Lakoff and Framing
by Karen Willard
We Democrats have a lot of catching up to do to the
Republicans in terms of learning how to use language effectively when
we talk to our neighbors about political issues, when we write letters
to the editor of our local newspaper, and when we talk in public as
Democrats. George Lakoff is a professor of Cognitive Science and
Linguistics at UC Berkeley and one of the founders of the Rockridge
Institute. (Go to our Book Reviews page and follow the link to
Barnes and Noble to purchase and read his books.) The following
are taken from several websites, reproduced here in case the original
websites go away:
Website 1: taken from
Linguistics professor George Lakoff at the Free
Speech Movement Café. (BAP photos)
Framing the issues: UC Berkeley professor George Lakoff
tells how conservatives use language to dominate politics
By Bonnie Azab Powell, NewsCenter | 27 October 2003
BERKELEY – With Republicans controlling the Senate, the
House, and the White House and enjoying a large margin of victory for
California Governor-elect Arnold Schwarzenegger, it's clear that the
Democratic Party is in crisis. George Lakoff, a UC Berkeley professor
of linguistics and cognitive science, thinks he knows why.
Conservatives have spent decades defining their ideas, carefully
choosing the language with which to present them, and building an
infrastructure to communicate them, says Lakoff.
The work has paid off: by dictating the terms of
national debate, conservatives have put progressives firmly on the
In 2000 Lakoff and seven other faculty members from
Berkeley and UC Davis joined together to found the Rockridge Institute,
one of the few progressive think tanks in existence in the U.S. The
institute offers its expertise and research on a nonpartisan basis to
help progressives understand how best to get their messages across. The
Richard & Rhoda Goldman Distinguished Professor in the College of
Letters & Science, Lakoff is the author of "Moral Politics: How
Liberals and Conservatives Think," first published in 1997 and reissued
in 2002, as well as several other books on how language affects our
lives. He is taking a sabbatical this year to write three books — none
about politics — and to work on several Rockridge Institute research
In a long conversation over coffee at the Free Speech
Movement Café, he told the NewsCenter's Bonnie Azab Powell why
the Democrats "just don't get it," why Schwarzenegger won the recall
election, and why conservatives will continue to define the issues up
for debate for the foreseeable future.
Why was the Rockridge Institute created, and how
do you define its purpose?
I got tired of cursing the newspaper every morning. I
got tired of seeing what was going wrong and not being able to do
anything about it.
The background for Rockridge is that conservatives,
especially conservative think tanks, have framed virtually every issue
from their perspective. They have put a huge amount of money into
creating the language for their worldview and getting it out there.
Progressives have done virtually nothing. Even the new Center for
American Progress, the think tank that John Podesta [former chief of
staff for the Clinton administration] is setting up, is not dedicated
to this at all. I asked Podesta who was going to do the Center's
framing. He got a blank look, thought for a second and then said,
"You!" Which meant they haven't thought about it at all. And that's the
problem. Liberals don't get it. They don't understand what it is they
have to be doing.
Rockridge's job is to reframe public debate, to create
balance from a progressive perspective. It's one thing to analyze
language and thought, it's another thing to create it. That's what
we're about. It's a matter of asking 'What are the central ideas of
progressive thought from a moral perspective?'
How does language influence the terms of
Language always comes with what is called "framing."
Every word is defined relative to a conceptual framework. If you have
something like "revolt," that implies a population that is being ruled
unfairly, or assumes it is being ruled unfairly, and that they are
throwing off their rulers, which would be considered a good thing.
That's a frame.
If you then add the word "voter" in front of "revolt,"
you get a metaphorical meaning saying that the voters are the oppressed
people, the governor is the oppressive ruler, that they have ousted him
and this is a good thing and all things are good now. All of that comes
up when you see a headline like "voter revolt" — something that most
people read and never notice. But these things can be affected by
reporters and very often, by the campaign people themselves.
Here's another example of how powerful framing is. In
Arnold Schwarzenegger's acceptance speech, he said, "When the people
win, politics as usual loses." What's that about? Well, he knows that
he's going to face a Democratic legislature, so what he has done is
frame himself and also Republican politicians as the people, while
framing Democratic politicians as politics as usual — in advance. The
Democratic legislators won't know what hit them. They're automatically
framed as enemies of the people.
Why do conservatives appear to be so much better
Because they've put billions of dollars into it. Over
the last 30 years their think tanks have made a heavy investment in
ideas and in language. In 1970, [Supreme Court Justice] Lewis Powell
wrote a fateful memo to the National Chamber of Commerce saying that
all of our best students are becoming anti-business because of the
Vietnam War, and that we needed to do something about it. Powell's
agenda included getting wealthy conservatives to set up professorships,
setting up institutes on and off campus where intellectuals would write
books from a conservative business perspective, and setting up think
tanks. He outlined the whole thing in 1970. They set up the Heritage
Foundation in 1973, and the Manhattan Institute after that. [There are
many others, including the American Enterprise Institute and the Hoover
Institute at Stanford, which date from the 1940s.]
And now, as the New York Times Magazine quoted Paul
Weyrich, who started the Heritage Foundation, they have 1,500
conservative radio talk show hosts. They have a huge, very good
operation, and they understand their own moral system. They understand
what unites conservatives, and they understand how to talk about it,
and they are constantly updating their research on how best to express
Why haven't progressives done the same thing?
There's a systematic reason for that. You can see it in
the way that conservative foundations and progressive foundations work.
Conservative foundations give large block grants year after year to
their think tanks. They say, 'Here's several million dollars, do what
you need to do.' And basically, they build infrastructure, they build
TV studios, hire intellectuals, set aside money to buy a lot of books
to get them on the best-seller lists, hire research assistants for
their intellectuals so they do well on TV, and hire agents to put them
on TV. They do all of that. Why? Because the conservative moral system,
which I analyzed in "Moral Politics," has as its highest value
preserving and defending the "strict father" system itself. And that
means building infrastructure. As businessmen, they know how to do this
Meanwhile, liberals' conceptual system of the "nurturant
parent" has as its highest value helping individuals who need help. The
progressive foundations and donors give their money to a variety of
grassroots organizations. They say, 'We're giving you $25,000, but
don't waste a penny of it. Make sure it all goes to the cause, don't
use it for administration, communication, infrastructure, or career
development.' So there's actually a structural reason built into the
worldviews that explains why conservatives have done better.
Back up for a second and explain what you mean
by the strict father and nurturant parent frameworks.
Well, the progressive worldview is modeled on a
nurturant parent family. Briefly, it assumes that the world is
basically good and can be made better and that one must work toward
that. Children are born good; parents can make them better. Nurturing
involves empathy, and the responsibility to take care of oneself and
others for whom we are responsible. On a larger scale, specific
policies follow, such as governmental protection in form of a social
safety net and government regulation, universal education (to ensure
competence, fairness), civil liberties and equal treatment (fairness
and freedom), accountability (derived from trust), public service (from
responsibility), open government (from open communication), and the
promotion of an economy that benefits all and functions to promote
these values, which are traditional progressive values in American
The conservative worldview, the strict father model,
assumes that the world is dangerous and difficult and that children are
born bad and must be made good. The strict father is the moral
authority who supports and defends the family, tells his wife what to
do, and teaches his kids right from wrong. The only way to do that is
through painful discipline — physical punishment that by adulthood will
become internal discipline. The good people are the disciplined people.
Once grown, the self-reliant, disciplined children are on their own.
Those children who remain dependent (who were spoiled, overly willful,
or recalcitrant) should be forced to undergo further discipline or be
cut free with no support to face the discipline of the outside world.
"Taxes are what you pay to be an American, to live in a civilized
society that is democratic and offers opportunity, and where there's an
infrastructure that has been paid for by previous taxpayers." - George
So, project this onto the nation and you see that to the right wing,
the good citizens are the disciplined ones — those who have already
become wealthy or at least self-reliant — and those who are on the way.
Social programs, meanwhile, "spoil" people by giving them things they
haven't earned and keeping them dependent. The government is there only
to protect the nation, maintain order, administer justice (punishment),
and to provide for the promotion and orderly conduct of business. In
this way, disciplined people become self-reliant. Wealth is a measure
of discipline. Taxes beyond the minimum needed for such government take
away from the good, disciplined people rewards that they have earned
and spend it on those who have not earned it.
From that framework, I can see why
Schwarzenegger appealed to conservatives.
Exactly. In the strict father model, the big thing is
discipline and moral authority, and punishment for those who do
something wrong. That comes out very clearly in the Bush
administration's foreign and domestic policy. With Schwarzenegger, it's
in his movies: most of the characters that he plays exemplify that
moral system. He didn't have to say a word! He just had to stand up
there, and he represents Mr. Discipline. He knows what's right and
wrong, and he's going to take it to the people. He's not going to ask
permission, or have a discussion, he's going to do what needs to be
done, using force and authority. His very persona represents what
conservatives are about.
You've written a lot about "tax relief" as a
frame. How does it work?
The phrase "Tax relief" began coming out of the White
House starting on the very day of Bush's inauguration. It got picked up
by the newspapers as if it were a neutral term, which it is not. First,
you have the frame for "relief." For there to be relief, there has to
be an affliction, an afflicted party, somebody who administers the
relief, and an act in which you are relieved of the affliction. The
reliever is the hero, and anybody who tries to stop them is the bad guy
intent on keeping the affliction going. So, add "tax" to "relief" and
you get a metaphor that taxation is an affliction, and anybody against
relieving this affliction is a villain.
"Tax relief" has even been picked up by the Democrats. I
was asked by the Democratic Caucus in their tax meetings to talk to
them, and I told them about the problems of using tax relief. The
candidates were on the road. Soon after, Joe Lieberman still used the
phrase tax relief in a press conference. You see the Democrats shooting
themselves in the foot.
So what should they be calling it?
It's not just about what you call it, if it's the same
"it." There's actually a whole other way to think about it. Taxes are
what you pay to be an American, to live in a civilized society that is
democratic and offers opportunity, and where there's an infrastructure
that has been paid for by previous taxpayers. This is a huge
infrastructure. The highway system, the Internet, the TV system, the
public education system, the power grid, the system for training
scientists — vast amounts of infrastructure that we all use, which has
to be maintained and paid for. Taxes are your dues — you pay your dues
to be an American. In addition, the wealthiest Americans use that
infrastructure more than anyone else, and they use parts of it that
other people don't. The federal justice system, for example, is
nine-tenths devoted to corporate law. The Securities and Exchange
Commission and all the apparatus of the Commerce Department are mainly
used by the wealthy. And we're all paying for it.
So taxes could be framed as an issue of
It is an issue of patriotism! Are you paying your dues,
or are you trying to get something for free at the expense of your
country? It's about being a member. People pay a membership fee to join
a country club, for which they get to use the swimming pool and the
golf course. But they didn't pay for them in their membership. They
were built and paid for by other people and by this collectivity. It's
the same thing with our country — the country as country club, being a
member of a remarkable nation. But what would it take to make the
discussion about that? Every Democratic senator and all of their aides
and every candidate would have to learn how to talk about it that way.
There would have to be a manual. Republicans have one. They have a guy
named Frank Luntz, who puts out a 500-page manual every year that goes
issue by issue on what the logic of the position is from the Republican
side, what the other guys' logic is, how to attack it, and what
language to use.
What are some other examples of issues that
progressives should try to reframe?
There are too many examples, that's the problem. The
so-called energy crisis in California should have been called Grand
Theft. It was theft, it was the result of deregulation by Pete Wilson,
and Davis should have said so from the beginning.
Or take gay marriage, which the right has made a
rallying topic. Surveys have been done that say Americans are
overwhelmingly against gay marriage. Well, the same surveys show that
they also overwhelmingly object to discrimination against gays. These
seem to be opposite facts, but they're not. "Marriage" is about sex.
When you say "gay marriage," it becomes about gay sex, and approving of
gay marriage becomes implicitly about approving of gay sex. And while a
lot of Americans don't approve of gay sex, that doesn't mean they want
to discriminate against gay people. Perfectly rational position. Framed
in that way, the issue of gay marriage will get a lot of negative
reaction. But what if you make the issue "freedom to marry," or even
better, "the right to marry"? That's a whole different story. Very few
people would say they did not support the right to marry who you
choose. But the polls don't ask that question, because the right wing
has framed that issue.
Do any of the Democratic Presidential candidates
grasp the importance of framing?
None. They don't get it at all. But they're in a funny
position. The framing changes that have to be made are long-term
changes. The conservatives understood this in 1973. By 1980 they had a
candidate, Ronald Reagan, who could take all this stuff and run with
it. The progressives don't have a candidate now who understands these
things and can talk about them. And in order for a candidate to be able
to talk about them, the ideas have to be out there. You have to be able
to reference them in a sound bite. Other people have to put these ideas
into the public domain, not politicians. The question is, How do you
get these ideas out there? There are all kinds of ways, and one of the
things the Rockridge Institute is looking at is talking to advocacy
groups, which could do this very well. They have more of a budget,
they're spread all over the place, and they have access to the media.
Right now the Democratic Party is into marketing. They
pick a number of issues like prescription drugs and Social Security and
ask which ones sell best across the spectrum, and they run on those
issues. They have no moral perspective, no general values, no identity.
People vote their identity, they don't just vote on the issues, and
Democrats don't understand that. Look at Schwarzenegger, who says
nothing about the issues. The Democrats ask, How could anyone vote for
this guy? They did because he put forth an identity. Voters knew who he