Aura v. Argument: Lessons from the Presidential Election Campaign

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New Yorker photo 2/11-18
In this week’s New Yorker Hendrik Hertzberg sums up the reasons that Senator Hillary Clinton’s policy arguments aren’t impeding the momentum that is building for her Democratic Party rival, Senator Barack Obama. Hertzberg notes:

An argument is no match for an aura.

I have been thinking about Hertzberg’s insight this week, and noting both how aura v. argument was predictive in recent presidential elections, and how it holds important lessons beyond politics, for corporations and other complex organizations.

Politics and Framing

In recent election cycles pundits (usually on the left) lamented that voters sometimes cast their ballots in ways that don’t advance their own interests. “Why would assembly line workers support tax cuts for the rich that have no impact on their own fortunes”; “why would citizens not object that the government might read their e-mail and listen to their phone calls,” and so on.


In the summer of 2004 the Berkeley cognitive linguist George Lakoff entered the political fray with a cry to the Democratic Party that its focus on policy arguments wouldn’t work, and couldn’t work, because voters cast ballots based on their identity, not their interests.

Identity Trumps Interests

Lakoff’s book Don’t Think of an Elephant!: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate, rushed into print, was an attempt to reintroduce framing into progressive politics. It didn’t prove decisive in Democratic nominee Senator John Kerry’s campaign.

Don’t Think cover

But it established Lakoff as the guru of framing: the way language triggers frames that in turn unleash entire worldviews. And it made Lakoff a darling of the left. (Lakoff’s title isn’t a reference to the mascot of the Republican Party, but rather to the phenomenon whereby denying something inadvertently triggers the very thing one is attempting to deny. Remember President Richard Nixon: “I am not a crook.”)

According to Lakoff, frames are mental structures that are triggered by language. When a frame is triggered, an entire worldview governs the meaning of what comes next. Significantly, when the facts fit the frame, the facts have impact, and can be persuasive. But if the facts don’t fit the frame, the facts bounce off, and the frame remains.

According to Lakoff, President George W. Bush controlled the frames in the 2004 election: what citizen doesn’t want to be seen as a “values voter”? What American doesn’t want a president to protect the nation from terrorism? Whoever controls the frame controls the outcome.

I conducted a workshop with Lakoff for several hundred progressive activists the summer after the 2004 election, and the lesson was still sinking in for them: detailed policy arguments aren’t persuasive if they’re within an adversary’s frame. Reframing is the key to moving the movable middle.

Kerry Bush debateLakoff noted that In the 2004 campaign, the more Senator John Kerry spoke minutiae of his own version of tax relief, the more he helped the incumbent, President Bush. According to Lakoff, that’s because the frame Senator Kerry triggered, that taxes are a burden from which one should be relieved, played right into President Bush’s hands, because the President was seen to be the anti-taxation candidate; Kerry, despite an attempt to introduce his own tax relief, could never assume an anti-tax identity.

Whose Freedom coverBy 2006 Lakoff had polished his ideas, and published an account of framing intended for a general audience: Whose Freedom?: The Battle Over America’s Most Important Idea. Here he unbundles both framing and identity, including a very robust set of metaphors that lead to two dramatically different, but equally compelling, moral systems. It’s worth reading, regardless of your political views. I assign this book to my graduate communication students at NYU and to divinity students in my public ministry course at Starr King School for the Ministry. Lakoff also created the Rockridge Institute, a think tank on framing and progressive causes.

Presidential Politics Today

We see Lakoff’s ideas at play in the current primary campaigns by the candidates for both parties. To win they must appeal to an identity, not merely lay out policy positions on particular issues.

McCain Huckabee pic

Is Senator John McCain sufficiently conservative? Can Governor Mike Huckabee, seen as the true conservative, win in the North?

Obama Clinton picWho is the real change candidate: Senator Obama or Senator Clinton?

These aren’t questions about policy. They invoke deep frames and deep worldviews, not shallow policy disagreements. Details are left for later or to others; the core identity is what’s in play. Aura trumps argument.

For conservatives, supporting a lukewarm conservative won’t do. For progressives, the key is change: they want a different direction.

Regardless of party, voters don’t wait to listen to specifics of policy. Are Senator Clinton’s and Senator Obama’s health plans all that different? Their foreign policies? Their views on a woman’s right to reproductive choice? Even that small percentage of voters who say they listen to specifics of policy are really looking for a metric on whether the candidate can deliver, not on whether the policy minutiae is sound.

Lessons Beyond Politics

These ideas are worth remembering in corporations and other complex organizations too. In workplaces and in the marketplace our stakeholders make judgments based on who they want to be, how they want to be seen, and what they want to be part of — not based just on immediate or narrow self-interest or logical argument.

iPhone w. handWhy would otherwise sane people sleep outdoors waiting to buy the first iPhone, when there are enough for anyone who wants one? Being cool – or being an early adopter – is an identity that defies logical argument. Why would someone prefer working for a social service agency rather than in the private sector, where his or her skills would command better compensation and working conditions? Because the identity of giving back and making a difference trumps material rewards.

And in the crisis world, working for a company that takes problems seriously and remedies them quickly keeps morale and productivity high, even if there’s short-term disruption.

We’ll blog more about framing, identity, and maintaining stakeholder trust and confidence. In the meantime, we’ll continue watching the political world for lessons we can apply elsewhere…

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