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The framing of political debate

Linguistics professor George Lakoff urges Democrats to pay closer attention to language.

January 05, 2005|Mark Z. Barabak | Times Staff Writer

BERKELEY — Howard Dean is on the line, hailing the man who would be the savior of the Democratic Party.

"What Lakoff brings is a very practical way to talk about things," says Dean, his gravelly voice rasping via cellphone from Boston. "Why it's important to frame issues ... how to do it on specific issues."

Dean is speaking of George Lakoff, a UC Berkeley professor of linguistics and cognitive science, whose slender treatise on language, brain structure and politics has become a surprise bestseller, making "framing" the season's hot fashion and yielding a growing legion of followers -- as well as critics. (Last month, he addressed House Democrats in Washington at the invitation of their leader, San Francisco's Nancy Pelosi.) Put simply, Lakoff says conservatives have been winning elections -- along with hearts and minds -- through the strategic use of language over the last 30 years, to a point where central tenets of the Republican philosophy are not just common wisdom for millions of voters but, more, are a hard-wired part of their brains.

"People think in frames," Lakoff writes in the opening chapter of his new book, which credits a national network of conservative think tanks and sympathetic media outlets with abetting the GOP's neural conquest. "To be accepted, the truth must fit people's frames. If the facts do not fit a frame, the frame stays and the facts bounce off." The title of the book, "Don't Think of an Elephant!," reflects Lakoff's central thesis; naturally, when you read the words, you think of an elephant. His point is that by evoking certain images, or frames, Republicans have forced Democrats to fight elections on the GOP's terms. Two examples: the debate over "tax relief," which frames taxes as an affliction and Democrats as the defenders of an onerous burden. And the "war on terror," which conflates the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks with the fighting in Iraq.

"Democrats have to learn how to stop making mistakes," Lakoff says over a turkey-and-avocado sandwich at, fittingly, Berkeley's Free Speech Cafe. A liberal (though "progressive" is his preferred frame), Lakoff is a large man with a small voice, which can make him hard to hear over the classroom hum of fluorescent lights and students rustling in their seats.

The first step for Democrats, he goes on, "is not using the other side's terms, or answering the questions posed by the other side. As soon as they set the topic ... you're dead."

To his detractors, Lakoff's work amounts to political junk science, the equivalent of a diet plan that promises you can eat all you want and still lose 5 pounds a day. (Just talk differently and you too can win the White House!)

"Language matters a lot," says Al From, head of the Democratic Leadership Council, an organization that has worked to tug the party rightward, feuding with Dean and others who accuse the group of selling out the party's core principles. "But so does substance."

From and his allies -- including, most prominently, Bill Clinton -- began working in the mid-1980s to recast the image of the party along with the language Democrats used. Gone was the talk of grievance, of rights and entitlement, replaced by words like "opportunity" and "responsibility" and programs, like welfare reform, that demonstrated the party's new language was more than talk.

"It wouldn't have made any difference if we'd just gone on the same way and changed the rhetoric," says From. "If you're really trying to show people you're different, you can't just do it with a slogan."

Samuel Popkin, another former Clinton campaign advisor, suggests Lakoff's work on language and political persuasion is not just simplistic but derivative. "He acts as if people haven't known this every day for the longest time," says Popkin, a UC San Diego political scientist who has extensively researched the way voters make up their minds. "George did not invent the wheel ... framing is something a million people write about." (Indeed, George Orwell had some notable things to say about the political use of language half a century ago.)

Few, however, have met with the popular success of Lakoff, whose work up to now has been largely confined to the fusty groves of academia and scholarly jousting over theories of "autonomous syntax" and the like.

His "Elephant" book, subtitled "Know Your Values and Frame the Debate -- The Essential Guide for Progressives" and written in breezy self-help style, has sold more than 140,000 copies since mid-September and recently entered its fourth printing. Margo Baldwin, head of Vermont-based Chelsea Green Publishing Co., predicts sales of 500,000 or more by the end of next year, twice the company's all-time bestseller, which told the tale of a French forester.

"What are there?" Baldwin says, sizing up the market. "Fifty million unhappy Democrats out there?"

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