The framing of political debate

Times Staff Writer

Howard Dean is on the line, hailing the man who would be the savior of the Democratic Party.

“What Lakoff brings is a very practical way to talk about things,” says Dean, his gravelly voice rasping via cellphone from Boston. “Why it’s important to frame issues ... how to do it on specific issues.”

Dean is speaking of George Lakoff, a UC Berkeley professor of linguistics and cognitive science, whose slender treatise on language, brain structure and politics has become a surprise bestseller, making “framing” the season’s hot fashion and yielding a growing legion of followers -- as well as critics. (Last month, he addressed House Democrats in Washington at the invitation of their leader, San Francisco’s Nancy Pelosi.) Put simply, Lakoff says conservatives have been winning elections -- along with hearts and minds -- through the strategic use of language over the last 30 years, to a point where central tenets of the Republican philosophy are not just common wisdom for millions of voters but, more, are a hard-wired part of their brains.


“People think in frames,” Lakoff writes in the opening chapter of his new book, which credits a national network of conservative think tanks and sympathetic media outlets with abetting the GOP’s neural conquest. “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.” The title of the book, “Don’t Think of an Elephant!,” reflects Lakoff’s central thesis; naturally, when you read the words, you think of an elephant. His point is that by evoking certain images, or frames, Republicans have forced Democrats to fight elections on the GOP’s terms. Two examples: the debate over “tax relief,” which frames taxes as an affliction and Democrats as the defenders of an onerous burden. And the “war on terror,” which conflates the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks with the fighting in Iraq.

“Democrats have to learn how to stop making mistakes,” Lakoff says over a turkey-and-avocado sandwich at, fittingly, Berkeley’s Free Speech Cafe. A liberal (though “progressive” is his preferred frame), Lakoff is a large man with a small voice, which can make him hard to hear over the classroom hum of fluorescent lights and students rustling in their seats.

The first step for Democrats, he goes on, “is not using the other side’s terms, or answering the questions posed by the other side. As soon as they set the topic ... you’re dead.”

To his detractors, Lakoff’s work amounts to political junk science, the equivalent of a diet plan that promises you can eat all you want and still lose 5 pounds a day. (Just talk differently and you too can win the White House!)

“Language matters a lot,” says Al From, head of the Democratic Leadership Council, an organization that has worked to tug the party rightward, feuding with Dean and others who accuse the group of selling out the party’s core principles. “But so does substance.”

From and his allies -- including, most prominently, Bill Clinton -- began working in the mid-1980s to recast the image of the party along with the language Democrats used. Gone was the talk of grievance, of rights and entitlement, replaced by words like “opportunity” and “responsibility” and programs, like welfare reform, that demonstrated the party’s new language was more than talk.


“It wouldn’t have made any difference if we’d just gone on the same way and changed the rhetoric,” says From. “If you’re really trying to show people you’re different, you can’t just do it with a slogan.”

Samuel Popkin, another former Clinton campaign advisor, suggests Lakoff’s work on language and political persuasion is not just simplistic but derivative. “He acts as if people haven’t known this every day for the longest time,” says Popkin, a UC San Diego political scientist who has extensively researched the way voters make up their minds. “George did not invent the wheel ... framing is something a million people write about.” (Indeed, George Orwell had some notable things to say about the political use of language half a century ago.)

Few, however, have met with the popular success of Lakoff, whose work up to now has been largely confined to the fusty groves of academia and scholarly jousting over theories of “autonomous syntax” and the like.

His “Elephant” book, subtitled “Know Your Values and Frame the Debate -- The Essential Guide for Progressives” and written in breezy self-help style, has sold more than 140,000 copies since mid-September and recently entered its fourth printing. Margo Baldwin, head of Vermont-based Chelsea Green Publishing Co., predicts sales of 500,000 or more by the end of next year, twice the company’s all-time bestseller, which told the tale of a French forester.

“What are there?” Baldwin says, sizing up the market. “Fifty million unhappy Democrats out there?”

One of them is Carl Pope, director of the Sierra Club, who lavishly praises Lakoff in a blurb on the book’s opening page. (Dean, the former Vermont governor mulling a run for head of the national Democratic Party, is quoted on the cover describing Lakoff as “one of the most influential thinkers of the progressive movement.”)

“I think [Democrats have] gotten into the habit of thinking about programs and policies instead of people and places and values,” Pope said in an interview. “Franklin Roosevelt didn’t say he had a four-part plan to make America better. He said, ‘We have nothing to fear but fear itself.’ I think [Lakoff’s] salience for the party is that he’s reminding them of a kind of language around which Democratic politics always needs to be energized, which is language of the heart.”

Lakoff’s exploration of language, politics and the human synapses grew out of the 1994 Republican takeover of Congress. (A success, not incidentally, that capped years of Newt Gingrich-led instruction, in which candidates were coached on the precise language with which to portray Republicans as change agents and Democrats as part of a corrupt status quo.)

The 63-year-old professor could not imagine how the disparate parts of the GOP’s agenda -- tax cuts, opposition to abortion and gun control, a rolling back of environmental regulations -- were tied together. His theory was published in his 1996 work “Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think,” which used a family metaphor to describe the way liberals and conservatives look at the world.

In brief, Lakoff wrote that the liberal viewpoint is modeled on a “nuturant parent family,” assuming the world is essentially a benevolent place that can be made better. That is reflected in support for programs, such as universal education and widely accessible healthcare, that serve a communal good.

The conservative worldview, he wrote, is based on a “strict father” model that assumes the world is a dark and dangerous place that must be contained and controlled. That is reflected in a belief that social welfare programs “spoil” people and that taxes take money away from worthies and reward undeserving individuals.

In his latest work, Lakoff builds on those theories by suggesting that if Democrats want to win back Congress and the White House, it is not enough simply to run on a litany of programs and promises. They must start by undoing years of Republican indoctrination that has established the “strict father frame” as the primary way many voters organize their thoughts.

“Reframing is changing the way the public sees the world,” Lakoff writes in his introduction. “It is changing what counts as common sense. Because language activates frames, new language is required for new frames. Thinking differently requires speaking differently.”

For example, he suggests Democrats talk about taxes as “dues” or “the membership fee” that citizens pay for the privilege of living in America. When Republicans assail money-grubbing trial lawyers, Democrats should counter by pointing out the efforts of “public-protection attorneys” striving to establish “poison-free communities.” The fight over “gay marriage” should be recast with Democrats asking voters, “Do you want the government telling you who you can marry?”

Despite what critics say, Lakoff insists he offers no quick fix. He says Democrats are at least two to five years away from figuring out “the necessary frames” to begin reshaping public debate to their advantage. And he conceded that rethinking their language is only a part of the remedial work the party faces.

“What’s in people’s brains is crucially important,” Lakoff says, as he heads to an end-of-semester party with a class of linguistic students, who present him a spray of flowers. “But so is organizing, getting out the vote, knowing who your supporters are, organizing liberal churches and doing all the nuts-and-bolts stuff better.” That presumes, of course, that a majority of Americans agree with the Democrats’ underlying beliefs -- a not insubstantial leap.

“The danger of his approach is convincing Democrats all they have to do is make rhetorical changes when what’s at stake, perhaps, is a need for more substantive changes,” says Bruce Cain, director of Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies. “Experience is going to matter more than rhetoric.” Continuing, he refers to the tripling of the vehicle license fee that helped drive former California Gov. Gray Davis from office:

“He could have called the state vehicle license fee ‘dues,’ ” Cain says. “But when the bill arrives, people are going to feel the pain of paying that fee.”

Still, as Democrats undergo their quadrennial ritual of soul-searching and self-flagellation, even critics like Popkin find some merit in Lakoff’s work, if only to convince his liberal acolytes that the party needs to change.

“There’s speaking truth to power. There’s also speaking truth to Berkeley,” Popkin says. “Both are important if you’re a Democrat.”