The greatest magicians and the greatest persuaders share a secret — the ease with which people can be influenced when they don't know they are being influenced.
While the magician uses various forms of distraction to surprise and delight, the rhetorician's sleight of hand is rooted in metaphor.
This is no less true for politicians swaying voters than it is for marketers advertising to consumers about a brand of soap.
A good metaphor — often one we don't instantly recognize as a metaphor — can take us off guard and prevent conscious, rational resistance. It can make us believe what we otherwise would not believe and do what we otherwise would not do.
Therefore, policymakers must choose their words carefully. Likewise, they also need to keep a well-tuned ear on the metaphorical language coming from the other side.
The phrase “re-open the country” has been a regular feature of President Donald Trump’s news conferences and the media's headlines over the past several weeks. It sounds like a neutral and innocuous phrase, but it carries problematic implications and possibly deadly consequences.
“Re-open the country” (often used synonymously with the idiom “re-open the economy”) reframes COVID-19 from a public health issue to an economic issue. It is a metaphor — businesses open and close.
When a business is closed, it can symbolize failure, lost opportunity, or frustration. The metaphor of “open/closed” also holds the promise of an instantaneous transformation. It brings to mind images of an employee unlocking a door and flipping over a “Yes, we are OPEN” sign at the beginning of the day. It is as if one can declare a state “open” and life immediately returns to normal.
For these reasons, the metaphor puts implicit pressure on states and municipalities to be economically responsible and “open up.” Simultaneously, it suggests that if your state remains “closed” you are surrendering to the virus — and in turn, putting the financial security of your citizens in peril.
As a businessman, President Trump has been perceived as strong on the economy, while polls suggest Democrats are more trusted on issues related to public health. In casting his argument as an economic one, Trump engages on terms favorable to him and begins to regain control of the COVID-19 narrative.
Metaphors transform conversations and affect policy. In a Stanford study, those who were told to think about crime as a “beast” were more likely to recommend law-and-order solutions than those who were prompted to think about crime as a “virus.” Those in the latter group were more likely to recommend social reforms.
Importantly, almost none of the participants identified the metaphors as an important factor in their recommendations. “People like to think they're objective and making decisions based on numbers," according to study author Lera Boroditsky. "They want to believe they're logical. But they're really being swayed by metaphors."
That is why it is disappointing to see the media uncritically parrot the “open the country” metaphor. However, in fairness to the media, Democrats have failed to offer an alternative, instead slumping into their customary defensive crouch and adopting Trump's own language.
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said in a press conference: “We're entering another phase, which is the re-opening phase.” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi tweeted: “Our effort to fight [COVID-19] — and to reopen our economy — must be based in science, data, and facts.”
By echoing the conservative “re-opening” frame, these Democratic leaders are inadvertently reinforcing the validity of that frame and further cementing it in the minds of the media and voters.
A better metaphor might be “warming up” or “restoring” the economy, which imply a gradual restart. Or “rehabilitating” or “healing” the economy, which also suggest a longer process, and moreover, contain subtle health connotations.
Better yet, we don’t have to talk about the issue in economic terms at all.
Democrats easily could reframe the debate as primarily one about health. They could work harder to position the premature relaxation of stay-at-home policies as a dangerous ploy that puts lives at risk, in the same way that venturing outside during a tornado -- even after the wind gusts have decreased slightly -- is an obviously senseless decision.
Collectively, Democrats appear to have little awareness of how metaphoric language can shape thought and shift people's understanding of an issue.
The linguist and cognitive scientist George Lakoff has argued that Democrats are decades behind Republicans in their understanding of communication and decision-making and have unwittingly permitted conservative language — such as the reframing of environmental “protections” as environmental “regulations” — to gradually embed itself in the national vocabulary and our mental framework.
Republicans get it. Simple phrases such as “It’s morning in American again” or “Make America great again” (or “re-open the country”) establish a metaphorical frame.
Democrats’ duty, as a party, is to create a different frame, not just to argue that the Republicans’ frame is wrong. However, you can't do that if you don't even recognize what it is happening.
At the moment, support for continuing shelter-in-place policies remains solid. It isn't guaranteed to stay that way.
While Democrats slink to their familiar rhetorical corner, conservatives have begun fanning the cards and flashing the stage lights. When our eyes come back into focus, it is possible that our reality will have shifted.