Why Conservatives Keep Winning and What Blue Voters Can Do About It

Hillary’s popular vote win and the massive protests since Trump was sworn in show that most Americans don’t share the values of the GOP. Pro environment, pro-choice, pro civil and gay rights, open borders, worker’s rights are more popular with the majority. Yet liberal-minded people don’t always vote and when they do they don’t always vote blue.

I don’t know about you, but I always feel better if I can find a rational explanation for irrational behavior, like voting against your own self-interest.

It would be easy to bash the Democratic Party itself, as many have and still do. There’s certainly room for improvement. But any party facing the conservative political juggernaut would have their work cut out for them. That’s because, as I understand it, conservatives are better at these crucial things.

1) Communicating their values in ways people can understand, even to people who are hurt by conservative policies–maybe especially to people who are hurt by their policies.
2) Creating a vast communication network to get their message out there
3) Creating a pyramid structure with a strong base and people at all levels of government ready to lead. The Democrats tend to focus more on the national level and count heavily on having a strong, charismatic person at the top to pull the party up.
4) Using marketing techniques to sell their ideology.
5) Sticking together despite deep ideological differences and backing conservative candidates.

There are other tactics the Republican party has been using to stay in power, such as voter suppression and abandoning normal democratic procedures. Liberals should challenge and correct these and not emulate them. But it’s instructive to see that Republicans know liberals are in the majority as well. The more people who vote, the more the Democrats win. That’s because liberal policies are better for more people.

I think it’s important for liberals to understand how conservatives think. For most of my life, I’ve believed conservatives were evil, greedy haters who only thought about themselves. Though this might be true for a few, I’ve learned it’s not true for many. And the most important point is that conservatives see their worldview as moral and good, just as liberals do.

(I will be referring to the book Don’t Think of an Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate by brain scientist George Lakoff. This book helped me understand what was going on better than anything else I’ve read as well as prescribing solutions. I’d recommend reading it and following his blog at georgelakoff.com)

According to Lakoff, all politics is moral. People don’t vote based on rational thought. We vote our values, our core beliefs. We vote based on how a candidate makes us feel about ourselves, about our identity. We conceptualize these values through largely subconscious mental structures called ‘frames.’ Frames shape our worldview, our beliefs about family and community, and the way we vote.

Many conservatives believe in a strict father model of family and government, that people are born without morality and the only way to shape them is by strict guidelines and punishment when they fail. Liberals believe in the nurturant parent model, that people are born good and only need nurturing and support to grow up and contribute to society. Both these modes of thought are values-based and are often subconscious. Some people are biconceptuals who have equal liberal and conservative framing in their brains, and much of politics is concerned with reaching these middle-grounders.

How this plays out in politics
As I understand it, there are primarily two ways of looking at the role of government in our lives. Both stem from the beliefs above.

Free market economy vs. a mixed economy
Conservatives believe in small government, that free market capitalism is the best way for society to function, that government should stay out of business and let people succeed or fail based on individual effort. They don’t see these beliefs as selfish or cruel and believe that it is immoral for government to intervene in business and for people to take government ‘hand-outs’.

Liberals see the role of government as providing a social safety net, as well as some services that are in the public interest and are not handled well by private, for-profit corporations, like transportation, education, scientific research, and public health. Government should provide protection for workers, protect civil rights and shield minority groups from potential domination by the majority.

As you might guess, policies based on liberal beliefs tend to help the poor, working class and middle class while conservative policies serve the upper classes and the very wealthy. Because of this, some conservatives decided to learn how to talk about their values and create frames that appealed to more than just the rich. They got organized and formed think tanks. They worked out a messaging system for their core values using strict-father framing, and ambiguous framing when they were going to do something unpopular. Much of this relies on traditional business marketing techniques, using human behavior to get you to buy their product. (And see how the GOP is moving quickly to change us from a mixed economy to a free-market economy, which has been their goal all along.)

Then they spread their message over all media, from talk radio shows to books to newsletters to media empires like Rupert Murdoch’s. They set up mentorships in schools to train young conservatives to take over in government, business and the judicial. They created frames in people’s minds that made the conservative message much easier to adopt for those who can go either way.

Liberals have done very little of this kind of organizing. They keep thinking their policies will speak for themselves, and if not, they’ll use reason to explain facts to people and then the people will vote for them. But people don’t vote based on facts, even when what they vote for goes against their self-interest.

So how do liberals start winning?

  • Organize and unite around more than just stopping Trump. Clarify what your values are, what’s most important to you. Imagine the world you want to live in and how to get there from here.
  • Read about moral framing and practice framing every issue from a nurturant parent viewpoint. Use this framing in all discourse until it becomes natural. Study marketing techniques as well. Take control of the narrative instead of just saying no to their narrative. (Example: they say ‘let’s ease government regulation of business.’ You say ‘let’s increase governmental protections of the working class.’ More on this specific framing on Lakoff’s blog.)
  • Stop criticizing the right using their framing language. To invoke a strict father frame is to activate it in conservatives and biconceptuals. Example: Make America Sick Again doesn’t actually put forth what it is you believe should be done about health care but activates Trump’s Make America Great Again in the minds of the people you want to reach.
  • Speak from the heart about your values and what it is you believe. Offer a framing that tells a story based on liberal values to activate the nurturant framing in conservatives.
  • Try not to dwell in disbelief and horror. We are in a potentially bad place in our country’s history but staying stuck in unanswerable questions of ‘how could this have happened’ and ‘why us?’ only keeps you traumatized and helpless. There are reasons this happened, it didn’t come out of nowhere, and it’s not irreversible. Focus on action and strategy instead. Stay flexible when the ground game begins to change.
  • Stop reacting from an emotional place to every outrage of the Trump administration. Assume the right knows what they’re doing and try to think strategically. (For instance: Kelly Anne Conway just said something so ridiculous on MSNBC. Try to see it from the point of view of Fox viewers, because that’s who the right play to. How does this help them in their agenda? How can I react without furthering their agenda?)
  • Give support to groups that aim to get young people to vote Democrat and to run for office, such as RunForSomething.net. Mentor young liberals if you have experience with politics. The Democratic Party is aging rapidly and we have very few young people in place groomed to take over like the conservatives do.
  • Stop trying to shame Trump and his supporters into acting differently than they do. Your moral outrage is only draining you of energy. Many of them think they are being moral. Put aside strong reactive emotions and think strategically.
  • Watch Fox news and other right-wing media. Watch how they frame the issues, what they focus on, what they don’t cover. Subscribe to the newsletters of your members of Congress and study how the conservatives talk about the issues. When the talking point is exactly the opposite of what the policy does, recognize this as a weakness on their part. “School choice” is a code word for taking public funds for private schools, which they know is unpopular, hence the attempt at appealing to liberals with the misleading phrasing (liberals like the word ‘choice.’)
  • Resist calls to violence from either the right or the left. Non-violent protest is the only option for this resistance movement. Only peaceable assembly is protected under the Constitution. Don’t cede the moral high ground to those who want to bring you down to their level. Only more democracy will restore our democracy.
  • Stop blaming politicians for the mess we got ourselves in and remember we’re the government. We’ve failed the Democrats as much as they’ve failed us, by not supporting them against attacks on the right and the Tea Party movement of total obstruction of government. Stop grouping all politicians together and use discernment to find out which ones help the majority of Americans and which ones hurt.
  • Study history and research how government works. Create your own flexible mobile think tanks that can understand what’s happening in any given situation.

Most importantly, remember that we’re up against a vast network of educated, driven conservatives who have access to huge stacks of money and are hell-bent on running the country with their values and suppressing ours. Give yourself credit for rising to the fight. Don’t let the dark, violent worldview of Donald Trump become where you live. Keep imagining and creating a liberal, caring and happy world and work to make it happen every day.

This entry was posted in conservative values, liberal values, Moral Framing, politics and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Why Conservatives Keep Winning and What Blue Voters Can Do About It

  1. I’m a former republican who is now part of the moderate middle. I voted for Obama and HRC but I can understand why Trump has appeal. Your analysis is right on. Jonathan Haidt wrote a book about moral psychology about ten years ago that explained to me why I lean right rather than lean left like most members of my family. I think he’s a contemporary of Lakoff. The only thing I would add to your recommendations is that Dems need to reach out to build coalitions with people like me. I field more attacks from my liberal friends than anyone else. They are so offended that I don’t think their way on EVERYTHING so it’s the highway for me. Why is this? I really want to know.


  2. chrisdevlin says:

    Hi, Carol, and thanks for your comment. Speaking for myself as a lifelong liberal, I always thought conservatives were cold and selfish and I really didn’t understand that they felt their beliefs were moral and were the best for their families, community and country. It was always very confusing, because I knew many conservatives who were generous and loving toward their families and their communities but took a harsher stance toward those who weren’t in their direct spheres. What I like about Lakoff’s explanation (and other brain scientists as you point out) is that it helps bridge that gap for me so it’s easier to focus on what we have in common. I’d also say that Lakoff and other brain scientists have a theory about mirror neurons and empathy that explains some things to me. The idea is that mirror neurons enable people to feel empathy and it’s believed liberals have all the empathy neurons turned on, whereas conservatives might have only half. That’s why my empathy feelers are on all the time for everyone, even people far from my direct sphere and even for people I dislike. So because I feel strongly that Trump’s policies are going to cause a great deal of suffering for people who are not like him and the GOP, I’m very angry at Trump supporters for what I see as causing others pain and fear. I can’t turn off my empathy any more than I can turn off my love of music, so it’s just going to be years of watching others suffer and trying to offset that as much as I can. I think that’s why I haven’t been able to engage with Trump supporters beyond reading articles written by them and by journalists trying to understand them. But I feel like it’s time for me to put aside my moral outrage and try to find solutions and common ground, if any. It’s only practical, and maybe along the way I can let go of some of this anger. That would be such a relief.
    Thanks again for your thoughts and I hope I’ve answered some of your concerns.


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