How Conservatives REALLY Shift Public Opinion

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 August 3, 2007

Conservatives have been very successful at shifting political discourse in their favor. This article explains how they have done it. Progressives can reclaim the debate by knowing their values and articulating their political ideology honestly and openly.

This is the final article of a three part series about shifting political discourse. Part 1 explored the importance of ideological worldviews in politics, emphasizing the reality that people are biconceptuals. Part 2 discussed the Overton Window and its limitations as a political strategy.

Have conservatives managed to shift public opinion by encouraging Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh to go out into the world and promote radical views? Did evangelical Christians become more conservative because Pat Robertson suggested that President Chavez of Venezuela should be assassinated? No, this isn’t what they’ve done. What conservatives have done is much more effective.

One of the shining gems of humanity in the eyes of conservatives is Ronald Reagan. He is beloved and missed by millions of Americans. Did he promote extreme right-wing views to make his real objectives easier to achieve? His strategy can be seen by considering his position on welfare. He was strongly opposed to the welfare system. So much so that he viciously attacked it using the infamous stereotype of the “welfare queen.” This lazy, good-for-nothing woman was a free-loading leech whose behavior bled hard-earned dollars away from working Americans. Reagan called upon the citizens of our country to cut her off. He asked us to end the immoral give-aways that discouraged undisciplined people from improving themselves.

(As progressives, we can see that this story misses some important facts. A point to keep in mind is that the frame doesn’t need to be true in order to be effective.)

Reagan was able to advance his agenda because he promoted the conservative worldview to get more people to think the way he did. At the same time, he demonized the progressive worldview as immoral and made supporters of the welfare system seem like radicals who wanted to destroy America.

The elements of this strategy include:

The positive moral mission: Encourage people to work hard and earn a living.

The moral problem: There are people who take advantage of hard workers and threaten the system that rewards effort and discipline. This challenges the moral mission.

The solution: Dismantle the program that encourages this immoral behavior by getting rid of the welfare program.

The heroes: The Reagan Administration and hard working Americans

The villains: Free-loaders who use welfare and the people who support them

This strategy accomplishes three very important things at the same time.

First, it promotes the conservative moral worldview based on discipline and authority.

And second, it undermines the progressive moral worldview by making those who care for the poor into bad people. Anyone who accepts the terms of Reagan’s argument will be defined according to the roles of his story. Thus, if you support the welfare program without reframing the debate, you are automatically assigned the position of supporting free-loaders who take advantage of hard working people.

The third thing it does is influence people who are not strongly conservative or progressive to see the world through this conservative lens. These people (biconceptuals) begin to think of the world as a place where discipline and authority are good things and the poor need to work harder and earn a living for themselves.

This is how conservatives have shifted the debate. It has taken them decades to get their stories, which were initially unpopular, to be the commonsense understanding of how the world works. As progressives, our job is to show that the conservative view isn’t compatible with the way the world really works. It leads to horrible consequences, as we saw with the response [insert link to Framing Katrina] to Hurricane Katrina and the inappropriate use of military force to address terrorism. [insert link to Drop the War Metaphor]

How Progressives Can Do it Too

There are practical steps we can take to reclaim the debate. But we need to think differently about politics in order to succeed. Initially, there will be a bit of a learning curve because it will be necessary to understand a few things about the human brain. (No worries though. We’ve already done a lot of the research for you. You can start by reading the progressive manual Thinking Points.) Armed with this knowledge, you can learn the skills that will bring progressive values back into politics where they belong.

The most important thing is to know your values and present them authentically. The Overton Window technique suggests the use of views more “extreme” than you actually have. This is a bad idea. You want to be as sincere and honest as possible so that others will trust you. But knowing your values isn’t enough. It is also necessary to present the truth as you see it in an effective manner — without giving in to the use of punitive and abusive means.

Another thing to note is that words do not literally correspond directly and simply with things in the world. When I say alternative energy, some people will think of wind and solar while others will think of coal and nuclear. This is very important because a successful strategy cannot depend on slogans whose meaning can be co-opted.

Reagan saw the world in a way that made his assertions true (from his perspective). He used powerful emotional imagery. (Many conservatives found the idea of a free-loader to be disgusting. This made them angry.) He told a story with a moral message. It was easy to see what the story meant and people resonated with it. It was also easy to see who the heroes and villains were.

The stories progressives tell will need to express the truth as we see it, which includes pointing out the disasters that occur when conservative ideas about government are implemented.

Our job at Rockridge is to help you do this. We explore the hidden aspects of human thought that arise with the words people use. We want to help bring the findings about the brain that are relevant to politics to the public. We have already done framing analysis on dozens of issues you care about, from terrorism to global warming. New work is coming out all the time.

Start by learning the common traps to avoid.

Strategy for Shifting Public Discourse to the Left

The strategy is simple:

  1. Know your values and be authentic
  2. Express your political views using language that expresses your values (Refuse to accept language that undermines your values)
  3. Point out the consequences of progressive and conservative approaches to government
  4. With enough repetition, people will start to see that you are talking about things that make sense
  5. As more people see the world through the progressive lens, they will find progressive policies more acceptable (and conservative policies will be less acceptable).
  6. Avoid being punitive or abusive.

This is better than expressing views you don’t hold or using means you don’t believe in. And it will help you win!

Cognitive Policy Works specializes in providing organizations and individuals with frame analysis, policy briefs, strategic advising, and training.

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