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What the election pundits missed

George Lakoff, professor emeritus of linguistics | November 5, 2010

The usual pundits, for all their verbiage, have missed a lot, especially since they have nobody from the cognitive and brain sciences discussing the election. Here’s part of what’s been missing from the discussion.

First, conservatives have an extensive, but not obvious communications system, with many think tanks, framing experts, training institutes, a system of spokespeople linked by talking points, and bookers booking their people not just on radio and TV, but in lots of civic venues. This system is active not only in elections, but 24/7/365. Democrats have no comparable system.

Second, demographers report that the big swing in this election was among “independents.” What are called “independents” are actually bi-conceptuals — people who have both conservative and progressive conceptual systems in their brains, each inhibiting the other and usually applying to different issues. When such voters hear messages from one side but not the other, that side’s moral system becomes active and is made stronger. That happened all over the country in this election.

Third, voters vote on the basis of their morality and their sense of self, which is a reflection of their moral values. In this election, conservatives reached the bi-conceptuals over the past year and a half preaching their morality (e.g. freedom — government takeover; life — death panels). The Obama administration only countered with policy, which goes in one ear and out the other. No moral leadership via messaging.

What is being missed is the enormous effect of this massive communications failure by the Democrats.

Cross-posted from the Huffington Post.

Comments to “What the election pundits missed

  1. Offering a slightly different stab at “What the election pundits missed”.

    I have been trying to put my finger on “what is the thing that most Americans are living with and do not want to discuss?” I think this thing is an increase in personally perceived financial fragility.

    This state of affairs has been seeded this week with two groups proposing different combinations of Federal tax and Federal spending revisions.

    There is a very interesting tension developing here: Fragility is a blend of fatigue, fear and dread. Meanwhile the elected legislators are under a lot of pressure to act. How are the political invocations of myth going to play out now?

    I just got two of your books from the library. The academic book I wanted, Metaphors We Live By has a status of “missing”.

  2. This year is the 40th anniversary of the Powell Memo, which I discovered in your fine book, “Don’t Think of An Elephant.” Your post is right on in this context. BTW, I am a former board member of your Rockridge Nation on-line community. I’d like to share an idea with you by snail mail. Would you mind emailing me your address? Thanks, Chuck

  3. I think the irrational was also a part of the Republican strategy. Playing on fears about the economy — that the jobs situation didn’t improve greatly, although the NYSE is back over 11,000. Then the true wing-nut rhetoric & lies, tying into terrorism fears (Obama = Muslim) and racism (not ‘citizen’; somehow alien.) But I think that shows more how truly out of the mainstream the tea-party & hangers-on really are.

    I totally disagree with Mr. Lehrer’s comment here that CNN and the old major networks were pro-democrat. He’s also lumping them in with networks which are truly center/left, setting up a false generalization. He also omitted the most blatant pro-tea party main network, which is Fox ‘news’…hardly a “fair & balanced” collection of right-wing promoters of the Tea Party. When Glenn Beck is actively using their airwaves to rally against Obama & the Dems, how can this not be mentioned?

    I hate to think that the only way to counter the conservative & far-right message is to manipulate the public’s psychology, rather than speak rationally about policy, but I think Prof. Lakoff is correct.

    • You said “I think the irrational was also a part of the Republican strategy. Playing on fears about the economy — that the jobs situation didn’t improve greatly”

      This is exactly what the Democrats did to George Bush in 1992. This is right out of the Democrat play book. However, is it irrational to point out the economic failure of an administration when when real unemployment is at 20%? Believe me, if things were this bad under a Republican administration the mainstream media would be leading an armed insurrection in the streets and scaling the White House walls with pitch forks in hand. Anyway, thanks for your post, it actually proved my point.

  4. “What is being missed is the enormous effect of this massive communications failure by the Democrats.”

    The Republican communications experts have been developing their techniques and tools for some time now. What I’m missing is any plausible explanation for the Democrats’ ongoing failure to counter it, or even to show any evidence that they’ve noticed it.

  5. The Democrats have CNN, MTV,ABC, NBC, CBS, NPR, Media Matters, MoveOn, Center for American Progress, Air America, MSNBC the entire educational system and the popular culture. The Tea Party has a handful of talk show hosts and some really great web sites Drudge, NewsMax, Hot Air, American Spectator. The Republicans and conservative get some decent coverage from Fox News. I think just about everybody in this country knows someone who has lost their job, had to come out of retirement or has to scrub floors and wash windows to maintain a living. I think that had more to do with election results. What does Obama have to show for 2 years in office? A lot of legislation sure, but what is the substance behind it? Where are the promised results from the stimulus? Where is the transformational change he promised? How are we better off in foreign affairs? Two years ago we conservatives told you that Obama was going to be a repeat of the Carter administration. This year the message was received in reality of the events that transpired. The message that Obama is sending out is that he was untruthful, ignored the wishes the public when it came to health care and really doesn’t care about anything else than driving his big government, deficit laden agenda. This is the message that was broadcast and received by independents who saw that they had been entirely misled by Obama the first time around. This is not about linguistics, this is entirely about competence. If you really think that the population can be pushed around by some linguistic principles (are you really saying this?) then there is no hope for democracy. Also your assertion that voters did not hear both sides is just flat out wrong. As a matter of fact, Democrats had more money to spend on the election than Republicans. Obama would love to blame this on his communication skills (I thought he was supposed to be the best communicator since Reagan) rather than his numerous failures as president and taking the country in a direction that it does not want to go. Let’s face it, if we had this deficit, this poor economy and all of the problems caused by unemployment under a president named Bush, the media would be hammering him all day long. However, Obama gets a pass from the mainstream media. If anything, I’d say that the Conservatives and the Tea Party are fighting a huge battle against the mainstream media, the popular culture and the left leaning educational institutions. I can’t believe anyone would seriously suggest that Republicans did well because of some superior communication network. And to suggest that Obama only countered with policy is ludicrous. Angle, Palin, O’Donnell, Rove, etc are routinely demonized by the Democrats and the press.

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