This Fall's Election Is Not About Policies and Programs: It's About Right and Wrong

In this election a moral frame is particularly important because it allows Democrats to play offense. We will not win a debate over whether we have been "effective" enough at digging out of the economic hole that Bush and the Republicans left.
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There is a tendency among people who spend their lives working to promote policy positions, Members of Congress, Congressional staffs, and even the media to discuss political issues in terms of public policy.

I don't mean simply that they use wonky terms and acronyms -- though that is often true and it is the surest way to make people's eyes glaze. I mean that they focus on the potential "effectiveness" of a particular legislative or administrative initiative.

Now the effectiveness of a particular program or policy is enormously important, both to government and politics. But everyday voters mainly make decisions over whether a policy -- or a political leader -- is effective based on the objective circumstances of their day-to-day lives. If, for instance, President Obama's policies are not ultimately effective dragging the economy out of the economic ditch into which it was driven by George Bush he will certainly have a very difficult time being re-elected.

But when it comes to the impact of political dialogue -- of direct messaging -- on the outcome of elections, discussions of the effectiveness of policy are not important determinants of outcomes. Often messaging focused on the effectiveness of a candidate -- or a person -- can in fact have a big impact on outcomes, but not the discussion of the effectiveness of a policy. The Democrats need an effective economic policy because that will ultimately impact the real circumstances of everyday people. Those real circumstances will have a huge impact on the outcome of elections. But it isn't the "discussion" of those policies that will be determinative in the least.

Elections are decided by two groups: persuadable swing voters, and mobilizable voters who would cast their ballots for one of the two parties but are unlikely to vote unless they are mobilized.

Neither of these groups is comprised of policy wonks. In fact, both are less likely to be heavily engaged and focused on political and policy issues than more partisan voters. That doesn't mean these voters are less intelligent than more partisan voters -- just less interested.

They care about the things that normal people think about -- not policy debates. They care first and foremost about the actual circumstances of their own families -- about their job, their income, their kid's school, their retirement, their hopes and aspirations.

But when it comes to what dialogue -- or messaging -- affect their political decisions, they don't focus on the potential "effectiveness" of one policy or another. Instead they want to know whether something is right or wrong.

From the standpoint of most voters there are two inter-related but distinct components of this notion of right and wrong.

On the one hand there is the moral frame that is engaged by any particular political message. Normal voters think of political decisions as choices that are measured against values -- not "policies." This fall we need to make the election a choice between our very popular progressive values and their very unpopular values.

We have to provide a clear contrast to the Right's belief in unbridled pursuit of individual interest with our commitment to the common good; selfishness versus commitment to others; division versus unity; fear versus hope; that we're all in this together, not "all in this alone."

On the other hand voters make political decisions by asking the closely related question of whether you are on "my side." Whose side is a candidate on? Is he a good guy or a bad guy? Does he represent good guys or bad guys? Are his proposals right or wrong? And remember that right and wrong, and good guys and bad guys, are always defined from the standpoint of who you are and where you sit.

In other words -- as George Lakoff argues -- from the point of view of the voters, most political decisions are moral decisions.

This is not so because swing voters and mobilizable voters are somehow more "unsophisticated" than more engaged, partisan voters. In fact, you could argue that they are actually more focused on what really matters. Whether a particular policy will "work" is important, but it is a technical question. In fact, most people know instinctively that it's not the principal driver of political decision-making in any society or group. Normal voters want to strip away the euphemism and policy talk and get to the real question: whose interest is being served and whose is not? What real choices are being made? Is it fair?

Political decisions involve competing self-interests. Normal people know it, and they want to know whose nest is being feathered and whose ox is being gored. First and foremost they want to know if a candidate is on their side.

For many years the Republicans and the far right did a much better job of speaking to that sense of right and wrong than Democrats and Progressives. That helps explain why for much of the last 40 years they were more successful politically. That changed in 2006 and especially in 2008. Barack Obama communicated moral language about hope and possibility -- about justice -- about standing up for everyday people not special interests.

To win this fall, Democrats need to revive that sense of moral fervor. We have to assure that the election is not about the "effectiveness" of Democratic policies -- but whose side a candidate is on.

The debate in the next two months must focus on one central question: do you want to entrust our future once again to Republicans who wrecked the economy -- not because they were incompetent or had "bad" policies -- but because they were bought and paid for by huge special interests like the big Wall Street Banks, Big Oil and the insurance industry. That is a moral question -- not a policy question.

Voters were not outraged by the bank bailout or the huge Wall Street bonuses because they thought they were "ineffective" policies. They are furious because they saw them as unjust.

Everyday people are perfectly willing to sacrifice for a cause that is important. In fact, they long to be called upon to commit their lives to a cause that is bigger than themselves -- something to which they can make a significant personal contribution. One of the chief self-interests of every person is a desire for meaning in life and meaning comes from the commitments you make. Everyday voters want their leaders to call on them to make commitments to the greater good -- to the future of their children.

But people are livid if they believe they are called upon to play by the rules and then one day get laid off from their job -- for no fault of their own -- because some Wall Street sharpie made horrible bets with someone else's money and then walked off scott-free with millions of dollars when the bottom fell out. That's wrong.

The right-wing arguments that stuck during the health care debate were not "policy" arguments. They were the myths about "death panels," and Government controlling your life and depriving you of freedom. It was the myth that Health Care reform would cut the Medicare that you have paid into your entire working life. People view these questions in moral terms -- in terms of right and wrong -- not effectiveness or efficacy.

There are three additional reasons why political messaging that involves moral frames is so resonant:

  • Moral questions engage the emotions, not just conscious thought. Emotion is much more likely to break through -- to get people's attention. It is especially effective at mobilizing people to vote. With mobilizable voters, the problem is not convincing them that we are right. Mobilizable voters -- by definition -- are voters who would vote Democratic, but need to be mobilized to assure they will go to the polls. In 1994 we did not lose because most Americans disagreed with Democratic policies, but because Democrats stayed home and Republicans went to the polls. Mobilization is not about persuasion, it's about motivation -- motivating them to act. That is much more about emotion than thought.

  • Moral questions engage value frames that are deeply embedded in each of our unconscious minds. As Lakoff points out, we often have several contradictory value frames. Our view of a subject or candidate is heavily influenced by the frame that is being activated at the particular time. If Democrats do not communicate in moral terms and the other side does, they will be much more apt to activate a clear value frame and win the day.
  • A final reason we are much more likely to gain attention of the voters when we use moral language involves narrative. Everyday voters are much more likely to become engaged with our campaigns and candidates if we engaged them with a narrative -- or story -- about the race. Narratives always involve a protagonist and antagonist. They always involve conflict. At some level, every good story is about right and wrong. Good stories engage us because we empathize with some character and end up rooting for their success. The same is true of election campaigns.
  • In this election a moral frame is particularly important because it allows Democrats to play offense. We will not win a debate over whether we have been "effective" enough at digging out of the economic hole that Bush and the Republicans left. People are too unhappy with the status quo. Virtually every economist agrees that the stimulus bill did a great deal to stave off true economic disaster, but that doesn't ring true to someone whose brother-in-law is out of work. In this election the winning ground for Democrats is the question of who's on your side, and whether we want to hand over the country to the Republicans who will once again do the will of elite special interests.

    Discussing questions in moral terms requires that we always address the question of motive. In fact, the motive is often more important than any other aspect of our message. What is important is not just that the Republicans wrecked the economy -- but that they wrecked the economy at the bidding of the Big Wall Street banks. They didn't wreck the economy because they were incompetent or stupid, but because they were -- and remain -- a wholly-owned subsidiary of the biggest special interests in the country.

    And let's remember that while on the one hand, this is by far the most compelling way to frame the issues in the Mid-terms; it is also without any question the most accurate description of reality.

    If Democrats are to persuade and mobilize this fall, every debate must be cast in moral terms:

    • Republicans want to cut guaranteed benefits and privatize Social Security for two reasons: because Wall Street wants to get its hands on the Social Security Trust Fund -- and so that they allow the wealthiest people in America to keep the huge Bush tax breaks. They would much rather "balance the budget" on the backs of Social Security recipients than demand that the wealthy pay the same tax rates they did during the prosperous Bill Clinton years. It turns out, by the way, that over the next 25 years the "shortfall" in Social Security is about the same amount as the revenue lost if Congress continues the Bush tax cuts for the top 2 percent.

  • Republicans want to replace Medicare with vouchers for private insurance from the same companies that raised their rates three times faster than wages and are now engorged with profit.
  • Republicans opposed the Democratic stimulus bill, extensions of unemployment and more federal money for teachers, firemen and police because they wanted the recovery to stall for their narrow political purposes.
  • Republicans oppose tough regulation of drilling by oil companies because they have been bought and paid for by Big Oil.
  • Republicans want to repeal the new law reining in the recklessness of the Big Wall Street banks that cost eight million Americans their jobs, because they are owned by Wall Street.
  • Republicans want to take away provisions in the new Health Care law that prevent insurance companies from discriminating against people with pre-existing conditions because the insurance companies dump millions of dollars into their campaigns.
  • Republicans side with big business contributors when they consistently oppose measures to discourage the outsourcing of American jobs abroad.
  • Everything has to be about who is on your side. Everything has to be about motive -- about right and wrong.

    Democrats face a tough political environment in November because the economic catastrophe that the Republicans created two years ago was so fundamental. It would be outrageous if they were allowed to reclaim control of Congress as their reward for causing that catastrophe and then doing everything they can to stall economic recovery. Now that would be wrong.

    Over the next two months we have to passionately make the moral case. We must make the election a choice between those who side with everyday Americans and those who stand shoulder to shoulder with the economic elites whose greed and recklessness unleashed a flood of misery that has yet to fully recede from the Main Streets of America.

    Robert Creamer is a long-time political organizer and strategist, and author of the recent book: Stand Up Straight: How Progressives Can Win, available on

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