Despite living twenty minutes drive from Williams College, and my pattern of getting my coffee and mail in Williamstown, I rarely come to Williams to attend academic lectures. It’s just habit – Harvard is where I go for lectures, while Williamstown is where I have coffee. But brilliant people come through my alma mater all the time and I generally ignore them.
A good friend mentioned on his blog that George Lakoff was speaking at Williams and I managed to drag myself off my snow-covered mountaintop to hear hear the talk… I’ve read enough short pieces by Lakoff that I tend to assume that I know what he’s all about. But hearing 20 quick talks at Pop!Tech went a long way towards reminding me that there’s something useful about hearing someone summarize the core of their theory in half an hour, an hour or ninety minutes. And hey, the World Series ended in four games.
Lakoff spoke for almost two hours in a packed hall, taking ninety minutes to get through his argument before accepting questions from the assembled students and townspeople. The opening chunk of the talk was one that most progressives have heard ad infinitum over the past few years: in the early 1970s, conservatives created a powerful idea and message machine (inspired, Lakoff says, by a memo from Lewis Powell, who later became a Supreme Cort justice) designed to take control of universities, the media and political discourse as a whole for conservatives. Through the creation of business professorships and conservative institutes at universities, numerous well-funded thinktanks and speakers bureaus, which Lakoff asserts book 80% of the “talking heads” on television, conservatives managed to turn “liberal” into a dirty word.
Lakoff asserts that this process has been succesful not just because substantial sums – perhaps $400 million a year – have been spent on the process. After all, progressives have also spent money on thinktanks, talking heads and media presence. Lakoff believes that conservatives have mastered the art of “framing” ideas – using carefully crafted language to move debates from the world of rational argument, to the world of “common sense”. Lakoff gives the (now classic) example of a press release issued by Karen Hughes on the first day of the George W. Bush presidency, which introduced the term “tax relief”. The phrase, repeated relentlessly by the White House, implies a “conceptual frame”. For there to be relief, there has to be an affliction, an afflicted party and someone to relieve that affliction.
Lakoff believes that the repetition of framing terms causes physical changes in the brain of listeners, the literal rewiring of synapses. It’s not brainwashing, as it’s not done under duress: “It’s not illegal, just smart.” Frames, he argues, define common sense. Facts that don’t fit existing frames are ignored or explained away: “If the facts don’t fit the fram, the facts bounce off”. To illustrate this, he points to a study suggesting that 80% of Bush supporters believe that Saddam Hussein was involved with the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
As Lakoff began to draw a distinction between surface frames – careful wording around concepts – and “deep frames”, the talk moved beyond what I’d gotten from reviews of “Don’t Think of an Elephant” and other pop characterizations of his work. Lakoff talked about his literal incomprehension of Dan Quayle’s 1992 acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention, and of the 1994 Contract with America. He understood the words and parsed the sentences, but says he literally couldn’t understand how the phrases fit together logically. What hold together promises to get rid of abortion, install the flat tax, make sure people can own guns, and stop environmental regulation?
To his credit, Lakoff then tried to figure out what held his (diametrically opposed) views together and discovered that he couldn’t construct a coherent category… which has a special irony, as Lakoff wrote the book – Women, Fire and Dangerous Things – often used to teach categorization to cognitive scientists and linguists.
Working on an insight from a student paper, Lakoff explored the idea that discourse about nations is usually framed in terms about families – we “send our sons and daughters to war”, we have “founding fathers”, whether in the US or “Mother Russia”. He started developing an argument that conservative thought is based on the “deep frame” of the “strict father” family, while progressive thought is based on the “nurturing parents” family.
Trying this argument out at a linguistics conference where two conservative Christian friends were participants, Lakoff got the surprising feedback: “Haven’t you read Dobson?” The Dobson in question is Dr. James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family, and an enormously popular author and columnist who writes on everything from politics to religion to childrearing. Reading Dobson’s child-rearing guide, “Dare to Discipline”, Lakoff felt like he discovered the essense of the conservative deep frame:
– It’s evil out there. Dad protects you from evil. Mom can’t. The world is competitive, and Dad’s role is to win those competitions and provide for the family.
– Kids are born bad – they don’t neccesarily do right and avoid wrong. They need to be disciplined by a strict father to do the right thing.
– Discipline needs to be painful enough to make children want to avoid punishment and discipline themselves. Morality is the disciplined obedience to the strict father.
– Prosperity and morality are linked. If you’re not prosperous, you’re insufficiently discipled, not moral enough to follow the rules. You deserve your poverty.
– If a child is well disciplined, the father will not have to interfere as an adult. And if the child is undiscipled, the father should turn the child out at 18, letting him sink or swim.
(A reminder – I’m doing my best to summarize Lakoff’s talk, not neccesarily endorsing this characterization of Dobson’s work. And I’m certainly not endorsing Dobson’s work either. My opinions on all of this comes at the end of the blog post…)
Examining the social and political implications of this frame, Lakoff concludes that in this worldview, social programs are evil because they create dependency, and eliminate discipline. As a result, they should be eliminated. Furthermore, the correlation between morality and power points to a reinforcement of traditional hierarchies – parent above children, Western above non-Western countries, straight above gay, christian above non-christian, white above non-white. Lakoff advises us that he develops this analysis at some length in his recent book, “Moral Politics”.
In contrast to the strict father model, Lakoff believes that progressives have their own model based on the idea of two equally reponsible, nurturing parents. In this model, the focus is on caring for the child, being responsible for her welfare, and responsible for yourself so you can continue to caretake and nurture. This set of ideas – care for others, be responsible for yourself, be responsible for others – is the heart of the progressive frame.
The implications of this frame: Nurturing parents want to protect their children against crime, drugs, dangerous chemicals, smoking, car crashes, etc. – protection of the environment, of laborers, of consumers is a major progressive theme. Parents want their children to be treated fairly, which leads to a focus on the progressive themes of fairness and equality. Nurturing parents want their children to be fulfilled, which means progressives need to focus on opportunity and general prosperity.
Unfortunately, Lakoff argues, most progressives can’t tell you there core values. Instead, progressives attempt to argue with facts, which Lakoff believes is a losing strategy. Lakoff unpacks arguments from conservatives and progressives about reforming social security. The conservative arguments, he says, have no facts attached to them – they’re a list of values and principles: Individual initiative made the country great. Free market capitalism is the engine of prosperity. Pull yourself up by bootstraps. Government is the problem. You can spend your money better than the government can.
Progressives respond with a complex, nuanced argument about a $1.5 trillion dollar trust fund which fully funds social security until 2042 or maybe 2052 then funds it at 80% but would fund it fully with 3% economic growth or a lower cap on benefits and…
His point? The progressives may be right, but they don’t win any arguments, as facts bounce off of frames when they don’t fit. To win these arguments, progressives need to get better at appealing to voters in terms of trust, authenticity, and values. Progressives need to let go of the rationalist fantasy that people make decisions based on rational thought and analysis of facts.
Instead of working in terms of frames, Democrats are working from polls – they poll to discover the most important issues, then craft rational policy responses to those issues. But since the issues have been framed by conservatives, the policies proposed move inexorably rightwards… and since the deep frame has been defined by the conservatives, progressives are always going to appear weaker on the deep values than the conservatives are.
So what should progressives do? Lakoff closes by talking first about Katrina, which he sees as a missed opportunity for Democrats and by the Terry Schiavo case, which he sees as a Republican misstep. He argues that Democrats had a perfect opportunity to demonstrate that the conservative “sink or swim” mentality towards the environment, public infrastructure, job creation and disaster relief, led to a situation where many people were left on their rooftops, wonderinf if they would literally sink or swim. And he argues that the conservatives violated their own playbook on the Schiavo case, making voters deeply uncomfortable with the idea that the government might intervene in intensely personal family health matters.
Lakoff’s next steps in all of this – start a thinktank, the Rockridge Institute, which will work on creating an alternative messaging system (which sounds very much like MeetUp.org) and a progressive playbook, which articulates a “consistent, positive vision of what it means to be progressive.” In this respect, he seems to be consciously echoing the playbook conservative organizer Frank Luntz has been arming his foot soldiers with.
Moving from reportage to my reaction:
Lakoff’s an impressive speaker. It’s extremely difficult to give a compelling speech for 90 minutes – trust me on this one. And it’s extremely difficult to do it without visual aids or, apparently, without notes. At the end of the two hour event, I found myself with pages and pages of notes (the long summary above doesn’t cover half a dozen things Lakoff detailed in the talk) and the general sense that what Lakoff said made a great deal of sense.
It wasn’t until I started driving home that I started realizing parts of the argument I was uncomfortable with and questions I wanted to ask Lakoff, or someone who’s read him more closely than I have.
Is the metaphor of nation as family an inescapable, essential one, or is it just the one that’s dominated our discourse for the last few decades (or, perhaps, centuries?) It makes me uncomfortable that the two models he outlines would map so neatly to the two parties that dominate American politics. If the family metaphor, and the two perspectives on family he articulates are somehow essential, does it neccesarily imply oppositional, two party politics? Is politics neccesarily binary? (Lakoff stated that 35-40% of Americans are progressives, 35-40% are conservatives, and the remaining 20-30% are some of each – sounds pretty binary to me.)
This concerns me because the family metaphor does a lousy job of addressing some of the issues I’m most passionate about – international development, fair trade, responsible globalization, preservation and melding of global culture. Family metaphors are essentially local, about the nurting or disciplining of those closest to you – my contention is that global challenges today require profound empathy and concern for people far away from you physically, and that in our globally interconnected world, everything’s more local than we think. My focus on these issues tends to put me in opposition to my fellow progressives on certain types of issues (trade, especially) and led me at some point to declare myself a “pro-globalization progressive”. Is it possible to advocate for those core values of global citizenship and cultural exchange from the perspective of a nurturing family?
My second set of concerns has to do with my contention that Lakoff’s focus is more tactical than substantial. He was very careful to state that people were misinterpreting him when they asked for slogans to sell existing policies – his point is that we need to communicate our deep frame, our progressive values, rather than just selling policies. But while I’m much more comfortable with the progressive value frame over the conservative value frame, I’m not convinced that either camp has the right answers to complex questions like the ones raised in my previous post (How do we help Africa simultaneously develop economically while maintaining a functioning health system, and address the issue of a nursing and doctor shortage in rural America?)
Some of my more political progressive friends are convinced that the key is to win back one or more branches of government so that we can advance ideas that are bound to work better than what currently passes for political thinking in America – we could push for energy independence, universal healthcare, improvements in public education. While I certainly can’t argue with that, there are other problems where I’m not convinced the progressives are all right and the conservatives are all wrong, and I’d greatly prefer a world in which both sides of the ideological aisle are working together on some of these issues.
I’ve been frustrated the extent to which progressives seem to be apeing conservative strategies to try to win back power. I think Lakoff’s core idea – that we need to articulate a progressive valueset – is a worthwhile one. But I worry that it’s easy to focus on building competitive institutions – thinktanks, a political playbook, a network for disseminating messages – and not actually take on the challenge of solving some of the problems we don’t have easy answers for.