John Kerry Was Framed
by Christopher Dreher
November 20, 2004
"People don't understand what the division in the country is all about," says Berkeley, Calif., linguist George Lakoff. "Liberals think conservatives are stupid, but that's not true. They are just operating within a different frame."
Prof. Lakoff is a cognitive scientist who specializes in how conceptual systems are expressed in language. He's also the new political guru for Democrats mystified by this month's U.S. election results.
He first published Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think in 1996, to little apparent notice. In 2000, he reached out to consult with Al Gore's presidential campaign, but was, in his words, "thoroughly ignored."
Moral Politics kept quietly gathering an audience, and in 2003 a revised edition reached the Top 10 of Amazon.com's bestseller list.
This year, a central figure in John Kerry's camp asked for Prof. Lakoff's feedback, but the results weren't much better. "A certain amount of what I said was taken seriously and incorporated," Prof. Lakoff says. "Most was not."
Since Nov. 2, however, Prof. Lakoff has had runaway success with a new, slim tract, Don't Think of an Elephant! Know Your Values and Frame the Debate. It tries to explain how "frames" -- mental constructs that guide the way each person perceives reality -- are crucial to the Republican grip on power.
Prof. Lakoff's theories might also help explain George Bush's reelection to a perplexed world.
Before Moral Politics, Prof. Lakoff says, he was puzzled by the seemingly incongruous beliefs conservatives displayed. "I had no idea how owning guns and abortion and lower taxes and being against tort reform could fit together."
Yet he realized that he himself held an exactly contrary set of views and biases. So he searched for a cognitive model that would explain both systems of thinking.
He came up with a theory of "deep framing" based on two different metaphorical models of the ideal family -- one represented by the strict father and the other by "understanding" parents.
Contemporary conservatives gravitate toward the former, prioritizing strong protection and order. The liberal family paradigm, on the other hand, discounts gender and values empathy toward others.
.The secret is, he says, that all people unconsciously hold both ideals, whether actively or passively. People may be strict in one part of their lives, for example with children, and nurturing in another, say in giving their employees a generous number of days off.
"If you have both versions [in your brain] and can use either one," he explains, "it then depends on which is activated."
The Democrats misunderstand this, for example, when they water down their views to attract swing voters: "You [should] talk to swing voters the same way you talk to your base If you want to change things, you strive to activate your model in other people.
"The conservatives understand this and through the use of specific language, visuals, gestures and everything else, they're activating the 'strict father' frame in everyone they can, therefore 'strict father' is reinforced."
Why are conservatives so successful with framing? According to Prof. Lakoff, they have been working on how to promote and instill conservative ideals for over three decades, creating more than 40 think-tanks and spending billions of dollars on conservative causes.
"It's not like they understand the cognitive models involved, but if you put thousands of people into 43 institutions and think-tanks, they'll come up with answers over the years," he says.
Another reason Democrats fell behind, he says, is due to a belief in an Enlightenment concept of human nature, that human beings are rational and will act logically if given the facts. "The truth is," he says, "people have different frames and different notions of reason. The highest value on the right is protecting and extending its moral structure, while the highest on the left is to help individuals."
In his new book, Prof. Lakoff identifies different types of language that conservatives use in reframing. One is legitimate, straight talk about something the conservative believes in, such as tax relief.
A second is manipulative, such as the grisly and misleading idea of "partial-birth abortion": Prof. Lakoff suggests that instead of tacitly validating the Republicans' language, Democrats use something like "save-the-mother abortion."
The final mode is Orwellian -- language that means the exact opposite of what it means, such as the Clear Skies act that increases the amount of pollution or a Leave No Child Behind education reform that actually leaves plenty of children behind.
"What's interesting from a linguistic standpoint," Prof. Lakoff says, "is that they only use Orwellian language when they have to. They couldn't call the Clean Air Act the Dirty Air Act, so they know they're losing. That should be a red flag saying, 'Attack us!' "
The solution is not just renaming catch phrases. It's also necessary to reframe the systems of thought behind the issues: A liberal "pro-life" agenda, for instance, might be attached to values such as child care, education, health insurance for all children, and sex education to minimize unwanted pregnancies.
Then, every time the other side casts "pro-life" as meaning "anti-abortion," Prof. Lakoff says, "you switch it. Which is honest -- it allows you to say what you believe, and allows you to adhere to your own values."
According to Prof. Lakoff, people on the left suffer from "hyper-cognition" - they give long-winded explanations to a question because they don't have the language to articulate succinctly.
His prescription is to institute a network of think-tanks and organizations outside the Democratic Party that work together to develop a broad political framework.
And it seems that the party is finally ready to listen. Prof. Lakoff been asked to work with Democrats in the House and Senate leadership beginning next month, to find a common message to help counter Republican dominance.
He estimates that creating the entire infrastructure is at least a 10-year project. However, he says, "a whole lot can be done in the next four years before the next election."
Christopher Dreher, a Boston-area journalist, writes frequently on ideas for The Globe and Mail.
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