Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

Framing Moral Debates: The Work of George Lakoff for Progressives

Who is George Lakoff?  He is a Professor of Cognitive Linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley–a field of brain studies that concentrates on language development and how the brain processes language and ideas.  He has particularly pushed the centrality of metaphor for all human culture and the embodied nature of logic, even of mathematics.   Beginning in the 1990s, Lakoff began to apply his findings to the field of politics in the U.S. context. (I would be fascinated to see Lakoff’s views tested cross-culturally.  Would they hold up or need significant modification? What would  a Lakoff model–even modified–mean for other political cultures?  Considering how much of U.S. culture,  including our politics, bad and good, is exported [far more than our material goods are exported, sadly], these are not questions of idle curiosity.)

In his 1996 book, Moral Politics:  What Conservatives Know that Liberals Don’t, Lakoff argued that differences between self-identified political liberals and political conservatives are rooted in metaphors deriving from different family models.  Conservatives process  things through a “strict father” form of authoritarianism and heirarchical leadership.  Liberals process things through a “nurturing parent” view that is more egalitarian and empowering and trusts group processes.  Both of these lead to rival moral visions–and both moral visions have deep roots in the American story. Liberals began to lose badly to conservatives, Lakoff argued, when they concentrated all their energy, including their communication to the public, on particular policy nuts and bolts while conservatives concentrated on the large moral vision.  “Without a vision, the people perish” and Lakoff believes that the American people were choosing conservatives because they articulated a moral vision, even if a flawed one, because liberals/progressives were not articulating any alternative.  In 2001, this book was revised as Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think.

To this initial work, Lakoff added the idea of “framing.”  Far too often, he claims, liberals and progressives trained in logic and traditional rhetoric (say, philosophers or lawyers?) believe they win politically by having stronger arguments.  Lakoff says that’s not how our brains work.  Using metaphors, we “frame” arguments in such a way as to bring up dominant images–images rooted in Strong Father or Nurturing Parent dynamics.  In Don’t Think of an Elephant:  Know Your Values and Frame the Debate (2004), Lakoff argues that far too often conservatives win because they successfully “frame” the debate in their terms and liberals and progressives end up playing on their turf.  Example: Re-labelling the estate tax as “the death tax” makes it seem as if a cruel, government bureacracy is taxing even someone’s death. Then, conservatives claim that such “death taxes” steal family farms and prevent people from being able to leave small businesses to their children. No amount of liberal logic or correction as to the facts wins, then. Progressives can point all they want to the fact that the estate tax only affects the upper 1% of the population–they’ve lost because of the framing.  People forget the particulars and remember the metaphors.  Lakoff suggests reframing this as the “anti-aristocracy tax” reminding people of the deep American belief in EARNED reward over inherited privilege–in a level playing field. 

Progressives did not learn enough from Lakoff to win in 2004.  Karl Rove helped George W. Bush frame the terms of the debate and John Kerry played and lost on those terms–however narrowly.  (Bill Clinton was successful in getting half-measures through on conservative terrain, but not in changing the terms of the debate that existed since Reagan.) But they began reading Lakoff in ’04 and learning from him.  Howard Dean, former VT Governor and (all too briefly) Democratic candidate for the presidency in 2004, became the Chair of the Democratic National Convention.  Much attention has rightly been placed on Dean’s “Fifty State Strategy” to think beyond single election cycles and rebuild the Democratic Party in all 50 states by organizing, recruiting candidates, etc–even in the deepest Republican territory knowing that one could win something–school boards, city council seats, etc. which could later pay off in Congressional seats, Senate seats, governorships and even presidential votes. (The 50 state strategy began to show success as early as 2006 and Barack Obama built on it in his own successful presidential run in 2008.) But less attention has been paid to the lessons that Dean learned from Lakoff.  Along with the DNC organizers, Dean traveled all 50 states doing door to door voter registation.  In doing so, he talked about the VALUES of the Democratic Party and framed them in ways that connected with ordinary people.  He also urged candidates to read Lakoff, talk about their values and frame their arguments for particular policies in value/vision terms–especially terms that did not play into conservative hands.

Lakoff’s latest work is The Political Mind: Why You Can’t Understand 21st C. American Politics with an 18th C.  Brain.  Here he continues to argue that most liberals and progressives don’t know enough about brain theory and linguistics.  We argue as if we think that people process information in straight cognitive terms, people were thought to do in the 18th C. Enlightenment era.  But brain studies show differently that we are metaphor driven.  Further,  modern media communications (first radio and television, but now 24 hr. cable, the internet, youtube, cellphones, social networking systems like Facebook and MySpace, Twitter, etc.) reinforces this–taking us further from the 18th C. in terms of how we process information. And this is true even if we teach logic at a university, or are a NASA scientist, a Wall Street trader, etc., just as much as if we wait tables, drive 18-wheel trucks, or run a cash register. (There is a tendency of “knowledge elites”–a class I fall into, to think that they really do process everything according to formal logic and that only less educated people are more metaphor driven, and thus,  more susceptible to propaganda, etc.  Well, I have taught logic and critical thinking courses and believe that such skills are very important–but Lakoff is still right.)

What I, as a Christian trained in theology find fascinating about Lakoff’s work is that it meshes with much work in recent decades in hermeneutics, the study of interpreting texts (especially, but not solely, religious texts such as Scripture).  Here also the dominance of metaphor has been recognized increasingly.  And Lakoff’s work on “Strict Father” vs. “Nurturing Parent” deep metaphors, though rooted  in modern psychology, bears much in common with structuralist and post-structualist hermeneutical theory.  He gets people not only to pay attention to the “texts” of political speech/arguments but to “sub-texts” and “deep structures.”  And his work on framing/re-framing bears much in common with Ricoeur’s work on “clashes of narratives” between and within religious texts.  Even his advice on “reframing” debates has a familiar ring to anyone who has studied the Gospel stories of Jesus’ verbal clashes with rival groups (the Pharisees, the Scribes, the Herodians, the Temple heirarchs, etc.) or seen the Apostle Paul’s clashes with rivals (as described by Paul!) in his correspondence (Epistles) to early church communities.  Both Jesus and Paul are masters at turning the tables on their adversaries by reframing the debate(s)–in terms that appeal to shared beliefs and values of their audiences–in order to stretch, reshape, enlarge those beliefs and values.

Lakoff says (rightly in my view) that President Obama is a master of reframing debates in a progressive direction.  Since there has been a political shift of terrain, he doesn’t have to “triangulate” like Bill Clinton and win half measures on conservative ground.  (Remember in the ’90s how conservative Republicans constantly screamed that Clinton stole their ideas? He did–usually as a form of damage control, but sometimes to push progressive items as far as he could under conservative rubrics.  Bill Clinton is the ONLY president in modern times who actually shrank government, for instance.)  By contrast, Obama reframes progressive values as quintessentially AMERICAN values, usually using examples drawn from Republican presidents (Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, even Ronald Reagan) to advance a very progressive agenda.

Lakoff argues in a recent article, “Obama’s Code” that Obama is reframing debate in a way that disarms and defangs his conservative opposition.  In a post-speech article that is less theory-laden than Lakoff, a Daily Kos diarist (significantly calling himself/herself  “monkeybrainpolitics”!) gives a blow-by-blow account of why Obama’s speech was a conservative nightmare.  This doesn’t mean there is no room to criticize Obama from a progressive standpoint.  Paul Rosenberg argues for a partial-correction to Lakoff’s model at Open Left.  It is an argument that recognizes the varieties of progressivism. I tend to agree with the progressive pushback on Obama on keeping parts of Bush’s tools against terrorism that undermined civil liberties–he’s broken with the worst abuses, but not a clean break with all of them. (I know,  he’s only been in office a little over a month, but some of his continuities worry me. And politicians need movement activists to keep them honest.  Likewise, as I wrote yesterday, I want to see more done and more quickly on ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and promoting peace and human rights globally.  I think we will see more, but I don’t believe in leader worship and I do believe in organized people power pushing for progressive policies–and Obama himself began as a community organizer doing just that.)

But this shouldn’t obscure the importance of either Lakoff’s work or Obama’s powerful rhetorical mastery as tools for advancing progressive moral visions.  Religious/spiritual progressives should pay just as much attention as political ones.  We are still shouted down on TV religious programs and radio programs. (There need to be more local radio programs like the one by Bruce Prescott in Oklahoma, “Religious Talkr,” a live-talk religious program hosted by a “mainstream Baptist” that is a clear alternative to the talkshows of the Religious Right.  You can get Bruce’s podcasts if you don’t live in the range of his radio signal!  Likewise, more local cable TV networks need to have programs like Every Church a Peace Church TV on the Atlanta Interfaith Broadcasting network. Podcasts available here.)  But we can compete and give a compelling alternative moral/spiritual vision.  That ability to give an alternative vision out where people can see and hear it is important for the health of the church as well as for the future of progressive politics.

The work of George Lakoff can be important in the kinds of conversations religious/spiritual progressives need to have about how to “frame” our vision and values in ways that win wider acceptance.

March 1, 2009 - Posted by | convictions, liberal theology, progressive faith, Religious Social Criticism, U.S. politics


  1. Dr. Lakoff’s work and assertions are interesting and,in general,cogent. However a wise man takes such pronouncements with a grain of salt and I am sure that Conservatives are taking note as well. Obama can and will be criticized (as he should be as a public servant). Criticism helps to keep politicians honest-to a degree at any rate. The Liberals and Left will find out that even Obama will kowtow to the whims of fate somewhere along the way much to their chagrin .

    Comment by Paul | March 1, 2009

  2. Portions of the Left are criticizing Obama at least as much as conservatives–as they should as you point out. Whether the Right reads and learns from Lakoff will be interesting. At the beginning of his work he seemed to say that they were ALREADY framing moral debates better than liberals or progressives–which is why they were winning.

    Now, as a look at this year’s Conservative Political Action Committee (CPAC) shows, conservatives seem to be rejecting ALL reading and learning. Modern movement conservatism, whatever one thought of it, began as a movement of IDEAS–a movement among intellectuals like William F. Buckley, Jr. But now, conservatives seem to hate all intellectuals. The hero at this year’s CPAC was “Joe the Plumber!” who proceeded to announce that some members of Congress should be shot. When conservative commentator Tucker Carlson, in a speech that criticized the New York Times, nonetheless lauded the Times search for objective truth and facts–he was BOOED! CPAC gave its highest award (“Defender of the Constitution”) to Rush Limbaugh!!!

    Now, movement conservatives could recover and no progressive should write them off, but they currently seem determined to self-destruct–especially as an INTELLECTUAL movement. To read Lakoff, they would have to be interested in READING.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | March 1, 2009

  3. Buckley was an icon and a man of principle who could carry on a cogent debate and remain friends even while disagreeing with the object of his rancor. Rush Limbaugh should look up to Neanderthals – the man is a putz ! I cringe when I think of good people who have been duped by him. People like Limbaugh and Bill O’Reilly give me pause.

    Comment by Paul | March 1, 2009

  4. I’ve enjoyed Lakoff’s books. He has been a great benefit to progressive politics.

    Comment by Mike L. | March 2, 2009

  5. While Lakoff has added a useful dimension to Dem political thinking, face facts: He is a college professor, not a professional political operative. To error is human, to screw-up in politics can cost people their lives-see the war in Iraq- brought to us by Bush43. I will give him credit for framing. However, anything in politics requires proper execution to become useful. The Dems have not gotten there as yet. It takes two sides to make anything happen and Lakoff does not understand how to operate within the DC world. If he did, his work would not have been considered less than critical mass. He has his pals on the Hill, but you need an Army to defeat the GOP. In part, the fractious political environment has little to do with framing and far more to do with strategy. Sort of like fighting a war.

    Comment by BV | March 2, 2010

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.

%d bloggers like this: