mission: BRAINS! And it would be good to know how brains really work before we set off to capture them. The most important aspect of cognitive science for our purposes is framing. Frames can activate deep moral values (and we explore framing in detail on this site and in our workshops). Fortunately most people’s brains understand and even use liberal value frames, though perhaps only in non-political parts of their lives. Our mission is to activate and reinforce liberal values in relation to issues and policy. Whereas conservative strategists often set out to mislead, sow confusion and generate “alternative facts”, we believe we can apply cognitive science to our messaging with integrity and honesty. Our mission is to get you to Stop, Drop and Roll:
- Stop and analyze what’s going on, be aware of what the opposition says (so we stay out of their frames!), find the real issue (it may not be what conservative strategists say it is) and select a core liberal value that applies.
- Drop the things we do that are not effective. Drop the oppositions’ words and frames. Drop fact flinging, debunking and the urge to respond to everything conservatives say, not because these things are unimportant, but that they are not effective.
- Roll with a well framed message based solidly in our values.