FIRST LET'S TALK ABOUT MORALITY. I think Democrats need much better positive messaging, expressing and repeating liberal moral values — not just policies — uniformly across the party. That is not happening. One of the reasons that it
March 26, 2012


I think Democrats need much better positive messaging, expressing and repeating liberal moral values — not just policies — uniformly across the party. That is not happening. One of the reasons that it is not happening is that there is a failure to understand the difference between policy and morality, that morality beats policy, and that moral discourse is absolutely necessary. This is a major reason why the Democrats lost the House in 2010.

Consider how conservatives got a majority of Americans to be against the Obama health care plan. The president had polled the provisions, and each had strong public support: No preconditions, no caps, no loss of coverage if you get sick, ability to keep your college-age child on your policy, and so on. These are policy details, and they matter. The conservatives never argued against any of them. Instead, they re-framed; they made a moral case against "Obamacare." Their moral principles were freedom and life, and they had language to go with them. Freedom: "government takeover." Life: "death panels." Republicans at all levels repeated them over and over, and convinced millions of people who were for the policy provisions of the Obama plan to be against the plan as a whole. They changed the public discourse, changed the brains of the electorate — especially the "independents" — and won in 2010.

… It is vital that Democrats not make that mistake again.

~ Dr. George Lakoff, Professor of Linguistics, UC Berkeley in, Why the GOP Campaign for the Presidency Is About Guaranteeing a Radical Conservative Future for America

So what is the morality of Democrats if Republicans have appropriated "freedom" and "life" as their own? Dr. Lakoff suggests "empathy" and "responsibility," and he makes excellent arguments as to how those two basic principles form the backdrop of our positions.

However, he ends his lecture without giving us the tools for describing those moral positions. And if we hope to win over the people who have both "conservative and liberal moral systems in their brains" and aren't beholden to either of the two extremes, it is absolutely critical to get the language right.


(Continue reading after the jump.)

1. Stop using "Privatize" and start saying "Profitize."

From our schools to our Social Security, our prisons, and our military, Republicans want to turn most of our government over to for-profit corporations. But for over 230 years this country has stood for ensuring our greatness by providing education to our children, armed forces to protect our shores and correctional facilities to rehabilitate those who have wronged our communities. These have always simply been givens. And since the establishment of our Earned Benefits programs such as Social Security and Medicare, which reserve income set aside from working people's paychecks, we have relied on the neutrality of our government to administer those programs to ensure that they don't fall victim to the volatility of the markets.

We have a moral responsibility to ensure that these basic services are always available to every taxpayer in America. If we learn that someone in our government is corrupt, we have the recourse to remove them from public office or position — they can be held accountable by us. But if we cede responsibility for our schools, prisons, military, or seniors, to for-profit corporations — to the 1 percent — we literally lose that protection.

A corrupt corporation that owns the schools our children are expected to attend is very difficult to remove. We will no longer have a voice in our children's curriculum. Further profitization in the military would leave us at the mercy of corporations which could be tempted by greater wealth from a foreign nation that desires our destruction. And our elderly would never have a reliable source of income or assurance of medical care when their health begins to wane as they move into their golden years.

These things and more would be the consequence of "Profitizing" any of these vital services. We must make it clear that we are for Democracy, not Profitization.

2. Never, ever say "Gun Control laws" again. From now on, only talk about "Gun Responsibility laws."

On the heels of the tragic slaying of Trayvon Martin, and headlines like these being splashed across the internet: "Gun sales soaring, boosted by gun laws, concerns about Obama," gun responsibility will be a topical issue in this election cycle once again. And we're going to have to get this narrative really, really right if we want to win on it this time around.

Let's face facts: people — including Democrats! — resent having control taken away. But everyone recognizes the universal truth that people need to be responsible. Even gun owners who have been fighting the laws Democrats advocate to ensure public safety, refer to themselves as "responsible" gun owners.

We don't think this needs much extrapolation — it's actually just basic common sense. We need better Gun Responsibility laws that protect innocent people from potential gun violence while also affording responsible gun owners the protection they feel their guns provide them.

3. Never say, “Pro-Life,” even if you are attempting to debunk it or call out its dangers. Instead say the other side is “Anti-Family Planning” and Democrats are "Pro-Family Planning."

Why Pro- or Anti-Family Planning and not Pro- or Anti-Choice? Three reasons:

  • Those already firmly planted on the other side of the debate have no problem being called anti-choice. They've taken the "anti-choice" frame and stomped it into the ground with the slogan, "It's not a choice, it's a child."
  • The anti-choice frame, while perfectly descriptive and true, is not resonating with the part of the electorate who are morally torn on the issue of abortion — and those people do exist and we need to reach them.
  • Republicans have escalated attempts to not only legislate away women's access to abortion, but to limit access to birth control (which paradoxically is the most effective way to reduce abortion in the first place). “Family Planning” broadens the debate beyond the single issue of abortion.

People can be persuaded that Democrats have the moral position on this highly emotional subject if we use a better frame for it. In 2006 then-Senator Barack Obama gave a Keynote Address at the Call to Renewal conference in Washington, DC to an audience of progressive Christians:

A few days after I won the Democratic nomination in my U.S. Senate race, I received an email from a doctor at the University of Chicago Medical School that said the following:

Congratulations on your overwhelming and inspiring primary win. I was happy to vote for you, and I will tell you that I am seriously considering voting for you in the general election. I write to express my concerns that may, in the end, prevent me from supporting you.

The doctor described himself as a Christian who understood his commitments to be "totalizing." His faith led him to a strong opposition to abortion and gay marriage, although he said that his faith also led him to question the idolatry of the free market and quick resort to militarism that seemed to characterize much of the Republican agenda.

But the reason the doctor was considering not voting for me was not simply my position on abortion. Rather, he had read an entry that my campaign had posted on my website, which suggested that I would fight "right-wing ideologues who want to take away a woman's right to choose." The doctor went on to write:

I sense that you have a strong sense of justice ... and I also sense that you are a fair minded person with a high regard for reason ... Whatever your convictions, if you truly believe that those who oppose abortion are all ideologues driven by perverse desires to inflict suffering on women, then you, in my judgment, are not fair-minded. ... You know that we enter times that are fraught with possibilities for good and for harm, times when we are struggling to make sense of a common polity in the context of plurality, when we are unsure of what grounds we have for making any claims that involve others ... I do not ask at this point that you oppose abortion, only that you speak about this issue in fair-minded words.

Fair-minded words.

So I looked at my website and found the offending words. In fairness to them, my staff had written them using standard Democratic boilerplate language to summarize my pro-choice position during the Democratic primary, at a time when some of my opponents were questioning my commitment to protect Roe v. Wade.

Re-reading the doctor's letter, though, I felt a pang of shame. It is people like him who are looking for a deeper, fuller conversation about religion in this country. They may not change their positions, but they are willing to listen and learn from those who are willing to speak in fair-minded words. Those who know of the central and awesome place that God holds in the lives of so many, and who refuse to treat faith as simply another political issue with which to score points.

So I wrote back to the doctor, and I thanked him for his advice. The next day, I circulated the email to my staff and changed the language on my website to state in clear but simple terms my pro-choice position. And that night, before I went to bed, I said a prayer of my own - a prayer that I might extend the same presumption of good faith to others that the doctor had extended to me.

Democrats want to have families as much as anyone else. And we know we can best do that when we have autonomy over when and how we create those families. Family planning is a morally responsible act. So it's time to change the language we use to tell our story to those who are listening.

Democrats are Pro-Family Planning.

This frame is softer and more approachable. It is sensible and sensitive at the same time. It speaks to people who may be personally opposed to abortion but need a reason not to feel guilty about voting for the party that wants to keep abortion legal.

Some sample re-frames to use in conversation:

Democrats are for Family Planning rights.

Democrats are for trusting women to do their own Family Planning.

Democrats believe every woman should have the right to Family Planning access.

But most importantly, we must stop using the opposition's frame, regardless which one of our own we use. Studies show that even if you’re only repeating a word or phrase to debunk it, the mere use of it acts to reinforce it.

Headlines like this, "How the ‘Pro-Life’ Movement Puts Women Behind Bars," are detrimental and damaging to the message: That the Social Regressive movement is making criminals of women who exercise control of their reproductive rights. Putting it in quotation marks isn’t enough. We simply have to start calling it what it is and not what socially regressive people want us to call it.

A more effective way to frame that headline would have been:

"How the Anti-Family Planning Movement Puts Women Behind Bars."

Winning Words.

The Winning Words Project Call to Action

It isn't enough that only we in the blogosphere use progressive language on the critical issues of our time; our party leaders and representatives, as well as those in the media, must be brought on board with this philosophy. In pursuit of the goal of having every single legislator (whether state or federal), every candidate for office, and every person representing or speaking on behalf of these people, sharing the same language, we are reaching out to you for your help.

We are forming a coalition of people in every state and in every congressional district who will be our liaisons with their representative and/or candidates. As part of our Action Team, help with any of the following would go a long way to help us win this fight:

  • Gather all available contact information for your representative or candidate, including phone numbers, email links, Twitter accounts, Facebook accounts, and any other social media information available for that individual.
  • Ensure all pertinent information we provide to you gets into the hands of the representative or candidate in your state or district.
  • Tweet, Post, Reddit, Facebook, and share these posts with all of your friends and followers, "cc'ing" your representatives and/or candidate in your districts every time you do.
  • Use the hastags #WinningWords and #P2Prose in your tweets.
  • Invite your neighbors and friends to your home to meet your representative and/or candidate and talk about the importance of speaking with one, clear voice using language that portrays our moral position in hard-hitting and/or evocative terms.
  • Write letters to the editors of your local newspapers, both large and community-based.
  • Join the discussion on local news websites, getting the language out there in every corner where we might find people talking about, or interested in, this election.
  • Be our eyes and ears on the ground and let us know what your friends, colleagues, club members, social media friends, clergy, et al are talking about. This will become our "focus group," but on a scale that Frank Luntz could never hope to rival, and we will use what you pass along to us in our ongoing effort to shape how Democrats speak.
  • Other, as yet undetermined. Your input is always welcome on additional ways we can utilize our human resources.

You can volunteer to be on our Action Team by letting us know of your interest in the comments section below, or tweeting one of us with the hashtag #WinningWords.

Thank you for your support for this vital project!

Use these lists to:

Tweet the Media
Tweet the Senate
Tweet the House (We could use some help completing this list, too!)

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This post is a continuation of what will be a series on re-framing the language Democrats use in a way that clearly illustrates that we have the moral high ground on issues of policy for the nation. Part One can be found here. If you haven't read it, we recommend starting there, as it provides some important background on this topic, as well as the first set of words and phrases we believe Democrats need to adopt to win the fight to preserve our democracy.

This and future installments are a collaborative effort of Jill W. Klausen, Dr. G. Thomas (Tom) Ruebel of The Winning Words Project, and the community at large who have so helpfully provided their input and knowledge to this project.

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