“If you know the enemy and know yourself you need not fear results of a hundred battles.” This wisdom was spoken by the Chinese warrior Sun Tzu, or “Master Sun” in his masterpiece, The Art of War, around 500 B.C.E.
Much thought has gone into winning elections in the US, which are quite like wars. Much thought by winning Republicans, by successful marketers, by helpful psychologists who understand how the voter’s brain works. Republicans have studied this for over 40 years, created numerous think tanks and policy institutes, and spent billions of dollars on research and development. Democrats need to dive in and start swimming – fast!
What did the winning Republicans learn? Why do they control the Presidency and the House and Senate and most state offices, too? Because they got woke about how the human minds works and how they could manipulate it for their own ends. They understand this very simple fact — 95% or more of communication with a voter, meaning how you can really get your message to her, is through the subconscious mind. Not the conscious mind. Not the mind that considers facts. Or uses reason. Or responds well to arguments.
So we must all get woke. And stay woke. This phrase cut through to my subconscious mind sometime in 2016. Rep. Maxine Waters said “get woke and stay woke” in many interviews. She also said, “Do not normalize. Do not believe lies. Do not get lost in confusion. And obfuscation. And distraction. Do not get overwhelmed or hypnotized with so many events and accusations and lies. Be aware. Know what is going on. Stay woke.” Maxine’s dramatic expressions of the words, in a time of great fog, finally got through to my soul. (Thank you, Maxine.)
So give this a go. If you are not already, get woke, and stay woke. Take a few minutes to read this. It might be all the time you need to make a seismic shift in your understanding and be able to withstand the onslaught of fog coming at you.
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To steal a metaphor from football, you need to go on the Defensive and then go on the Offensive.
First, the Defense.
Defensive Move 1: Learn Who You Are. The overwhelming majority of people are normal. By this is mean they generally try to live a good life and do the right thing, whatever that may mean for them. They enjoy a full range of emotions, have a conscience, feel other people’s suffering, try to make relationships work, and when they hurt someone or make a mistake, they feel sorrow and guilt. They want to have good intimate relationships with family and friends, and work at a job that will support them and their families and give them opportunities for fun and pleasure. Normal people believe that everyone has good in their heart and that really evil people do not exist – maybe that serial killer who killed ten women or that fund manager who stole millions from his clients or that politician who polluted Flint, Michigan’s drinking water had bad parenting and a lot of bad breaks as a child.
I used to think this way. Until I met up with a few psychopaths – truly evil people. And I realized that no, it is not true that everyone has some evil in them, and it is not true that everyone has some responsibility for creating the world’s problems. No, that assessment of events is just not true. What is true is that normal people can occasionally have bad behavior or even be violent, but only psychopaths commit real evil. And the psychopaths are happy to remain invisible and escape culpability. Normal people may be neurotic and even psychotic, they may live messed up lives and hurt themselves and other people. But they DO have a conscience and are capable of empathy and the depth of human feelings – that’s what makes them normal members of the homo sapiens species.
So here is your first defense: remember you are a normal human being who wants everyone to have a decent life and to behave themselves. About ninety percent or so of people are normal, just like you. And remember: your empathy is your greatest power. It is what led the social movements of Martin Luther King, Mohandas Gandhi, Malala Yousztafi, Mother Theresa, and Nelson Mandela, among others.
So when you hear someone say, “I could go out in the streets of New York City right now and shoot someone, and they’d still vote for me,” you KNOW that is not the statement of a normal person. So do not make it normal, not even once, because if you let it slide, you will soon become lost in the fog of confusion and doubt. So stay woke! Do not normalize abnormal behavior. Your first impressions, your gut reactions, are part of your normalcy, and are probably right.
Defensive Move 2: Learn How to Deal with Bullies and Psychopaths. Recognize bully tactics and how to confront them. And on a more complex level, how to recognize a psychopath and to protect yourself from harm. Some psychopaths have a domineering, spell-binding presence. They Dominate everything and everyone in their environment. There is only one good defensive move here: RUN.
Read the page on this site on Psychopaths and Evil. And here are some classic works on the subject: Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths Go To Work, by Paul Babiak, Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of Psychopaths Among Us, by Robert D. Hare, and The Sociopath Next Store, by Martha Stout.
Defensive Move 3: Learn About Lies and Techniques to Confuse and Stop You. This includes fake news, spinning, distraction, and confusing massive propaganda. I’m still working on this one. Every day.
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Then you need to use the Offensive Moves.
Offensive Move 1: Know Your Enemy. Learn all you can about Psychopaths and Evil and the techniques they use to manipulate you. See page on Psychopaths and Evil for resources.
Offensive Move 2: Focus on Values, And Frame Them All as Serving The Common Good. Focus on Values. Not Numbers, not Policies, not Arguments. Voters vote their values and whomever they think values what they do. All voters want to think they are good, moral people and they are casting their votes for good, moral people. They want to believe their vote will help their values manifest more in their world. This is why they can be very adamant in their beliefs and why they can sometimes even vote against their own best interest (like when working-class persons vote against raising the minimum wage.)
Offensive Move 3. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Say The Common Good whenever possible. Whatever message you want to get across, remember that constant repetition creates a larger impression in the subconscious mind. Vladimir Lenin said, “A lie told often enough becomes the truth.” Dick Cheney was fond of talking about the power of the big lie, and how the bigger the lie, the easier it was to convince people it was true. His big lie was, “Iraq has weapons of mass destruction,” which he used to convince the citizenry to go to war with Iraq.
But repeating a truth can make it more powerful, too, and make it more likely to create an impression in the subconscious mind.
Offensive Move 4. Use Your Words, AKA Frame and Reframe. Republicans often publish a long manual written by Frank Luntz or other propagandist every year that lists important political issues and describes the Republican logic of each position. It is distributed to prominent Republicans such as Congress people, Senators, Governors, Republican media outlets, and other significant Republicans. It also lists what the Democratic logic is, how to attack it, and what language to use. The language used is critical. Republican propagandists often put out manuals or memos about “talking points” whenever a new significant issue comes before the public. So you will notice that on a given issue, Republicans frequently say the same things in the exact same words – that’s because they all got a copy of the same “talking points” memo. Democrats are way behind in this strategy, but so need to do all this, too!
One thing the Republican strategists do well is framing, that is, use specific words to describe an issue that reflects their bias towards it. For example, the term “collateral damage“ is a frame that sounds rather innocent and devoid of emotion, because it reflects wounds that, although probably not intentional, are still acceptable. But in the Democratic voter’s mind, the term really means “the murder of innocent civilians” or “the killing of your own soldiers” in friendly-fire accidents, or it means “damage to civilian property.”
Here is my favorite example of framing. Mahatma Gandhi was on trial for subversive activity against the British government. At one point, the judge asked him, “What do you think of Western Civilization?” and Gandhi answered, “I think it would be a good idea.” Of course, the British government framed “Western Civilization” in the most positive light, a benevolent empire that brought all good things to India. But for Gandhi, a more truthful frame evoked the word “civilized,” which to Gandhi meant courteous, fair-minded, humanistic, and respectful, which is not, of course, how Gandhi experienced the British.
Another favorite example of framing is “The Common Good,” which is the political adaptation of The Golden Rule. These two terms are both powerful phrases that capture people’s attention and keeps their attention. The terminology and symbolism have been around for thousands of years, and they are meaningful memes for both the conscious mind and the unconscious mind. This is because our species, homo sapiens, evolved to live cooperatively, to help each other, and to care for others when they weren’t able to care for themselves. So we (the normal ones among us) intuitively and deeply understand the concept as a way of living that is quite familiar to us.
Two important points. First, the subconscious mind responds best to an idea or symbol that is positive. Remember, to the Republican mind, “collateral damage” can be a positive consequence to a violent action. Second, as discussed above, repetition gives a symbol power. If you repeat the idea used by your opponent that you consider negative, even to oppose it, you strengthen the original idea and not your own. So, rather than repeating your opponent’s terms that to you are negative, the better strategy is to reframe your argument – in your own words and in positive terms.
Example 1. After the 2016 election, Donald Trump started calling journalists enemies, so journalists responded with #NotTheEnemy. This seems like an appropriate response, but it is not a good one, because it lacks the power of a positive frame. Remember that when you negate a frame, you still evoke the frame. So every time you use the words, Republicans can claim an advantage, because the voter’s mind still conjures up “the enemy”. A better response for Democrats is #ProtectTheTruth. If Democrats used this phrase, the voter’s subconscious mind would imagine the positive symbol of that noble ideal, the truth, that is important to the voter. When Democrats claim to be protecting the truth, they are the heroes, and they win the argument.
Example 2. Republicans often use the term “regulations.” This image constructs the frame that the freedom of a business is being restricted. It is therefore a derogatory term, with the business symbolized as a victim. “Protections” would be a better frame for Democrats to use. This word reframes the argument because it symbolizes Democrats as the heroes and points to the real victims – people and the environment – who are being hurt by the true enemy, the business under discussion.
Example 3. Trump identifies as a winner who won the 2016 election by a “yuge” margin. “Winner” is an extremely powerful symbol in Trump’s subconscious mind, and important for how he perceives himself. A better term for Democrats to use is “Minority President,” which changes the symbolism from winner to loser, and would cause humiliation for Trump. It is also a more truthful version of the election results, since Trump lost the popular vote.
Eample 4. Republicans use the term “a riot in city streets.” Citizens here are framed as rebellious spoiled children, angry and dangerous without good cause, because, as Republicans believe, Americans have a government that is good and exists to help them. The reframe here for Democratics is “citizen action,” which symbolizes morally good and patriotic adults who are legally and non-violently confronting the powers-that-be about something that violates something they value. And they are exercising their Constitutional rights to legally protest and exercise free speech. Democrats could derive benefit from reminding the public, frequently and passionately, that is was through citizen revolts that the American Revolution was begun some 240 years ago. It was citizen revolts that sparked the creation of this country.
Example 5. Republicans use the term “energy independence and security.” This, too, symbolizes a business that has its freedom curtailed, and seeks for economic reasons, to be independent of reliance on other countries for oil. It implies that if the US uses only its own sources of oil it is not relying on other countries for its energy needs, and is therefore more financially secure. A Democratic frame such as “alternative energy use” would value the protection of the environment and value the use of other US energy sources such as wind and solar power.
Example 6. When Republican Richard Nixon resigned the Presidency, he said “I am not a crook.” Unfortunately, this phrase reinforced his symbolic identity as a crook. Using the frame “I am an honest man,” although not true, would have been a better strategy.
Example 7. Republican George W. Bush began using the phrase “tax relief” in 2001, very early in his Presidency. The term is still used today in 2017, which is a testament to its symbolic power. The public uses it as if it were a neutral term, but it is not at all neutral. Cognitive psychologist George Lakoff says of this phrase,
“First, you have the frame for ‘relief.’ For there to be relief, there has to be an afflicted party, somebody who administers the relief, and an act in which you are relieved of the affliction. The reliever is the hero, and anybody who tries to stop them is the bad guy. So, add ‘tax’ to ‘relief’ and you get a metaphor that taxation is an affliction, and anybody against relieving this affliction is a villain. For Republicans, taxes are an imposition, a punishment for being successful.”
But Democrats should frame taxes in a much different way. Lakoff also says,
“Taxes are what you pay to be an American, to live in a civilized society that is democratic and offers opportunity, and where there’s an infrastructure that has been paid for by previous taxpayers. This is a huge infrastructure. The highway system, the Internet, the TV system, the public education system, the power grid, the system for training scientists – vast amounts of infrastructure that we all use, which has to be maintained and paid for. Taxes are your dues – you pay your dues to be an American. In addition, the wealthiest Americans use that infrastructure more than anyone else, and they use parts of it that other people don’t. The federal justice system, for example, is nine-tenths devoted to corporate law. The Securities and Exchange Commission and all the apparatus of the Commerce Department are mainly used by the wealthy. And we’re all paying for it.”
So taxes could be framed as an issue of patriotism. Lakoff suggests calling taxes “patriot dues.” This phrase symbolizes membership in the country, and as a member, claiming the benefits of highways and libraries, the voting booth and justice system, the police and fire departments, and national parks, public beaches and conservation areas.
Taxes then evoke a very positive framing – fees that citizens pay in order to reap many rewards from The Common Good bequeathed to them by millions of US citizens that came before them. And subsequently, taxes are the fees that today’s citizens will contribute to The Common Good of millions of US citizens who will come after them.
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“Islam means peace. I believe in peace. I believe in mercy. And I believe in the power of women and girls to change the world for The Common Good of all people.” – Malala Yousztafi, winner of Nobel Peace Prize