Thursday, August 20, 2009

PolicySpeak vs. Narrative

Linguist George Lakoff, considering the monumental degree to which the public discussion of health care policy in the US has been permeated and distorted with mid- and disinformation, does not focus on the one inescapable given, viz. that the lobbyists for the insurance and drug industries (the medical-technical business complex) will stop at nothing to preserve the corrupt status quo, but rather asks this question:

Barack Obama ran the best-organized and best-framed presidential campaign in history. How is it possible that the same people who did so well in the campaign have done so badly on health care?

....There has been a major drop in support for the president throughout the country, with angry mobs disrupting town halls and the right wing airing its views with vehemence nonstop on radio and tv all day every day. As the NY Times reports, Organizing for America (the old Obama campaign network) can’t even get its own troops out to work for the President’s proposal.

What has been going wrong?

His answer is simple: instead of offering the public at large a narrative, the Obama Administration has focused on the politicians:

The answer is simple and unfortunate: The president put both the conceptual framing and the messaging for his health care plan in the hands of policy wonks. This led to twin disasters.

. . . . . .

The policymakers focus on the list, not the unifying idea. So Obama’s and Axelrod’s statements last Sunday were just the lists without the unifying institution. And without a powerful institution, the insurance companies will just whittle away at enforcement of any such list, and a future Republican administration will just get rid of the regulators, reassigning them or eliminating their jobs.

Why do policymakers think this way?

One: The reality of how Congress is lobbied. Legislators are lobbied to be against particular features, depending on their constituencies. Blue Dogs are pressured by the right’s communication system operating in their districts. Congressional leaders have a challenge: Keep the eye of centrists and Blue Dogs on the central idea, despite the pressures of right-wing communications and lobbyists’ contributions.

Two: In classical logic, Leibniz’ Law takes an entity as being just a collection of properties. As if you were no more than eyes, legs, arms, and so on, taken separately. Without a public institution turning a unifying idea into a powerful reality, health care becomes just a collection of reforms to be attacked, undermined, and gotten around year after year.

Three: Current budget-making assumptions. Health is actually systematic in character. Health is implicated in just about all aspects of our culture: agriculture, the food industry, advertising, education, business, the distribution of wealth, sports, and so on. Keeping it as a line item — what figure do you put down on the following lines — misses the systemic nature of health. The image of Budget Director Peter Orszag running constantly in and out of Senator Max Baucus’ office shows how the systemic nature of health has been turned into a list of items and costs. Without a sense of the whole, and an institution responsible for it, health will be line-itemed to death.

In other words, the lobbyists' story is simpler, more direct, and emotionally urgent, while the Obama Administration doesn't have a story, but a list.

Lakoff elaborates:

PolicySpeak is the principle that: If you just tell people the policy facts, they will reason to the right conclusion and support the policy wholeheartedly.

PolicySpeak is the principle behind the President’s new Reality Check Website. To my knowledge, the Reality Check Website, has not had a reality check. That is, the administration has not hired a first-class cognitive psychologist to take subjects who have been convinced by right-wing myths and lies, have them read the Reality Check website, and see if the Reality Check website has changed their minds a couple of days or a week later. I have my doubts, but do the test.

To many liberals, PolicySpeak sounds like the high road: a rational, public discussion in the best tradition of liberal democracy. Convince the populace rationally on the objective policy merits. Give the facts and figures. Assume self-interest as the motivator of rational choice. Convince people by the logic of the policymakers that the policy is in their interest.

But to a cognitive scientist or neuroscientist, this sounds nuts. The view of human reason and language behind PolicySpeak is just false. Certainly reason should be used. It’s just that you should use real reason, the way people really think. Certainly the truth should be told. It’s just that it should be told so it makes sense to people, resonates with them, and inspires them to act. Certainly new media should be used. It’s just that a system of communications should be constructed and used effectively.

I believe that what went wrong is (a) the choice of PolicySpeak and (b) the decision to depend on the campaign apparatus (blogs, Town Hall meetings, presidential appearances, grassroots support) instead of setting up an adequate communications system.

And here is his suggestion for a narrative he thinks would work:

Insurance company plans have failed to care for our people. They profit from denying care. Americans care about one another. An American plan is both the moral and practical alternative to provide care for our people.

The insurance companies are doing their worst, spreading lies in an attempt to maintain their profits and keep Americans from getting the care they so desperately need. You, our citizens, must be the heroes. Stand up, and speak up, for an American plan.

He also suggests changing the language the Administration uses to talk about health care policy, and then reviews what he sees as the major mistakes the Administration has made. The remainder of his essay discusses "the Conservative Communication System" and the Culture War.

The issue is so personal, the villains so clear, that I never have understood why progressive change on this issue has been impossible in the US for so long.

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