December 22, 2004


Value words, a linguist advises Democrats (Blair Anthony Robertson, December 22, 2004, Sacramento Bee)

Writing in his new book, [George] Lakoff--[a linguistics professor at the University of California, Berkeley]--states: "Democrats are shocked or puzzled when voters do not vote their self-interest. 'How,' Democrats keep asking me, 'can any poor person vote for Bush when he hurts them so badly?' "

Republicans might dispute the "hurt," but no one is arguing that their party's base stretches well beyond the rich and powerful these days. Lakoff argues that Republicans are succeeding because they have been carefully choosing words to frame issues around values. The strategy has left Democrats on the defensive in many areas.

"Partial-birth abortion." "Tax relief." "Healthy Forests Initiative." "No Child Left Behind." Lakoff says the words are no accident.

What's more, when Democrats argue against the issues and employ the same words and phrases, they are unwittingly reinforcing the conservative frame.

That was the inspiration for the title of Lakoff's book: If you are told not to think of an elephant, you can't help but think of one.

Lakoff says conservatives have been perfecting this strategy for 30 years, investing millions in think tanks and framing issue after issue in conservative terms.

"They had gotten into people's brains. By repetition of language, they have actually changed people's brains and created a new common sense," Lakoff says while sipping on his coffee. [...]

Lakoff argues in the new book that Republicans have masterfully crafted their frames to highlight "strict father" values while Democrats have failed to craft their ideas around the "nurturant parent" model.

"In the 2000 election (Al) Gore kept saying that Bush's tax cuts would go only to the top 1 percent," Lakoff writes, "and he thought that everyone else would follow their self-interest and support him. But poor conservatives still opposed him ... they believed that those who had the most money - the "good" people - deserved to keep it as their reward for being disciplined. The bottom 99 percent of conservatives voted their conservative values, against their self-interest."

Toward the end of "Don't Think of an Elephant," which is essentially a speech and some writings hastily pieced together, Lakoff offers advice on framing. For example, he suggests countering the conservatives' "strong defense" with "stronger America," "free markets" with "broad prosperity," and "smaller government" with "effective government."

If the GOP base didn't extend beyond the rich and powerful they'd never win an election. But, beyond that obvious point, what are "strong defense", "free markets", and "smaller government" code for?

Posted by Orrin Judd at December 22, 2004 4:28 PM

Lakoff is right about one thing, at least. Words are important, and Kerry didn't have a clue how to use them.

But to think that this is anything other than a slight tactical shift is laughable. As is Lakoff's bizzare psychoanalysis of "poor conservatives," and pretty much everything else.

Posted by: Timothy at December 22, 2004 4:39 PM

This proves it. I'm a dupe. If it weren't for their crafty, magic words, I'd surely have seen the light and voted for the Jr. Senator from Mass. Just a brain-washed dupe I am. Geez!

Posted by: John Resnick at December 22, 2004 5:39 PM

I keep on reading that voting Republican goes against people's economic self-interest. Can someone please explain to me the logic behind the thinking of people who say that?

Posted by: andy at December 22, 2004 7:02 PM

Not to mention that Kerry did use "A Stronger America" on his bumper stickers, and nobody had any idea what he was talking about.

Posted by: David Cohen at December 22, 2004 8:07 PM

Just one more example supporting A.O.G.'s liberal logo-realism thesis.

Posted by: jd watson at December 22, 2004 9:24 PM

There's a good critique of Lakoff here.

I didn't read Lakoff's book Moral Politics, but I flipped through it and remember Lakoff using President Bush's famous revokation of arsenic standards in drinking water to illustrate his argument. Never mind all the obvious rejoinders: that the current restriction was ridiculously low, that instituting such an expensive policy would cause people to retreat to local wells with their unsafe water, that Clinton waited six years before putting the policy into place at the tailend of his term, thus forcing Bush to deal with the stink he made, etc. The entire book, it appeared to me, relied on that kind of slipshod argumentation.

I also read a review of the book that noted a Lakoff remark from that book expressing surprise that conservatives considered the Soviet Union "evil" and not just "inefficient." Typical.

Lakoff also by saying that liberals were drawn to the academy because "Unlike conservatives, [liberals] believe in working for the public good and social justice." Uh huh.

Posted by: Matt Murphy at December 23, 2004 1:05 AM

I say, this mightily risible. This turkey is saying that the conservative side has been so brilliant as to manipulate the meaning of words and change to way people's minds work--sort of like Karl Marx meets Sapir-Whorf.

Keep in mind that those people think conservatives are stupid, but not so stupid that we haven't figured out how to transform the human brain by linguistic slight-of-hand. That's just too gay.

This is all part of the leftist whole cloth. The pinko response to their lastest electoral catastrophe has been to declare that what they need is more manipuation of the symbol-system. Of course, this is pathetic, as their cause has fallen so far, especially since the demise of the motherland of socialism, that the public is on to them. Now, the more they try to play with language, the more desperate and duplicitious they are exposed to be. We all know that calling a tail a leg does not "transform" the quadruped. It does however, mark the declarant as one not to be trusted.

Posted by: Lou Gots at December 23, 2004 2:58 AM

By repetition of language, they have actually changed people's brains . . .

Aiiieeeee! Republican mind control beams! Tinfoil is no defense against them!

Posted by: Mike Morley at December 23, 2004 6:08 AM

Use of imagery and language is obviously important in politics. However, the Republicans would not have been able to achieve results unless the Democrats were fundamentally not able to meet the needs of these voters, many of whom were at one point loyal Democrats. Only consistent abandonment of these voters would make them susceptible to being reliable Republican voters.

The problem with the Democrats is not that they have a superior product, but inferior marketing. It's that the product itself is considered inferior because the brains behind the Democrats have designed the product to appeal to a select group inside the Democrats instead of to the people who actually voted for it.

The rots been in the party ever since 1968.

Posted by: Chris Durnell at December 23, 2004 10:39 AM

Lakoff's star will dim as soon as more Democrats figure out what the Brothers Judd already know: that the man is a snake-oil salesman of the first rank.

Posted by: Patrick O'Hannigan at December 23, 2004 2:10 PM