In the current election cycle, America is once again finding out the power of metaphor. Mitt Romney got some points out of “trickle-down government” in the first presidential debate. Barack Obama failed to counter with one of his own. While the principle famously guiding the Clinton campaign in 1992 was, “It’s the economy, stupid,” perhaps the better piece of wisdom would be, “It’s the Metaphors, Stupid.”
James Geary suggests in I Is an Other that Obama may have been able to get some traction by talking about “public structures.” Greary reports that in research conducted by a group called Culture Logic, it found not surprisingly that participants laughed in the face of researchers when they mentioned “government”–seeing it in us/them terms. They tax us, they regulate us, they take advantage of us.
But then researchers put the following paragraph to participants and got a very different response:
Economists now agree that what has made America so successful is the effectiveness of our Public Structures. The Public Structures Americans have created–such as laws, highways, health and safety agencies, and schools and colleges–are the machines that produce American success and quality of life. Without them, it would be difficult or impossible to get lots of important jobs done.
When asked to respond to the paragraph, people said things like, “The post offices and stuff keep our country running.”
And how are public
structures maintained? They answered, “Well, obviously taxes, but also a common belief by everybody that they should be maintained. Traffic lights are Public Structures but if everyone didn’t agree that red meant stop then they wouldn’t function. . . . So I think a combination of government funding and a common belief that they are necessary” (pp. 122-23).
As the research demonstrates, we as a people understand and believe in the necessity of the common good. All it takes is the right metaphor to bring such benefits to light.
Next Installment: I Is an Other (4): When Metaphors Strike Out