Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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November 24, 2004
By: Kevin Drum

LAKOFF AND FRAMING....As promised, last night I read George Lakoff's book on political framing (Don't Think of an Elephant). Here's what I thought of it.

Good news first: there was some advice near the beginning that was quite cogent:

  • Facts are great, but don't fall into the trap of thinking that you're going to win arguments with facts. When facts collide with a person's worldview, it's the facts that get tossed overboard, not the worldview.

  • Stop yammering about how irrational it is that so many people vote against their own economic self interest. People do this all the time, including liberals. "They vote their identity. They vote their values. They vote for who they can identify with."

  • Laundry lists of programs don't work. You need an underlying narrative. You need a frame that puts it all in perspective.

"Framing," of course, is Lakoff's claim to fame, and he bases his analysis of contemporary American politics on the idea that conservative and liberal worldviews are based on a "strict father/nurturant parent" dichotomy (see here for a description). As it happens, I think he stretches this metaphor farther than it can reasonably go, but that's not my real problem with him. My problem is that although he does a good job of explaining how conservatives use framing to their benefit, he fails to provide very much compelling advice for liberals.

A good example is "tax relief." Lakoff is persuasive in arguing that the word "relief" automatically frames taxes as an affliction that needs to be lifted and anybody who lifts an affliction is, of course, a hero. Those who don't are goats.

Fine and Democrats shouldn't allow themselves to get suckered into using the phrase themselves. But what does he propose instead? Lakoff has two suggestions: (1) taxes are "wise investments in the future" and (2) taxes are your "membership fee in America." Those aren't really as snappy as "tax relief," are they?

Unfortunately, it gets worse. There's an entire chapter on foreign policy, for example, that would probably delight Noam Chomsky but not too many others. Check out this paragraph, written five days after 9/11:

Do we really think that the United States will have the protection of innocent Afghans in mind if it rains terror down on the Afghan infrastructure? We are supposedly fighting them because they immorally killed innocent civilians. That made them evil. If we do the same, are we any less immoral?

Now, you might personally agree or disagree with this, but I'll say this flatly: if Democrats adopt this kind of framing we will be out of power for the next half century or so. And we'd deserve to be if we had actually been unwilling to support even a war against the country that harbored the guy who had just killed 3,000 Americans. Hell, even the hated French and Germans supported the Afghan war.

(And no, I'm not taking this out of context. This chapter has some pro forma bits about the importance of alliances and the need for more than just military action which is fine but it also has lots more about the need for nurturance and empathy, including a paean to Barbara Lee, the sole member of the House to vote against the Afghan war.)

I'm already going on too long especially for a pre-Thanksgiving post that nobody's going to read anyway. But I've at least highlighted my basic complaint: Lakoff may have identified a serious problem for which he deserves credit but he hasn't identified a serious solution. In fact, here's how he ends the book, with his nomination for a "ten word" philosophy for liberals:

  • Stronger America

  • Broad Prosperity

  • Better Future

  • Effective Government

  • Mutual Responsibility

Maybe it's just me, but those sure don't sound as zingy as Lower Taxes, Family Values, and A Kick-Ass Military. I'm a liberal myself, but even so this list almost put me to sleep. (It's also a list that doesn't strike me as especially liberal. With the possible exception of the last bullet, is there anything there that would be out of place in the Republican party platform?)

There are the seeds of some good ideas in this book trial lawyers as consumers' last line of defense, gay marriage as a freedom-from-government-interference issue but that's about it. Overall, I have a deep fear that if liberals are taking this stuff too seriously we could be about to drive ourselves off a cliff. Street smart framers like Newt Gingrich and Frank Luntz are probably laughing themselves silly over this stuff.

POSTSCRIPT: It's possible that for ten bucks all I got was the teaser. If I really want the goods, maybe I have to attend one of Lakoff's seminars or something. Could be. But for now, all I can go by is what was between the covers of the book in my hands.

Kevin Drum 8:25 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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