George Lakoff – Teaching Democrats to Talk to Americans

Editor and Publisher has advance copy of Sunday’s New York Times MagazineProfile of Linguist Who Is Framing Issues for the Democrats.”

The cover story by Matt Bai in the upcoming Sunday issue of The New York Times Magazine profiles the man some liberals allegedly consider a possible new “messiah†for the Democratic party, George Lakoff. An adviser to the party on “framing†issues, he wrote “Don’t Think of an Elephant‖ a book about politics and language based on his own linguistic theories. “Framing†is the process of choosing the best words to describe individual issues and characterize a debate. Bai hails Lakoff as the father of the concept. His ideas seemed to gain some success recently in putting the Bush social security proposals in peril. Next they will be severely tested in the upcoming fight over Supreme Court nominees.

Lakoff preaches that to understand language on the whole, one must first study how an individual would comprehend that language in terms of personal experience and thought processes. He also says that metaphors allow people to process abstract ideas.

And nobody better used this philosophy before, says Lakoff, than the Republicans. In the 2004 election, George W. Bush labeled John Kerry as a “flip flopper,†and repeated this throughout the duration of the campaign. He even put out an ad that featured Kerry windsurfing, back and forth, which hammered home this idea in a visual manner. Democrats, on the other hand, tried to pin too many criticisms on Bush, none of which stuck. Thus, as Bai writes, “Bush was attacked. Kerry was framed.â€

In the article, Lakoff says that Republicans are also skilled at using loaded language and repetition to create lasting concepts in our unconscious. This is largely in part to the work of Frank Luntz, the Republican pollster renowned for creating euphemism for conservative issues.
Lakoff explains, “The frames in our brains can be ‘activated’ by the right combination of words and imagery, and only then, once the brain has been unlocked, can we process the facts thrown at us.†Basically, he says, Republicans re-program the way people think about things. Therefore, Lakoff has taught Democrats in Congress how to combat this through their own framing of Republican ideas. For example, in the recent debate over filibusters, Democrats explained that the GOP was changing a 200-year tradition and doing so on a whim. Lakoff compared it to Bush rolling the dice.


But Luntz tells Bai that the problem with Lakoff’s ideology is that if an idea is bad, no language can make it sellable. “He’s one of the very few guys who understands the limits of liberal language,†Luntz says . “What he doesn’t understand is that there are also limits on liberal philosophy. They think that if they change all the words, it’ll make a difference. Won’t happen.â€
Other Republicans simply see Lakoff as a deeply desired messiah for the left.

Some liberals ridicule Lakoff as what Bai called a “new progressive icon.” In the April issue of The Atlantic, contributing editor Marc Cooper wrote that Lakoff sees the American people as, “Red-neck, chain-smoking, baby-slapping Christers desperately in need of some gender-free nurturing and political counseling by organic-gardening enthusiasts from Berkeley.â€

The “framing” idea is hardly new; it’s Psychology 101. And the idea that the Democrats do not have people with excellent marketing skills is absurd. The famous “Daisy Ad” used by the LBJ campaign to reinforce the idea that Barry Goldwater was a loose cannon is perhaps the best use of framing in American political history. Whether it was Franklin Roosevelt’s “New Deal,” Harry Truman’s “Do-Nothing Congress,” or Bill Clinton’s “It’s the economy, stupid,” the Democrats have long framed the issues effectively. It’s not as if Bob Shrum and James Carville are amateurs.

Luntz and Cooper are right that it’s the ideas themselves that ultimately matter. But they overstate their case. We’ve had two incredibly close presidential races in a row and are likely to do so again in 2008 unless one of the parties nominates a particularly polarizing candidate. While majorities in the Red States may well think the Democrats see them as redneck Jesus freaks, majorities in the Blue States think the Republicans are insane warmongers who oppose education and want to starve old people.

The Democrats and Republicans have both been quite effective in marketing their ideas to half the country. The key is to build a consensus that will put more states into play. Absent great help from the other side (such as nominating a Rick Santorum or a Hillary Clinton for president) that will take refinement of the ideas being pushed, not the way they’re advertised.

Update (7-17): Bai’s article, “The Framing Wars,” is out.

FILED UNDER: Uncategorized, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Rob M says:

    During the 2004 campaign Kerry “framed” himself with the “I voted for the 88 billion before I voted against it”. After that it was over. The windsurfing add sucked and had little or no impact.

  2. paladin says:

    You are quite right to say that the Democrats are hardly amateurs when it comes to “framing” issues, and they have been doing it longer. Think “affirmative action” (quotas), “pro-choice” (pro-abortion), “welfare” (the dole) and “social security” (Ponzi scheme).

  3. talboito says:

    As many time as it has been said, it should be said again. Lakoff’s Frame Theory is fairly removed from Psych 101.

    It is an interesting an robust psycholinguistic theory that has some promise toward explaining how our concepts are structured. No matter how badly Lakoff confuses his politics, his theory remains sound.

  4. Herb says:

    Looks like Mr. Lakoff need a little advise. That is:

    “Talking to a Democrat is like trying to talk to a drunk”

    The drunk, while telling you he is listening, doesn’t hear a word you are saying,And if he did listen, is not about to take you seriously.

    Perhaps Mr Lakoff is a fugitive from AA that fell off the wagon