George Lakoff and politics

I mentioned George Lakoff in my list of links a month ago, but somebody recently forwarded me a link to this interview with him, where I got a better sense of his thinking. That page also links to this other interview, which has some really great bits.

Lakoff was the guy who said frames trump facts, the “law” that intrigued me so much I linked to it before. These interviews apply that concept to politics. In particular, he points out how the conservative movement has spent thirty years developing a coherent conceptual structure that allows them to use a coordinated set of phrases that frames the debate in their terms. Tax relief is his common example, because relief implies an affliction that must be relieved, therefore taxes should be relieved. The liberal or progressive movement has not built up this infrastructure of framing, instead relying on the ideas to sell themselves:

Also, within traditional liberalism you have a history of rational thought that was born out of the Enlightenment: all meanings should be literal, and everything should follow logically. So if you just tell people the facts, that should be enough – the truth shall set you free. All people are fully rational, so if you tell them the truth, they should reach the right conclusions. That, of course, has been a disaster.

The problem is that as soon as you let the other side set the frame, you’re arguing on their terms. The question “Are you for or against tax relief?” is similar to the linguistic trap in “Have you stopped beating your wife yet?” The question is inherently unfair, because how could anybody be opposed to relief? Questions like this are used in polls all the time to influence how people respond. But it’s hard to fight your way out of such a frame, because very few people think about the implications of how things are phrased, so when you argue against the language, they say that you’re just nit-picking and tell you to shut up and answer the question (any resemblance to Fox News is purely coincidental, of course). Another example phrase is “intellectual property”; Lawrence Lessig fights against this phrase because as soon as you call ideas property, then you bring a whole set of other connotations about property – property is owned, it can belong to only one person at a time, etc. It biases the whole debate.

Lakoff also points out that conservative politicians have all of these think tanks and institutes who coach them on this stuff (he says that Frank Luntz is the man who leads that effort – check out this Mother Jones article detailing one of Luntz’s reports). The liberal movement has no such equivalent at this time, so they’re essentially going into this battle completely unarmed. In response, Lakoff is one of the co-founders of the Rockridge Institute, a group of scholars coming together to “develop a vision, a strategy, and a moral language that can move U.S. society in a progressive direction.” There’s some really good thought-provoking essays on their website.

To bring this all back into the realm of things I’ve previously ranted about, the Democratic candidates are all terrible at the image game, something which has bothered me since the beginning. Lakoff agrees:

Do any of the Democratic Presidential candidates grasp the importance of framing?

None. They don’t get it at all. But they’re in a funny position. The framing changes that have to be made are long-term changes. The conservatives understood this in 1973. By 1980 they had a candidate, Ronald Reagan, who could take all this stuff and run with it. The progressives don’t have a candidate now who understands these things and can talk about them.

A friend of mine sent me a great example of this yesterday. From the New York Times:

“This is not a time for photo opportunities, it is a time to create real opportunities in America,” he [Kerry] told a town hall meeting at Northcentral Technical College in Wausau, Wisconsin, after touring a laboratory and
posing for photographs with a 40-pound aluminum slab into which a computer-control machine tool etched the words “Wisconsin Backs Kerry in 2004.”

He decries photo ops in the middle of a photo op. Unbelievable. Reuters undoubtedly helped by phrasing the story so that both concepts are in the same sentence. But these are the sorts of mistakes that will doom Kerry in the general election. He just doesn’t understand how to play the image game at a master level. He’s at least figured out its existence – the move to bring all of his Vietnam veteran friends on to his campaign was a smart move to help change his image – but he’s got a long way to go before he can match up with Bush and Rove.

It doesn’t help that it’s pretty much impossible to figure out what Kerry (or any of the other Democratic candidates) stands for. They’re pretty much against Bush. That’s about it. The incoherence of the Democratic platform drives me nuts. Lakoff again:

Right now the Democratic Party is into marketing. They pick a number of issues like prescription drugs and Social Security and ask which ones sell best across the spectrum, and they run on those issues. They have no moral perspective, no general values, no identity.

Edwards has actually come closest with the Two Americas campaign, a nice succinct summary of what he stands for. Unfortunately, I think he’s standing in the wrong place. As I noted before, too many people are convinced that they’re going to vault into the upper tax brackets soon to think that the rich and privileged should be penalized (check out this survey by Luntz’s group which shows that people oppose the death tax even though it only affects inheritances of more than $625,000, a figure which few of us are ever likely to see). [Update: An alert reader pointed out that my use of the phrase “death tax” was using the conservatives’ framing. Oops. You can see how insidious such language is.]

Lakoff makes a lot of sense to me. The day before I read those interviews, I wrote this in an email to a friend:

I think that your point about the larger liberal discussion is a good one. Part of what the Democratic party and the liberal movement has suffered from is an inability to agree upon and communicate a core message. Oddly enough, the Republicans should suffer from the same fate since their party now covers a crazy patchwork quilt of alliances between the old-school fiscal conservatives to the neo-con hawks to the fundamentalist Christians, etc. But now that I think about it, I suspect that the commonality is that all of those folks agree upon the importance of order and hierarchy, so they fall into line when they have a strong leader (and are more likely to produce people able to be seen as those leaders) (and no, I’m not counting Bush as a strong leader, but he’s got people on his team that are). Meanwhile, the liberals, by focusing on being all-inclusive and consensus-driven, often come across as ineffectual and ethereal.

The Rockridge Institute is designed to construct and communicate a core liberal message. This will be crucial to setting the debate in the years moving forward. I’m actually tempted to write Lakoff and ask if the Institute needs a part-time intern to help proofread and edit or something, because getting involved in these discussions is something that would interest me greatly. We’ll see. For now, though, I should shut this down and go to the job that pays me.