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Paul Rosenberg
Paul Rosenberg
Paul Rosenberg is the senior editor of Random Lengths News, a bi-weekly alternative community newspaper.
Lost for words: A remedy for Democrats
Linguist George Lakoff argues that Democrats often lose because they fail to craft moral frames for their policies.
Last Modified: 29 Jun 2012 15:34
The language Obama used to defend his health care plan made the legislation less popular, says Lakoff [Reuters]


San Pedro, CA -
More than 30 years ago, in 1980, linguist George Lakoff and philosopher Mark Johnson co-authored a thin volume titled Metaphors We Live By. With a flood of examples from everyday speech and not one single footnote, they made the case that metaphors aren't simply a decorative afterthought or sideshow spicing up our language, but rather a basic structural component of how language helps us make sense of the world. We understand the far in terms of the near, the novel in terms of the familiar, the abstract in terms of the concrete - and metaphors, mapping the elements of a "source domain" onto a "target domain" - lie at the very heart of how language helps us do this.

Sixteen years later, in 1996, Lakoff did it again, with Moral Politics: What Conservatives Know That Liberals Don't (as the first edition was subtitled). Whereas Metaphors We Live By looked at scores, if not hundreds of examples to reveal the intricate logical workings of metaphoric mappings in language, Moral Politics took an inverse approach: it examined one metaphor in excruciating detail - the metaphor of the nation as family and the mappings of family morality onto political issues which that metaphor entails.

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Central to Lakoff's argument in that book is the fact that there are two distinctive family models involved - the "Strict Father" model of authoritarian childrearing that informs the conservative worldview and the "Nurturing Parent" model that informs liberal politics. Conservatives know this intuitively - or at least their political leadership does - and it is reflected in how they place conservative, Strict Father morality at the centre of their political discourse. Liberals? Not so much.

Another sixteen years later, and surprisingly little has changed. Lakoff's arguments have become much better known, thanks in part to a 2004 bestseller, Don't Think of an Elephant!: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate - which drew on a wide range of social and cognitive science. But liberals and Democrats as a whole still haven't gotten his message. They're still letting conservatives define the vast majority of US politics in terms of conservative morality, so that even when conservative policies fail disastrously - as they did under Bush on every front - there is no clear, right, and proper alternative for voters to embrace. And so Lakoff is back to try again, this time with a co-author, Elisabeth Wehling, who has European as well as US experience as a political strategist.

The Little Blue Book: the Essential Guide to Thinking and Talking Democraticis a very slim, necessarily selective volume, but it's paired with an ongoing online stream of related commentary at Huffington Post, which promises to rearticulate the book's core lessons over and over and over again in the coming five months. Maybe - just maybe - its lessons might start to sink in, over time, though the know-it-all Beltway pundit class will surely be the last to know.

Inside Story:
Who won the US health care battle?

Lakoff and Wehling start quickly. In the introduction ("The Importance of Moral Frames") they offer a novel and compelling explanation of how Obama lost his way in pushing for health care reform, setting the stage for a Supreme Court decision, which, if it had gone against him, could have heralded a broader roll-back of social programmes such as Medicare and Social Security.

In 2008, conservatives such as former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani set the tone, framing the discussion of health care as if it were solely a consumer good. This is a metaphor, the authors note: "Health care is not literally a product built in a factory and transferred physically from a seller to a buyer ... You cannot return defective health care and get a refund." And yet, even Democrats adopted this same rhetorical frame. Indeed, this was the basis for arguing that health care falls under the consitution's Commerce Clause, giving Congress the right to regulate it, which lies at the very heart of the Affordable Care Act (Lakoff and Wehling have something to say about the act's name, too). Excluded from this argument is the idea of health care as a right, and that providing it is a matter of morality.

Here is where things get tricky. "Economists have long observed that there is an economic equivalence between a tax and a required purchase," the authors note, which is why the individual mandate is economically no different from a tax; but conceptually there's an enormous difference. Conservatives hate taxes, routinely seeing them as government oppression, but purchasing something in the marketplace is generally a good thing. So mandatory health insurance seemed like a way around conservative opposition.

Just one problem - preserving the marketplace metaphor highlights the fact that government-provided health care is cheaper as a negative - as unfair competition. "Given the market frame, this position was easy to argue for," the authors point out.

There were surely other factors as well - massive industry lobbying, first and foremost - but that's always the case in politics. What Lakoff and Wehling do in this brief passage - and there's more to it than I've described - is show how unconscious metaphoric choices, disconnected from any moral framework, repeatedly added to the political burden of trying to pass major legislation, making the entire process more difficult - and all without anyone involved seemingly even realising what was going on.

 Poor patients hail US health care verdict

Obama and the Democrats spent an enormous amount of time and effort worrying over the policy details of health care reform, but Lakoff and Wehling point out that "conservatives never argued against any of the law's specific provisions. For example, they never said there should be preconditions or caps. Instead they reframed. They made a moral case against 'Obamacare'."

Of course conservatives did argue against one specific provision - the non-existent death panels. But this is exactly what Lakoff and Wehling mean when they talk about the conservative moral case, centred around freedom and life: "Freedom was imperiled by 'government takeover', life by 'death panels'."

Yet, all along there was an easy case to be made by progressives, arguing their version of the same values to the contrary conclusion: "Serious illness without health care takes away your liberty and threatens your life." Ultimately, the authors say. "Health care should never have been a market issue. The constitution gives Congress the right to "provide for the... general welfare of the United States. That right should have been, and should be the moral and conceptual basis of health care law."

As this example shows, much of this book applies familiar insights to new settings for those already acquainted with Lakoff's work. But there is genuinely new material as well, both from cognitive science and in terms of political focus, too. For example, elsewhere, Lakoff has written an entire book about the contested concept of freedom (Whose Freedom? The Battle Over America's Most Important Idea). Here, he and Wehling skip over most of the details that fill that book, but argue for the primacy of the public as a natural framework for the progressive concept of freedom and progressive politics more generally.

At its most basic, the argument points out that private life and private freedoms are almost entirely dependent on the public sphere for their very existence. Conservatives only see the public as intruding on their private lives (even while missing how they would do the same - around abortion or gay rights, for example), but are generally blind to how much they benefit from shared public goods, values, practices and institutions.

No amount of arguing will reach those who only see the world through a conservative framework - primarily for reasons reintroduced from Lakoff's earlier work, though there are some new twists as well. Most notably, the authors devote an entire chapter to the structuring of neural networks into cascades.

But, as Lakoff has also explained before, progressive language - expressing public-based morality - will reach the all-important moderates who have both the conservative and the progressive frameworks available to activate. These "bi-conceptuals" will only respond to progressive messages, ideas, arguments and frameworks if they are presented to them, however. And not just once, but over and over and over again. This is simply how human cognition works, which is arguably the most important point that Lakoff has been making for as long as he's been writing about language, cognition and politics.

The chapter on the public appears in Part III: Ideas We Need. Each of its chapters, except for the first, concludes with a section "Here is what to say", which translates the more general discussion into specifics, such as:

  • "The public is the foundation for the private - for decent private lives and for private enterprise that works." (Chapter 10, "The Public")
  • "Conservative officeholders who refuse to raise taxes as a matter of conservative principle are creating deficits." (Chapter 11, "The Shift from Public to Corporate Government")
  • "Government regulations limit corporations' ability to inflict harm on you in order to make a profit." (Chapter 12, "Corporations Govern Your Life")
  • "The Farm Bill should promote and subsidise healthy food and discourage, ban, or at least not subsidise harmful food." (Chapter 16, "Rethinking Food")

"The Democrats' profound lack of value-based, long-term thinking ...  makes it impossible for them to realise what they're missing."

These are not the snappiest sound-bites in the world, in part because they're not intended to be. They are more in the way of talking points for building up larger arguments. But one reason Lakoff has been unfairly ignored in the past is because he's not as sharp at coming up with sound-bites as conservative pollster/PR uber-guru Frank Luntz. And, indeed, some of Lakoff's linguistic suggestions sound downright awkward, clunky, or forced - such as countering the rhetoric of "free markets" with "liberal markets".

Yet, the comparison is unfair, not just because Luntz is part of a well-oiled machine in which he only has to fulfill a limited, fine-tuning role, but because it fundamentally misunderstands and diminishes what Lakoff is all about. The Democratic establishment is paralytically focused on minutia. Winning the next election for an individual candidate is as far-sighted as it gets. The conservative/Republican establishment, in contrast, consistently thinks long-term, building institutions and developing practices for the long run, willing to take short-term losses when they come for the purpose of winning big in the future.

These contrasting approaches to politics are, of course, the exact opposites of what their core principles dictate - which is a fascinating topic for another day. But it puts the Democrats in a classic bind: You can't find your spectacles without your spectacles. The Democrats' profound lack of value-based, long-term thinking (the sort of thinking that built their governing majorities from the New Deal to the Great Society) makes it impossible for them to realise what they're missing, much less appreciate anyone offering to provide it.

This is not to say that Lakoff and Wehling are flawless. There are plenty of points I'd argue with in this book. But these are just the kinds of arguments that the Democrats need to be having, in order to rediscover their voice, their vision, their heritage and their purpose.

Paul Rosenberg is the Senior Editor of Random Lengths News, a bi-weekly alternative community newspaper.

You can follow Paul on Twitter: @PaulHRosenberg

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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