Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Can't You See Me Standing Here, I've Got My Back Against The Message Machine

Eric Black at MinnPost offers the following observation about messaging:

Like many liberals, I’ve been increasingly frustrated with liberals’ ability to lose the political battles even though they have (according to me) the superior facts and arguments on their side.

Now as a conservative I'm painfully aware that I lack nuance, but I don't know what an "inferior fact" would be -- a fact is a fact and arguing otherwise is an assertion. But we'll set that aside as inartful phrasing in the service of Black's superior argument. Black quotes a much longer piece on messaging from U.C. Berkeley linguistics professor George Lakoff. Lakoff says this:

Conservatives who are savvy about marketing their ideas are closer to the way people really think than Democrats are, because people who teach marketing tend to be up on how the brain and language work. And over the past three decades, they have not just built an effective message machine, but they repeated messages that have changed the brains of a great many Americans.

We're not changing minds -- dammit, we're changing brains! Feel the power, baby. This conservative message machine must be damned good, because liberals like Black and his friends are having trouble getting their message out even though they tend to control most media outlets. It's gotta be some Vulcan mind meld or bad Rovian juju or something, right?

This assertion falls under the category of "lies you tell yourself." There's never been an issue with liberals getting their message out. There are liberals everywhere and they never, ever shut up. I can hear a liberal talking every minute of the day should I choose to seek one out. The problem isn't that conservatives have a better "message machine." The problem is that liberals have a message that many people have already heard -- hell, how could they not have heard it? -- and have rejected.

And the funny thing is this: Lakoff provides the reason, which is apparently hiding in plain sight:

Think of the TV show ‘So You Want to Be a Millionaire’ or the movies ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ and ‘How to Marry a Millionaire.’ To most Americans, being a millionaire is a good thing to aspire to.

Of course it is. I'm not a millionaire and I may never get there, but I don't begrudge anyone who does. I went to school with a number of people who are now, at mid-career, millionaires, including at least one who is a millionaire many times over. Good for all of them.

And the thing is, I'm hardly alone in feeling this way. It seems to trouble Lakoff, though:

But the conservative message machine, over the past 30 years, has come to own the word ‘tax.’ They have changed its meaning to most Americans. They have been able to make ‘tax’ mean ‘money the government takes out of the pockets of people who have earned it in order to give it to people who haven't earned it and don't deserve it.’ Thus, ‘tax relief’ assumes that taxation is an affliction to be cured and a ‘tax cut’ is a good thing in general. Hence, conservatives make the argument, ‘No one should have their taxes raised.

Now, if there were evidence that the government could make more beneficial use of a millionaire's money than a millionaire can if left to his (or her -- lotsa female millionaires out there) own devices, that conservative argument would fall flat. But it's not an argument that the Left seems to make.

Why would that be? Remember, Black asserts that liberals have the superior arguments. Is it an inferior messaging machine? Or is it because such assertions are "inferior facts?"

Let me offer some help to Mr. Black, who has a far larger audience than I do (and good for him, because he's earned it), despite my perch on the periphery of the mighty conservative message machine. It's pretty simple: aspiration for a better life is pretty much a universal thing. Every human being has dreams and most of the dreams involve bettering one's station in life. You don't have to change someone's brain to appeal to that very basic part of human nature. Nor do you need any great marketing savvy to figure that out.

Let's go back to something Lakoff said:

Conservatives who are savvy about marketing their ideas are closer to the way people really think.

Well, yeah. It's a hell of a lot easier to convince someone about something they already believe. You don't have to be a Berkeley prof or even take a college-level marketing class to know that.

So how does all that apply to the "superior arguments" of liberals? If you listen to a liberal for any length of time, and we all have, you hear grievances. Listen a few minutes longer and you'll hear a desire to have some greater power, usually the State, redress those grievances. Such howls of righteousness can work for a time, but after a while, people get sick of listening to it.

Obama understood that, at least initially. Since he's taken office, however, the message of hope that was integral to his campaign has turned into grievance mongering. The last few months have been like the made up holiday Festivus, a Seinfeldian airing of the grievances. Having to compromise with Republicans is a hostage situation. They treat me like a dog.

People have heard all that before. How could they not have heard it? The problem isn't the liberal messaging machine. The problem is the liberal message. And here's a hint for Black and Lakoff -- maybe the brains that need changing aren't those of conservatives.

1 comment:

Gino said...

i wonder how many of these berkley profs, who are closer to being millionaires than i am, would be willing to switch jobs, and paychecks, with me?

i mean, they think being rich is bad, so i'm just trying help them better their lives.