Thursday, June 16, 2005

Tongue Tied No More

If you've ever watched the Meg Ryan/Tom Hanks romantic comedy, "You've Got Mail," you've seen her struggle to find the perfect response to his barbs. When she finally finds it, her words sting and bruise and she regrets them. Who hasn't walked away from an encounter still grasping for the perfectly reasoned argument polished with the right amount of wit?

George Lakoff, one of the founders of The Rockridge Institute, has suggestions for Progressives (I guess we can't call ourselves Democrats anymore) who find themselves entangled in a water cooler conversation with a "Ditto Head" or loyal Fox News watcher (you know, the one whose car displays bumper stickers for "Bush/Cheney" or "Stop Liberal Activist Judges."

Lakoff suggests four things:
  • Show Respect
  • Respond by reframing
  • Think and talk at the level of values
  • Say what you believe
You can get help in framing the issues in an excerpt from Lakoff's book, Don't Think of an Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate. If this seems too fundamental, remember that the half century of Democratic control in Washington left us complacent and assured that leftist ideas were so obviously good, we wouldn't need to articulate them. In the meantime, YOINK! The Republicans grabbed the ball and ran, with a 30-year head start mobilizing supporters and framing the debate on their own outlandish terms. It's time to get off our assumptions and systematically restate our liberal values without apology.

In case you have forgotten, here are some things we believe in:
  • Compassion
  • Fairness
  • Opportunity
  • Environmentalism
  • Public Schools
  • Decent working conditions
  • A living wage
  • Reproductive choice

After all the jabs, punches, and body blows the Right has thrown, many of us may not even REMEMBER why we support the Democrats. If it's hard for us, what about our those who must be convinced? How can we expect to lure a Latino who has never heard of Cesar Chavez? Or a young woman who doesn't know who Gloria Steinem or Shirley Chisolm are?

We can also steal a page from the blueprint of Newt Gingrich and his political action committee, GO-PAC. In 1994, they provided talking points, both written and recorded, to each Congressional candidate, indoctrinating them with a consistent focused message as they campaigned from town to town. His techniques worked. Dozens of Republicans were swept into office that year and the Democrats have lost ground in Congress ever since.

The saying goes, "If you name it, you can claim it." We can't continue to assume that compassion and fairness will always prevail. The Bush administration and the Republicans have shown us that even our better natures can be bought, twisted, or smothered. If we want better for America, we must identify it, say it, and demand it.

Democrats who can find their voices again will add clarity to the white noise of today's political debate by speaking truth to "spin." Ann Coulter titled her latest pile of crap (oops! I just violated the first principle: Show respect) How to Talk to a Liberal (if you must). We might feel the same way about conservatives, but if we don't engage in the conversation, our voices might be lost for good.

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