Survival of the Fittest and Why Language Matters

By Bobbie Kithcart (LD22)

I went to bed early on election night. I dreaded what was coming and wanted to postpone the beginning of my anxious suffering. You see, I’m married to a Republican Trump supporter.

The months following the election were difficult for us as we navigated the reality of a Trump presidency. We were both so firmly entrenched in our ideologies every talk triggered a lethal rant or tortured, desperate defense. We had no way to discuss issues effectively. So, I became a student of all things Conservative and discovered Conservatives are much better at articulating and supporting their ideology.

Shortly after, I met someone at an AZBLUE 2020 meeting who spoke about the war of language between conservatives and progressives. He shared examples of the succinct simplicity of conservative-speak opposed to rambling, policy-wonk progressive-speak. Frankly, my attention drifted hearing my own party’s descriptions, overwhelmed by facts, measurements, nuance, and caveats.

Clearly, conservatives use language far more effectively than progressives, but how? For that, I had to turn to George Lakoff, the “Father of Framing.”

Lakoff, a retired professor of cognitive science and linguistics at UC Berkeley, demonstrates the technique behind successful framing in the title of his updated book, “Don’t Think of an Elephant.” What do you think of when you read that title? Is it an elephant? Even though he just told you not to think of one? Duh!

That’s exactly the type of impulse behind some of the most successful political framing. Lakoff describes his purpose in writing the book to make the “unconscious conscious, to find out and let the world know what is determining our social and political behaviors.” I had finally found someone who could teach me the why and how of debating politics with my own husband and, if done right, how to shape the progressive message in a way that is clear, compelling, and aligned with our social conditioning.

Framing is not just catchy marketing slogans. Good political framing activates the familial and cultural conditioning to which we are exposed. It evokes feelings surrounding authority, responsibility, power—ideas fundamental to our moral development. When a member of Congress puts forth a bill, the inherent meaning is the bill is right, good, moral. And when parents raise their children, they raise them according to a similar moral code, their values.

Expanding on that familial analogy, Lakoff describes the framing differences between “strict father” conservatives and “nurturant” progressives.

As a conservative parent there are a set of assumptions that Lakoff dubs, the “strict father” model of parenting. Some basic tenets of this conservative frame are:

  • The strict father will protect the family, support the family, and teach children right from wrong.
  • The world is dangerous and will always be because there is evil in the world.
  • There is an absolute right and wrong and the supreme strict father is our guide, the Almighty.
  • Children are born bad and just want to feel good, not do what is right. They need discipline, even punishment, and if they don’t learn from that discipline—then they have made their bed and can sleep in it.
  • There are winners and losers, and the strict father is there to tell you how to be a winner in this competitive world; it is up to you to discipline yourself to follow those critical steps.

The strict father is the moral authority and that authority sets up the innate hierarchy in life. Lakoff explains those hierarchies as, “God above man, man above nature, the disciplined (strong) above the undisciplined (weak), the rich above the poor, employers above employees, adults above children, Western culture above other cultures, America above other countries. The hierarchy extends to: men above women, whites above non-whites, Christians above non-Christians, straights above gays.”

The strict father model is grounded in personal responsibility, with prosperity representing the reward for self-discipline. In this frame, it is moral to pursue your self-interest. And, if you are not a disciplined person you don’t deserve wealth or success.

So, you see, conservatives view people on social welfare systems as undisciplined, and therefore undeserving, dependent, and unworthy. That’s why they see social programs as wasteful spending and something for which they should not have to pay. It doesn’t exist within their neurological frame so talking to them about it in progressive terms like fairness, equity, and freedom, just doesn’t register. It’s like speaking a foreign language.

Often, progressives will pass social programs by explaining their worth not in human terms, but in economic terms. For instance, how Obama co-opted the language of commerce to pass the Affordable Care Act.

Conservatives are for some government programs—those that reinforce authority like the military and national security, and those programs that maximize self-interest like corporation-friendly trade and taxation. (The reason you don’t want any “shit-hole” nations in your backyard, to quote our illustrious 45th president.)

Progressives, surprise, use the exact opposite neurological frames, because they are hard-wired into our brains; more about that later. Lakoff contrasts the concerted, self-interested or self-responsible model of conservatives with the nurturant parent frame of progressives. The set of assumptions in the nurturant parent model are:

  • The nurturant parent worldview is gender neutral, so both parents are responsible for raising the children.
  • Children are born good and can be made better with guidance.
  • The world can be made a better place and our job is to work on that.
  • The nurturant parent job is to raise their children to be nurturers of others.
  • Nurturance means three things: empathy, responsibility for yourself and others, and a commitment to do your best not just for yourself, but for your family, community, country, and the world.

Progressives are about social responsibility rather than self-responsibility. As you can see these are polar opposites. It’s no wonder it’s so hard to converse across the aisle!

For nurturant parents, empathy leads to other values. Lakoff describes how when you empathize with your child you provide protection which is a value that comes to play in our politics. We want to protect workers, consumers, and citizens with regulations, from seat belts to smoking, environmental protections to removing poisonous food additives. Protection from terrorist acts is important as well, but progressives haven’t articulated their “protective framing” as well as conservatives’ “authoritative framing.”

With empathy guiding ideology it is no surprise progressives want safety nets and programs to help people reach their full potential. If you empathize with your child, you want them to be fulfilled and happy. Your moral responsibility is to model this happy and fulfilled role as a parent. There are other nurturant values like freedom, opportunity, prosperity, fairness, honest and open communication, community building and trust.

As Lakoff says, “if you are a progressive you know you have these” and you also know there is no electrical circuitry in your brain for the other side’s frames! And, physically there isn’t. Boom! There it is! Your brain activates when presented with the framing that aligns with your perception of the world. Neurons that wire together, fire together!

But what if you fall in the middle? The independent who works across the aisle? Lakoff describes them as biconceptuals who hold both values, so either frame can activate depending on the language used around them. For example, some fathers are very strict at home but are nurturant at work within their Unions. Often these values manifest in different parts of their lives.

From a brain physiology perspective, these persons cannot hold both frames in their brain at the same time, and have to switch back and forth between them. Therefore, they can be influenced to accept nurturant values if you speak from the areas where they are nurturant, and connect that framing to political ideals. It’s the reason Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump can both energize someone who feels like they are being left behind in a rapidly globalizing society, but with radically different ideas for how to remedy that situation.

As I learned this, it was clear my husband was more bi-conceptual than strictly conservative. So, I practiced how to speak to him using language that would evoke his nurturant feelings specific to political issues. Understanding how to counteract that ingrained, unconscious framing gave me hope for our current polarized, political situation.

There is a great deal to absorb and implement if Progressives are to appeal to a wide range of individuals and shake the “elitist” moniker. Hopefully this blog presents a framework for how to begin doing so.

Deep entrenchment of these frames within the brain’s physical wiring is the why and how of our political polarization. But with Lakoff’s guidance, you now possess a foundation for how to mold the political discussion in a way that continuously activates progressive, nurturant ideals through the strategic use of language.

Now you know why people voted against their self-interest in the last election. People don’t vote for policies, facts, or programs! They vote for whom they identify as sharing their values.

One word of caution from Lakoff: if we do not unify as progressives and repetitively state our shared frames in every public discourse—like conservatives do—winning elections will continue to elude us. Lakoff helped me to understand why we must work together to create frames based on our unifying values and address the myths that prevent us from framing properly. Hopefully he got you thinking about your values and how you might start to frame them.

The next time you hear a candidate speak, listen for their frames.

Whirled Peas, Please.

War of The Words

War of the Words

Bobbie Kithcart

Edited by Erica O’Neil

We often hear the call for bipartisanship, but the game plan for that seems like a stretch amid such polarization—and it may even be impossible for some on the extreme right or left that lack the neurological wiring. But there’s a vast middle ground that we can activate as PCs!

How do we activate that middle ground? Cognitive linguist, George Lakoff, investigates how we develop our moral frames and worldview in his research, stating that, “most people are morally complex and, there aren’t as many thorough-going conservatives as one would think.” In short, there’s hope! And skillful framing is the solution.

I practice Lakoff’s framing daily. I’m guessing most of you don’t roll over in bed and kiss your Trump-supporting spouse good morning? Or have to reframe political landmines throughout the day as you navigate conversation across ideologies? It’s what I’m learning and what we all need to do as PCs!

Even if you aren’t butting heads with a loved one over politics, you regularly speak to people from across the political spectrum. As PCs, our job is to engage our neighbors who don’t specifically share our values. It’s best to start with the low hanging fruit, Independents who vote Democrat.

To do that successfully, we need to learn how to activate Progressive frames in this group. (Check out my March 2018 blog post if you’re not familiar with framing) It seems odd to state the obvious. Activating frames is a critical basic skill to cultivate so why haven’t Progressive Democrats mastered this?

Lakoff has warned us for some time that the Democrats suffer from hypocognition or a lack of ideas. He reminds us, “frames are what we use TO think. They are OUR neural structure. This isn’t spin, words, persuasion, marketing or propaganda. Ideas come first, and they are tied to our progressive moral perspective.” Apparently, we think we have all the ideas we need–but in reality, we don’t.

Hypocognition results in that empty feeling and a struggle for words when explaining our position to others. It’s not talking points or spin, instead it should be a stunningly clear phrase depicting our mission. Conservatives excel at this. They have their unifying command: Personal Liberty! Everything they say and do is relevant to this frame.

What is ours? *Crickets chirping.* We don’t have one and developing one takes years. But a strong beginning would be to phrase our frames using empathy.

Empathy is the foundational value of our progressive, “nurturant-parent” morality. Husbands and wives share equally in the care of their children. Parents are attuned to their child to provide for them as they need. They model how to be responsible for themselves and others. They also demonstrate the moral imperative to do their very best.

Empathy is the footing of our moral frame: caring, self-responsibility, and social-responsibility. The next layer of values are the bricks and reflect how we behave in the world. They are trust, communication, truth, honesty, and cooperation. Using this moral construct to create our argument can help activate these unconscious shared values in others.

Whenever you discuss issues using progressive language, you activate an entire cascade of moral meaning. Lakoff reminds us, “cascades are quite complex…they include the family value metaphors to structure economic, sexual, religious and political values.” But, most people won’t be aware of these thoughts. They will simply feel strongly about them as being morally right!

We must start standing up for what we believe! Stop being reactive! Stop using the language of the opposition, which activates a completely different unconscious frame. We need to walk up and speak confidently from our values of empathy and social responsibility. We need to be proud to be a Progressive Democrat. When we tie our argument to their conservative value—it will surprise them when they realize we are stating that we also deserve freedom and liberty!

We can speak about their moral constructs such as liberty, freedom, the pursuit of happiness and be clear about what we mean when we use those words. Because, these ideas are what Lakoff calls, contested concepts. My spouse and I can agree on murder as immoral until the details are revealed and then everything changes. Death penalty! No death penalty!

We can also avoid further assumptions by addressing the myths that limit our ability to effect change. Most of our fellow progressives, “believe that people are at all times consciously aware of what they think and that words are defined directly in terms of the world,” says Lakoff. But, these myths are based on reasoning that more facts and information lead to more rational decisions.


We wrongly assume that all thought is conscious, because 98% is not! We incorrectly believe everyone reasons the same way. Or that concepts and words mean the same thing to everyone, but in reality, they don’t! Here are a few other landmines:


  • “The truth will set us free. If we just tell people the facts…they’ll all reach the right conclusions.” The truth alone will not set you free. Frames are developed over time and hard-wired. Truth must be part of the moral construct.


  • “A normal person is rational and reasons on the basis of self-interest.” I think we all understand that after the 2016 election people vote for who they identify with and share their values, even if it’s a vote against their self-interest.


  • “…Candidate is the product and the candidate’s position on issues are the features and benefits of the product.” Lakoff scoffs at polling and says it’s not issues, it’s the candidate’s ideals and values that are at stake. “Morality is central to identity and trumps policy.”


Conservatives have controlled the dialogue for too long with their restrictive and undemocratic moral imperatives—and they are reshaping Democracy in the process! As Progressives we must wake up and callout the opposition using our moral frame.


Here’s a checklist for how we can conduct these discussions.

  •  Moral values – Be proud to be a Democrat. Define your position using progressive moral truths that activate the nurturant-parent frame within your Independent audience. Remember, facts don’t make sense unless they are defined within the moral frame.
  •  Contested concepts – Please use them but be sure to define what it means to you.
  •  Conservative moral values – Incorporate the conservative value that is relevant to the argument and familiar to your opponent.
  •  Deep truths – Include these unspoken fundamental drivers when engaging in deep discussion that requires more feedback to the opponent. More about these in my next blog post.

Let’s eavesdrop on a gun safety argument using these basic steps:

Progressive moral value: Our Democracy is built on caring for and about each other. Let’s face it, school shooting violates our first job of protecting our children! Isn’t that true?

Contested Concepts and Conservative Moral Value: Our children are not free to learn if they can’t attend school without the fear of being gunned down or stressed out with the horror of active shooter drills. Our kids have the right to the liberty of learning.

Deep truth: The NRA lobbies for gun manufacturers to sell guns. The NRA buys the loyalty of our legislators by donating to their campaigns for the gun manufacturers. And, this pressure on our legislators have resulted in greed, even the willingness to sacrifice our children’s lives for money!

Illustrate progressive values tied to conservative moral value: Our laws are created by us because we care about each other and we want to be free to pursue happiness with our children and family. Corporate profit and campaign funding over our kid’s safety is not liberty. It is senseless murder. Sensible gun laws are mandatory. Ban semi-automatic weapons. Universal background checks for all. No bump stocks.

Lakoff reminds us that, “Messaging is about thinking, not just language. To get language right, you have to conjure the thought that comes up when you say it.” Was this a successful argument? How would you make it better? Granted, this type of argument may be most useful in front of a legislative body, but we’re trying to reach everyday people in their homes, not politicians mired in punditry. So, tone it down.


There was a great deal of emotion in the gun safety argument and here’s why. George Lakoff ceaselessly reminds us that, “Frame circuits are not logical. They are connected to emotion. Language is emotion. Political frames are part of a hierarchy dominated by moral frames. Political messages about policy can only be understood in terms of moral values. All politics is moral.”

Conservatives enforce message discipline. We need to become first-rate at messaging discipline quickly. Since most people are morally complex, calling out our opponent’s policies as harmful is a good place to start! We must become proactive communicators and frame our arguments to evoke support.

Reasoning like this may seem difficult at first because it is new. It requires you to actively stretch your brain to include all the elements. Think of it as learning to play a new musical instrument. It’s a lot to think about at first but it makes beautiful music once you put it all together.

Below is a simplified table that allows you to select key elements to facilitate your practice. Find an area you want to argue about with a friend and practice by applying the formula as illustrated, above. To use the table, just choose the appropriate construct from each of the columns.

As you practice your compelling arguments, please remember to share what worked and what didn’t, your victories and failures, because it will make us all stronger. “Get clear on your values and use the language of values,” says Lakoff. All the best!

Check out this YouTube video if framing still puzzles you.

One Year…285 Days to Go…

By Richard Gooding

One year ago, I participated in the Phoenix Women’s March expecting 4,000-5,000 people at the State Capital. 20,000 people including my daughter and grandchildren marched with their handcrafted signs. 40,000 people marched across the state in 2017. It brought tears to my eyes and a lump in my throat to see so many diverse people coming together, passionate about changing the politics of this country. They were not going to sit back and accept what had happened. They were going to resist, to stand up for what makes this country great! It reminded me of the 1969 march in Washington protesting the Vietnam War. I personally had to do something. But what?

I’d read the Individual Guide, but Indivisible’s primary goal at the time was to resist the Trump agenda. While an important cause in itself, I wanted to do something more proactive to change the political environment in Arizona. I wanted to play offense rather than defense.

At 5:00 am, January 26, 2017, I sat down at my computer and registered AZ Blue 2020 as an Indivisible group. From the start it was a family and friends endeavor. We created a Facebook group and our daughters invited all their friends to join. Over 100 members joined in just two days. We reserved the and created a website. We held our first AZ Blue 2020 organizing meeting on April 9th where we shared the AZ Blue 2020 vision with over 60 attendees and many signed up to be part of our team.

Along the way we have met many wonderful people whom I cannot personally thank enough for contributing to the AZ Blue 2020 mission of empowering the citizens of Arizona to turn the state blue. They will be friends for life. They have created inspiring videos that tell the AZ Blue 2020 story; published training materials to recruit and train Precinct Committeepeople (PCs); produced informative marketing materials to communicate our cause and coordinated outreach events to spread our message state wide, from Tucson to Pinetop. These are the people that made AZ Blue 2020 what it is today. Thank you for all you have done.

This year 25,000 people celebrated at the Women’s March to the Polls. My daughter and grandkids were there again. But the attitude had changed as reflected in the evolved name “March to the Polls”. People want to do more than resist Trump’s agenda. We are tired of Trump chaos, tired of playing defense. We want change. We want to get progressives elected. We see with delight what happened in Virginia and in special elections across the US where red seats were flipped to blue. If they can do it in red Alabama, we can do it in Arizona!

There are 285 days until the 2018 election. Time to get busy. If you want to do more than just vote, become a Precinct Committeeperson and make sure all your Democratic neighbors vote. Working together we can turn Arizona blue.

Looking Back, Moving Forward

Reflection and revisiting are common practices this time of year. Looking back on 2017 from a personal perspective, I can think of an abundance of moments for which to be grateful and to celebrate. When looking back at 2017 from a wider lens however, it can be difficult to see much worth smiling about.

Under the current political climate, people of color, immigrants, women, people in poverty and LGBTQ communities have all taken some serious blows. These steps backwards, combined with an ever more volatile international landscape, can leave us all feeling pretty overwhelmed and hopeless about where things are headed. But let’s be honest; we are progressives. We perpetually look for the good, the light at the end of the tunnel, the silver lining in every atrocity. It is our “bleeding hearts” and our commitment to fight for the voiceless that will always move us forward. In the hopes of kindling a smidge of positivity, here are some wins scored for the Patron Saints of Democracy:

Alabama Senate seat

Numerous wins in Virginia, including state legislature and Governor

New Jersey Governor

Seats in Florida and New Hampshire

Record number of everyday Americans running for office on a progressive platform

Record number of political engagement and grassroots efforts

Remarkable members of the judicial system standing up against violations of human rights

The special elections we have seen over the past few months show what can be done. They illustrate the capacity of what We The People are able to accomplish when we come together. It is not only exciting but a driving force.

So after reflection comes resolution. What will I do? What can I do? For everyone this will be different. For some it will be a fulltime commitment to the cause, a decision to run for local office. For others, an obligation to canvas or phone bank, to become a PC, to registering voters, help at the polls or Get Out the Vote. The list of ways to do your part is abundant and each is important.

As 2018 begins we must remember the blows will, unfortunately, keep coming. The bad guys will continue their agenda against those we have vowed to protect. The anger, frustration and sadness will likely grow as we continue to watch progress be undone. But we must turn those feelings into action and energy. We must focus on the end game, that light at the end of the tunnel we know exists. We have to push through the shit storm and do the work. It can be done. And I look forward to writing a very different story this time next year.

Hurry Up and (DON’T) Wait

You did it! You stepped up as a frustrated Arizonan who could no longer watch this boat sink, and filed paperwork to be a Precinct Committeeperson (queue the fireworks and standing ovation!) And with this decision came enthusiasm and energy and you couldn’t wait to start knocking on doors and turning this ship around one neighbor at a time. Then you were abruptly deflated when you heard that there is a bit of a wait…90-120 days to be more specific. Here’s why:

  1. You submit your form to your LD chair who then reviews and signs it. From there that document makes it’s way to the MCDP Chair, Steve Slugocki. It can be the paper copy, a scan, an e-mail, Steve will even take a phone picture!
  2. After the Chair signs off, it heads over to the County Recorder’s office. They review the applications every two weeks. This is where folks can sometimes get rejected, most often because they are not a registered Democrat. This is a quick fix with voter registration and then a resubmission of the form.
  3. Assuming everything checks out there, your form gets to head over to the County Board of Supervisors (BOS). The BOS votes to approve all the PC applications at their monthly meetings, so depending on the timing of your initial submission, it could take anywhere from 2-4 weeks for you to get past this point.
  4. After being approved by BOS it heads back over to the County Recorder’s office (are you hearing circus music yet) where it will spend 30 DAYS being recorded. This only happens once a month on the first Monday after a full weekend, so timing plays a big role.
  5. Once the approved PCs are recorded the lists are given to the LD Chairs who then inform their new PCs. This could mean more wait time as meetings are monthly and not all LD Chairs will notify by email.
  6. Up to 30 days after your approval you will receive your official certificate in the mail! You’re officially official!

So 90-120 days…that’s a long time to wait. A long time to lose enthusiasm and momentum and to stop being proactive, so don’t wait!!! Just because you aren’t officially approved as a PC is no reason to not begin being one. Talk to you LD Chair and have them print you a neighborhood map. Meet neighbors. Prepare a welcome letter. Attend trainings. Get your registration and PEVL forms ready to go. Keep attending your meetings and inform other likeminded friends of all the kick-ass work you’re doing!

And if for any reason you are concerned about the status of your form, send us an email and we will check it out for you and let you know where you are in the process.

Now, lets get out there and start PCing!