Do Progressives need their own Rush Limbaugh? (Photo: AP)
You turn the AM on and there's Rush, or Savage, or another of the army of right-wing radio talk show hosts. You may not be listening hard, just working, driving, doing busywork or the laundry. Yet if you listen day after day, year after year, your brain will begin to change.
Words, even those heard casually and listened to incidentally, activate frames - structures of ideas that are physically realized in the brain. The more the words are heard, the more the frames are activated in the brain, and stronger their synapses get - until the frames are there permanently.
All this is normal. It is how words work. And the right-wing message machine has found a way to take advantage of it - activating, as it were, a conservative system of thought.
The problem is, those thoughts on the radio are hate city. Savage rails against what he calls "the weakening of the military" by "affirmative action," "illegal immigrants," and "Marxist politicians." What proves it? The submarine accident in the Gulf of Hormuz.
Tune in to Rush. On the one hand he's pitching "rugged individualism," "liberty," and the absolute free market against Obama's call to unity and a sense of national responsibility.
Then he's hammering the AIG bailout and its bonuses, not mentioning that it was the conservative destruction of reasonable regulation that lay behind our economic disaster.
One diatribe after another, the crucial facts left out or lied about, day after day, city after city. It has an effect.
Where are the progressives? Largely absent. Or talking issue by issue, not about general themes. We have some icons: Rachel Maddow, Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert. But they only talk to us. They are not omnipresent.
Can President Obama overcome all this? He is by far the best communicator in politics today. But what we get of him are sound bites, an occasional major address, and a five-minute talk Saturdays on You Tube. Meanwhile, the reporting in the media is about positions on issues, not about general principles that get repeated.
The president does, indeed, think and talk using general principles: empathy (caring about others), responsibility for both oneself and others, and the ethic of excellence - working to make yourself, your community, the nation and the world better. He sees these as the basis of American democracy: Empathy is why we have principles like freedom and fairness, not just for ourselves but for everybody.
In the absence of nationwide media cover, the president has to go barnstorming. His former campaign organization has chosen to reactivate its ground game to try to get ordinary people to go door-to-door, speaking in their own words from their own experiences, to gain support for his policies. The idea is for ordinary people to say what they sincerely believe to their neighbors.
Can this strategy counter the right's message machine on the national level? We shall see.
In California, the absence of articulate Democratic leaders with media presence has been particularly disastrous.
Republican policies led to a $42 billion shortfall this year alone, and GOP lawmakers held up a state budget for nine months. Yet they did not get blamed for it.
Why? The right-wing message machine is alive and well throughout California. Republicans get media cover. Democrats don't get their message out.
Ideas matter. The words that express them matter. Communication matters. The Democrats don't need and shouldn't want their own Rush and Savage. But they could sure use an Obama in this state.
George Lakoff is the author of "The Political Mind and Don't Think of an Elephant!" He is Goldman Distinguished Professor of Cognitive Science and Linguistics at UC Berkeley.