The "Flip-Flopper" Label — How It’s Done

Salon has an article by Matthew Craft today, Winning the war of words, that talks about how the Republicans are so well able to get the public to believe their misleading and distorting slogans. From the article:

“After months of tireless repetition, the Bush-Cheney campaign’s ‘flip-flop’ charge against John Kerry has become a national cliche.

I’m sure you noticed that during the debate Bush kept repeating the “mixed messages” line. Over and over. Whatever the question, Bush returned to this theme, even when it did not seem to be an appropriate answer to the question. This line ties into the “flip-flopper” campaign theme, because what a “flip-flopper” does is send “mixed messages.”

You and I are informed and know that Kerry IS NOT a flip-flopper, of course, but what about the general public? The Republicans have spent something like 200 million dollars repeating this message over and over and over and over and over. And not just in TV ads. They are using every channel through which people receive “messages.” For example, I’ve written about receiving e-mail chain-letters — those things your sister-in-law from Kansas is always forwarding to you, that have about 300 other people’s e-mail addresses at the top and have already been forwarded eight times — that have as the actual message a joke, another joke, a joke about Kerry being a flip-flopper, a joke, and a sign-off about God smiling on little children or something. Well, where do you think those originate? This is just one example of manipulating a channel through which people receive messages.

The result of this comprehensive message communication effort is that people who don’t spend a lot of time informing themselves about what is going on in the world have heard this single message repeated on the radio, through the internet, on TV, in articles, and, most importantly, from friends. And so it has become “conventional wisdom,” or what you might call “a truth” that you can not trust Kerry because he is a flip-flopper. The Republicans laid out this plan of attack a long time ago and have consistently stuck to this one theme, repeating it over and over, right through the debate and continuing with the ads they are running today. This is how it is done.

From the article,

‘That’s exactly what research shows,’ said George Lakoff, a cognitive scientist at the University of California at Berkeley. ‘Repeat something over and over and it gets in people’s brains.’ Republicans, Lakoff argues, have found success through ‘framing’ issues along lines that fit their worldview and sticking to them. The Democrats aren’t nearly as effective.”

Most people do not have time to study issues, and, instead, rely on other cues to decide who to vote for. The Republicans have studied this process and manipulate people using these cues, while Democrats continue to believe that just taking positions on issues is enough. This is why Kerry always talks “positions” and Bush always talks “values.” The way to reach people is at a deeper level than “issue arguments.”

From the Salon article,

His [George Lakoff’s] book “Don’t Think of an Elephant,” with a foreword by Howard Dean, came out on Sept. 15 and quickly made a cameo among Amazon’s bestselling books. What’s surprising about Lakoff’s analysis is how it can be used to make sense of otherwise conflicting ideas. His theory of political preferences, taken on its merits, offers insights into the Zell Miller enigma and might explain the mystery of why people don’t vote in their self-interest.

In the reality show called American politics, you don’t need to master the issues to take the White House. In fact, Lakoff and many others now argue, a stance on an issue matters less than the candidate’s “values,” a recognizable moral system. Many Democrats don’t vote for their self-interests, and, as Thomas Franks pointed out in his recent book “What’s the Matter with Kansas,” most poor Kansans don’t either.

“People always vote their values,” Lakoff said. Democrats and liberals always assume people vote their self-interests, he said, like shoppers with a grocery list. “Polls and focus groups are based on this metaphor of a political campaign as a marketing campaign. That’s just wrong. Cognitive science shows us that’s not how people work.”

How voters’ minds work is, like the study of decision making, a source of endless debate. Political scientists assume that most people skip the hard work of immersing themselves in the issues before picking a candidate and look for shortcuts instead. But what are they, and which come first?

We (Progressives, Liberals, Democrats) need to start thinking past the election cycle. Thinking that a candidate or political party is going to somehow magically know what to say to lead all of us out of this mess is not realistic.

What we need to do is restore in the widespread general public underlying Progressive values, and this will bring support from which candidates can draw their strength. This is what the Right has been doing for thirty years. They have been manipulating the public’s underlying values, and THEN their candidates can show up and use code-words to tap into that underlying value “language” they have developed.

This is a long-term war we are in against the Right. They way to win our country back from the “conservative movement” is to work to bring people’s underlying values and ideals back to Progressive values and THEREBY win elections. To accomplish this we must start forming AND FUNDING an infrastructure of Progressive “advocacy” and communications organizations. These organizations will study how people receive and interpret messages and how to make them “stick” in people’s minds. They will craft language to communicate our shared values and ideals and make them available to other Progressive organizations as well as reaching the public through numerous channels. They would work to restore in the widespread general public an understanding of basic values like Democracy, and to reinforce Progressive values of community, sharing, nurturing and tolerance/understanding. (Read the article to see what I write it this way.)

FROM those underlying values will come the votes on specific issues and for specific candidates! Trying to do it from the candidates is backwards.

I’m not going to give away the rest of this article — go read it. I will, of course, be writing about all of this a lot more.

So do your homework, read the article, and get Lakoff’s book!