Lakoff on how Conservatives are winning by framing the issues

George Lakoff is a communications expert who studies how language shapes our thoughts, and for the past few years, he's done insightful work on political discourse and its hidden assumptions, or "frames." In a timely piece in Huffington Post, he answers the question of What Conservatives Really Want.

It's worth reading the whole piece, because it helps to put this week's events in Wisconsin into the right, uh, perspective, and also understand why Democrats aren't always effective at framing and delivering their messages:

Democrats help conservatives when they function as policy wonks -- talking policy without communicating the moral values behind the policies. They help conservatives when they neglect to remind us that pensions are deferred payments for work done. "Benefits" are pay for work, not a handout. Pensions and benefits are arranged by contract. If there is not enough money for them, it is because the contracted funds have been taken by conservative officials and given to wealthy people and corporations instead of to the people who have earned them.


Like any dangerous misdirection, the cited opinion has just enough truth to sound plausible, but it is way over simplistic.

What would you say to any such opinion piece that tries to tell you "what whites want" or "what blacks want" or what any group wants. I know you are a thinking individual and not born yesterday. Do you really believe that any group larger than a few tens is that monolithic or that black and white?

Is it not just a little possible that some conservatives are not so simple-minded. You don't have to agree with your local neighborhood conservatives but you should at least give them the same benefit of the doubt that you would expect others to grant you.

For example, Mr. Lakoff says "Conservatives ... don't think citizens should help each other." For my part, I think this is completely backward. In my experience, conservatives feel citizens should help each other. This help should be as direct as possible. Ideally, the needy should be helped by their family and friends. Failing that they should be helped by their community (church or town or whatever). Failing that, they should be helped by the state. Federal aid should be the last resort. But that is just my opinion. I suspect that many conservatives would agree, but in any case, for at least one conservative, Mr. Lakoff has it wrong.

When a pundit tries to paint an entire group with a single broad brush you can be sure he/she is mostly wrong.

Hi, evetS...
Sorry that your comment got caught temporarily in my spam filter. Thanks for your feedback, and I think Lakoff would agree that there are clearly exceptions and variations within the Conservative movement. I respect your differences with Lakoff, and accept that you are, in fact, different than the picture he paints.

Lakoff is primarily a linguistic anthropologist rather than a pundit, and, as such, is making claims based on linguistic habits, which are not the same class of things as racial distinctions. If a group of people use a certain linguistic frame to consistently talk about issues, it is at least reasonable to investigate that language and make inferences about its relationship to behavior. Social science work is always at a higher level of abstraction than the specific behavior of one person.

Personally, I'm not entirely convinced by Lakoff's stern/nurturing dichotomy either, but I think it's a useful lens. It is also, at least in a rudimentary fashion, a testable hypothesis. If we call something "counseling about hospice options" rather than "death panels," does that affect the way we think about it?


The Bio on Mr. Larkoff's blog says:

George Lakoff is the author of The Political Mind, Moral Politics, Don't Think of an Elephant!, Whose Freedom?, and Thinking Points (with the Rockridge Institute staff). He is Richard and Rhoda Goldman Distinguished Professor of Cognitive Science and Linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley.

Perhaps I need to read the books, but judging purely by the titles, I would guess they are more about politics than linguistics.

Also, again admittedly judging without reading a larger body of his work, perhaps he is interpreting the conservative "linguistic frame" from his chosen viewpoint. I suspect that if I, as a middle-aged, middle class, white male were to try to interpret the linguistic patterns of young black or latino men, or even young middle-class white men, I would have a pretty good chance of misinterpreting them, even if I made my very best effort to be even handed. Is it not possible that someone who comes from a particular political viewpoint might misinterpret the linguistic frame of a group of people from a very different political viewpoint?

I do not wish to be argumentative, but short of taking his work and addressing it point by point, I can only say that while what he says has a vague resemblance to what I think the conservative mainstream thinks, that resemblance is more like what you might get from a game of telephone* than from a real attempt to understand. In my experience, what he describes is closer to the "exceptions and variations" than to the norm.

* for those not familiar with the game telephone, see the following link in Wikipedia:

Hi, evetS...
While Lakoff's recent work has been about political discourse, I read him in graduate school as a philosopher of language, in the tradition of Edward Sapir, Benjamin Whorf, and Alfred Korzybski. He has always argued that there are powerful metaphors underpinning cognition, and that these can profitably be examined.

There is *always* a danger of misinterpreting the discourse of others, but this is not unique to Lakoff or the domain of political speech. If you don't find that his hypothesis fits with the facts as you see them, that's certainly a valid data point.

Frankly, I'm more interested in Lakoff for his ideas about why and how Progressives should learn to frame messages than in his putatively descriptive notions about Conservatives.