How to Talk Like a Conservative (If You Must)

The left’s linguistics guru says liberals have to watch their language.

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Last Thursday evening, about 150 people packed into the back of a Berkeley bookstore to watch the third and final presidential debate. As Kerry smacked Bush around onscreen, they munched on baguettes and brie and issued an occasional collective groan. But the night’s main attraction was the post-debate commentator, linguist and cognitive scientist George Lakoff. Lakoff, a professor at the University of California –Berkeley and a founder of the Rockridge Institute, has emerged as the left’s message guru, the go-to guy for anyone interested in understanding why conservatives are winning the language wars and how liberals can retool their message. Sure, Kerry won a debate or two, but as Lakoff reminds his fellow liberals, “We have to get ourselves together.”

The key, he says, is not to shift rightward politically, but to lift a few moves from the right’s linguistic playbook. Lakoff is trying to teach liberals what conservatives have known for years: the skill of defining, or “framing,” issues in a way that makes it next to impossible for the other side to contradict you. By consciously and cleverly framing the terms used in the debate, you define the debate itself. “Clear Skies” and “partial-birth abortion” aren’t just catchphrases; they’re brilliantly self-contained arguments. And if you need any further proof that liberals are losing the frame game, consider that many won’t even call themselves “liberal,” preferring the (as-yet) unsullied tag “progressive.”

Lakoff recently published Don’t Think of an Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate, a handbook that spells out his strategies for confronting the right. (Note that you also can learn about Lakoff’s ideas via a new DVD titled, How Democrats and Progressives Can Win.) His suggestions are buoying liberals beaten down by years of conservative ascendancy. But he isn’t promising easy solutions. According to Lakoff, the red state-blue state split is deeper than most Americans realize. He described its dimensions in his earlier book Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think, which combined postmodern discourse theory with what might be called the “Who’s Your Daddy?” theory of American politics. The essence of Lakoff’s analysis is this: liberals and conservatives inhabit two opposing moral universes defined by competing visions of the ideal family. Conservatives subscribe to a “strict father” model that emphasizes discipline, self-interest, and competition. This is what makes George W. Bush tick. (That’s Bush the politician, not Bush the dad. Lakoff is careful to point out that these are political models, not descriptions of how people actually run their families). On the other side, liberals believe in a “nurturant parent” model with an emphasis on empathy, community, and fairness. No wonder we see ourselves as a nation of chest-thumping bullies and tax-and-spend girlie men.

Liberals shouldn’t even bother trying to win over hardcore conservatives, says Lakoff. But he thinks they have a shot at the middle-of-the-road swing voters who share parts of both worldviews. To do this, Lakoff says liberals must reframe every issue from tax cuts to the war on terror. The Rockridge Institute, Lakoff’s Berkeley-based think thank, has started on this project. Yet, so far, some of the specifics are vague or off-target. For instance, Lakoff has recommended replacing the loaded phrase “trial lawyer” with “public protection lawyer,” a clunky construction that might make John Edwards blush.

But the left is listening to Lakoff. The blogger Kos gushed that Don’t Think of an Elephant “put things in perspective in a way I was previously unable to do.” Howard Dean, who made his staff read Moral Politics, called him “one of the most influential thinkers of the progressive movement.” And, at times, John Kerry has sounded a lot like Lakoff, challenging Bush’s claims on qualities such as strength, security, and integrity.

Lakoff’s message also appears to be sinking in at the grassroots level. When he fielded questions after last Thursday’s debate, it was noticeable that much of the audience was speaking his language, casually referring to concepts such as framing and strict-father morality. Lakoff was pleasantly surprised to find he wouldn’t have to rehash his “Framing 101” speech. “It was clear that most people in the audience had already heard it a few times — and still showed up,” he joked.

Shortly afterwards, Lakoff spoke with about the debate, his work with the Kerry campaign, and his post-election agenda. To get started, what was your take on the debate last night?

George Lakoff: A couple of things. First, body language and intonation. Bush was off of his game. He was very defensive throughout the debate, except at the very end. You could see this in his intonation. His voice kept rising in mid-sentence; he kept haltingly pronouncing words with breaks in mid-sentence and mid-word sometimes. What that does is convey doubt and uncertainty and defensiveness. He was trying to be a compassionate conservative; he was trying to act soft and he couldn’t pull it off. This was remarkable to me, because he is an excellent debater. He is very good at this, and we have seen him off his game in two debates out of three. What about Kerry?

GL: Just on delivery, he’s been absolutely consistent all the way through. He’s been standing up tall and his sentences have been direct. He hasn’t had these long, wandering sentences. He’s been on point with a direct voice, as opposed to a hesitating voice, in all three debates. These are called paralinguistic signals. That is, how you talk and how you stand and what your intonation is. Those signals convey metaphorically a certain kind of content. And the content that Kerry has been conveying is that he’s solid and upstanding and straightforward. Anything but a “flip-flop.” He doesn’t look like a flip-flop, he doesn’t sound like a flip-flop. And it’s apparent the flip-flop story isn’t working anymore. And as a result, [Bush] stopped using “flip-flop.” This seems like an example of Kerry defying a label or defying a frame about him.

GL: What he did is reframe by his communicative style. That is a very powerful way to reframe something, because it’s not just saying it, it’s doing it. And it’s doing it in a way that people perceive continuously. So it’s not just saying it once and letting it go. It has to be there throughout the debate, and not just one debate, but throughout all three debates. Can you talk more about the concept of framing?

GL: Sure. First of all, framing is the most ordinary thing in the world. We think in terms of frames, and all words are defined in terms of frames. Frames are usually relatively small conceptual structures that characterize what something means. For example, if you take a word like “relief,” the frame includes an affliction, an afflicted party, a reliever who takes the affliction away — a hero. If anyone tries to stop him, they’re a villain. This comes into politics when you add “tax” to “relief” and you get “tax relief,” where you see taxation as an affliction. That’s a conservative metaphor: the people who want to get rid of taxes are heroes and the people who don’t are the villains. When words like “tax relief” are repeated over and over again, they come to be the normal way to talk about taxes. When that happens, it means it has become part of your brain. It is physically instantiated in the synapses of your brain. Therefore, it becomes normal; it becomes part of common sense. To get it out, the only thing you can do is to get some other view of taxes that is ultimately stronger. You say that once a frame has been set up it is very difficult to change its meaning. But I wonder if there are some frames that come off as being so obviously intentional that they end up undermining themselves. I’m thinking specifically of the administration’s catchphrases such as “Healthy Forests,” “Clear Skies,” and “No Child Left Behind.”

GL: Frames can be used to express what you really believe. But they can also be used deceptively and manipulatively. This is done quite purposely by conservatives. There’s a very interesting passage in a handbook put out by Frank Luntz, who is their language man. He wrote last year in his section on the environment that global warning was being won by liberals because of the science. He said that the science seems to be on their side. However, he said, we can claim victory through language. How do you do it? Well, you use the words that environmentalists like, namely: “healthy,” “clean,” and “safe.” That inspired the Clear Skies initiative, which increased pollution. Quite Orwellian. The same thing happened with the Healthy Forests initiative, which allows clearcutting. This is not a very honest game. It’s being done completely consciously. The same is true with “compassionate consverativism” and “no child left behind.” Yet I imagine for some liberals, when they hear you talking about needing to reframe the issues, they think, “Oh, we have to create propaganda. There’s something dishonest about that.”

GL: I’m not saying that we should do that at all. But there’s a very important other message there, which is: the conservatives know that they’re weak. If the public agreed with them, they could have called it the Dirty Air initiative. Why not? Well, they knew the public wouldn’t like it. What this means is that they’re weak. If they know they’re weak, they can be called on it because the public is on your side. While conservatives may be weak on issues like the environment, they have been successful at setting up an ideological infrastructure — folks like Luntz, think tanks, advocacy groups. You’ve said that the left needs to start doing something similar. How does the Rockridge Institute, fit into this larger plan? Or more bluntly, do you want to be the Frank Luntz of the left?

GL: Well, it’s more subtle than that. Over the last 35 years, the right has put together over 43 think tanks. They’ve spent two to three billion dollars doing it. We’re nowhere near that. They have this enormous apparatus and they’ve spent 35 years figuring out all these frames and figuring out the language. Our think tank is raising the issue of framing. One of the great mistakes of the Democratic Party has been to try to describe what it means to be a Democrat in terms of programs, instead of in terms of values, principles and directions. So that’s one of the things we’re trying to do, fill in the frames. There are a lot of missing frames. Have you been working with individual candidates or campaigns?

GL: The Rockridge Institute cannot. But as a private citizen, I can, and do. I’ve been talking to people in the Kerry campaign, so I can send suggestions. I’ve been working with the Democratic senators. I’ve been working with Nancy Pelosi and the House Democratic caucus. During the nominations, I agreed to work with any candidate positively, but not against any other candidate. And the only candidate who called was Dean. I’d like to read a quote you made in an interview a few months ago. You were asked how progressives could frame opposition to the war in Iraq in a way that didn’t seem to undermine the war on terror. And you said: “The Iraq war has made us more vulnerable to terrorists in many ways. Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11 or al Qaeda. By moving troops from Afghanistan to Iraq, Bush may have let Osama bin Laden escape.” You go on to talk about how Bush shortchanged homeland security and took his eye off of North Korea and Iran. What struck me is that you basically summed up all the talking points that Kerry used in the first debate.

GL: I have no idea whether Kerry got them from me or made them up on his own. He could have very well come up with them on his own. I mean, they’re not exactly strange ideas. That raises the question, is Kerry pretty good at framing?

GL: In some ways he is, and in some ways he isn’t. He’s a very intelligent guy and he has a lot of smart people on his team. I disagreed with some of the people on his team with about a quarter of what they suggested. But I thought about three-quarters of what they suggested was perfectly reasonable. What’s the 25 percent you wish he were doing?

GL: He’s begun doing some of it. It’s a little late, but not too late. One of the things that I suggested was that they have to talk about being strong. And [Kerry adviser Robert] Shrum said “stronger,” because you can’t say that we’re weak. I said, “No— you can say that Bush has weakened the country.” And they said, “No, no, no— that’s negative campaigning; people don’t like negative campaigning.” But strong and weak fit together in the same frame and you can say them together. Kerry did this once in one of his speeches but he hasn’t done it consistently.

Another thing I suggested that Kerry did some of was to undermine the fact that Bush’s supporters believe he’s honest and has integrity and that they can trust him. There’s a way to go against that, which is to say that he hasn’t leveled with the country, that he hasn’t told the truth. Kerry did some of that, but dropped it after a while. The issue really ought to be trust and betrayal of trust. One thing you can do, using the polls, is to point out that country does not trust Bush to take us in the right direction. Something like 60 percent of the country thinks we’re going in the wrong direction. That means they don’t trust their president. One of the ways Kerry has tied to show that he is strong is by saying he could win the war in Iraq, echoing the administration’s contention that this is a win-or-lose situation. If he’s elected, does this put him in a position where, should he achieve anything less than military victory, he’ll be tagged with the “retreat and defeat” label?

GL: He’s already set himself up; you can see what he’s going to do. He’s said that he doesn’t know what he’s going to find on January 21. He’ll just come out on January 22 and say, “Here’s what I’ve found, and it’s very bad news, guys.” But by using the language of the administration— “win or lose”— he’s made it black and white. So on January 21, when he realizes it can’t be won, has he, in effect, lost?

GL: Well, he has set himself up in that way. But it’s not clear that it can’t be changed. I think he believes it can be changed and he’s already setting himself up to change it. If Bush wins, what do you think liberals should do? Should they be focused on keeping their base intact, or undermining Bush’s support among conservatives?

GL: First, they have to get their act together. Democrats have to unite. I think the Democratic Leadership Council has to be thrown out. You have to stop this thing about moving to the right and following the polls instead of leading in them and so on. Some united progressive movement has to be formulated, with complete framing on every issue and with a characterization of what a unified Democratic party ought to be. I think movement building is the first order of business. And building a real party that has a vision, that has values, and has political principles that people agree on is the very first thing that has to be done. We have to get ourselves together. We’ll also have to fend off the conservatives very powerfully and we’ll have to do both at the same time. I think what will happen is that the people who have organized for this election are not going to go away. We’ve never seen a progressive organization like this since the ’60s. What kind of response have you gotten from conservatives? Do they recognize themselves in your writing?

GL: When I was writing Moral Politics, two conservative linguists helped me a great deal. And I’ve gotten a lot of very positive responses from conservatives who have said, “You’ve described what I believe better than I thought any liberal could.” I’ve also had responses that just assume I’m an ideologue and just using spin. You’re a lifelong liberal. How has your work affected your politics?

GL: It’s allowed me to understand my own moral system and what I believe. It’s allowed me to see what types of liberals there are and what unites them and divides them. It’s allowed me to ask myself more deeply why I believe what I believe and come up with very good answers for it. It’s allowed me to respect conservatives. That’s an important point. I used to be a typical liberal and thought that conservatives are either irrational or mean or cruel or petty or whatever. Now I see that liberals can be those things, too. Most conservatives are conservatives because they think they are morally correct.


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This is the rubber-meets-road moment: the early days in our first fundraising drive since we took a big swing and merged with CIR to bring fearless investigative reporting to the internet, radio, video, and everywhere else that people need an antidote to lies and propaganda.

Donations have started slow, and we hope that explaining, level-headedly, why your support really is everything for our reporting will make a difference. Learn more in “Less Dreading, More Doing,” or in this 2:28 video about our merger (that literally just won an award), and please pitch in if you can right now.

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