It seems like everybody these days, from Iowa Governor Vilsack to Senator Obama, is talking about “reframing the debate” in our country. But what does this catchy phrase really mean? Meet George Lakoff, the Berkeley Professor who is making progressives stop and pay attention to what they’re saying. Lakoff is the author of “Moral Politics,” “Don’t Think of an Elephant,” and has just published “Whose Freedom? The Battle over America’s Most Important Idea.” “Don’t Think of an Elephant” has won praise from the likes of Howard Dean and has been called “as ubiquitous among Democrats in the Capitol as Mao’s Little Red Book once was in the Forbidden City.”
Lakoff’s ideas about language and the unconscious patterns and values that they reinforce in our minds are re-shaping the way progressives approach politics. Not everyone buys into Lakoff’s approach, but thanks in part to Lakoff, progressives are beginning to see clearly what conservatives have known for decades: Getting the other guy (and the media) to use your language helps youframe the debate over an issue.
Lakoff is in the unusual position for a linguistics professor of meeting behind the scenes with Washington power-brokers, like an academic James Carville. He also attended the July 12 Campus Progress National Student Conference, where he mingled with students, Campus Progress staff, and Senator Barack Obama. We caught up with Lakoff by phone to talk about his books, his manual for progressives and his favorite Berkeley coffee bars.
What’s the meaning of your signature phrase, “Don’t think of an elephant?”
Every word comes with what is called a conceptual frame, which is a mental structure that allows you to understand what the word means. If I give you a word like “elephant,” you’ll get an image of an elephant and certain knowledge: an elephant has big floppy ears and the trunk, and so on. So if I mention the word, that frame and that image will automatically come up.
What I say to students is this: “Okay, you’re ready? Don’t think of an elephant,” and nobody can do it, because by the very use of the word “elephant,” I’ve evoked the frame, and even if I negate the frame, I still evoke the frame. And, you know, Richard Nixon learned this the hard way when he was on national TV during Watergate and said, “I am not a crook,” and everybody thought of him as a crook.
Now, this is absolutely a crucial idea and it’s something that the progressives still haven’t learned. So, for example, in the “cut and run [from Iraq]” debate in the Senate, Carl Levin was asked by a Washington Post reporter if his proposal was a cut-and-run proposal, and he said, “No, this is absolutely not a cut-and-run proposal.”The “cut and run” frame is a war frame. It says there is a moral war against evil that is being fought, and it requires courage and bravery, and you have to overcome your own self-interest in order to fight against evil, and if you leave this war—if you cut and run—what you’re doing is you’re putting your self-interest ahead of the cause and abandoning the people who are fighting the cause and need all the support they can get. So you’re both not supporting the troops, and you’re doing something immoral. The opposite would be “stand and fight.”
So the progressives come back and what they do is they accept this frame and they say, “Oh, you know, it’s “stay and pay” or it’s “lie and die.” Well, what does that mean? Who’s paying and who’s dying? It’s us. They have both self-interest frames. Now, the only way out of this is to tell the truth and there’s a major, inconvenient truth that nobody’s been saying for three years.
That we’re occupying Iraq?
We’re occupying Iraq. You know, when we won the war, when Bush said, “mission accomplished.” We’re occupiers, that’s exactly right.
Let’s talk about your new book, “Whose Freedom?” It seems like conservatives have a pretty strong hold on the ideas and the symbols of freedom. How do you think progressives can counter this?
First of all, they have to understand what they need to counter. They have to understand what they mean by freedom and what the conservatives mean by freedom. They are opposites. And if they let the conservatives have the idea, they’ll lose their freedom. That’s the very basic thing that needs to be understood. The next thing they have to understand is what progressive freedoms are about. It’s especially important for progressives to realize that they stand in the tradition of American freedom.
I thought the flag burning debate was kind of a good example of this. How do you think progressives can use that particular debate to their advantage?
Well, again you have to understand what that debate is about. In a strict-father morality; that is, a conservative morality where you have a leader that knows right and wrong, has absolute power, and morality is obedience, and you must respect the leader, burning the flag shows disrespect to the strict father. It’s like cursing out your father. It’s something you don’t do in a strict-father family. You must show absolute respect. And if you don’t, what you’re doing is undermining the authority of the strict father within that system. And if you undermine the authority, what you’re doing is going against the entire moral system. So it actually is a threat and it’s an undermining of the way that conservatives understand freedom because they understand it in a strict-father terms.
From our perspective, it’s not at all the case because there isn’t this issue of absolute loyalty and respect to the parent because you’re supposed to have open and honest discourse, you know, and you’re supposed to be able to question and you’re supposed to be able to disagree.
If you disagree with the government – what the government is doing, it’s just bad manners to [burn the flag], and you don’t legislate bad manners. You just say, “Hey, that’s – those are bad manners.” But this is a fighting matter because the issue is not about the flag. The issue is about how the country will be run. Will it be run under a strict-father morality or under a nurturant morality?
How do you respond to people who see you as a latte-sipping liberal, and how do you think progressives can use your ideas to reach people in America’s heartland?
One of the most profound things that we’ve discovered is the idea of a bi-conceptual. These are folks who have strict morality in certain parts of their lives and nurturant morality in other parts of their lives; let me try to give you some sense of this. In a deep way, Ronald Reagan understood that what were called the Reagan Democrats were blue-collar workers who were conservative at home, but progressive in their union politics. And so what he did was use metaphors from the home to move their conservative worldview from their home to politics. What progressives have to do is understand that there are a whole lot of people who identify as conservatives in this country, who actually have deep parts of their identity in progressive values, conservatives who love the land, and they’re actually environmentalists, but they would never call themselves that.
So they are people who are conservative otherwise, but on that particular issue go the other way?
It’s not that issue. It’s that area of life, and that’s the important thing. It’s not an issue; it’s a whole understanding of an area of life that matters. It’s your connection to the land. You might want to go hunting, but also you might want to go camping with your family or hiking in the hills or just sit there drinking a beer and looking at the beautiful mountains. Whatever it is, it has to do with the love of the land, right?
Now, you’re actually putting out a manual for progressives in the next couple of months, aren’t you? Can you tell us about it and its intended audience?
Well, when I travel around the country, what I find is there are wonderful people everywhere who are progressives – grassroots progressives, who need to be able to articulate what it means to be a progressive, who need to be able to not just argue against conservatives, but argue against any, you know, conservative parts of themselves; to find out ways to say, “In my gut, I feel the following is right, but why – how do I argue it even to myself?”
How would this be different from the kinds of policy reports or talking points that think-tanks put out all the time?
Because they are not about policy. They are about ideas instead of policies. Policies depend upon values and general principles and there’s a very simple set of values. Our values come from empathy and responsibility for ourselves and others, and from there you get values—different versions of values such as protection, freedom, fairness, etc. And then there are certain principles, and I think there are three fundamental principles that we have. One of them is that we put together the common wealth for the common good, so that we can build an infrastructure that each person can use for whatever they want—to fulfill their own dreams, wherever they are. It’s not the common good versus individual good, it’s that the individual good depends on the common good. That’s the first principle.
As long as we’ve established that you can identify with the common man and the common good, where’s your favorite place to get a latte in Berkeley?
My favorite place to get a latte in Berkeley? Gee, there is no one; there are so many good ones.