July 25, 2004

Framing the Message

What will we do when Bill Moyers retires from NOW and PBS shrinks the program from one full hour to a half an hour? Are there any other shows that even start to do what Moyers has accomplished on TV? I love Jon Stewart and the Daily Show, but Moyers makes one think that politics are worth doing and worth doing well. Moyers gets beyond the cynicism that suffuses politics today and reminds us that politics matters in our lives and that we have control over the state of our politics. He is truly a national treasure.

Last Friday, NOW interviewed George Lakoff on the power of words to win votes. NOW's David Brancaccio talked with Lakoff on how Republicans have found that they can use words to reinforce their frame (or perspective) and if the Democrats really hope to win in the long run, they will have to find ways to reframe issues so that voters connect with their story.

For nearly 40 years, George Lakoff has been one of the world’s best-known linguists. Professor Lakoff is widely recognized for his research on metaphorical thought, the embodied mind, and the structure of language. But in recent years, his application of cognitive science and linguistics to politics has brought him to national attention.

With colleagues at the University of California, Professor Lakoff founded the Rockridge Institute, a new political think tank dedicated to reframing political thought and political debate in this country. He has a new book to appear in August, DON’T THINK OF AN ELEPHANT! WHAT EVERY AMERICAN SHOULD KNOW ABOUT VALUES AND THE FRAMING WARS.

The NOW interview with Lakoff was an incredibly rich interview and one that I wish I'd captured for posterity. There were things that George Lakoff pointed out about the campaign that I found incredibly insightful and connected dots I hadn't even started to connect myself. Lakoff said he had gotten some of his best insights on the use of language by understanding what Frank Luntz did to "frame" issues for Republicans.

One incident that Lakoff covered in the NOW interview was how Bush's speeches on his forest policy was Orwellian in its very nature. Watching Bush talk about this policy repeating over and over the mantra that his policy was based on "common sense" made it very clear that the Bush administration had taken to heart Frank Luntz' memo about how to talk about the environment. Lakoff pointed out that Bush's speeches about the "Healthy Forests" policy were designed to derail the Clinton forest policy where Clinton and his admininstration on scientific input in preference for trusting Americans' "common sense" -- meaning no experts needed. Once people agree that they don't need to consult biologists or ecologists, then Bush has won the public on accepting his forest policy is good. As Lakoff said, the only way to confront this type of argument is to rename it to what it actually is, "The Forest Destruction" policy, and don't use the language that the Republicans use.

There is so much to learn from Lakoff if we want to reclaim how to talk about the issues from the Orwellian and deceptive language used by the right wing radicals.

Posted by Mary at July 25, 2004 05:22 PM | Communications | TrackBack(1) | Technorati links |

I discussed Nicholas D. Kristof's discussion of this very thing in a piece on the environmental movement yesterday.

....make preservation more important to more people, that's the way to gain support. This issue is like many other progressive issues, no real attempt has been made to sell it to people outside the movement. That is why progressives are seen as not representing the common man. The republicans have taken advantage of this. Progressives must become sales people or else we will continue to look like the pointy head intellectuals that the Republicans paint us to be.

Posted by: Ron In Portland at July 25, 2004 05:47 PM

This whole "reframing the debate" idea is Orwellian itself... you're basically substituting Oceania's lies with Eurasia or Eastasia's lies. It's impossible to have any political debate or discourse between a liberal and a conservative above the level of preaching to the choir when each side frames the debate in the PR language that Lakoff talks about (strict father vs. nurturant parent).

Posted by: Joe Taylor at July 26, 2004 08:04 AM


I don't think anyone is saying we should debate the "true conservatives", that is indeed a worthless endeavor. The majority, who are not true conservatives, are the ones we should be trying to convince that our philosophy is better for them.

Posted by: Ron In Portland at July 26, 2004 04:35 PM

Strict Father, Nurturant Mother, the analytical metaphor Lakoff users to distinguish how Republicans are framing their press is reviewed in this article from last October. I think the idea is valid, but I would offer a slightly different approach. Looking at duality, father vs. mother, male vs. female, positive vs. negative...what if we develop an alternate model? What if we begin framing our position based on wisdom, experience, ingenuity and analysis? What if we go beyond the childish adolescent, sexuality, fantasy model and begin to think as elders? What would that look like?
At the most fundamental level of existence, the proton is the stuff from which we are made. It carries a positive charge, but at a deeper level, even that positive charge is a balance of positive and negative spins (quarks). This positive balance is continuously shifting in groups of threes...two positives and a negative countered by two negatives and a positive to produce an overall positive charge, the essential mass of an atom. So what does this have to do with anything we are talking about here? It seems a no win situation arguing the merits of the father vs mother model. Lakoff's big picture is the GOP has spent years perfecting their "model", and it is a war of words. To counter, we need an offense that uses their "words" to our advantage. We need an elder. The elder model encapsulates the proton, the positive mass. The elder is both mother and father, female and male, negative and positive. The elder is compassion, is wisdom, is ingenious, is innovative, is the best of both. The elder is the sum total of what we can do when we work together. The elder is a continuous shifting from nurturing, listening, supporting to decisive and authoritarian as the situation warrants. The elder goes beyond father vs. mother, beyond parenting and speaks to adults as adults, not as children. The elder asks us to look beyond childish fears, simplistic solutions and selfish motives. The elder is sometimes mother, sometimes father, sometimes neither, but above all, wise with the wisdom of experience and wise with the wisdom of collective knowledge. The elder knows when to yield authority and when to ask advice. The elder knows when to act and when to restrain, and above all, the elder will not be framed.

Posted by: SME in Seattle at July 27, 2004 06:13 AM

When liberal pundits endlessly use the Nurturant Parent buzzwords and conservative pundits endlessly use the Strict Father buzzwords, nothing positive can result... political discourse need not take the form of direct debate; different people saying different things and essentially competing for people's support also constitutes a form a discourse.

The thing about the elder is true, I think... though I am left to wonder whether it directly and deliberately frames Lakoff's ideas as psychoanalytic and hence unscientific. The truth, remember, doesn't need packaging. Producing a good-looking carton design shouldn't be at the expense of producing high-quality milk.

Posted by: Joe Taylor at July 31, 2004 11:36 AM