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Climate Rhetoric: Be Clever, But Don’t Get Too Cute

March 23, 2010

Joe Romm has a great piece on how US Democrats don’t message well on climate (and haven’t on health care).

No serious messaging strategy can possibly be built around the phrase “healthcare reform.”  Why?  First, “reform” is a process, not an outcome.  No one serious about moving public opinion talks about process over and over again.  They talk about the benefits that reform brings, outcomes the public cares about.  Second, most of the public likes their healthcare, so the phrase “healthcare reform” is not intrinsically positive and, in fact, is probably negative for much of the public given the more effective conservative messaging…

…If you spend half your scarce messaging time talking about “healthcare reform,” while your opponent spends all of their time messaging on negative outcomes that the public worries about, you are fighting with one hand tied behind your back.

Here is a quiz:

1)  What’s worse from a messaging perspective, “the public option” or “cap-and-trade”?  Hint:  Both are process.

2)  Tell me in one sentence what team Obama says is the benefit of passing a health care reform bill.

3)  Tell me in one sentence what team Obama says happens if we fail to pass the climate and clean energy bill.

It’s a good point. So is this:

As Frank Luntz  has said:

There’s a simple rule: You say it again, and you say it again, and you say it again, and you say it again, and you say it again, and then again and again and again and again, and about the time that you’re absolutely sick of saying it is about the time that your target audience has heard it for the first time.

For example,

A vote for this bill is a vote for healthcare security.  You get to keep your healthcare coverage if you like what you have — and they can’t throw you off of it if you get some expensive disease or get fired.  And you get access to health care coverage if you don’t have it, and they can’t keep it away from you if you have a pre-existing condition.  And this bill keeps whatever healthcare you have or get affordable, so you don’t have to compromise your health to pay for other necessities.

Healthcare security. Healthcare security. Healthcare security.

On climate, at least we have the simple positive message:  clean energy jobs, jobs, jobs.  Plus energy independence/security. But nice phrases have to marry with a credible, believable, simple narrative on four fronts:

There is a simple fact about elections that has eluded Democrats in every presidential campaign they have lost in the last 40 years: that as a candidate, you have to focus first and foremost not on a litany of “issues” but on four stories: the story you tell about yourself, the story your opponent is telling about himself, the story your opponent is telling about you, and the story you are telling about your opponent. Candidates who offer compelling stories in all four quadrants of this “message grid” win, and those who leave any of them to chance generally lose.

You need a story about yourself and a story about your opponent. And you need a counterpunch to your opponent’s stories about himself and about you. Ideally, the stories can be boiled down to a catchy slogan (”it’s the economy, stupid”) or one or two words (”compassionate conservative”) that make use of the memorable figures of speech from the 25-century-old art of persuasion aka rhetoric (see “Why scientists aren’t more persuasive, Part 1“). Same for the counterpunch (”He was for it before he was against it.”).

Romm specifically addresses the issue of “narrative” in fact, highlighting the power of rhetoric’s “extended metaphor”, which he says  is the most important figure of speech of all (“How Lincoln framed his picture-perfect Gettysburg Address, 4: Extended metaphor“).

Good candidates will pound away with a strong positive extended metaphor of why you should vote for them and with an equally strong negative extended metaphor of why you should not vote for their opponents. Winning two-term candidates, like President George W. Bush with the help of Karl Rove, will have a counter-punch to their opponent’s positive and negative extended metaphors. The counterpunches always use the same figure of speech — dramatic irony, wherein someone’s words unintentionally mean something quite different from (and often opposite to) what they intended (see “How to be as persuasive as Abe Lincoln, Part 2: Use irony, the twist we can’t resist“).

The goal is to find a powerful dramatic irony in their opponents’ words or deeds that blow up the opposition’s own extended metaphor. That always makes a great story, since it is satisfying sport for people to be hoist with their own petard or for people to be uncovered as a hypocrite.

Think Michael Dukakis in an army tank, or President Bush on the aircraft carrier with the “Mission Accomplished” banner in the background, or the Swift Boat ads run against John Kerry. Dramatic irony is the key to understanding both popular culture and politics — but that is another post.

What conservatives have figured out is that since the media doesn’t really police the truth in a meaningful fashion, you can pretty much take whatever your opponent says out of context and turn that into a defining dramatic irony. Or just make stuff up entirely.

The other point of having the four stories or frames or extended metaphors is that it makes responding to attacks very easy. If you know your messages, then whenever the other side launches a phony attack, you just frame the response with one of your narratives.

Sound rhetorical advice. The other thing is to hit the truth hard. True argument, once backed up by the facts, makes for long term credibility and a perception of integrity. It also has the virtue of being true! This is a long term persuasion issue. It’s also important not to get too cute with words, but a bit of intelligent rhetoric can help drive home the emotional immediacy of the issues. Then you back it up with the scientific frame of the facts.


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