Inflation and the Association Game
Why we win when we get conservatives to attack us in the right way.
(Written April 28, 2022 - but still relevant!)
When they attack us, they’re trying to create negative associations. When we defend ourselves, we help them do it.
When we say what we believe, we’re trying to create different associations. When they fight back, they help us.
Why does it hurt us politically to defend ourselves against what conservatives are saying? What’s wrong with saying, “President Biden is not responsible for inflation”? If you think political communication is rational, then there’s nothing wrong. The problem is that political communication isn’t rational, it’s neurological.
Political communication isn’t rational, it’s neurological.
A very small percentage of Americans actually get their news directly from news sources. They get it second hand, through random exposure online and through friends or neighbors. It doesn’t even come in full sentences or rational ideas. It comes in terms of neurologically activated frames, and in associations between those frames.
What do I mean by frames?
Say you have a concept like “inflation.” It has a definition, but it also has a bigger picture that contains all the things we know and feel about inflation: negative emotions, personal experience, the history of inflation in our economy, and so on. That bigger picture actually lives in our brains, housed in a network of connected neurons just like data is stored in a hard drive. That network is the inflation frame. It connects everything in your brain that has to do with inflation, and it leaves out things that don’t have to do with inflation. When you hear anything about inflation, your brain automatically switches on the whole inflation frame, as though you plugged it into an electrical outlet.
“Biden blah blah blah inflation”
When you say, “President Biden is not responsible for inflation” what most people’s brains hear is “Biden blah blah blah inflation.” You have just built a neural path between the Biden frame and the inflation frame. The more frequently they hear Biden and inflation in the same sentence, positive or negative, the stronger that connection gets. Eventually, when people hear the word inflation and the inflation frame switches on, the Biden frame automatically switches on with it.
Here’s the problem. We on the Left really hate getting yelled at. We’re incredibly averse to hearing negative things said about us in the press. When they attack Biden and his public investment bills as a cause for inflation, our response is to defend our position with endless press releases and reams of evidence, arguing that what Republicans said is not true.
Our message for months was to push reports about how the Build Back Better bill would actually reduce inflation. The problem with news like this is, all people still hear is “Build Back Better blah blah blah inflation.” When we defend ourselves, we just continue to strengthen the associations conservatives want us to make.
We win by getting everybody to argue about our frames instead of arguing about theirs.
The key to building neurological associations is repeat exposure, and the key to keeping discussions alive in the public debate is generating controversy. If they can bait us into making the associations they want us to make, we can do the same to them.
We go to great pains to craft statements that contain absolutely nothing that anyone could disagree with. We talk like we’re defending a dissertation. We couch our truths in caveats, as though one slight inaccuracy could expose us to a fatal blow in the press.
Winning the public debate isn’t about shutting down all opposition. Shutting down your opposition doesn’t mean great press for you, it means no press for you. Game over, move on to the next debate.
Winning the public debate is about getting everybody to make the associations you want people to make. Don’t attack your opponents. Just talk about inflation and how it is connected to pandemic price gouging and war profiteering. Our job is to say, “this is connected to that.”
We win - when they start saying “this is not connected to that.” You absolutely want them to argue with you. That is how you get air time in the public debate. When it comes to inflation, we’ll know we are winning when conservative elected officials, organizations and corporations start saying things like, “Corporate price hikes are not root cause of soaring US inflation.” We will gain ground because what the public hears is “Corporate price hikes blah blah blah soaring US inflation” and “taking advantage blah blah blah war.”
Does it matter in the slightest whether they are making logical arguments or have evidence to back up their positions? No more than it matters when we make logical arguments or have evidence to back up our positions.
Setting the Agenda
Ultimately, what matters is what is being talked about. If the debate is about whether or not Biden’s public spending is causing inflation, we lose. If the debate is about whether or not record corporate profits are causing inflation, we win.
Our number one job is to talk about whatever is going on in a way that gets people to associate it with the frames we want activated in their brains.
That’s what people mean when they say, “frame the debate.” The more we repeat our associations, the stronger they get. The more they repeat our associations, the stronger our associations get.
The bottom line:
Keep making the case about inflation and record profits, pandemic price gouging and crisis profiteering. When people hear the word inflation, we want that those frames to be the ones that light up, not the Biden frame. So use every moment of your public communication to expose people to associations between whatever is going on and the frames that get them to see the situation from our point of view. Let conservatives fight back. They’ll only be helping us win.