A Moral Message vs. A Policy Message

A lesson in values-messaging from the national debate about health care.
This post is part of the research project: Word on the Street

MorgueFile Capitol Building Chelle“Conservatives create moral messages. The Democrats create policy messages, and policy messages either go over people’s heads or bore them.”

That’s George Lakoff talking (to NPR). The well-known messaging expert and linguistics professor at the University of California, Berkeley, says that Obama missed an opportunity to frame health care reform as a moral imperative. Instead, the president focused on 24 points of policy.

On the flip side, opponents of Obama’s health care law simply say it’s bad. Then they say repeatedly how it’s bad in a bunch of different ways: job-killing, reckless, expensive, unsustainable, “an economic and fiscal disaster of unprecedented proportions” (according to House Rules Committee Chairman David Dreier). Opponents barely have to say anything about the substance of the law. They don’t bother with nuance, or gray areas, or details, or even numbers to back up their claims.

Their language goes for the gut and the heart, not just the mind. The result: the message is simple, powerful, and easy to remember.

More from Lakoff:

“What the conservatives did—what they’re still doing—is using a moral message about freedom and about life. They’re still screaming ‘death panels’ and those are moral messages,” he says.

The health care law’s supporters, on the other hand, are still talking about policy, when they could be talking about freedom and life, too, he says. “If you are sick and you have cancer and you are not insured, you are not free—and your life is threatened. It is very clear this is about freedom and life.”

The most effective pro-reform communications have illustrated in concrete terms how the new law affects real people. This was a strategy proposed by Seattle’s Bob Crittenden, a family practice physician and medical school professor, who is also executive director of the Herndon Alliance, a group that’s helped shape the message for dozens of other groups that support the law. Crittenden has advised messengers to make the legislation less complicated by “put[ting] the provisions of the health care bill into personal terms, through stories and real things; how it really affects people.” Concrete, visual, and personal—this is compelling stuff.

As NPR reports, the bill to repeal the Affordable Care Act (titled Repealing the Job-Killing Health Care Law Act) is expected to pass the House easily but die in the Senate.

But the messaging lessons live on. They apply to health care and myriad other issues facing our families and communities these days. Lesson number one: Own the moral high ground! Don’t shy away from values messages and moral language. And, two: Make it personal. Cut the laundry list of policy provisions down to a few really central ideas and then, with stories and vivid examples, show (not just tell) people how these central ideas connect to their own lives—their kids, their grandparents, their neighborhood. It’s a powerful combination, no matter what policy you’re talking about.

Image courtesy Chelle, MorgueFile.

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  1. Eric Hess says:

    I just read this article on NPR talking about how pro-reformers were taking the personal approach in the repeal debate, bringing out individuals who have benefited from the new provisions.

  2. Matt the Engineer says:

    I just heard a great TED talk from Simon Sinek (here) about why Apple and the Wright brothers are/were so successful vs. everyone else. His answer is the name of his book “Start With Why” – don’t give people technical specs, tell them the core of your product and back up that core with the technical specs.I think this can be well applied to the Democrats – and environmentallists, for that matter.

  3. Colin says:

    http://thebreakthrough.org/breakthroughbook.shtmlThis is a great book that addresses what’s discussed here for environmental issues.Enjoy.

  4. Just Wandering says:

    We have benefited from the new law! My newly graduated, 21-year-old daughter, who’s having a @&$%!! of a time finding reasonable work in this conservative-created economy, is now back on our health plan. This is saving her $200 per month while she works part-time for peanuts and investigates furthering her education.

  5. Inspire Dave says:

    Conservatives have figured out this simple yet amazingly effective tactic, and use it on all key issues:. Fighting to keep insurance companies, pharmaceuticals, hospital conglomerates and medical specialists raking in massive wealth (by repealing “job killing” and “government bureaucratic” healthcare reform). Promoting fear and war (“war on terror”, “you’re with us or with the terrorists”) so they can push their entire rightwing agenda for 8 years without real opposition. Promoting the even greater takeover of our country by Corporate America and expanding the ever widening wealth/income gap (“fighting class warfare” by providing “tax relief” and ending the “death tax”). “Helping people help themselves” by ending or privatizing “socialist” programs such as social security, Medicare and Medicaid, and other welfare, so people can “pull themselves up by their own bootstraps”. Fighting communist/socialist takeover of America by creating new, evil meanings to terms such as liberal, progressive and social justice, all which “attack our freedom and liberty”. Fighting attempts for greater “government takeover” that “attack our freedom” through things like environmental regulations, financial regulations, regulation of our food industry, etc.. Resisting “attacks on our Constitutions” in their fight for no controls on guns, keeping corporations legally defined as people, and money as “free speech” in politicsThe list goes on. Conservatives keep winning, and our country keeps moving to even more of a free market driven society with an ever widening wealth gap, and a litany of ills associated with this (read The Spirit Level for more). Liberals need to figure this out, and change our ways to win, rather than to try and prove we are right.

  6. bestuggbootssaleukoutlet.blogspot.com says:

    You’ve got a point there.

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