Framing the Crisis in Greed

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    The Obama-GOP Deal will shortly be in the House of Representatives, where the progressive Democrats are balking. Representative Stenny Hoyer (D- MD) says they do not want to kill The Deal, just fix it so that it provides a little bit smaller “tax cut to millionaires,” because, in the view of the House Democratic Caucus, The Deal unfairly gives far more money in tax cuts to the wealthiest top tier than to average Americans. (Paraphrased). Meanwhile, Senator Mitch McConnell (R-KY), praised the Senate action in approving The Deal, because it provided “tax relief to those who create jobs” and lets Americans keep their own money to spend and invest as they see fit, instead of “giving it to politicians, who would waste it.” (Paraphrased).

    Right there, we can see that Democrats are losing the messaging war once again. In typically clueless Democratic fashion, Democrats are unwittingly using Republican frames, reinforcing the Republican conservative view of the world and of The Deal, even as they think they are attacking it. George Lakoff, author of The Political Mind, writing “Untellable Truths” in on-line truth out says, in effect, “Stop using the slogan “No tax cuts for millionaires.” Stop using it immediately!

    As Lakoff explains, even the first word is a mistake: using “no” is negating a frame, and “negating a frame activates the frame in the brains of listeners.” Example, Christine O’Donnell saying “I am not a witch,” or Nixon’s “I am not a crook.” Putting “no” first actually makes the listener think about the idea “tax cuts for millionaires,”when the fact is, most Americans aspire to becoming a millionaire (eg, the TV show “So You Want to Be a Millionaire”).  That is, being a millionaire is good, whereas “taxes” are bad in the popular mind, thanks to decades of  programming of those minds by conservatives’ relentless talk shows, pundits, and politicians.

    The average citizen now considers taxes an affliction, therefore, a “tax cut” is a good thing, and, as conservatives like Mitch McConnell never tire of saying, “No one should have their taxes raised,” which activates the conservative view of taxes. The progressive slogan “No tax cuts for millionaires,” actually activates the same conservative view or framing of taxes, and reinforces it, pretty well defeating the progressive argument in the listener’s back brain.

    Mr. Lakoff goes on to explain that, even if progressives had a messaging machine comparable to the conservative juggernaut, they would still not be as effective as the conservatives in messaging—- something I think we all have suspected, but we usually excuse ourselves by saying “first we’d need to agree on a Democratic message,” sighing that might take forever, given our famous Big Tent kind of party. Not so, says Lakoff. In his view Democrats already do have some general principles on which they agree:

    “(1) Empathy – Americans care about each other. (2) Responsibility, both personal and social. We have to act on that care. (3) The ethic of excellence. We have to make ourselves better, so we can make our families, our communities, our country and the world better. Government has special missions: to protect and empower our citizens to have at least the necessities.”

    These principles should be repeated loudly and frequently. They apply to the progressive movement as a whole, and are not limited to any special issue such as environmentalism, labor, education, and so on.   “All politics is moral;” policies are proposed “because they are assumed to be right,” and the underlying moral values should always be explicitly articulated…. regardless of the specific issue.

    Republicans have a different concept of morality: “…in the conservative moral system, the highest moral principle is to preserve, defend, and extend the conservative moral system itself,” which means, for example, that “responsibility” to them means individual responsibility, not social. Lakoff acknowledges that many people, especially so-called independents, are “biconceptual,” in that “they have both conservative and progressive moral systems, and apply them in different issue areas.” Because each moral system has its own pattern of neural circuits in the brain, the conservative or the progressive circuit will be triggered by whichever slogan or patterned response has been most frequently reinforced by repetition. Therefore, when progressives fall into the trap of using conservative frames, they are reinforcing conservative arguments—- and setting themselves up for defeat. Democrats should use only “progressive language and progressive arguments,” which means not using the right’s language.  Lakoff is very careful to explain “this is the opposite of ‘moving to the center.’ There is no ideology of the center, just combinations of progressive and conservative views.” (Emphasis added).

    What Mr. Lakoff proposes is not a quick fix, but a long-term solution, which must be persistently pursued over time. What about our present situation with the Obama-GOP Deal, what should we be saying, if we shouldn’t be saying “no tax cuts for millionaires?” Lakoff did not say.

    For starters, how about not framing the entire debate as “Bush tax cuts?” We are all in this together, the banksters are doing better than ever, after having knee-capped the middle class; the income gap between the top one percent and the rest of us is widening exponentially, a sign of an unhealthy society; the very wealthy have had their “Bush tax cuts” for years, and instead of creating jobs as the Republicans claim, they have actually slashed jobs—- also for years.  Yet now they want to continue being favored by the tax code? How greedy can you get? What we have here is a continuing crisis in greed, right in the midst of a severe economic downturn that is devastating everyone else. Oh, say the timid, wouldn’t it be counter-productive, too inflammatory, to call it for what it is, “greed?” Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) did not think so, and used the word repeatedly in his remarkable 8-hour oration. Greed is what it is.

    The Deal does not “extend Bush tax cuts,” it “primes the pump” by putting “survival money” in the hands of fellow Americans who are on their uppers and desperately need help. It encourages businesses to make “direct investments in jobs,” and helps to educate our future workers so we will be able to compete globally. In fact, The Deal is an “investment in America’s future,” not a “tax cut.” It is an “Investment in Jobs.”

    In discussing the cost of this investment, let’s not forget that the wealthiest, who have made their fortunes thanks to the American economic and political system in which they live, have a responsibility to sustain and improve that same system—- who better, who more appropriate? Therefore, I would be sure that everyone is clear that, one way or another, this is a one-shot deal for them. If the top incomes crave tax and regulatory certainty, as the Republicans insist, then let’s be up front: they will in two years have to share the pain of whatever adjustments will be necessary to bring our national debt under control. That certainty absolutely will include progressive taxation. President Obama has already indicated he intends to bring up reform of the tax code. Progressives need to stake out their territory starting now…. using appropriate framing and appropriate progressive language.    

    • Eric

      By my observation I’d agree that it’s true that the Dems and Progressives generally get their asses handed to them when it comes to selling their ideas (or the opposite, when Repubs sell their ideas they make it work).   It could be the greatest idea ever, but if you can’t sell it, it ain’t gonna happen.

      What I’m not so sure about is if we can ever dig ourselves out of this hole.   If history is an indicator, I’d say no.