Elizabeth Warren Best Not Think of an Elephant
[Ed note: To celebrate the tenth anniversary of Ordinary Times, we invited contributors of note – those there at the founding or have left their mark on the site – to contribute a piece for our #TenYears collection. Chris Dierkes was a founding member of Ordinary Times. He contributed 308 posts in 2009 and 2010.]
As I wrote in the 2004 book Don’t Think of An Elephant, repetition strengthens the synapses in the neural circuits that people use to think. First, repetition strengthens the synapses in the brain’s circuitry. Second, “framing first” provides an advantage. Third, negating a frame by saying it’s “not” true activates and strengthens the frame. That’s just how our brains work.
—George Lakoff, A Modest Proposal: #ProtectTheTruth
I recently checked out Elizabeth Warren’s official presidential campaign website. The site is fairly standard in most ways.
The homepage splashes with the statements:
We Will Save Our Democracy
We Will Rebuild the Middle Class
We Will End Washington Corruption
There’s a video outlining her main campaign message—namely restoring the American middle class and ensuring that this newly rebuilt American middle class be a more diverse middle class. According to Warren, the restoration of the American middle class comes by taking on entrenched plutocratic interests like Wall Street, Big Banks, and the Republican Party. She highlights the need to combat the corruption inherent to the US political system. For Warren, the vision of a more hopeful progressive politics stands in stark contrast to the dark right wing populism of Trump who looms as a shadow over the whole video (much more on him later). Lastly, she directly links her own upbringing and personal history to her political vision and agenda.
As political messaging goes it’s pretty solid. I’d give it a B/B+. Whether or not you agree with her political perspective and agenda, she communicates her message clearly and succinctly. In a relatively short ad, she gets across who she is, what she believes is currently the problem, her vision for solving it, how she sees herself as part of a larger movement, and what fundamentally motivates her.
Most of the rest of the site consists of ways to volunteer, organize, become a professional member of the campaign, donate to the cause, etc. Again all standard stuff. Though there was one more aspect to the site that really surprised me: a section entitled Fact Squad. I assumed (falsely) it was going to be some policy papers/highlights or some infographics on Warren’s position on various major topics like the environment, taxes, foreign policy, and so on, as I didn’t see those elsewhere on the site.
It is not that. And this is where things took a real wrong turn. The Fact Squad page is a rebuttal to all the attacks Trump and the various media outlets of the right have made against her. I found this part of her website really disturbing as to what I think it says about her and her campaign’s deep misunderstanding of how to combat Trump. I don’t think she’s by any means guaranteed to win the Democratic nomination, but I do think she has an inside track. So while her initial video was promising, the Fact Squad approach does not bode well for her campaign.
The George Lakoff quotation I cited at the beginning shows why this fact squad approach is so flawed. The trap of using the facts to counterattack is one that Democrats have fallen into time and time again against Republicans. Here is Warren falling into exactly that pit right from the start. Lakoff’s research developed the most consistent, thoroughgoing critique of this “the facts will vindicate me” Democratic approach. Lakoff wrote Don’t Think of An Elephant nearly 15 years ago and yet Warren is still making basic and hugely consequential errors perfectly detailed in that book.
In her Fact Squad page, the first and most important topic is the whole Cherokee ancestry, Native American, DNA test, “Pocahontas” controversy. The fact squad rebuttal is heavy built around proving that Warren did not advance in her career due to preferential treatment in hiring based on her (possibly/supposed/claimed) minority status. Which as a factual matter appears to be accurate.
If you do trust fact checkers and you don’t trust Warren’s campaign, then you can see the factcheck.org piece on the matter.
“To Warren’s critics, this all suggested that she only started claiming to be a minority — based on her alleged roots — for professional advancement…Warren, though, denies that she ever claimed to be a minority to secure employment. She said that she has always been recruited by employers based on her work. ‘I never used it to get ahead,’ she said in the Nov. 27 interview with Cooper. ‘I never used it to get into school. I never used it to get a job.’ We are not aware of anyone having proved anything different.”
While there are some inconsistencies about her claiming various identities (white, aboriginal, etc.) at various points in her life, I think that’s a fair read. There’s no evidence that she was hired for any reason other than her qualifications and skill. The accusation (smear really) that it was “only” her minority status that got her ahead of course is part of the larger right-wing attack on affirmative action.
But that I mentioned that you have to trust fact checkers is of course a value system, one not necessarily held in great esteem in our post-truth political world. In other words, the factual accuracy of that claim is not really the point.
Here’s part of that quotation from Lakoff again:
First, repetition strengthens the synapses in the brain’s circuitry. Second, “framing first” provides an advantage. Third, negating a frame by saying it’s “not” true activates and strengthens the frame. That’s just how our brains work.
The key one there is number three. Warren is reinforcing Trump’s negative framing of her by seeking to refute it. In her campaign video, Warren actually does numbers one and two well. There’s repetition of her points about ending corruption, rebuilding the middle class, making it a diverse middle class, fighting against establishment interests. She frames first in the video, and only then attacks Trump’s right wing economic populism as a faux populism covering over what is in reality more of the same plutocratic policy going back from Reagan’s trickle down, through ’90s deregulation, and Bush’s tax cuts.
But she totally fails on point #3: “negating a frame by saying it’s ‘not’ true activates and strengthens the frame.”
In other words, having a Fact Squad to prove that she didn’t get hired due to her background and to try to prove that’s she’s actually Native American (a contested claim) both reinforce Trump’s attack on her.
Here’s Lakoff once more (from the same article):
Unfortunately, many intelligent people — including Democrats and journalists — ignore the findings of the cognitive and brain sciences. They put their faith in the outdated idea of Enlightenment Reason, which dates back to the 1650s. As a result, they miss the often-implicit frames, metaphors and narratives that structure morally important truths. They wrongly believe that bare facts and logic alone win the moral debates.
Lakoff refers to what he terms “weaponized information”. What he means by that is that the same three major political insights of cognitive neuroscience—repetition, framing first, and negation as reinforcing the thing it theoretically negates—can be used for nefarious purposes as much as they can be used for positive purposes.
One of the core aspects of post-truth politics is that a politician must show no shame. That is, never admit an error and never feel bound by traditional senses of truth and falsehood. If a candidate is found to be factually wrong, that’s just “fake news” or “alternative facts”. A post-truth politician simply keeps repeating a claim even if it’s been “debunked” rationally by “fact checkers” because rationality is not the core motivator.
Warren is fighting against post-truth politics as if she could do so in a traditional truth-based way, which is a serious mistake. There’s literally a section with a geneticist going through her DNA test.
There are some other charges Warren’s fact squad counters on her website. I haven’t been keeping up with my right wing conspiracy theories, so I didn’t know about these other ones. In keeping with Lakoff’s point, I won’t name them, though you will see them on Warren’s site which is the very core of the problem. I didn’t know about these other (false) accusations, and now I do thanks to her own website. As Lakoff says, negating those charges actually reinforces them in the mind of readers.
Warren wants to take on (and take down) the master of post-truth shameless politics: Trump. Her own campaign video shows the possibility of how she could craft a compelling message and campaign that could defeat Trump. But there’s a glaring weakness—her reinforcing many of his frames by her attempt to prove them wrong. That is precisely the trap Clinton fell into in her campaign against Trump.
If she can’t figure out a different way to go on offence rather than pathetically play defense—see test, DNA—then she may well find the Democratic Party ends up nominating someone else without that kind of baggage (Kamala Harris, Beto O’Rourke perhaps?).
I think Trump has always had a very instinctive sense of who represents a real threat to him and who does not. For example, in the Republican primary, he sized up Lindsay Graham and found him wanting. So Trump just mocked Graham because the guy was clearly a laughingstock, not worth his time. But for someone like Ted Cruz, Trump let out much more spite and vitriol and hit much deeper: Lyin’ Ted, accusations about Cruz’s father being a part of the JFK assassination, etc. Then for Hillary of course there was Crooked Hillary, Lock Her Up, and all the rest.
So early on, when Trump went after Warren with hard-hitting, below the belt type stuff, that signalled to me that he recognized she was a, if not the, principal threat to him from the Democratic side. I think on that point Trump’s instincts were very astute. So, Trump did what he does best. He sought to frame her first, thereby seeking to sidetrack her into defending against his attacks (a no-win situation).
Partial side note: I think Trump’s attack on Warren supports my running theory that Elizabeth Warren’s real moment was to have run in 2016 and that her window may have already closed. We’ll see.
The main point is that Warren’s running now and she’s playing right into Trump’s game with this whole Fact Squad BS. She and her campaign people better wise up pronto.
Lakoff’s alternative to negating another’s frame (and thereby unconsciously reinforcing it) is to put forward a much clearer, consistent, positive message, in order to reframe and thereby undermine the opposition’s frame. The undermining happens by focusing on the good. In the piece I cited from Lakoff, he cites Trump’s attack on the press, arguing that rather than trying to defend against Trump’s attacks, progressives should create a more persistent positive message about the value of a free press and its central role in a liberal society. Lakoff summarizes that as: “positive persistence beats negative resistance.”
Think of that line in relationship to the centre-left liberal progressive calling themselves (laughably) “The Resistance.” The implication of Lakoff’s point is The Resistance as a framing works to paradoxically support Trump. The deeper implication of Lakoff’s point is that Democrats will not win the presidency in 2020 just by being anti-Trump.
Warren’s website shows a moment where she seems to understand that point (the video) but then a moment later, she falls back into the old Democratic error of letting Republicans dictate the terms of the debate.
In Warren’s case, undermining by reframing / positive persistence that could look something like the following. At the core of Trump’s Pocahontas attack on her is an attack on policies meant to cultivate and support women and minorities. Instead of focusing on proving “she didn’t get her jobs because of minority status”, as a progressive Democrat, she would do much better to focus on positively portraying the value of affirmative action, support for fairer and more diverse workplaces, and so forth. She could easily fit that positive reframing into her message about how progressive government policies can (and have and do) help create a more level playing field. “A hand up not a hand out” as Obama would say. In her video, she touches on a point about the impacts of generational discrimination on wealth and income gaps for minority communities. She would do better to focus there than on trying to disprove Trump and thereby unconsciously only reinforcing Trump’s attacks.
Feature Image by DonkeyHotey – Elizabeth Warren – Caricature, CC BY 2.0