News & Views for Anarchists & Activists:
A book by UC Berkeley linguistics professor George Lakoff
has caused a stir among Democrats for its thesis that
Republicans successfully choose words to frame issues around
Value words, a linguist advises Democrats
By Blair Anthony Robertson -- [Sacramento] Bee Staff Writer
Published 2:15 am PST Wednesday, December 22, 2004
BERKELEY -- George Lakoff is running late for a 10 a.m.
interview, which he hastily rearranges for 10:30 at another
location, where he is late once again.
It's no wonder. His once peaceful life -- scholar, writer,
teacher, ruminator -- has suddenly gone into hyperdrive,
thanks to a surprise best seller that some think could
reshape the future of left-leaning politics.
When Lakoff, a linguistics professor at the University of
California, Berkeley, finally shows up at the designated
coffee shop on a recent morning, taking choppy steps down
the hillside street, he is apologetic and bleary-eyed.
"I'm sorry. I've only had four hours sleep," he says,
shrugging. Then he gets in line for coffee.
It isn't every day a cardigan-wearing professor becomes a
mainstream sensation. In the past week, he says, he has made
two trips to the East Coast and attended a meeting in Los
Angeles. Before that, it was speech after speech to groups
large and small.
A Berkeley professor since 1972 and the author of several
influential books limited mostly to his relatively obscure
field, Lakoff's star has risen on the heels of a
presidential election that left many Democrats baffled and
Lakoff can blame his scheduling woes on a 124-page paperback
titled "Don't Think of an Elephant: Know Your Values and
Frame the Debate." It is published by Chelsea Green, which
has printed 150,000 copies since the launch in September.
The $10 book has been selling so well because many on the
left believe Lakoff has the answers -- and the language --
to help them reconnect with voters.
Well before postelection polls showed Republicans dominated
the debate over values and Democrats were not getting
through to many "red state" voters, Lakoff was already
sounding the alarm.
Writing in his new book, Lakoff states: "Democrats are
shocked or puzzled when voters do not vote their
self-interest. 'How,' Democrats keep asking me, 'can any
poor person vote for Bush when he hurts them so badly?'"
Republicans might dispute the "hurt," but no one is arguing
that their party's base stretches well beyond the rich and
powerful these days. Lakoff argues that Republicans are
succeeding because they have been carefully choosing words
to frame issues around values. The strategy has left
Democrats on the defensive in many areas.
"Partial-birth abortion." "Tax relief." "Healthy Forests
Initiative." "No Child Left Behind." Lakoff says the words
are no accident.
What's more, when Democrats argue against the issues and
employ the same words and phrases, they are unwittingly
reinforcing the conservative frame.
That was the inspiration for the title of Lakoff's book: If
you are told not to think of an elephant, you can't help but
think of one.
Lakoff says conservatives have been perfecting this strategy
for 30 years, investing millions in think tanks and framing
issue after issue in conservative terms.
"They had gotten into people's brains. By repetition of
language, they have actually changed people's brains and
created a new common sense," Lakoff says while sipping on
Reclaiming the issues, Lakoff says, will not be easy, but
the left can learn from conservatives when it comes to
language. People tend to vote their identity and their
values, he argues, often at the expense of self-interest.
In his book, Lakoff sees two basic political identities --
the strict father for conservatives, the nurturant parent
for liberals, though he uses the word "progressives"
throughout his book.
The absence of "liberal" is perhaps the best testament to
conservative framing success. They have made it a dirty word
in many circles, framing it around bloated bureaucracies,
ill-advised social programs and an overly tolerant approach
Asked about the L-word, Lakoff says, "The word 'liberal'
needs to be resuscitated -- but gradually."
Lakoff argues in the new book that Republicans have
masterfully crafted their frames to highlight "strict
father" values while Democrats have failed to craft their
ideas around the "nurturant parent" model.
"In the 2000 election (Al) Gore kept saying that Bush's tax
cuts would go only to the top 1 percent," Lakoff writes,
"and he thought that everyone else would follow their
self-interest and support him. But poor conservatives still
opposed him . . . they believed that those who had the most
money -- the "good" people -- deserved to keep it as their
reward for being disciplined. The bottom 99 percent of
conservatives voted their conservative values, against their
Toward the end of "Don't Think of an Elephant," which is
essentially a speech and some writings hastily pieced
together, Lakoff offers advice on framing. For example, he
suggests countering the conservatives' "strong defense" with
"stronger America," "free markets" with "broad prosperity,"
and "smaller government" with "effective government."
"You don't communicate your vision through programs," Lakoff
says. "You communicate your values."
During the recent presidential campaign, party insiders
asked Lakoff to send memos to Sen. John Kerry's campaign,
though Lakoff felt his advice was rarely heeded.
"I try to find things that best express what people already
believe," he says. "It's an art in a way, but it also
requires a bunch of science."
Some who have worked with Lakoff say his ideas could inspire
a comeback for Democrats at a time when many are calling for
an overhaul of the party.
"Everyone wants to hear what George has to say," says Don
Hazen, executive editor of AlterNet, the San Francisco-based
online news and culture magazine. "All of the Democrats and
progressives are on the defensive and George has solutions
that are accessible."
But there are already indications that Lakoff's "frame"
theory is going to get a tough reception from the opposition.
"I can't see how liberals can lie any more than they have,"
says Randy Thomasson, president of the Campaign for Children
and Families, an organization based in Sacramento. "I don't
think their deceptive arguments or wordings work with the
In his book, Lakoff argues it is conservatives who have been
deceptive. But nowhere does he suggest it isn't working with
the average American.
"Value words" reminds me of a line from a political advisor in the
novel, 'Primary Colors':
"You want to use value words. You connect midbrain, subcortical - you
want to hit them down in their lizard brains... where they don't think
- where they just, y'know, react..."
(And on "lizard brain" in political advice, see the
Rapaille-neuromarketer link recently posted:
Novels and political "reality": RAW comments on George V Higgins'
novels* that: "he's a better critic of corporatism than Noam Chomsky.
He brings it down to the daily life level, you know."
I found this very interesting. I suppose you could say that Norman
Mailer's 'Harlot's Ghost' does the same thing with the CIA - ie gives
you a plausible human-interactions level rather than high-level
generalisations about the evil CIA. And Gore Vidal's historic novels
show you "human" aspects of the US "power elite". (And RAW's novels
give other plausible human-psychology takes on a lot of areas that
often get de-humanised via generalisations in other people's political
writings about evil homogenous elites).
I wonder if the subset of Nader supporters who appear to think of the
Democrats as *just* another front for the corporate elite read as many
good novels as George Lakoff?