Why the Democrats Need to Stop Thinking About Elephants
The New York Times
by Adam Cohen
November 15, 2004
If George Lakoff had his way, the Kerry campaign would have run a commercial attacking the "baby tax." Dr. Lakoff, a Berkeley linguistics professor and Kerry campaign adviser, wanted to divide the interest on the national debt by the number of Americans born each year. The result, $85,000 per newborn, say, would have been handed to a baby in the form of a bill, and the baby would have started to cry. That, Dr. Lakoff says, "frames" the issue "in a way people can understand."
"Framing" is a hot topic among political junkies and in the blogo-sphere right now, thanks to Dr. Lakoff. In Don't Think of an Elephant!: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate, his surprise best seller, Dr. Lakoff argues that Republicans have been winning elections because they have been better than Democrats at framing issues - from taxes, to abortion, to national security - in ways that resonate with core American values.
Dr. Lakoff has been stepping out of the classroom lately to lecture everyone from the Senate Democratic caucus to "living wage" advocates on how to use linguistics to craft a more effective message. "Framing" alone won't give the Democrats the White House, or the Senate and House. But Dr. Lakoff's theories offer the Democrats a road map for going forward.
The title "Don't Think of an Elephant!" comes from a classic experiment Dr. Lakoff conducts in Cognitive Science 101. He tells his students not to think of an elephant, and he has yet to find one who has managed it. Thinking about elephants is the frame, and negating it simply reinforces it. This was the problem, he says, with President Richard Nixon's famous declaration, "I am not a crook."
Trying not to think of elephants, Dr. Lakoff suggests, sums up the Democrats' plight. Since Republicans have framed the key issues, Democrats cannot avoid being on the losing side. Take taxes. Republicans have succeeded in framing the issue as "tax relief," a metaphor that presents an affliction, and that predetermines who are the heroes - tax opponents - and villains. Taxes are, of course, necessary even for programs Republicans back, like the military, and simple economics dictates that we cannot keep cutting taxes and maintaining spending forever. But the Democrats are hard-pressed to make these points once the frame is "tax relief."
It is not by accident that "tax relief" presents taxes in moral terms, as a calamity in search of a cure. Values, Dr. Lakoff argues, are the key to framing campaign issues. Democrats have an unfortunate tendency, he says, to see campaigns as product launches, believing that if they roll out a candidate with the best features, or positions on issues, voters will support him. Republicans understand that people vote their identity, not their self-interest - that they seek out candidates whose values appear to match their own.
After the election, pundits made much of the influence of a few "moral" issues, like gay marriage and abortion, on the outcome. But Dr. Lakoff argues that values play an important role in almost every campaign issue. The Republicans' success has been driven in large part, he argues, by their ability to frame less morally charged subjects in terms of core values. He is impressed by a line from President Bush's last State of the Union address: that we do not need a "permission slip" to defend America. It reframed multilateralism, once a widely accepted foreign policy principle, as weakness and national infantilization.
As Dr. Lakoff sees it, Democrats need to start framing issues in terms of their own values, which, he insists, are no less popular with the American people than the Republicans' values. This project will, however, take more than spin and sloganeering. On many subjects, he argues, the Democrats suffer from what he calls "hypocognition" - more simply, a lack of ideas. Republicans have been working for the past 40 years, since the defeat of Barry Goldwater, in well-financed think tanks, on developing conservative ideas that voters will rally around. The Democrats, he says, need to start catching up.
One frame Dr. Lakoff likes, which he believes could become a progressive wedge issue, is "poison-free communities." The Republicans' war on government regulation has left industry increasingly free to spew toxins into the air and water, despite the harm it is doing to the public. Keeping people healthy is a core progressive value, but it is one that many swing voters and Republicans share. Few people want their children poisoned by mercury in the name of a theory about the appropriate size of government.
Framing can also deflect the other side's charges. Dr. Lakoff argues that the Democrats should fight the Republican campaign for "tort reform" by recasting it. Rather than debate over frivolous lawsuits, he says, they should talk about protecting people from law-breaking corporations and negligent doctors. When Republicans talk about greedy trial lawyers, he says, Democrats should talk about - and he really needs a better phrase here- "public protection attorneys."
For all of his good insights, Dr. Lakoff can get a little too caught up in his own frame. His intense focus on language leaves too little room for other attributes of a successful campaign, like a charismatic candidate or a strong field operation. Just as professional campaign managers have given too little thought to his frames and hypocognition, he has a tendency to undervalue what they do. The least compelling part of his book is a commercial he suggests Democrats use on taxes. His script begins, "Taxation is paying your dues, paying your membership fee in America." That quickly reframes the issue to: "Where did I put the remote?"