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Crafting Democratic Responses to Republican Arguments

By Lucy Belnora
Review | January 25, 2010

SALINA, Kan. - The Democrat's bitter election loss in Massachusetts may be a result of how Democrats have been losing ground on the public opinion front. As fellow KFP writer, Marty Keenan, recently pointed out, "Democrats are terrible at explaining things in simple, emotional ways that win hearts and minds. Republicans are experts at explaining things in simple, emotional ways that win hearts and minds."

Marty recommended that Democrats read the excellent book, The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation.

A few other books may also provide some of the tools that Democrats need to regain lost ground. In addition to The Political Brain, I'd like to recommend four additional books: 1) Don't Think of an Elephant! Know Your Values and Frame the Debate: The Essential Guide for Progressives, 2) Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think, 3) Answering Back: Liberal Responses to Conservative Arguments, and perhaps the best one, 4) The Political Mind: A Cognitive Scientist's Guide to Your Brain and Its Politics.

One of the newest, Answering Back: Liberal Responses to Conservative Arguments may offer some concrete answers.

Answering Back presents the author's view of both conservative and liberal arguments on eight key policy issues now in contention between the parties: trickledown economics and the role of public spending, the desirability of welfare reform, the future of social security, the establishment of health care for all, the possibility of comprehensive immigration control, religious issues and the social agenda, the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the causes of the financial meltdown.

Each chapter of the book begins with a brief introduction, followed by conservative views and a point-by-point progressive response. Each stage of each argument is labeled for easy memorization, and the language used is deliberately jargon free, to make the material as accessible as possible. The sources of both conservative and progressive arguments (and their supporting evidence) are cited to open the door to further research.

Another writer, George Lakoff, provides helpful tools for Democrats in reframing debates. His groundbreaking 2002 book, Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think, provides an analysis of the unconscious worldviews of liberals and conservatives, explaining why the two groups are at odds over so many seemingly unrelated issues-like taxes, abortion, regulation, and social programs.

The differences, Lakoff argues, are not mere matters of partisanship, but arise from radically different conceptions of morality and ideal family life-meaning that family and morality are at the heart of American politics, in ways that are far from obvious.

Moral Politics is a crucial key to understanding political opponents and achieving political victory.

Lakoff's most popular book, Don't Think of an Elephant! Know Your Values and Frame the Debate: The Essential Guide for Progressives, presents a simple, accessible overview of his theory of "moral politics" and a call to action for Democrats. Though Lakoff published this book in 2004 to help Democrats formulate a "come back" plan after the loss of the federal election to George W. Bush, Lakoff's ideas and recommendations may be even more appropriate for Democrats today.

Lakoff's persuasive argument focuses on two ideas: what he calls "framing," and the opposition of liberals' and conservatives' concepts of the family.

Conservatives, he says, have easily framed tax cuts as "tax relief" because of widespread, preexisting views of taxes as burdensome, and liberals have had little success conveying the idea that taxes are a social responsibility.

In Lakoff's view, conservatives adhere to a "strict father" model of family, in contrast to liberals' "nurturant parent" view, and he sees this difference as the key to understanding most of the two sides' clashes. His writing is clear and succinct, and he illuminates his theories through easy-to-follow examples from current politics.

George Lakoff explains how conservatives think, and how to counter their arguments. He outlines in detail the traditional American values that progressives hold, but are often unable to articulate. Lakoff also breaks down the ways in which conservatives have framed the issues, and provides examples of how progressives can reframe the debate.

And, finally, I've saved the best for last. Lakoff published a very good linguistics book in 2009 called The Political Mind: A Cognitive Scientist's Guide to Your Brain and Its Politics. George Lakoff has a knack for making science make sense for general readers.

In this new book, The Political Mind, Lakoff spells out what cognitive science has discovered about reason, and reveals that human reason is far more interesting than we thought it was.

Lakoff teaches that reason is physical, mostly unconscious, metaphorical, emotion-laden, and tied to empathy-and there are biological explanations behind our moral and political thought processes.

His call for a New Enlightenment is a bold and striking challenge to the cherished beliefs not only of philosophers, but of pundits, pollsters, and political leaders. George Lakoff is Richard and Rhoda Goldman Distinguished Professor of Cognitive Science and Linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley.

The Political Mind is a passionate, erudite, and groundbreaking book that will appeal to anyone interested in how the mind works and how we function socially and politically.

Marty Keenan wrote, "Democrats are terrible at explaining things in simple, emotional ways that win hearts and minds." Democrats wishing to prove Marty was wrong may wish to check these books out from their local library:

Taken together, these five books are likely to offer strategic insights into how to deal with conservatives and appeal to the general public.

Politicos that read these books are bound to light fires in many upcoming political campaigns for progressives candidates.


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