Chapter 1: Winning and Losing

This article is part of the Thinking Points Discussion Series published by the Rockridge Institute in early 2007. It was written by Joe Brewer (Rockridge Institute staff member) on Monday, March 12, 2007 11:00 AM

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The Rockridge Institute has prepared a handbook for progressives, called Thinking Points, to help us better express our values and vision. In this first installment of an eight-part series, we will learn about the resources and insights in Thinking Points that enhance our abilities and improve our strategies when working toward a more fair and just tomorrow.

Hello Rockridge Nation members! My name is Joe Brewer and I have recently joined the Rockridge Institute to help advance our progressive vision through explorations of language in politics. It is an honor and pleasure to interact with you through this important work. My first task at Rockridge is to introduce ideas from the book Thinking Points: Communicating Our American Values and Vision. If you haven’t read it yet, don’t worry. My plan is to introduce the main points of each chapter here so we have a common starting point for our discussions. However, you may find the discussions more stimulating if you pick up the book and read it yourself! (Pass it along to a friend too) I will introduce new chapters each week on Monday until all eight chapters have been presented.

Before introducing Chapter 1, which is titled Winning and Losing, I would like to mention the inspiration for this new section of Rockridge Nation. DavidP, an active Rockridge Nation Member, made the recommendation that we have this discussion.

Let’s get started, shall we? I think George Lakoff sets the tone well in the books preface when he says:

“America today is in danger. It faces the threat of domination by a radical, authoritarian right wing that refers to itself as ‘conservative,’ as if it were preserving and promoting American values. In fact, it has been trampling on them.”

Thinking Points is a handbook for progressives to use as a resource against this radical regime. The first chapter answers two important political questions:

  1. What does a political candidate need to do to win voter confidence?
  2. What are the traps that cause political candidates to lose credibility among the populace?

The short answer to the first question is that voters must identify with the candidate. Four things come together for this to happen. These things are values, connection, authenticity, and trust. The candidate must talk about values when discussing issues to consciously articulate the concerns that lead to political positions. The candidate must communicate values effectively to connect with people. This requires the speaker to always appear authentic so that they seem to believe what they say. A candidate who talks about values and connects with people in an authentic way will build trust, which encourages voters to select them over other candidates.

The second question can only be answered by understanding a few discoveries from the cognitive sciences about the human mind. It is not simply a matter of the policies a candidate supports. The merits of one policy over another will not win the hearts and minds of supporters who are looking for a leader that resonates with their hopes and protects them from their fears. No, what people look for in a leader is a moral connection.

Chapter 1 presents twelve traps progressives must avoid in order to earn the trust of supporters. This is true for potential candidates and politically active citizens alike. The common traps are:

The Issue Trap

We need to get out of issue silos and find common ground with other Progressives through our shared values and common vision.

The Poll Trap

We need to stop following the preferences of people expressed in polls. The answers people give are only as reliable as the quality of the questions, which are often grossly inadequate. We need leaders who will lead rather than follow!

The Laundry List Trap

People don’t vote based on lists of policies and programs. People vote based on values, connection, authenticity, trust, and identity.

The Rationalism Trap

The truth will not set you free! The commonplace assumptions that reason is conscious, literal (corresponding directly to things in the real world), logical, universal, and unemotional have all been shown to be false by studies in the cognitive sciences. People will not vote for their self-interests! Negating a frame only reinforces it…it will not convince others to change their minds.

The No-Framing-Necessary Trap

Facts need a context in order to be understood. Frames provide this. It is impossible to consider facts without activating frames. Truths need to be framed appropriately to be seen as truths!

The Policies-Are-Values Trap

Policies are not values. Values are ethical ideas like fairness, empathy, freedom, and justice. Social Security is not a value. It is a policy that reflects the values of human dignity, fairness, the common good, and equality.

The Centrist Trap

Progressives who “move to the right” to win votes will undermine their base and activate conservative values. This happens because there is no such thing as an ideological “center”. Instead, there are biconceptuals (to be discussed in Chapter 2) who use progressive values in some aspects of their lives and conservative values in others.

The “Misunderestimating” Trap

Conservatives are not stupid! Misrepresenting them as incompetent or foolish, especially when they vote against their economic self-interests, fails to understand them. Conservatives vote to support their cultural self-interests, even when it goes against them economically.

The Reactive Trap

When progressives react to conservative policies and ideas, we take the bait and let them frame the debate. We need to take the initiative to create proactive policies and ideas that articulate our values and bring us together…regardless of party affiliation!

The Spin Trap

We cannot rely on clever slogans to save the day. We need to consider our values deeply to create frames that articulate the progressive vision accurately and honestly. This is NOT spin. Spin is the use of surface frames (like catchy slogans) to mislead in a way that hides the truth. Proper use of frames will provide a context for the truth to emerge!

The Policyspeak Trap

Don’t obscure your values with jargon. “Medicare prescription drug benefits” does not express values. It is more likely to confuse and befuddle than rally people to your cause.

The Blame Game Trap

Focus on what we can control and take responsibility for progressive change. Blaming others for what they have done wrong does not provide a context for exploring what we can do right!

These twelve traps commonly befall progressive leaders. We need to rise above them in order to advance the progressive vision. It is not merely a matter of coming up with great government programs that people will rally around. People rally around inspiring ideas that resonate with their moral values. People rally around politicians who articulate their values in such an authentic way that they feel a strong connection with them. In other words, people rally around moral leaders who express a strong moral vision.

Let’s have a discussion about this. Please share any stories you have about public figures who fall into these traps. Do you have stories of people who have successfully avoided them? If so, please share them too! What strategies can you think of that bypass these traps and lead to successful outcomes? I would love to learn more about your thoughts and feelings surrounding this theme

I look forward to working with you as we build our progressive community for a better tomorrow!


Go to the next discussion in this series. (Chapter 2 explores biconceptualism and dispels the “myth of the ideological center.”)