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The NY Times has many virtues and some important flaws. Both were evident on the paper's front page this week and there is a lot to be learned by what did and did not appear there.
For decades, Republican conservatives have constructed and carried out extensive, well-planned, long-term communication campaigns to change public discourse and the way the public thinks. It has been done very effectively and, for the most part, not secretly. The NY Times finally began reporting on this effort on Thursday, November 21, 2013 in a fine piece by Jonathan Weisman and Sheryl Gay Stolberg.
The Times reported on the House Republicans' memo on how to attack the Affordable Care Act through a "multilayered sequence assault," gathering stories "through social media letters from constituents, or meeting back home" and a new GOP website. The Times also reported on the "closed door" strategy sessions, going back to last year.
It's a start, and it's about time. What the Times missed was the far deeper and systematic efforts by conservatives extending back four decades and the nature of the underlying general ideology covering dozens of issues that have been served by these efforts. The Times also missed the reason why the attack on the ACA is more than just anti-Obama politics, but rather part of an attempt to change the idea of what America is about. The Times missed the think tanks, the framing professionals, the training institutes, the booking agencies, the Wednesday morning meetings on both national and state levels, and the role of ALEC in the states -- all set out in the Lewis Powell memo more than four decades ago and carried out since then as part of seamless system directed at changing the brains of Americans.
I do mean changing brains. Because all thought is physical, carried out by neural circuitry, every change in how we understand anything is a brain change, and conservatives are effectively using the techniques that marketers have developed for changing brains, and they've been using them for decades, at least since the notorious Lewis Powell Memo in 1971.
Full disclosure: I began writing about conservative framing in my 1996 book Moral Politics, and about the conservative brain changing machine in my 2004 book Don't Think of an Elephant!, p. 15 (click here to see the discussion. For the Powell memo, just google "Lewis Powell memo."
At least, the Times did get an important part of it right on Thursday, and we should be grateful.
Then, on Sunday, November 24, 2013, the Times published on its front page what looked like a news story, but was a conservative column called "White House Memo" by John Harwood, who is CNBC's Chief Washington Correspondent, and who previously worked as the Wall Street Journal's political editor and chief political correspondent. It's one thing to publish a blatant conservative attack on President Obama in a column on the op-ed page or in the Sunday Review, and another to publish it on the front page, as if it were a news story.
The Harwood column is illuminating in its attack mode, which is quite artful and an excellent example of conservative attacks. To appreciate it, we should begin by discussing some basic cognitive linguistics. As the great linguist Charles Fillmore discovered in 1975, all words are cognitively defined relative to conceptual "frames" -- structures we all use to think all the time. Frames don't float in the air; they are neural circuits in our brains. Frames in politics are not neutral; they reflect an underlying value system. That means that language in politics is not neutral. Political words do not just pick out something in the world. They reflect value-based frames. If you successfully frame public discourse, you win the debate.
A common neuroscience estimate is that about 98 percent of thought is unconscious and automatic, carried out by the neural system. Daniel Kahneman has since brought frame-based unconscious thought into the public arena in what he has called "System 1 thinking." Since frames carry value-based inferences with them, successfully framing public discourse means getting the public to adopt your values, and hence winning over the public by unconscious brain change, not by open discussion of the values inherent in the frames and the values that undergird the frames.
I have always suggested to progressives to know their values and state their real values clearly, using frames they really believe. Values trump mere facts presented without the values that make them meaningful. Honest values-based framing is the opposite of spin -- the deceptive use of language to avoid embarrassment.
The reason that those of us in the cognitive and brain sciences write so passionately about framing issues is that unconscious thought and framing are not generally understood -- especially in progressive circles. Most progressives who went to college studied what is called Enlightenment reason, a theory of reason coming from Descartes around 1650 -- and which was historically important in 1650. The Cartesian theory of how reason works has since been largely disproved in the cognitive and brain sciences.
The Cartesian theory assumes that all thought is conscious, that it is literal (that is, it fits the world directly and uses no frame-based or metaphorical thought), that reason uses a form of mathematical logic (not frame-based logic or metaphorical logic), and that words are neutral and fit the world directly. Many liberal economists have been trained in this mode of thought and assume that the language used in economic theory is neutral and just fits the world as it is. They are usually not trained in frame semantics, cognitive linguistics, and related fields. The same is often true of liberal journalists as well. Both often miss the fact that conservatives have successfully reframed economic terms to fit their values, and that the economic terms in public discourse no longer mean what they do in economics classes.
Part of what the Cartesian theory of reason misses is the real brain mechanism that allows the conservative communication theory to be effective. By framing language to fit conservative values and by getting their framing of the language to dominate public debate, conservatives change the public's brains by the following mechanism. When a frame circuit is activated in the brain, its synapses are strengthened. This means that the probability of future activation is raised and probability of the frame becoming permanent in the brain is raised. Whenever a word defined by that frame is used, the frame is activated and strengthened. When conservatives successfully reframe a word in public discourse, that word activates conservative frames and with those frames, the conservative value system on which the frames are based. When progressives naively use conservatively reframed words, they help the conservative cause by strengthening the conservative value system in the brains of the public.
Liberals, in adhering to the old Cartesian theory of reason, will not be aware of their own unconscious values, will take then for granted, and will think that all they have to do is state the facts and the public will be convinced rationally. The facts are crucial, but they need to framed in moral terms to make moral sense and a moral impact.
To those who have a liberal Cartesian theory of reason, the attempt to warn the public and other liberals about the way language really works and to warn liberals not to use conservative framing will be seen as hiding the facts and misleading the public. That is what the Times columnist and CNBC Chief Washington correspondent, John Harwood used in his manipulative NY Times column.