George Lakoff, Fingernail Clipped...Or Not

Cross-posted From Patterns That Connect

People often seem to criticize George Lakoff based on their own peculiar misreadings of him.  And it's happened again over at Talk Left, in a guess commentary by Big Tent Democrat, "What Lakoff and Obama Do Not Understand" [Disclaimer: I would much rather be writing about what Obama does and does not understand, but that will have to wait.]  Curiously, Matt Stoller over at MyDD, referred to this as George Lakoff Gutted, but it's more like a fingernail clipping... that failed.

This is a very rambling, rather tangled post, that seems to have two fundamental misreadings of Lakoff at its core:

(1) It misunderstands Lakoff's criticism of issue-based attempts to target voters.  Lakoff's big picture criticism is that it misunderstands how most people think about politics. His little picture criticism is directed specifically at the laundry-list approach to trying win over swing voters.  Big Tent Democrat misconstrues it as Lakoff ignoring single-issue voters.

(2) It misunderstands why Lakoff talks about talking to conservatives.  Lakoff does so primarily because his theory explains two coherent political frameworks, liberal and conservative.  There is no coherent moderate framework.  However, moderates employ both liberal and conservative frameworks.  Thus, speaking to and countering conservative influences is a way to reach both conservatives and moderates.  Big Tent Democrat mistakenly thinks that Lakoff is ignoring moderates in favor of conservatives.

A deeper look at these misunderstandings, and more, on the flip.

There's one more major point that Big Tent Democrat misunderstands, but it involves more than just misunderstanding Lakoff:

(3) Big Tent Democrat criticizes Lakoff for stressing  the Dem's need for their own message in the 2006 midterms.  He says it's a referendum on the GOP.  But there's ample, widespread evidence that voters are moving away from the GOP much more than they are moving toward the Dems, and there's just no way to spin this as a non-problem.

Un-Supported Claims

Before focusing on the core misunderstandings, I want to say something about the commentary itself.  It is somewhat rambling, filled with long quotations, and interspersed with disclaimers: "This seems unquestionable to me. It is the principal political flaw of the Democratic Party." "There is a lot that is right here from Lakoff.""Lakoff properly describes that Republicans have learned that issues in and of themselves do not win elections.""This is right for the most part. But not completely." There are also several sweeping claims that are are never substantiated, or even fully explained.  Most notably:


Lakoff properly describes that Republicans have learned that issues in and of themselves do not win elections. But what Lakoff describes as "values" and "authenticity" is really just branding and image
I would love to argue this claim with Big Tent Democrat.  But that's his argument in its entirety.  It's followed by a long block quote, and then he's off with more commentary that doesn't connect back with this claim.  (Did I mention the rambling?)

(B) Big Tent Democrat says at one point that "Lakoff, like his pupil, needs to learn his Hofstadter." He is referring to the GOPs use of demonization, and the implicit claim that Hofstadter's "The Paranoid Style In American Politics" is somehow a great illumination.  There are several good reasons to dispute this.  But primarily, I'll just point out that Hofstadter thought the paranoid style was a fringe phenomena, while his critics--Michael Paul Rogin foremost among them--pointed out that it was a central phenomena in American politics.  And this is certainly how it functions as a foundation for conservative power since Reagan's election in 1980.  Indeed, one of the benefits of taking Lakoff very seriously is that it helps us to understand some of the workings of political paranoia that were not so well understood at the time that Hofstadter wrote.  I'm not saying that Lakoff does this all by himself, or even that his insights are primary.  But he does supply important pieces of the puzzle.  Hofstadter didn't even know there was a puzzle.

I mention these two examples because I think they hint at what's really going on here.  There are much larger political issues at work in the background, but people find it very difficult to translate their unease with Lakoff into coherent critiques of his analysis.  Worse still, they are unwilling to do the work to understand him.  And so we get far more sneers than arguments against him.  

A brief look into the origin of Lakoff's ideas will not change their minds, but it will help illuminate how completely Big Tent Democrat is missing the boat in his criticism.  So here goes:

A Brief Glimpse At Lakoff's Theoretical Framework

Lakoff is the father of what's known as cognitive linguistics, based on his introduction of the concept of cognitive metaphor in 1980, in Metaphors We Live By, co-authored with philosopher Mark Johnson.  Previously, metaphor was regarded as mere ornamentation added to literal language to spice it up.  But Lakoff and Johnson showed how metaphors were a pervasive aspect of language with their own structure determined by their meaning.  The way to understand them was not through any sort of mechanical, or purely linguistic approach, but by understanding them as cognitive acts, as attempts to coherently describe and organize the world and ones actions in it--hence cognitive metaphor and cognitive linguistics.

Even simple expressions like "in trouble" or "in love" are metaphorical: conditions or states are metaphorical containers or bodies of liquid.  Indeed we speak of a "sea of troubles" or "sea of love," in either case, you can "be in over your head," you can be "floundering," or "drowning." What's happening in these instances is that various different expressions reveal a hidden implicit structure where elements of a more familiar, concrete domain--that of the sea--is partially mapped onto a more abstract domain, that of "love" or "trouble." The fact that such mappings exist gives rise to specific metaphorical expressions that are readily understood by other fluent speakers.  The domain mapped from is called the "source domain," that mapped onto is the "target domain." There can be any number of mappings from a source domain onto different target domains, highlighting similar aspects in each of them.  On the other hand, there can be mappings from different source domains onto the same target domain, highlighting different aspects of the same domain.  

In his 1996 book, Moral Politics, Lakoff described how political discourse in America is structured in terms of two family models--the patriarchal "Strict Father" model for conservatives and the egalitarian "Nurturant Parent" model for liberals. As with cognitive metaphor generally, mappings from both domains could be applied to a wide range of different realms, carrying over elements of structure and logic from their source domains.  Lakoff spent most of the book describing the theory itself, and showing how it made sense of the clustering of ideas that qualify as liberal and conservative--how being anti-tax and anti-abortion are part of a coherent whole.  But at the end of the book, he presented an argument about why liberalism was superior, based on the shortcomings of the "Strict Father" model in its source domain.  It turns out that nurturant parenting does a better job of producing the morally autonomous individuals that conservatives just love to picture themselves as.

Most people did not hear of Lakoff until his 2004 book, Don't Think of An Elephant, which is actually much more derivative of other people's ideas than the books previously mentioned.  Although Lakoff draws on cognitive metaphor theory, and material presented in Moral Politics, the main thing Elephant is known for is his discussion of "framing," a concept that's been widespread in the social sciences for decades, perhaps most famously in the work of sociologist Erving Goffman, first presented in Frame Analysis, which became enormously influential, giving rise a number of different variant theories.  Radical sociologist and media critic Todd Gitlin is often cited for one of the more succinct definitions: "Frames are principles of selection, emphasis and presentation composed of little tacit theories about what exists, what happens, and what matters." (The Whole World Is Watching, p 6.)  Media critics have long talked about how stories are framed in the media, as well as how elements are framed within stories.

Thus, there is nothing new in the general concept of framing, and Lakoff himself never claims otherwise. (The concept of framing in linguistics and in cognitive science have other roots as well.) Nonetheless, there is a strong tendency for people to identify Lakoff with framing, as if it were his theory alone, and to confuse framing with cognitive metaphor.  Now, clearly cognitive metaphor fits within the definition of frames given by Gitlin.  But intellectually, it doesn't derive from Goffman's work.  That's because framing is such a general concept, with roots that can be traced back at least to ancient Greece.  Cognitive metaphor, however, is something that is relatively very new, as is Goffman's particular theory, along with various other formulations in social science of the past few decades.

Targetting Conservatives

Now, what does all this have to do with Big Tent Democrat's argument that Lakoff is mistakenly trying to target conservatives, when we should actually being going after moderates?  Simple:  There is no moderate mapping from a family model onto politics.  There is no moderate frame for politics at the same deep level of systematic organization that the Strict Father and Nurturant Parent models provide.  This is not to say there is not moderate frame.  "Moderate" itself is a frame.  It's just a very elastic, derivative one, lacking in the sort of detailed structure that Lakoff discusses in Moral Politics.  Which is why Lakoff doesn't talk specifically about how to talk to moderates: there is no there there, so far as his theoretical framework is concerned.  The only two alternatives are the derivatives of the Strict Father and Nurturant Parent models, and moderates tend to draw on both.  So anything that Lakoff says about talking to conservatives will automatically apply to moderates as well.

If one does not understand Lakoff's theoretical framework, it's hard to appreciate the power of this argument. It's easy to quibble with.  But if one does understand Lakoff's theoretical framework, well then.... Let's look specifically at the passage quoted:

[P]eople who identify as conservatives, who would write down conservative on a survey or poll, often have many progressive views in important areas of their lives. We at Rockridge [Institute] have been studying this and there's a system to it. There are many people who call themselves conservative but love the land. That means they're basically environmentalists but they wouldn't call themselves that. They're people who identify as conservative but are really progressive, not conservative Christians. That is, they see God not as a strict father God but as a nurturant God. They really care about the poor, the downtrodden, meek, etc. There are many people who call themselves conservative but want to live in progressive communities where their leaders care about them and are responsible, and people care about each other and are responsible, and where they do community service. This is true throughout the Midwest and the West and it's a very important thing for Democrats to understand. And then there are businessmen who are really progressive businessmen in the sense that they're honest, that they treat their employees well, and respect their employees, and that they would never harm the public, they would never put profit above public safety and harm their consumers. These folks are all over America calling themselves conservatives.
Now, recalling what I said above about multiple mappings from and to multiple domains, it should be obvious what Lakoff's talking about here: if their concern is primarily about domain X, and their attitude toward domain X is primarily one of nurturance, then they are already progressives without even knowing it.  And that should be the starting point of our communication with them.  Of course, he could have said, "there are plenty of moderates out there who..." but this would have weakened his message, it would have understated the power we have to reach people.

And it would not have accurately reflected at least two fundamental points--(1) Even those identifying as conservatives can be reached with liberal language, when thoughts, language and actions are aligned, because nurturance is a fundamental entrance point. (2) Self-identification is much less important than the actual framework of ideas that are activated in people's heads.

Finally, if Big Tent Democrat were to bring this up with Lakoff, Lakoff would probably say something like, "Well, of course you can persuade moderates more easily than conservatives.  But if you design you strategy to reach moderates, and it falls short--well, that's what happened to Kerry in 2004.  If you design your strategy to reach conservatives and it falls short, you still get elected, and have four more years to get an even bigger majority next time." In other words, he would answer entirely in term of simple, common-sense Big Tent politics.  No fancy-schmancy theory involved at all.

p.s.  Big Tent Democrat's supposed trump card is that 84% of conservatives voted for Bush, while 85% of liberals voted for Kerry.  These figures are a bit higher than those posted by Chris Bowers just after the 2004 election, but the underlying point is basically the same--there's a high degree of ideological polarization in presidential voting.

However, there's decades of polling data showing that conservatives and liberals have large overlaps in their issue positions--mostly from conservatives holding liberal positions.  Differences of over 25% are uncommon, differences of over 35% are rare. This indicates that there's a lot of potential to change that sharp polarization on voting.

Issue Voters

Big Tent Democrat gets this one totally wrong.  Just completely misunderstands the context.

First, he quotes Lakoff:

   Many Democrats have a false view of the electorate. They think that if you look at polling data that it will tell you about the electorate because polling data looks at the electorate issue by issue. And there the electorate looks like it's spread out in a line from left to right, issue by issue. But in fact, that's not how people work; the human mind does not work issue by issue. . .

Then says:
This is right for the most part. But not completely. There is a significant part of the electorate that does vote on issues, even single issues. The right to choose/anti choice issue is the prominent example. These are voters that are simply not gettable for either party in the sense that the singleminded pro-choice voter will vote Democrat and the single minded anti-choice voter will vote Republican.

Refutation #1: Well, duh!  Everyone knows that.  Obviously that's not what Lakoff is talking about, and it's silly to be raising it as a major objection.

Refutation #2:  Here's what Lakoff is really talking about (from Don't Think of An Elephant:

A third mistake is this: There is a metaphor that political campaigns are marketing campaigns where the candidate is the product and the candidate's positions on issues are the features and qualities of the product.

This leads to the conclusion that polling should determine which issues a candidate should run on. Here's a list of issues. Which show the highest degree of support for a candidate's position? If it's prescription drugs, 78 percent, you run on a platform featuring prescription drugs. Is it keeping social security? You run on a platform featuring social security. You make a list of the top issues, and those are the issues you run on. You also do market segmentation: District by district, you find out the most important issues, and those are the ones you talk about when you go to that district. It does not work. Sometimes it can be useful, and, in fact, the Republicans use it in addition to their real practice.

But their real practice, and the real reason for their success, is this: They say what they idealistically believe. They say it; they talk to their base using the frames of their base. Liberal and progressive candidates tend to follow their polls and decide that they have to become more "centrist" by moving to the right. The conservatives do not move at all to the left, and yet they win!

This is what Lakoff is arguing about.  This is where people differ.  Not over the existence of single-issue voters.  That's a non-debate, and Big Tent Democrat surely knows it.

Finally, The Mid-Term Message Things

Here Big Tent Democrat tried to take Lakoff to task for what is actually a common criticism throughout the blogosphere--the Dems lack of a coherent positive message--which, as Lakoff himself would be the first to tell you, does not have to be a 10-point plan.

Big Tent Democrat:

Lakoff's misunderstanding is best exemplified in this segment:

       AE: For my last question I want to ask you about how optimistic you are right now. My co-blogger at Emboldened, Matt Browner Hamlin, points out that the conservatives seem to be splintering over immigration and military tribunals, and I'm wondering what you think the prospect is for progressives to reinsert their nurturant values back into the debate.

       GL: In general I'm an optimist but I don't see very much being done right now by the Democratic Party that's really effective. They seem to be reacting more than acting positively. They're a little bit more sophisticated about framing but, as you saw on "cut and run," they were very unsophisticated. I don't take the fissures in the Republican Party as boding anything whatever about this election. I think they can patch that over very well. I just don't see it harming them that significantly in a Congressional election.

       Secondly, there's a terrible Democratic strategy being put forth which is to say, as Chuck Schumer said last week, this is a referendum on the Republicans. They all talk about the Republicans as being incompetent. That's a big mistake for two reasons. What that says is that you're going to be quiet and let the other guys fail. That's wrong because what that does is allow the Republicans to frame all the issues between now and the election. If you're silent and you just say, "you're going to fail," you're letting the other guys control the debate, and you can't do that. Moreover, if you say that they're incompetent, what is the incompetence frame? It says, "you've got the right idea, you're just not carrying it out right." So what does Bush do? He appoints more competent people. "Well now we have a more competent person who is Secretary of the Treasury, and now we have a more competent head of the CIA, and now we have a more competent this and more competent that." It doesn't change the ideology. It's the ideology that is screwing up the country. And that ideology is being used by every Congressman and every candidate for office among the conservatives. That ideology has to be fought. (Emphasis supplied.)

Lakoff is wrong is almost every way here. First, his rejection of the upcoming election as being a referendum on Republican governance is simply not consistent with reality. Elections are first and foremost a moment of accountability for the government. By definition this election will be referendum on the current Republican government. Kerry's major campaign failure in 2004 was his inability to make the 2004 election a referendum on Bush. Rove successfully made Kerry one of the major issues while Bush himself was only an issue in contrast to Kerry. Lakoff further misunderstands that a referendum on the Republican government does not mean silence. It means the exact opposite. It means Democratic critique of the Republican performance.

This is so mistaken and so confused, it's hard to know where to start.  First, it's obvious that any time you run against an incumbent, it is, in some sense, a referendum on them.  The question is--is that enough?  And the answer is--of course not.  You can't beat something with nothing.  You've got to offer them some alternative.  And it's not just Lakoff who says that.  The whole damn blogosphere says that.  The lack of significant movement in the generic ballot race (Dems favored by 10 points last September, and by 11 points in June) say that, too.  Democrats may very well take back the House this year, but it won't be because of their national strategy, but in spite of it.

And even Big Tent Democrat realizes this implicitly when saying, "Kerry's major campaign failure in 2004 was his inability to make the 2004 election a referendum on Bush. Rove successfully made Kerry one of the major issues while Bush himself was only an issue in contrast to Kerry." And why was that?  Because Kerry failed to define himself, and let Republicans frame him instead, starting with the ludicrous "flip-flop" charge, and reaching a crescendo with the slanderous Swift Boat Liars.  And that's what Lakoff is saying: Democrats need to define themselves.  Otherwise, the GOP will simply frame the Dems as unacceptable, and it will be yet another referendum on the Dems instead of a referendum on the GOP.

Finally, Big Tent Democrat adds one final example of seemingly deliberate misunderstanding:

Lakoff further misunderstands that a referendum on the Republican government does not mean silence. It means the exact opposite. It means Democratic critique of the Republican performance.
But Lakoff makes it very clear what he means by "silence"--he means silence about the Republican worldview, not just their performance.

Here are Lakoff's own words, which Big Tent Democrat has just gotten through quoting, but now totally ignores:

Secondly, there's a terrible Democratic strategy being put forth which is to say, as Chuck Schumer said last week, this is a referendum on the Republicans. They all talk about the Republicans as being incompetent. That's a big mistake for two reasons. What that says is that you're going to be quiet and let the other guys fail. That's wrong because what that does is allow the Republicans to frame all the issues between now and the election. If you're silent and you just say, "you're going to fail," you're letting the other guys control the debate, and you can't do that. Moreover, if you say that they're incompetent, what is the incompetence frame? It says, "you've got the right idea, you're just not carrying it out right." So what does Bush do? He appoints more competent people.

In short, Big Tent Democrat's criticism bears no relationship to what Lakoff actually was saying.


There's a lesson here. Big Tent Democrat is attacking Lakoff is the same sort of strawman way that wingnuts commonly attack liberals.  And that speaks volumes.

There is no attempt at all to be fair to Lakoff, to actually try to understand his argument, rather than pin a made-up one on him. Much less is there any any attempt to, like, ask questions, and do research to actually learn what he's talking about.  This sort of mindless attack is symptomatic of what's wrong with the Democratic Party.  And it's not all inside the Beltway.  It's everywhere.  The Beltway is worse, because there's more of this thinking there.  A lot more.  But its not fundamentally the location that's the problem.  It's the mindset.  The know-it-all mindset that can come in a 20-something body just as well as a 60-something one. It can blog from El Paso as well as Capital Hill.  It is the death of new ideas, fresh thinking, and far-seeing.  We should have no time for it.

Tags: cognitive metaphor, Framing, Lakoff (all tags)



Re: George Lakoff, Fingernail Clipped...Or Not

Great post.  I thought what Lakoff was saying made a lot of sense.  I am not sure why people got so worked up about it.

by John Mills 2006-07-21 01:20PM | 0 recs
Poor Reading Skills?

No, seriously, there are a lot of folks in politics because they're people people.  Which makes a lot of sense.  They aren't science people.  They don't have a deep fascination and love of how things work.  (Obviously, this doesn't apply to the nerd component here & elsewhere.)

And so for some of them (certainly not all, just look at how popular Darksyde's diaries and now front page posts at DKos are) there's this simmering resentment of folks who do know how things work, when they start getting to "uppity."  Which means about the same thing it did when segregationist used the term.  In that precise sense, Lakoff is "uppity," and they can't for the life of them just get what he's sayhing.  They are all caught up in the subtext, which is entirely of their own making.  Or not even making.  Just passive acceptance.

I'm not saying this is where all the anti-Lakoff sentiment comes from.  But I think it explains a good share.  When I see passionate disagreement from folks who don't feel a need to justify or explain it, I just don't take it very seriously intellectually.  And a good deal of anti-Lakoff sentiment comes across like that.

Then there's a post like this one, and you realize they'd have been better off just sticking to the "he's got cooties" line.

by Paul Rosenberg 2006-07-21 01:36PM | 0 recs
Re: Poor Reading Skills?

LOL at your subject line.  

I grew up in an activist/political household where we talked politics/policy at the dinner table.  My wife, while interested in politics, did not.  Speaking with her and my in laws I have learned a lot about what drives people who vote but do not follow politics closely.  This is one of the reasons I really liked what Lakoff was saying because he could have been describing my in laws.  

Sometimes people active in politics get caught in an echo chamber of talking amongst themselves not realizing that there is a whole big world out there that votes but doesn't live eat or breath this stuff.  I have been guilty of this.  That is why I like Lakoff's views.  He has done research to learn what drives the rest of the world.

by John Mills 2006-07-21 06:47PM | 0 recs
Re: Poor Reading Skills?

Yeah, I think some of the resistence to Lakoff comes from folks who eat, live and breathe politics, saying to themselves, "That can't be right!"  They just can't imagine what it's like not to be a political junkie.

In the same way that junkies alternatively think that the straight world is a joke, and that the straight world is just like them, political junkies go through the same sort of dichotomous thinking--that those who don't pay attention to politics are morons, and that they'd immediately vote right, if only they had the latest policy brief.

by Paul Rosenberg 2006-07-21 11:08PM | 0 recs
Re: Poor Reading Skills?


by John Mills 2006-07-22 06:47AM | 0 recs


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