Thursday, 13 March 2008

Why voters don't go for lists of policies

Here’s a contender for my first rule of politics. If a party tries to win votes by producing a long list of policies, disappointment, if not disaster, is just around the corner.

A sad case study is the Liberal Democrats’ 2005 general election manifesto. The “ten reasons to vote Liberal Democrat” just didn’t cut the mustard.

But this is about more than just manifestos – it’s a whole approach to politics that’s going wrong for liberals and the left nearly everywhere. The leading US Democratic Party strategist James Carville said in 2006 that:

“The central Democratic problem is that we lack a narrative. You hear a Democratic speech and you hear that 'I stand for a woman's right to choose, a person's right to health care, a nationalist foreign policy, a cleaner environment.’”

Such lists just "produces a litany" of ideas that "sounds like something we're for. But it doesn't mean anything." . . .

"The damn problem is that they have far too many things spread all over the map."

Sound familiar? Now, a new article by framing guru George Lakoff and Joe Brewer, both of the Rockridge Institute, discusses “why voters aren’t motivated by a laundry list of positions on issues.”

They start by criticising:

. . . a faulty view of voting behavior – widely held by political strategists on the left – that people already know what they want. All you have to do is conduct a poll to find out where they stand on the issues, then build a platform of positions that accords with the polls, and they will vote for you. Missing from this view is the importance of cognitive policy – the ideas necessary to understand what the issues are and how they should be addressed. It is the ability to understand where a candidate is coming from that makes public support possible. Endorsement quickly follows when this understanding combines with a sense of shared values.

Brewer and Lakoff explain:

There are two kinds of policy: cognitive and material. Material policies are familiar: they outline what is to be done in the world. For example, the details of a health care plan, or a plan for getting out of Iraq. Material policies each have a cognitive dimension, often unconscious and implicit. This includes the ideas, frames, values, and modes of thought that inform the political understanding of the material policy.

They see cognitive policy as:

. . . the often-unstated ideas behind material policies . . . It is comprised of ideas, frames, and arguments. It forms the basis of what the issue is, how it is understood and what should be done about it. The material criterion is comprised of mechanisms for achieving the goals that emerge from the cognitive criteria . . .

Later on they point out that:

A major finding of the cognitive sciences is that roughly 98% of the neural activity comprising human thought is structured outside conscious awareness. It is necessary to analyze the mental structures – called frames – that bring substance to our thoughts, in order to see the critical role they play in effective policy.

So what does this mean?

. . . The [electoral] success of a policy depends on how it meets both cognitive and material criteria. Concentrating on material criteria alone can be counterproductive if a policy is either unpopular, or if it instills in the public’s mind long-term values that contradict the aims of the policy.

Brewer and Lakoff argue that US conservatives have been able to get their cognitive policies – frames - into public discourse and the public mind, so that they now seem natural to many people. But progressives haven’t been able to do cognitive policy-making and so they:

. . . try to sell policies on a case-by-case basis via “messaging,” last-minute PR for the specific policy (e.g., listing polar bears as an endangered species), rather than developing a progressive worldview that automatically makes sense of the policy and counters conservative ideas.

Their bottom line message is unsurprising, if somewhat vague:

Progressives need to learn about cognitive policy and put it to use.

I suspect that what George Lakoff calls cognitive “policies” are “perceptions”, “world-views” or even “preconceptions”. As in some of his other material, he tends to get too bogged down in the power of the conservative think tanks in American politics. Still, as with a lot of his material, there are some useful pointers for Liberal Democrats.

In my experience, when narratives and frames are talked about, Lib Dems too often revert to downloading (listing) our “values”.

What the party should do is to look much more carefully than we have done in the past at our target voters’ cognitive perceptions – their core beliefs, values, hopes and aspirations. Then think more methodically about how the party’s messages and policies can connect with them, using powerful frames and symbols.

If you think that’s too difficult or too waffly or that it’s “just not us”, you should read Nick Clegg’s speech to the spring conference in Liverpool on Sunday.

For instance, the word “liberal” has been a staple of previous leaders’ speeches. Nick used it (apart from in the name of the party) just twice and then he was talking about a “liberal Britain”. He used the word “Britain” thirty times and many of those references either showed a sense of pride in the country or called for positive change, a “better Britain” (five references).

But this was a speech that only a Liberal Democrat leader could make. It was just that Nick expressed some familiar issues in new ways. For instance:

"Our civil liberties are a hard-won inheritance from our forefathers who fought and died for our freedom."

Could the new leadership be finding a narrative and working out how to frame liberal issues, so that they strike a chord with voters? More on that soon.

1 comment:

Fred Harrison said...

You're absolutely right that the left doesn't yet get this. We're always thinking issues, policies and commitments, instead of the narrative. I sometimes think we should chuck the whole manifesto tradition, except of course that the activists would be outraged.

But what, in a multi-party situation, would a Lib-Dem narrative look like? What many people intuitively regard as liberalism – less state meddling -- is probably not what Lib-Dems regard as liberalism. In fact, for many ordinary folks, Lib-Dems are just Labour Lite, and that in my view is our gravest problem.