George Lakoff And The Problems With Framing

By Justin Gardner | Related entries in Bad Decisions, Ideas

The Dems and linguist George Lakoff may think it’s all about repackaging old issues and framing the argument, but I certainly don’t this so. If you want to be the majority party you need to have ideas that spark the majority’s imagination. Sure, some ideas are going to be brought up again and again because (I think) they’re good ideas (universal health care?), but you can’t just “frame” everything and think that’s going to work.

Then again, I could be dead wrong. I know Newt did something similar to this in the mid 90s and had great success with it. That is until he imploded.

The New York Times has an article on George Lakoff and his rise through the Democratic ranks.

The message Lakoff’s adherents seem to take away from their personal meetings with him, however, is decidedly more simplistic. When I asked Senator Richard Durbin of Illinois, the minority whip and one of Lakoff’s strongest supporters, whether Lakoff had talked to the caucus about this void of new ideas in the party, Durbin didn’t hesitate. ”He doesn’t ask us to change our views or change our philosophy,” Durbin said. ”He tells us that we have to recommunicate.” In fact, Durbin said he now understood, as a result of Lakoff’s work, that the Republicans have triumphed ”by repackaging old ideas in all new wrapping,” the implication being that this was not a war of ideas at all, but a contest of language.

Uh-oh.

Brendan Nyhan has a great post on this too.


This entry was posted on Wednesday, July 20th, 2005 and is filed under Bad Decisions, Ideas. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

13 Responses to “George Lakoff And The Problems With Framing”

  1. Paul Brinkley Says:

    There’s a question I’ve been meaning to ask my liberal friends, that speaks to this issue. (I’ve never found the right opportunity to ask it yet.)

    “Tell me a story. Move me. What is it, about your political philosophy, that makes you feel uplifted? Noble? Fulfilled? Not just like you’re getting something, but that everyone in the country – or the world, if you prefer – is benefiting?”

    Part of the goal here is to get them to stop thinking about the conservatives. WAYYY too much of current Democratic and liberal discourse has been simply a rant against the other side. It makes them sound negative; non-constructive; lazy.

    Another part of the goal is to get them to move me. As in, instead of them. A liberal’s paean to other liberals sounds very different from one reaching to the other side. For the latter, they have to embrace deeper ideals, ones shared by 80% of the nation instead of 48%.

    One of the best responses I got to a question similar to this was negative, admittedly, but spoke to what I consider an 80% ideal. The liberal professed aversion at Bush’s apparent lack of seriousness with which he took on foreign policy issues. It was the “cowboy politics” argument, essentially. I disagreed with his perception, but I could not disagree with his aversion; that is, if I had agreed with him that Bush was indeed playing fast and loose with other world leaders, it would have offended me, too.

  2. Justin Gardner Says:

    The liberal professed aversion at Bush’s apparent lack of seriousness with which he took on foreign policy issues. It was the “cowboy politics� argument, essentially. I disagreed with his perception, but I could not disagree with his aversion; that is, if I had agreed with him that Bush was indeed playing fast and loose with other world leaders, it would have offended me, too.

    I was this liberal. I still am in many ways, but I’ve been lucky to have some dissenting voices around me to explain why they feel passionately the other way. And while I don’t agree with Bush’s handling of foreign policy (kyoto) and foreign threats (bring em on? seriously), I can see why others do.

    Having said that, it may not be so easy to sway you. Ideology is a strong force and language is too. However that quote from Durbin just pissed me off to no end. If anybody wants to know why the Dems are the minority party, I can point to that as example numero uno.

    The weird thing is, the Dems have A LOT of great ideas, but I don’t think they very “sexy.” The first Dem to come up with a new brilliant economic strategy or a new way of looking at the tax code will ignite people to stand up and take notice. Because as I’ve heard time and time again (in a different context), people vote with their wallet. And because you can’t easily quantify universal health care until you get sick, John and Joan Q Public simply don’t have the time or patience for the idea.

    At least those are my thoughts anyway.

  3. Keith, Indy Says:

    So tell us, you’ve got our eyes, and we are not the typical John Q Public, we have the time and patience for new ideas…

    What great ideas do the Dems have? Of their platform, what do you whole heartedly support?

  4. goy Says:

    “Dems have a A LOT of great ideas”

    I keep asking what these are, and I keep getting two flavors of answers.

    The first flavor echoes Howard Dean’s “I hate Republicans and all they stand for”. These conversations are short ones. The second flavor is more varied but ultimately comes down to pitting some victim group against some privileged group.

    Corporate “welfare” is a popular one, but it kind of flies in the face of recent evidence that this “welfare” has resulted in a surge in corporate tax revenue. Yes, I’ve heard all the sleight-of-hand counterarguments for this recent phenomenon. Not buying.

    Those who “enjoy” medical coverage vs. those who don’t have medical coverage is popular, but typically skips the part about how much the insureds often have to pay for the privilege while at the same time obscuring the real problem: the open-loop manner in which medical professionals and institutions are not held economically accountable to those who ultimately pay the bill.

    Taxing the rich “more fairly” gets a lot of media play, but sometimes I think those who push this idea forget that just about everyone wants to be rich someday, and wouldn’t want to be taxed at a higher rate. Plus, most people capable of earning $30,000 are not completely innumerate. They can see, for instance, that a $10,000 tax cut on $3,000,000 is proportionally the same as a $100 tax cut on $30,000. Those folks see the fallacy in being told that the ‘rich guy’ got a refund that was 100x higher.

    Aid to Africa when there are needs in the U.S., more money for research on preventable diseases like AIDS to the detriment of research for non-preventable diseases that affect far more people, restricting firearms ownership among the law-abiding to punish criminals, slavery reparations, ratifying Kyoto to the detriment of our positive economic trends while giving a boon to countries awash in cheap labor, … the list kind of goes on and always seems like it sets one faction or one geographical collection of individuals or one race or one ethnic group or one class against another. So much so that it often seems to me that the liberal strategy is really to align as many “victim” factions on their side as possible and hope that it’ll be a majority, overall. If that’s it, the strategy doesn’t seem to be working.

  5. guppyman Says:

    Wow… some intelligent discussion rather than name calling! What a concept!

    I had to jump in and bring up an issue I had with the original post. The line:

    I know Newt did something similar to this in the mid 90s and had great success with it.

    You forgot one thing… The Republicans came out with a very solid list of things they wanted to accomplish if they were elected. (Contarct For America) They had ideas to move forward. You can repackage all you want, but repackaging without ideas is still… well… nothing.

    I have been asking pretty much the same quetion as Paul Brinkley above me here… “What is the Democrats plan to move forward”? The only answer I have seen so far is “we’re not Bush”! Well… I don’t think that’s gonna get too far with the American people.

    Great site! I think I may just be back!

  6. Paul Brinkley Says:

    Goy, your arguments resonate with me quite a bit. What doesn’t resonate with me is the obvious evidence of well-educated liberals. …Well, perhaps not completely obvious. Let’s write out a few subsets:

    the ones who (as I addressed before) are too distracted by perceived conservative evils to concentrate on the positives of liberalism;

    the ones who rely on what only they consider experts or expert studies;

    the ones whose arguments go only a few steps forward, but don’t address subsequent problems (“universal healthcare” is a fine idea until you consider how to pay for it);

    the ones who thought critically, but didn’t “check with the home office” every so often, and thus arrived at some strange result (I’d put Ward Churchill in this category) that is either plainly wrong, or so utterly alien that only few would adhere to it anyway.

    If I cull out these subsets from conservatives, I am still left with some well-informed arguments that aren’t anti-liberal screeds, can stand up to scrutiny, and bear considerable appeal to popular American culture (the 80% ideals).

    When I do the same with liberals, I come up with nothing. I am determined to believe this is simply because it’s out there and I haven’t found it yet, rather than because it doesn’t exist.

    Actually, I’ll betcha Justin Gardner can speak to some of these.

  7. Justin Gardner Says:

    Let’s forget about the victims and the privileged for a moment goy and focus on the Dems’ ideas. Understand that a good portion of the country voted for these things last November, a fact a lot of people seem to forget. True, Bush won. Fair enough. But that doesn’t mean these ideas are dead.

    Now then, some are from the party platform and some are not. There are many more than these, but these are the ones I think would help America.

    1) Universal Health Care
    Personally, I remember at one point my family could literally not get sick or we would have been in serious financial trouble. I was young and my parents weren’t the most responsible, but it’s scary to look back and understand who tenuous our situation really was. And we can afford it through a mix of tax credits, flexible spending accounts and very basic HMO plans with sensible deductibles. I think the overarching problem holding this up is really a mix of the insurance industry AND the trial lawyers, but that’s a much bigger issue.

    2) Increasing Funding for Early Childhood Development Programs.
    I think most problems start very early on and if we can stop them quickly and encourage good patterns of behavior, then crime will go down and our economy will benefit from a healthier, happier workforce.

    3) Lifting the 90K Cap on Social Security.
    People only pay social security tax up to 90K. Why? Well, because they don’t get enough back from the system when they retire. This is understandable, but lifting this would solve the whole “ponzi scheme” aspect of the system.

    4) Not Imposing Ideological Limits on Embroynic Stem Cell Research.
    This is an ethical question, true, but I personally feel that our very future depends on science like this. I also think it’s a shame that our current administration has chosen to limit it due to religious beliefs.

    5) Increase focus on protecting our borders and cargo containers.
    More jobs and better security. I know this brings about more red tape, but I don’t want to see a port being shut down because of terrorism. The economic damage would be unimaginable and our country would probably lose more money in the month after such a disaster then a robust border program would cost in ten years. But that’s speculation. However, the idea is sound I believe.

    6) Increase minimum wage to $7 (LONG overdue).
    We’re always going to have people who JUST scrape by. Whether that’s an effect of bad planning, bad education, bad luck or all of the above, that’s the reality. I don’t know that we can help those people carry themselves out of those situations, but perhaps if they had a few extra resources every month so they don’t live in poverty, their children might have a chance. I understand all the economic theory surrounding this, but the reality is the bottom 1% can’t truly live on a minimum wage that only gets changed every 10 years or so.

    So those are some ideas.

    Thoughts?

  8. Callimachus Says:

    Justin:

    Your critique of Lakoff is quite good. As one who also hopes for a more vigorous political debate in this country someday, I find the image of Democratic leaders following this pied piper rather distressing.

    Perhaps its just another expression of a losing side’s universal tendency to look for a secret weapon or an easy salvation. The Confederacy in 1865 was full of wild rumors of a French fleet driving the Yankees from New Orleans or British landing thousands of troops to aid the rebellion. Germans kept fighting in 1945 assured that the Führer would soon unveil a new weapon that would turn the course of the war.

    Skeptical minds never grasped for these straws. “What good is it if the surgeon arrives after your throat’s been cut?” one Southern lady wrote. And soldiers in the chronically fuel-short German army joked that the new weapon would be a 100-man tank: One to fire the gun and 99 to push it.

    The effect of all this, alas, would be to turn modern Democrats into what one of my co-workers calls “a bunch of liberal Bob Barrs.”

    [The "losing side" mentality also may explain, in part, the nastiness with which this site has greeted by the left. The winning side looks to fraternize with the pretty girls among the enemy. The losing side gets busy shooting collaborators.]

    Now then, some are from the party platform and some are not.

    And that’s sort of a problem. I bet most Americans would back most of those ideas, if they were presented in a reasonable way, if the obvious objections were explained, and if they were defended sensibly from the inevitable attacks.

    [On the other hand, many of those are not particularly "Democratic" ideas. That is, they are not ideological, and they easily can be co-opted, and probably some of them eventually will be, by the GOP. In fact, "protecting our borders" though with a slightly different emphasis, already is in their playbook.]

    But the ability to sell big ideas to thoughtful, not-especially-partisan Americans seems to be the big break-down in the Democratic Party these days. Paul Brinkley said it well above. Lakoff is right that far. It’s a communication breakdown. His proposed solution, however, turns out to be just more evidence of the problem.

  9. goy Says:

    Thanks for the details Justin! My thoughts…

    #1 – “I remember at one point my family could literally not get sick or we would have been in serious financial trouble. … I think the overarching problem holding this up is really a mix of the insurance industry AND the trial lawyers, but that’s a much bigger issue.”

    My recollection goes back a lot further, I guess (60s) where my family lived pretty much from paycheck to paycheck IIRC. We had all the typical illnesses, a lot of dental care, a serious bout of hepatitis for my Dad, ongoing GI problems for my Mom and various and sundry issues, broken bones, tonsils, etc., with us 3 kids. We never, ever lacked for health care and I don’t recall ever HAVING health insurance. We paid out-of-pocket. The difference? The cost, of course. Since then, the cost has gone completely out of control, for a lot of reasons that are rarely discussed.

    IMHO, universal health care will never be a viable proposition – from a perception standpoint – until we get a handle on why a family of 5, living from paycheck-to-paycheck in 1968 could cover their nominal health care costs out-of-pocket, while a family with two incomes, a nice home, two cars, pets and a boat on the lake would never even think of doing such a thing today.

    We need a clear understanding of the mechanics involved in the proportional increases in health care over the last 50 years (GOD I feel old!). The system now runs open-loop, i.e., the natural economic forces that would normally keep the costs of care, pharmaceuticals and insurance manageable are confounded by the system as it has evolved. Interestingly, I think the two factors most responsible for this are the trial lawyers and insurance companies. Hmmmm… ;-) Another factor is the prescription drug craze and attendent, in some cases exorbitant, expense.

    Anyway, I think a lot of people hear “universal health care” and think “socialized medicine” and then envision a situation that will take us from bad to worse. I know I do, since it piles one more confounder – government bureaucracy – on top of those already messing with the natural economic forces that might otherwise keep health care in line with other quotidian expenses.

    In short, I think if we could get a handle on getting the costs under control – essentially taking control of the economics back from the insurance companies – it would be a lot easier to provide health care for those who can’t afford it at all.

    BTW, I’ve heard other interesting ideas related to this involving moving the broker for health insurance from employer (as a function of benefit and copay) to municipality (as a function of property tax – or city tax, for renters). The notion is that increased stability and larger numbers translates to increased bargaining power and much lower insurance costs. And I think it’s more appealing on a visceral level because, while not everyone has the greatest respect for their city government, almost no one trusts the feds, or even the state, when it comes to managing money. In any case, those on city or state welfare would be covered, in such a scenario, automatically, and I think the FSA, tax credits and other factors you mentioned would help here as well.

    #2 – You are absolutely correct about early childhood development (so says my soon-to-be-Psy.D.-wife, anyway!), and of course the “for the children” angle will always garner votes. But I hear ‘throw money at the problem’. I don’t hear the details – the specifics – of how we plan to use that money to improve development in early childhood – like figuring out ways for parents to spend more real quality time with their children, or considering programs for *adults* on how to be better parents? College degrees are almost unfathomably more expensive than they were 50 or even 25 years ago. Has the quality of education increased as a result of the increase in funding? Quite the contrary, I think.

    #3 – I’m sorry, I couldn’t make sense of this. More details? In general, tax increases – whether they’re SS, Medicare, or by some other name – are perceived by lots of folks (me included) as nothing more than wealth redistribution programs. Any thoughts on how to simply reduce the cost of living as a retired person? These costs are primarily tied to that of health care and pharmaceuticals, and individual debt management for starters. Perhaps attacking the problem from both sides…?

    #4 – The science behind this is way over the typical layman’s head. I think that’s one reason, aside from the connection between embryonic tissue and abortion, that the issue is so controversial. Are you aware of any scientific reasons why umbilical cord blood stem cell techniques shouldn’t be preferred over embryonic? Especially given the obvious, and often emotionally-charged controversy?

    #5 – Most of the Republicans and Libertarians I know consider this important too. I guess I don’t see it as a Democrat idea, per se, but don’t recall hearing about if from the RNC, now that you bring it up.

    #6 – I guess I’ve never understood why, if we’re going to have a minimum, it isn’t simply tied to the rate of inflation and adjusted annually.

  10. Callimachus Says:

    #6 – I guess I’ve never understood why, if we’re going to have a minimum, it isn’t simply tied to the rate of inflation and adjusted annually.

    Like the pay rates of a great many U.S. legislators — HEH!

  11. Justin Gardner Says:

    Concerning #6, check out this post where I suggest just that.

    However, I’ve contradicted myself between these comments and my post. I say let’s settle for a 20% raise right off the bat, instead of bumping it to $7 immediately. It’ll make sense when you read it.

    On the other points.

    1) To answer that question I think one needs to look at the trend of the base income in America, when adjusted for inflation, hasn’t really risen in nearly 20+ years. And all the while the cost of living has. So that explains some of it.

    I think the socialization is another boogeyman that gets floated around every time a Dem raises the issue, and that’s unfortunate. It doesn’t have to get worse and I think most people, when polled, want universal health care, but they don’t want socialized medicine. There have been ideas on the table, especially in the last election, that would have given the former and not the latter.

    However, you bring up an interesting point.

    BTW, I’ve heard other interesting ideas related to this involving moving the broker for health insurance from employer (as a function of benefit and copay) to municipality (as a function of property tax – or city tax, for renters). The notion is that increased stability and larger numbers translates to increased bargaining power and much lower insurance costs. And I think it’s more appealing on a visceral level because, while not everyone has the greatest respect for their city government, almost no one trusts the feds, or even the state, when it comes to managing money. In any case, those on city or state welfare would be covered, in such a scenario, automatically, and I think the FSA, tax credits and other factors you mentioned would help here as well.

    I like this idea because as you mention it dovetails nicely with the things I’ve outlined. Having more purchasing power to leverage against the insurance companies are key. Very cool.

    2) This is one thing about Dean that I really liked. His program in Vermont sought out at-risk mothers of low income children and made sure they had mentors to help them become effective parents (or something to that effect). The program was a success.

    I can’t really speak to education getting worse. Personally, I think we have a much more intelligent and informed society, even though it may seem to the contrary. Only time will tell on this one. However, I do think the public school situation is in major need for an overhaul, but I don’t think taking money away from the schools is the solution. What I think is needed is greater emphasis and tax credits given to teacher’s so good people won’t leave the profession because they can’t make ends meet.

    Education is the very foundation of any great country and teachers are the cement. So, if we’re committing time, money and energy to bringing Democracy to the world, we should be committed to making sure our teachers are taken care of as well.

    3) To explain, any income over roughly 90K a year is not taxed for Social Security. If you lift this cap, the program becomes solvent. Now, opponents of this idea say that lifting the cap would cost over 1 million jobs and would only keep the program solvent for another 8 years. I don’t agree with that since the Social Security administration has said themselves that it would make the system solvent for the forseeable future. I’ll try to go back and find evidence to support these claims, but I’m fairly certain on this one.

    4) I’ve heard that umbilical cord cell is really only good for the parents since the cells are pretty much fully developed at that point and therefore much harder to convert to a stem cell for anybody to use. Embroynic stem cells are much more flexible for anybody to use. I agree this is controversial, but we’re talking about embryos that people don’t want. I realize a lot of people think life starts at conception, but I think we need to focus on the people who are alive now instead of the potential of an unwanted embryo in the very beginning stages of gestation.

    5) Agreed. Why haven’t we heard anything about this? Is it lack of media coverage or lack of lack of attention?

    Thanks for the great comments! Keep em coming on this and other posts.

  12. Justin Gardner Says:

    Callimachus said in reference to tying the minimum wage to the rate of inflation: Like the pay rates of a great many U.S. legislators � HEH!

    Exactly!!!

  13. A Goy and his Blog » Blog Archive » Frame and Polarity Says:

    [...] 05
    Frame and Polarity
    by goy @ 9:28 am. Filed under Politics, Media

    A post on an article about George Lakoff by Justin over at Donklepha [...]

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