Republicans "Deceive" - Democrats "Repackage"—Or Is It Vice Versa?


Everyone tries to put their best foot forward and persuade other people to like them. This common human social strategy is clearly magnified when it comes to politics.

So I was amused when I came across an article this morning in the New York Times which explained how many Democrats are "repackaging" their policy statements in line with the "Message Handbook for Progressives From Left to the Center" by Emory University psychologist Drew Westen. As the Times describes it:

Dr. Westen's advice can be heard when Alisha Thomas Morgan, running for re-election to the Georgia House in a conservative suburb of Atlanta, uses the word "leadership" in place of "government" and speaks about the middle class instead of the poor.

Or when Andrew Gillum, a city commissioner in Tallahassee, Fla., who is fighting a ballot initiative against same-sex marriage, tells members of his predominantly black church of the human desire for dignity and respect instead of lecturing them on the evils of discrimination.

Democrats of higher office who have heard Dr. Westen have also shifted their rhetoric, as when Senator Mary L. Landrieu of Louisiana, fending off a Republican challenger, not only says that "health care is a right for every citizen" but pointedly adds, "Particularly citizens who are working hard every day."…

Instead of using euphemisms like "pro-choice" and "reproductive health," his handbook suggests, liberal candidates might insist that it is un-American for the government to tell men and women when to start a family or what religious beliefs to follow, arguments that test well in focus groups with conservatives and independents. On illegal immigration, he recommends, candidates who have said their plan would "allow" immigrants to become citizens should instead say they will "require" it.

"The idea," Dr. Westen said, "is to start to rebrand progressives using language that's as evocative as the language of the other side, and stop using phrases that just turn people off."

The handbook does not offer a script so much as a menu of options, each of which was poll-tested against conservative arguments. On economics, for example, one message begins with "I want to see the words 'Made in America' again." Another reads, "We need leaders who don't just talk about family values but actually value families."

This kind of rhetorical framing is all very well and to be expected in political discourse. But when Republicans do it, some Democrats denounce it as deceptive. Take for example, the 2005 Times article on "The Framing Wars" which features University of California Berkeley linguist George Lakoff's views on Republican issue framing: 

According to Lakoff, Republicans are skilled at using loaded language, along with constant repetition, to play into the frames in our unconscious minds. Take one of his favorite examples, the phrase ''tax relief.'' It presumes, Lakoff points out, that we are being oppressed by taxes and that we need to be liberated from them. It fits into a familiar frame of persecution, and when such a phrase, repeated over time, enters the everyday lexicon, it biases the debate in favor of conservatives. If Democrats start to talk about their own ''tax relief'' plan, Lakoff says, they have conceded the point that taxes are somehow an unfair burden rather than making the case that they are an investment in the common good. The argument is lost before it begins.

Lakoff informed his political theories by studying the work of Frank Luntz, the Republican pollster who helped Newt Gingrich formulate the Contract With America in 1994. To Lakoff and his followers, Luntz is the very embodiment of Republican deception. His private memos, many of which fell into the hands of Democrats, explain why. In one recent memo, titled ''The 14 Words Never to Use,'' Luntz urged conservatives to restrict themselves to phrases from what he calls, grandly, the ''New American Lexicon.'' Thus, a smart Republican, in Luntz's view, never advocates ''drilling for oil''; he prefers ''exploring for energy.'' He should never criticize the ''government,'' which cleans our streets and pays our firemen; he should attack ''Washington,'' with its ceaseless thirst for taxes and regulations. ''We should never use the word outsourcing,'' Luntz wrote, ''because we will then be asked to defend or end the practice of allowing companies to ship American jobs overseas.''

In Lakoff's view, not only does Luntz's language twist the facts of his agenda but it also renders facts meaningless by actually reprogramming, through long-term repetition, the neural networks inside our brains. And this is where Lakoff's vision gets a little disturbing. According to Lakoff, Democrats have been wrong to assume that people are rational actors who make their decisions based on facts; in reality, he says, cognitive science has proved that all of us are programmed to respond to the frames that have been embedded deep in our unconscious minds, and if the facts don't fit the frame, our brains simply reject them. Lakoff explained to me that the frames in our brains can be ''activated'' by the right combination of words and imagery, and only then, once the brain has been unlocked, can we process the facts being thrown at us.

So Democrats merely "reframe", while Republcans practice "deception" and "twist the facts." Or is that way of putting matters just another "reframing"? Or maybe it's a "deception"?  My own "framing" of political discourse is: be extremely skeptical of anything that a person running for office tells you.