Column: Linguist George Lakoff on what Democrats don’t understand — and Republicans do — about how voters think


“Happy Days Are Here Again” is the Democratic Party’s traditional celebration song, and it got some deserved play on election night. But now it’s time to turn up a new song with a different message — maybe “Don’t Screw Up,” by the CraigLewis Band. Democrats now have two years to master the campaign message discipline that George Lakoff says they haven’t managed very well so far — especially in the era of untruth and Trump.

Lakoff is emeritus professor of cognitive science and linguistics at UC Berkeley. His 2004 book, “Don’t Think of an Elephant!”, about how conservatives frame their political messages more effectively than Democrats do, has moved the needle on campaign language, but not nearly enough, he says. Democrats have to keep their messengers on message, and be able to craft that message not just as a recitation of facts and policy, but as a persuasive story about democracy and governance that voters want to hear, and support.

We are a storytelling species. What’s the story the Democrats need to tell for the next two years?

The story has two parts, and they have to do with progressive values. One of them comes from Abraham Lincoln, that in a democracy, you have a government that is of, by, and for the people.

“Of” means the ordinary folks are in charge, and “by” means that the people who are governing you have the same life experiences that you have and understand that, and “for” means that the role of the government is to take care of people.

The second thing is that the private depends on public resources, both private life and private enterprise. You can’t have a business without public resources like roads and bridges and airports and the electric grids. But private life is like that too. You need the same roads and bridges and airports and electric grid and much more. Without public resources, you can’t have private enterprise or private life.

And that's something that is rarely said. If you ask a Democrat if that’s true, they’ll all say yes and they’ll give examples. But if you ask them, “Have you ever said it?” the answer is, no.

And that’s the point. They haven’t said it.

Do they just presume people know this?

I think they presume they know it, or they don’t think about it. I think they take it so much for granted that it doesn’t have to be said. These are values that are progressive values, they’re not conservative values, and they are crucial to a democracy. End of story.

Every Democrat should deliver the same messages and repeat them over and over and over. Not only that, they should repeat them every time they have a policy, and they should point out how the policy relates to these values.

You want to say this over and over so that people understand, after a couple of years of hearing it — maybe getting tired of it. But the point is that they would understand that’s what democratic values are, and why they are so crucial.

Small-d democratic.

It’s not just democratic values. It’s the values of living in a democracy. You can’t have a business without public resources; that affects every business. It affects Republicans as well as Democrats. When you talk about what Lincoln’s words mean — of, by and for the people — that affects all sorts of people, Republicans as well as Democrats.

Who should Democrats be speaking to?


Is there any point in addressing the 35% or 40%, the Trump voters who may be saying, “Whatever comes out of their mouths is of course a lie and I’m not listening”?

There is a way of talking to people, to say, “Imagine that you don’t have public resources. Imagine that there were no roads, that there were no airports, that there were no air traffic controllers and so on. Here’s what a public resource is. Imagine that it wasn’t there.”

And the Republicans might just say, “Well, privatize them — privatize roads, privatize airports.”

All very nice except that that won’t happen. If you privatize them, they become a matter of profit for people, and since you absolutely require them, [the private owners] can bilk you for as much as they want. That’s why they’re public resources.

Framing is a concept you brought to the table — the way you tell the story, the way you make your point. Democrats don’t seem to be as good at it as ...


Exactly. Democrats don’t know how people think. It’s really sad. The problem is what I call the Enlightenment reason. [Former President Barack] Obama, in his [recent] speech, talked about the importance of Enlightenment reason. And a week later, Hillary Clinton is talking at Wellesley about how it was important that Wellesley teach Enlightenment reason.

Enlightenment reason says everybody reasons the same way; that’s what makes them human. Whereas if you have different world views, you’re going to reason differently. Enlightenment reason says that all you need to do is get the facts, and everybody will reason to the right conclusion, since everybody has the same reason. No. If they have different worldviews, they’ll reason to different conclusions.

Enlightenment reason does not recognize different worldviews. Enlightenment reason doesn’t admit framing. It doesn’t admit metaphorical thought. It doesn’t admit the way people really work.

The Democrats don’t understand this. They think that if you just tell people the facts, they will all reason to the right conclusion. That’s why they keep coming up with fact after fact after fact, rather than framing things in a way so that people will understand why these things are important.

Does this mean the Democrats did a better job of framing and getting their point across in the midterms?

The reaction to Trump had everything to do with the midterm results. That’s one major part that had to do with not what they did, but with what the other guys didn’t do right.

But also they did a couple of things that were very, very smart. One of them was running on preexisting conditions, saying, “Hey, do you have a preexisting condition? Does anybody in your family?” Well, the answer is, everybody has one. And what they did was tie that to healthcare. That was a smart thing to do.

They said, “Look, government is there to make sure that you’re not suffering.”

Given that the Enlightenment reason argument hasn’t been working, should Democrats adopt the Republicans’ game, or do they lose their identity and any standing by doing that?

They’d lose their identity. The Republican game is based on strict-father morality. It’s based on a form of authoritarianism and it’s based on an idea of who is better than who, which goes against egalitarianism and against all thee progressive principles. No, they should not adopt the Republican game.

Now there is a way to avoid that. It’s not just that, when they go low we go high. It’s more than that. It’s, when they go low, we frame better.

The other question is whether the Trump narrative, the Trump message, is wearing thin, perhaps even with his own voters.

There’s an issue of Trump’s lies and misleading statements. And the question really is, how should the media deal with these? My proposal is that they deal with them with what I call truth sandwiches.

A truth sandwich begins with the relevant truths, what is true about a given issue. It then says, here’s what Trump says or has done on this issue that violates those truths. Then it comes back and says the truth again, and it finishes up by saying why the difference between the truth and the lie is important.

That’s a truth sandwich.

Now if the media constantly did this — you put the truth at first, and you put the truth at the end, you put the lie in the middle and you say, here’s the difference between the lie and the truth, and here’s why that difference is important, with the truth at the end — that changes things.

We have two years for the Democrats to carry forth this message. But what about the messenger? Who’s the right kind of messenger to carry this forward there?

There are some remarkable candidates on the Democratic side. [Ohio Democratic Sen.] Sherrod Brown is terrific. Another one is [California Rep.] Eric Swalwell [D-Dublin]. There are others. [California Rep.] Adam Schiff [D-Burbank] is very, very good at what he’s doing.

And Nancy Pelosi can be very good too, depending on what she’s trying to accomplish.

There are other people who are less good at it and they have to learn — learn how to do it better.

And I suppose they want to avoid the circus-like circumstances that we saw with the Republican presidential primaries in 2016 and pull off something with a little more dignity.

I think there’s dignity and there’s effectiveness, and they’re not in conflict with each other, but the effectiveness part has to not be ignored. They have to make sure there is a message across the candidates, that the candidates are not just A versus B, and all talking about how they differ from each other, but why they’re all Democrats.

The Bernie versus Hillary style is not a good style.

We’ve been talking about the narrow path to getting an effective message across. How could they screw up?

There are thousands of ways — one, trying just to give facts and not explaining the framing and the values behind those.

Hillary Clinton never said what her values were. It was amazing. She just gave policy after policy but never said what she stood for.

Do you find yourself yelling at the television during the campaign year?

Yes, all the time.

Yelling advice, I presume?

Yelling advice, or cursing. But it’s difficult to watch.

If Democrats could make their points of view and their positions and their values clear, do you think that most Americans would be on their side?

I think that they would get a majority. There’s probably 35%, 37% that they wouldn’t get. I think they would get no more than 60%, which is a majority if you want to call most Americans that. But not all, by any means. The people who have strict-father morality have it as part of their very identity. It’s who they are and that isn’t going to change very easily.

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