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Framed: Lakoff's Dubious Speech Therapy for Democrats

March 1, 2005

In the wake of November?s disaster for Democrats, liberals and progressives of all stripes have been seeking guidance and comfort in the work of cognitive scientist and linguist George Lakoff. All the rage among Democrats, his book Don?t Think of An Elephant has introduced the term ?framing? into the daily lexicon of political animals. For devastated Democrats trying to plot their return from the wilderness, Lakoff has taken on almost mythic status.
And that?s probably not a good thing.
While a helpful diagnosis of the Democrats? maladies, Dr. Lakoff?s prescription may well make the patient worse. Lakoff casually dismisses fundamental differences among liberal constituencies that cannot ? and should not - be so easily bridged. He does not address the 21st century media environment, which by blurring politics, entertainment, news and opinion, naturally offers the conservatives? ?strict father? morality play a built-in advantage. Worst, Lakoff?s model for a progressive public philosophy and values messages leads to a misdirected liberalism and electoral defeat.[MORE]
Read the entire post.


It?s the Mental Model, Stupid
It?s easy to understand Lakoff?s appeal. First, his use of the concepts of ?cognitive unconscious? and ?framing? help incredulous Democrats understand why an electorate that consistently prefers their policy prescriptions continues to vote for the GOP. Conservatives, Lakoff writes, consistently speak about values and principles that reinforce most Americans? ?strict father? model of understanding the world. Liberals, in contrast, offer policies, programs and particulars, and cede the framing of debates by not using the language of their own ?nurturant parent? model.
Lakoff notes that when it comes to political communication, it is a myth that ?the truth will set us free. If we just tell the people the facts, since people are basically rational, they?ll reach the right conclusions.? To Lakoff, this explains Republican success in dominating the debate even among potential Democratic voters,

?To be accepted, the truth must fit people?s frames. If the facts do not fit a frame, the frame stays and the facts bounce off?People do not necessarily vote their self-interest. They vote their identity. They vote their values. They vote for who they identify with?It is a serious mistake to assume that people are simply always voting in their self-interest.?

For Lakoff, the solution to liberals? woes is first to understand the different ?family model? frames being used by conservatives and progressives:

?The strict father is moral authority and master of the household, dominating mother and children and imposing needed discipline. Contemporary conservative politics turns these family values into political values: hierarchical authority, individual discipline, military might?The world is a dangerous place, and it always will be, because there is evil out there in the world.?

?The nurturant parent model has two equal parents, whose role is to nurture their children and their children to nurture others. Nurturance has two dimensions: empathy and responsibility, for one?s self and others. Responsibility requires strength and competence. The strong nurturing parent is protective and caring, builds trust and connection, promotes family happiness and fulfillment, fairness, freedom, openness, cooperation, community development. These are the values of strong progressive politics."

Armed with an understanding of their own empathetic parent model and the values and principles it implies, disciplined progressives can win the battle of hearts ? and minds ? by framing the debate and controlling the language of politics. (The latter is a point Perrspectives has long emphasized. See ?Branding the Opt Out Society? for details.)
Father Knows Best: The Medium is the Message
Lakoff?s diagnosis provides helpful insights into the causes of Democratic electoral disasters past and needed tools for thinking about defining a future return to the majority. But as a practical guide to core Democratic values and the policies flowing from them, Lakoff?s prescription would take liberals far off course.
A critical (and surprising) shortcoming of Lakoff?s ?nurturant parent? model for progressives is its stunning media tone deafness. Over the past decade, the American media infrastructure has been transformed. The explosion of 24/7 cable news outlets and the rise of the Internet has produced an over-supply of news and political messages, instantaneous news cycles, and veiled agendas. In addition, Internet direct marketing techniques and blogs allow Americans to bypass the parties and mainstream media for news, messages and platforms. More onerous, rapid consolidation across print, radio, web and television media gives corporate owners like News Corp ? and their agendas ? a stranglehold over the creation, distribution and access to content.
These have combined to transform American politics into just another part of the ?infotainment? complex where entertainment, news, and opinion meet. Politics is now entertainment, part drama and part competition in a passion play where confrontation, conflict, and good versus evil rule the day. In a time of great uncertainty at home and abroad, for overworked Americans awash in sea of information, visceral appeals and gut-level emotions, not data, facts and analysis, cut through the noise.
And that gives the conservative message machine a significant, built-in advantage over liberals. Lakoff?s ?strict father? model for conservatives is tailor-made for the infotainment media of the 21st century. In this environment, confrontation, indignation, morality plays, good guys and axes of evil naturally dominate political debate, just as they do in Hollywood blockbusters. The initial progress of the liberal Air America Radio notwithstanding, the fury and self-righteousness of Fox News, Limbaugh, O?Reilly, Hannity and Coulter makes much better theater than ?nurturers? like Bill Moyers. Conservatives rage, liberals whine. And rage is much more entertaining.
A House United Cannot Stand
Lakoff is also much too quick to proclaim the unity of disparate progressive viewpoints, overlooking fundamental disagreements that will impact both the framing of Democratic messages and its policy program. Lakoff identifies six discrete types of progressives, including socioeconomic progressives, identity politics progressives, environmentalists, civil liberties progressives, and anti-authoritarians. Later, he dedicates an entire chapter to uniting them through a restatement of common values, principles and policy directions that he confidently claims ?are exactly the things that can unite progressives, if they are crafted properly.? Importantly, he notes that:

The problem is that many of these people [?] do not recognize that theirs is just one special case of something more general, and do not see the unity in all types of progressives. [?] We have to get past that harmful idea. The other side did.

Lakoff is right that Bush and his GOP have managed to bridge the often-tense schism between social and economic conservatives, at least for now. But Lakoff brushes off the very real differences in values and principles that separate the range of views and interests across the Democratic spectrum. Unity in opposition to the reigning GOP is clearly not enough, as the 2004 electoral drubbing showed.
Democrats among themselves must hammer out a consensus public philosophy before framing the debate and offering a genuine program for reform. For example, do progressives believe in a single American national identity or recognize a multicultural panoply of group identities determined by race, gender, ethnicity, and sexual orientation? Do progressives see globalization as a difficult but generally positive process that can be managed for American prosperity or a dangerous trend that should be blocked wherever possible? What is the role of markets in Democratic policy, and are there any areas where progressives believe in market limitations or failure (i.e. health care, education, retirement security) call for government solutions? What is the nature of the security threats facing the United States and what resources must be marshaled and steps taken (national service? tax increases?) in order to assure national safety? Are the Democrats a coalition party or one spanning races, regions and economic classes?
Answers to questions like these will determine whether the 21st century Democratic Party is a free trade, pro-growth, party of national unity or a protectionist party of identity politics. While the New Republic?s Peter Beinart (?A Fighting Faith?) would go too far in purging the Democrats of ?softs?, these fundamental differences in viewpoint and priority must be addressed to renew the Democratic vision. As we?ve written before (?Less Than the Sum of Our Parts? and ?Five Lessons for Democrats?), they simply cannot not papered over.
Wrong Frame, Crooked Picture
The bottom line is that Lakoff?s formula produces the wrong liberalism for a resurgent Democratic Party and the wrong direction for the United States in the early 21st century. Bypassing real differences among Democrats, Lakoff?s is the path of oppositionl, not reform. There is no accounting for the rapidly changing domestic and international context (globalization, economic insecurity, health care and savings crises, the war with Al Qaeda, the rise of Chinese, Indian and European power, global climate change, etc.) that must inform the Democratic worldview. The result is likely more of the same ? a coalition party of identity politics that cannot speak in universal terms to Americans? hopes and not just fears.
That requires a progressivism that the cognitive scientist Lakoff does not seem able to conceive: call it ?National Greatness Liberalism.? Such a liberalism sees an America that is constantly ?becoming?, moving ever closer to its own ideals of prosperity and justice. Consider a 21st century Democratic mission statement such as:

Empower Americans of all backgrounds, races, classes and faiths to enjoy growing prosperity, increased safety, personal autonomy and shared responsibility at home, while helping to ensure our security abroad through wise stewardship of a changing global community.

What?s needed to articulate that is a different frame. One that projects confidence, unity, aspiration ? all the while working with, not running counter, to the trajectory of 21st century media. Rewarding success, respecting personal autonomy, requiring shared responsibility, empowering each citizen to achieve their utmost and setting and achieving common national goals (a concept of ?winning?, if you will), those are the values needed in a new Democratic ?frame.? And the model for that is not a family, but a team.
More on that to come.

3 comments on “Framed: Lakoff's Dubious Speech Therapy for Democrats”

  1. Thanks for parsing Lakoff to the delight of the Right. Your willingness to engage in finding fault with his approach is exactly why progressives have an incredibly difficult time competing. Everyone has to show that only they have the correct formulae. Your entire argument strikes me as a perfect example of what I think of as doctrinnaire political theology. You seem less interested in the needs of your congregation and more interested in the righteousness of your opinion.
    The brilliance of Lakoff is that he offers us an understanding of the structural nature of how humans think and act and may be influenced. It's foundational marketing, sociology, psychology and political science. Isn't that a great gift? Is it perfect? I don't know; I'm not qualified to understand what's perfect. Does it have to be perfect? Of course not. And this is one of Lakoff's critical arguments: we cannot wait for the perfect strategy, cause it ain't ever gonna happen.
    Imagine trying to create fundamental change in your own small business. You see a need to shift, but aren't sure how or what to do next. So, you decide to hire someone to work with you, give advice, and set your company moving forward. How would you decide who to hire? What questions would you want him to ask? What would you want him to do with the answers he gets? What's his value, if all he does is hear from the CFO that the problem is one of cash flow and from the COO that the problem is a lousy supply chain and from the CIO that it's outdated IT? Each may be true, but will this move the company to the next level? Maybe the real problem is that the company cancelled free coffee service? None of us knows. But, what we want is an understanding, a belief in the value of the company, a foundation to grow on, a strategic approach to looking at ourselves and making decisions that inform our success. These are the hallmarks of what Lakoff offers. He's laying the groundwork. As my Improv teacher said years ago, the secret to successful Improv lies in two points: first, clear your mind of any and all ideas, preconceptions...And second, always think in terms of "Yes, and..." Don't challenge what the others put in front of you. Accept it and build from there. Progressive political success won't be built on improvisation. But, it will be built on the same bedrock: trust and acceptance of differences that all point to an ultimate purpose.

  2. Jackolefty,
    You make important points above. I think I need to clarify my comments on Lakoff, because I think I may have come off unduly negative.
    In a nutshell, I think his analysis is outstanding, but his recommendations going forward less so:
    1. I strongly agree with Lakoff that framing the debate is critical. (I wrote about the importance of "branding" back in 2003.)
    2. I also agree that Lakoff's insights on framing and the cognitive unconscious show Democratic "facts" and "policies" don't seem to carry the day. Dems need to speak in values consistent with their frame; particular policies will flow from that.
    3. Where I disagree with Lakoff is in what he claims is or should be the Democrats' frame or model. I believe the "nurturant parent" model does not produce the values and prinicples Democrats should be articulating in the 21st century. (I plan to suggest an alternative soon.)
    4. I also believe that Lakoff is too quick to proclaim the fundamental unity of all progressives. Unity is a function of:
    a) Priorities
    b) Timing
    c) Fundamental beliefs and values
    The GOP has succeeded in creating unity and winning because they change their priorities and in some cases, having some constituencies defer their hot issues for the sake of winning. This allows the GOP to bridge the chasm between economic and social conservatives. (Compare 2000 and 2004 to 1992; the GOP will never have another Pat Buchanan "retaking the culture" speech in prime time again.)
    Lakoff's analysis and tools are invaluable. I do believe, though, that building on his "nurturant parent" model will lead to neither reform or victory.

  3. Perrspective,
    I think that you hit on a very important subject in your post, namely the antagonistic relationship between progressive policies and the corporate media, but your focus on the Nurtruant Parent model as a negative is not as important.
    We cannot rely on the corporate media to give us a fair shake. We could craft our message however we want, but that will not change the fact that every single policiy that is supported by progressives runs counter to the goals and needs of the corporate media and corporations in general.
    The trajectory of the corporate media IS a strict father trajectory. It seeks to perpetuate the corporate moral authority, which runs counter to the needs of the American people.
    If we try to operate with the corporate media, there is nothing we can do but put forth DLC style policy, which is neither progressive, nor effective for electing progressives. DLC policy cedes too much to the right, and demands that we excoriate our base in order to obtain the approval and support of the corporate media. That is unacceptable; it is a losing proposition.
    I will agree with you that framing done poorly will harm our cause. Harry Reid's recent performance on CNN is an excellent example of positive usage of framing. I saw a guy on Hardball last night that did a terrible job. He tried to cram his frame into the conversation when he should have opted for a reframe. This is not that horrible a mistake, but it is not productive. I think that it will get better as we all start to gain some experience with these new tools.
    Regarding the different categories of progressives:
    You point out valid problems with the disparate nature of the different types of progressives. I do not see this as a fatal flaw, but it cannot be addressed in the manner that the right addresses their similar problem. Because of the top down respect for authority, the right is able to pass down a message that is uniform, and the receivers of that message accept it even if it is unpalatable to each seperate type of conservative. They accept it as they would bad tasting medicine. We will have a much more diffiuclt problem pushing a message on our seperate groups of progressives. They will rebel, as authority is not blindly followed.
    I have been thinking about this for a little while. It seems to me that the way we get by this is by crafting similar frames, memes, and themes, and allowing for many messages to be pushed by different types of progressives, relying on these similar memes, themes and frames.
    This will give us a powerful, diverse message, but will not require obedience to an unpalatable message.
    The great thing about our version of framing is that they will be created by the people at the bottom of the pyramid; the grassroots. This gives our leadership the opportunity to grab what they want to use and push it.
    If all of this comes from similar frames, memes and themes, we will have a uniformity of message that, while not as monolithic as the cons, will be tied together by these repetitive frames, memes and themes.
    I'll check back to see what you think.
    (I need to find some of my previous thoughts on this subject, as the wording in this post was not exactly what I would like.)


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Jon Perr
Jon Perr is a technology marketing consultant and product strategist who writes about American politics and public policy.

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