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The Gross National Debt

Wednesday, August 24, 2005
Choosing a Progressive Metaphor

Speaking in examples is a skill. It's an imperative skill if you are in the business of persuading people. No matter what your personal politics are, the best leaders have always spoken in metaphors and ones where the people listening could instantly place themselves within that metaphor. Martin Luther King Jr. had the mountaintop and he took his followers there with him... Ronald Reagan reassured us that it was morning in America and we slept comforted. Bill Clinton was a boy from Hope, an everyman small town boy and we somehow knew him better.

Metaphors are the stuff of American folklore. They don't even necessarily have to be true or especially connected to reality, though I would surely prefer veracity. I think progressives lack metaphors and that hurts us when it comes time for elections.

One of the most influential books I've read in recent memory is GGeorge lookup's Don't Think of an Elephant. Lakoff hooked me from the beginning by asking a question: Why, said he, in Bush's State of the Union Speech in 2003, did Bush use the phrase "permission slip" when referring to the U.N. and traditional allies?? He could have said "we don't need to ask permission". It would have been fundamentally saying the same thing. But he didn't say that and it was very deliberate - he said "we don't need a permission slip" to go war. When you think of a permission slip, if you're like me, you think of being back in elementary and middle school, where your every move and moment was controlled by an adult's, sometimes seemingly without reason. By using "permission slip", Bush immediately invoked in the listener's mind, conceptually, the idea that asking permission was a bad, unnecessary thing. He set us up and did so quite brilliantly.

Lakoff gives a bunch of examples - "tax relief". When someone grants you relief, they are helping you. If you need to be relieved from something, the something in question is, by implication, a burden. Tax relief removes the burden of taxes. "Partial birth abortion" is another. It is so inherently negative and invokes the idea that you are partly bearing a child only to abort it and end its life.

These are all "frames". Effective framing gives you a conceptual feeling for the issue or item in question. Effective framing allows people to win points and issues and elections through a careful choice of language. Republicans and especially the Bush Administration do this very well.

As a progressive, I believe strongly that we need frames of our own, frames that broad ly define either our good concepts or highlight their bad concepts. Frames need to be chosen and, ideally, metaphors need to be built around them. It's a long-term and continually renewing process requiring vision, discipline and diligence. I don't see how we win without it.

People tried it on their own in the 2004 election. The button to the right was an actual campaign slogan and tagline put out by very progressive groups. But it wasn't put out by the Democratic National Committee or by the Kerry/Edwards campaign.

It should have been.

It's an EXCELLENT frame and metaphor. It tells you what you need to know in five words. The two words that people walk away with are "lied" and "died". It allows for connection to other frames as well - abuse of power. Executive arrogance. Flagrant disregard. It is so easy, give years into the Bush Administration, to cherry-pick the frames that help neutralize their effectiveness.

But what frames highlight our strengths? Abuse of power and lying and incompetence let us define their negatives. But we don't want to run an entire election shaped around their deficits - it leaves us too out of control if one or more of the negatives we choose to emphasize (remember - frames take time and commitment) suddenly turn around or even start to look like they might turn around, we're in deep poo. So we can and should build our frames on positive messages.

Think of Bill Clinton's frame-worthy re-election song, Don't Stop Thinking About Tomorrow. I've already mentioned Reagan's "Morning in America". So in a country where health care becomes more expensive and often out-of-reach for average Americans; in a country where good middle-class jobs are disappearing; in a country with out-of-control gas prices and middle-class choices between food, the doctor, and the gas tank, our frame and its related metaphor(s) have got to be hopeful, highlighting a salvation from the desolate and desperate shape in which most Americans find themselves.

And, if I had all those answers at my fingertips, I'd have a different career. ;-) If you have ideas, please - SHARE - I need whatever ideas I can get.

posted by RenaRF at 7:48 PM 4 comments links to this post


Blogger brewsmith said...

I am pretty sure, that most of our modern politicians are just following careers in collection of government and corporate funds, and whose jobs dictate that success is measured in securing a future income based on the proceeds invested well. . . or. . politics is a study of how it is, we pay, to have other people working to collect our money. . .bad circle of lies?

9:52 AM  
Blogger RenaRF said...

I hear you. I get discouraged frequently with thoughts like that. But what buoys me is the company I keep and the bright glimmers of hope I see in just the average person. Lots of people give freely of their time and resources in the pursuit of helping others. I endeavor to do those types of things at all times. Many people whom I know and like do so as well - they worry. They care. They organize. They give.

Giving is really simple - if you live in a neighborhood and among your neighbors is a single mother with young children, you offer to help by watching the kids occasionally or by just letting the mother know that you're there if there's an emergency. You watch someone's pet or keep an eye on their house. You lend tools and expertise to help someone with a project.

That spirit of service can be extended to larger issues - community shelters and food programs. Meals on Wheels. Clothing drives to help homeless people transition to working futures. Volunteerism to relieve hunger or raise awareness of the privation in Africa. All of these things can be done.

So I do it - most of the people I know do it - and we vote. We influence. We change. It may be like turning a battleship but, ultimately, politicians are a reflection of the constituencies they serve. If we tell them, through our vote, that it's all about "me" and about money and "me" things, that what they'll give us. If we tell them that it's about "us" and that "us" includes all socio-economic levels and circumstances, they give us "us" things.

We are telling them that. Times are changing and they will change with it, albeit to slowly for my liking.

10:10 AM  
Blogger troutsky said...

brewsmith hit close to home, in my opinion, with his mention of corporate funds,which can be extended to global capital.But then he leaves it at that. Renarf has great suggestions for helping out but perhaps fails to see the systemic nature of exploitation and oppression. We need brewsmiths analysis and renarfs praxis and energy to push for change on a macro scale or we just keep emptying the buckets ( Like Mickey in the sorcerer and the broom)

11:20 PM  
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12:04 AM  

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