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Friday, August 21, 2009

Tell the Story, Mr. President: Back Facts with Narrative to Win Health Coverage Reform

From Berkeley linguist George Lakoff, via Rebecca Blood, an argument that even having all the facts on our side may not be enough to win the health care reform debate:

To many liberals, Policy Speak sounds like the high road: a rational, public discussion in the best tradition of liberal democracy. Convince the populace rationally on the objective policy merits. Give the facts and figures. Assume self-interest as the motivator of rational choice. Convince people by the logic of the policymakers that the policy is in their interest.

But to a cognitive scientist or neuroscientist, this sounds nuts. The view of human reason and language behind Policy Speak is just false. Certainly reason should be used. It's just that you should use real reason, the way people really think. Certainly the truth should be told. It's just that it should be told so it makes sense to people, resonates with them and inspires them to act. Certainly new media should be used. It's just that a system of communications should be constructed and used effectively [George Lakoff, "The Policy-Speak Disaster for Health Care," Truthout, 2009.08.20].

Now I'm more interested in discussing the actual plans for saving money and saving lives by reforming health coverage than the language we use to promote it. But Lakoff makes the unavoidable point that, in the democratic process, language matters. He really makes the same point as my debate coach friends do every year (and which I'll be making in my speech class at DSU this fall): point-by-point rebuttals are useful, but to win the round, debaters need to convey the truth of their argument in a "clear and powerful narrative."

And what is that clear and powerful narrative the President needs to tell America?
  • The American Plan: Health care is a patriotic issue that we should all work together, through a public option, to solve.
  • Doctor-Patient Care: The President's reforms are all about removing all the current practices that get between you and your doctor, like unaffordable insurance, exclusions for pre-existing conditions, and denails of coverage for preventive care and maternity and other basics.
  • The Status Quo is private taxation, bureacracy, and control: Insurance companies tax you and profit from it. Insurance companies subject you to a bureaucracy more complicated and opaque than any government health coverage system. Insurance companies deny and ration care every day. And insurance executives don't have to answer to you at town halls or the ballot box. (Try calling your insurance agent or claims processor a letter and telling her she's a Nazi bent on killing your mother, see how well that goes over.) An American Plan gives you more bang for your buck, more coverage, and more control and accountability.
I suspect my conservative readers will brand Lakoff's recommendations as mere spin. But Lakoff isn't asking the President to take the socialism/fascism criers' tack and tell stories that could only be true on another planet. He's making the valid point that most Americans aren't policy wonks (they don't have time to be!). To bring out public support (support that poll after poll has shown is out there!), the President and all supporters of reform need to choose clear, powerful, and memorable language that conveys the truth.

Update 08:45 CDT: But there are still plenty of myths to bust. Bulk up your narrative with this list 14(!) bogus arguments against health coverage reform from MediaMatters.org.

Update 13:27 CDT: Peggy Noonan makes a somewhat similar argument in the Wall Street Journal about the need for simple language to sell big legislation to "normal" people. Sounds a little elitist, but the point dovetails with Lakoff's.

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