What Obama Needs to Do

The old philosophical theory says that reason is conscious, can fit the world directly, is universal (we all think the same way), is dispassionate (emotions get in the way of reason), is literal (no metaphor or framing in reason), works by logic, is abstract (not physical) and functions to serve our interests. Language on this view is neutral and can directly fit, or not fit, reality.

The scientific research in neuroscience and cognitive science has shown that most reason is unconscious. Since we think with our brains, reason cannot directly fit the world. Emotion is necessary for rational thought; if you cannot feel emotion, you will not know what to want or how anyone else would react to your actions. Rational decisions depend on emotion. Empathy with others has a physical basis, and as much as self-interest, empathy lies behind reason.

This is part of a brilliant article by cognitive science and linguistics pioneer, George Lakoff (emphasis mine).  His argument about what needs to be done to right the health care reform ship — and more generally in his administration — is to stop denying the above reality and craft a communications strategy that will achieve the (undeniably logical) goals:

As for language, the term “public option” is boring. Yes, it is public, and yes, it is an option, but it does not get to the moral and inspiring idea. Call it the American Plan, because that’s what it really is.

The American Plan. Health care is a patriotic issue. It is what your countrymen are engaged in because Americans care about each other. The right wing understands this well. It’s got conservative veterans at Town Hall meeting shouting things like, “I fought for this country in Vietnam, and I’m fight for it here.” Progressives should be stressing the patriotic nature of having our nation guaranteeing care for our people.

A Health Care Emergency. Americans are suffering and dying because of the failure of insurance company health care. 50 million have no insurance at all, and millions of those who do are denied necessary care or lose their insurance. We can’t wait any longer. It’s an emergency. We have to act now to end the suffering and death.

Doctor-Patient care. This is what the public plan is really about. Call it that. You have said it, buried in PolicySpeak. Use the slogan. Repeat it. Have every spokesperson repeat it.

Coverage is not care. You think you’re insured. You very well may not be, because insurance companies make money by denying you care.

Deny you care… Use the words. That’s what all the paperwork and administrative costs of insurance companies are about – denying you care if they can.

I was a fan of Obama’s unification approach when he was campaigning and was hopeful that his opponents would come around and see this as sincere (which I believe it is). At this point though, that sincerity is being abused by a small, selfish and powerful elite who are not interested in seeing the right to adequate health care universally applied.  And these opponents are masters of the communications strategy Lakoff is suggesting, which is what has been fueling the town hall screamers, tea-baggers and FOX News “pundits”.

It’s impossible to unify with people who are not interested in unification.  And I agree with Lakoff that if the administration adopts the necessary communication strategy to complement its logic and sensibility, it will have a much better chance of getting back support of the conservative public for the goals we should all be unified on.

  • kevindick

    I must be misinterpreting your post.

    It sounds to me like you are saying we should attempt to short circuit people’s conscious rational processes to achieve a policy objective that it is arguable many people would not want if they were fully informed.

    Surely this is not your position. Or do you believe that Obama’s proposed reforms (such as they are explicitly made at this point) are unarguably the optimal (or at least satisficed) policy?

  • Jrshaffy

    Haha, seriously? I agree w/ Kev. Sounds like your saying that the truth isn’t working so now it’s time to make things sound dire and the end of the world is near?

  • Todd White

    Not to speak for Rafe, but I suspect he is encouraging one side to use the same tactics that have been employed by the other (e.g. “death panels”). While I certainly would prefer a rational debate over the issues, it seems like we’re well past that. The dems could take the moral high ground in the debate and be dispassionate and logical, but if they truly believe that their cause is the best, this seems like a poor tactic in the face of the rhetoric on the other side, and so far is failing. I think the logically inclined among us will seek the rational truths despite the emotional discourse. However, I must confess that I suspect that a large portion of my fellow citizens will not.

  • There is a great deal of historical irony in this current debate, as the same issues were debated at the turn of the 20th century in both America and Canada about how to administer worker’s compensation schemes. Ontario favoured a single universal scheme in order to cut down on the waste created both by advertising, switching, and duplication. Ohio, on of the first states to have worker’s compensation, favoured the private competition model. Do you want to be a worker in Ohio or Ontario is a question I believe that has been affirmatively answered in favour of Ontario.

  • rafefurst

    To clarify my position: presenting the facts and logical argument alone is not enough, you must also appeal to the emotions and in a language that engages people’s rational abilities. To simply present the emotional side would be irresponsible (and is what the other side does). You have to read Lakoff’s article to appreciate the subtle difference. I also concur with Todd’s statement above.

  • rafefurst

    Another aspect of this I just realized now that I’m more lucid (morning person): this is a prisoner’s dilemma situation. It would be better for all if both sides used cold, hard logic only in making their points. But if one side also (or solely) used emotional language, then the other side must as well or the logic of their argument gets swamped.

    I liken this to when my baseball coach talked to me about “framing the pitch.” All catchers move their gloves inside the strike zone after catching one on the edge so that the umpire can “see the pitch in the most favorable light” to the catcher’s team. Yes, this devolves into a situation where the umps have to mentally correct for the movement in determining whether the pitch was a true strike or not. And yes, it would be better if no catchers did this. But once one catcher starts, everyone else must follow suit.

    • kevindick

      My problem with this way of looking at things is that we don’t actually know what the right answer is. Not even close. So your salesmanship, even of what you think is the currently superior position, will (further) crowd out exploration of the space of possible alternatives.

      From your PD argument, I think this justifies being an irrational/emotional obstructionist. That may in fact be the rational meta-position in this framing. But I don’t want to be that guy.

      Perhaps if you were able to rationally convince well informed, well educated, and reasonable people of a particular position on this issue, I would back a salesmanship approach. But as far as I can tell, nobody has been able to stake out such a reasonable position.

      • Jay Greenspan

        My problem with this way of looking at things is that we don’t actually know what the right answer is. Not even close. So your salesmanship, even of what you think is the currently superior position, will (further) crowd out exploration of the space of possible alternatives.

        Why is this the case? RIght now, the general argument is over whether the public option puts on the slippery slop to snuffing grandma with a pillow the next time she sneezes. It’s emotions and a sense of outrage that drive the public argument.

        Imagine if the public argument was more like this: , “Universal coverage is a moral issue. Denial of coverage is wrong. Insurance companies have proved themselves to be lacking any sense of moral obligation.” Then we could talk about what we’d actually do to solve THESE problems — we could talk about public options, private-insurance reforms, more radical free-market approaches. Whatever.

        Could we ask of the protestors, “what do you think should be done to see that your recently unemployed neighbor or fellow church member won’t be bankrupted by illness.”

        • Rafe Furst

          What Jay said :-)

          • kevindick

            First, feel free to ask other parties all the questions you want. True engagement is _my_ position. Rafe’s the one who supports calling the public option “The American Plan”.

            Second, Jay seems to be assuming that denying coverage is morally wrong. My point is that there are a lot of well-educated, reasonable people who disagree. That pretty much sums up my argument against Rafe’s position. You’re advocating focusing on selling a solution when we don’t even agree on what the problem is.

            • plektix

              I’m with Rafe on this. There’s no such thing as a purely logical argument–everything is framed. What Obama needs to do is combine a reasoned, logical argument with an appeal to our more positive and productive emotions. He was so good at this during the campaign but seems unable to apply the same approach to health care.

  • Rafe Furst

    Per the topic of this post, I am suggesting what Obama should do, which is a divergence from his current path. His current path seems to me to be true engagement, or at least compromise.

    I think he can get good health care passed if he either takes a more hardline stance and stops trying to appease everyone, OR if he takes a different tack, but not the current tack. In particular, I don’t think that a public option is the only way to achieve a good plan, but given the current path and path dependence, I think it’s now very important that he stick to his original guns.

    One could argue that Obama’s goals with health care are not the correct goals (as Kevin seems to be suggesting), but that’s not where I’m coming from here. I take it as a given that they are and am arguing about how to achieve them.

    The reason that the strategy he is taking to achieve his goals is flawed is because of what I mentioned: the Republican Party is not interested in true engagement. They’ve said this explicitly. If they were, then yes true engagement and compromise might make sense. Since they are not, it’s not a viable strategy.