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The Left Cannot Afford to Keep Neglecting the Language and Framing of Politics


Republicans have spent decades honing their words to say exactly the things that the population-at-large will find appealing. They have come up with phrases like “tax relief” that they use like a hammer against liberal efforts to talk about fair progressive tax reform where the wealthy actually pay taxes in proportion to the rewards their society affords them. According to linguist George Lakoff, the Right’s long-term investment in shaping the language that Americans use contrasts with those of the fairly disorganized progressive movement. Specifically, he argues that conservatives have been willing to fund right-wing infrastructure by giving money to think tanks that are quite productive at “framing” issues. They expend resources on cultivating pundits, conducting focus groups, building media outlets and otherwise finding ways to shape the debate. By contrast, he notes that as counterparts on the left, liberal think tanks dedicate practically none of their efforts to shaping the debate. Instead, donors to left-leaning think tanks have demanded that their money go directly to causes alone, not bothering to put any investment into an infrastructure of what might be called a liberal “voice.” And it shows. Lakoff rightly points out that when it comes to framing arguments about politics, conservatives have liberals on the defensive.

With their framing acumen, Republicans have become masters of twisting language around until its actual meaning becomes obscured and their words become ludicrous upon examination. This can be seen in their ridiculously named, “Right to Work” laws, provisions of which, of course, reduce the chances that an employee has rights at work while actually doing nothing to guarantee a “right to work.” All these laws do is allow freeloaders to benefit from unions without paying for privileges. Liberals have aptly countered with the somewhat snappy, “Right to Work for Less.” But it’s a defensive move.

As liberals continue to conduct postmortem analysis on the failed recall effort in Wisconsin, there have been many theories as to why the people opted to keep their smarmy governor. One of the prominent theories I have heard repeated is that the election was rigged, and that in fact, more people did vote to recall the governor than not. That would be nice, if it were true. I have no doubt whatsoever that conservatives would steal an election. I’ve seen “Hacking Democracy.” But,  I’ve spent too much time studying statistics and the fundamental accuracy of polls to discount the fact that they averaged a 6.8% lead for Walker going into the election, remarkably close to the actual result of Walker’s 6 .8% win over Barrett. This was true regardless of whether the poll was liberal or conservative in origin.

One of the most believable analysts critiquing Wisconsin’s election doesn’t seem to take into account pre-election polls and relies heavily on early reports by the television media that the election was close claiming that adjusted final exit polls were forced to match the election results. He does this without actually having the data, however. This also neglects the fact that this “too close to call” strategy keeps people watching their election coverage rather than turning off the TV. Who wants to keep watching coverage for a race that’s already been decided? They probably knew right away that Walker was ahead, and just strung people along with their “Gosh, gee, we think the exit polls show it is close.” Besides some outlets were straightforward early on and reported that 60% of voters were saying they were against recalls for anything that wasn’t official misconduct.

Unfortunately, there are indicators that show the problem in Wisconsin was actually arguably worse than altered election results, a problem that might at least have legal remedies. The people themselves were tampered with—brainwashed and bought with propaganda—to vote against their own best interests. The best example of this comes from the polls conducted prior to the vote and the exit polls, both of which showed that 29% of union members still voted for Walker. The results get more disheartening when looking at people who were not in unions themselves, but living in a union household, because 48% of them supported Walker.

These dismal outcomes have led to another theory of the Wisconsin recall election, that the Left has lost its appeal with working class Americans. Steve Horn argues that right wing populism has simply overwhelmed liberal movements, while Jeffrey Sommers, argues that working class people were empowered by the message that Walker was selling about how they as taxpayers were being liberated to “take charge of their government” against the special interests of the elite. Both men are essentially making the same argument; the ideas the right wing has packaged purposefully and carefully over the past few decades are attracting the masses, while liberal ideals have been left to languish. Both Horn and Sommers argue that the Left has lost touch with working class voters. That’s a big deal, because not only are the majority of people in this country working class with fully 63% fitting the social science definition, but survey research shows that Americans are actually identifying themselves as working class more often than they even say what was believed to be ubiquitous—middle class.

We on the Left can barely understand the absurd appeal of Republicans to working class Americans. The party of corporations and the very wealthy, a party that consistently kicks working people in the teeth with their policies, is winning the hearts and minds of workers where 50% of them (the Census tells us) make less than $26,000 a year. They should be racing away from the guaranteed increases in inequality the Republican Party represents. They should be rebelling against the policies that year after year make their personal situation worsen. As the saying goes, “Have you ever considered maybe union members are not overpaid, maybe you are just underpaid.” It seems that no, these individuals have not grasped the sources of their low wages, preferring to focus, as directed by the right wing, on their taxes, which are by most objective standards relatively low. We know this is particularly true from listening to the moaning and groaning of conservatives who insist on emphasizing that the bottom half doesn’t pay federal taxes, neglecting the other taxes they pay. Regardless, people are not hurting economically because of the government; they are hurting economically because of the way wages are structured.

The appeal of right wing populism boils down to exactly what Lakoff identified as the greatest weakness of the Left: framing the debate. The Right has been allowed to go for decades virtually unchecked by linguistic counter efforts on the Left. We smirk at the way the right wing crafts all of its talking points by focus group, neglecting all the while that it is working fantastically well. We are loathe to adopt the methods of the Right because they are often crass and manipulative. However, we can’t afford to continue to simply mock that which is undermining all of our efforts. It is time to follow Lakoff’s astute advice and begin to develop our own political and moral language to win the hearts and minds of Americans.

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