Frame This!

"I don’t have time for George Lakoff," says Herb Chao Gunther, executive director of the Public Media Center in San Francisco, the nonprofit media-relations company that helped Greenpeace save whales in the 1980s and has represented Planned Parenthood and NARAL in public-service announcements through two decades of onslaught. "If he really wants to be helpful, he should go canvass houses instead of trying to convince people there’s a magic key to people’s hearts and minds. Because there isn’t."

If you’re a progressive who’s scoured the media or attended activist debriefings after November’s election in search of ways to shift political power to the left, chances are good you’ve heard of George Lakoff and his ideas on framing. Simply put, framing means that how you phrase an idea shapes the response to it. His most cited negative example is "tax relief." "For there to be relief," Lakoff told NPR back in the fall, "there has to be an affliction and an afflicted party who’s harmed by it, a reliever who takes the affliction away, who’s a hero, and if anybody tries to stop them, they’re a bad guy."

A year ago, Lakoff, who has been a linguistics professor at the University of California, Berkeley, since 1972, spoke and wrote in relative obscurity. Most people on the left, let alone mainstream America, had not heard of him. His books, including Moral Politics: What Conservatives Know That Liberals Don’t (1996), were selling at the rate of other respectable academic books, right along with the book Lakoff wrote with Rafael Nuñez, Where Mathematics Comes From: How the Embodied Mind Brings Mathematics Into Being, which held firm for three months in 2001 on New Scientist’s best-seller list but didn’t register much elsewhere. Part of Lakoff’s problem was timing: Moral Politics, meant to address Newt Gingrich’s "Contract With America," landed smack in the middle of the Clinton revolution (the book was reissued in 2002 with the new tag line How Liberals and Conservatives Think). And Lakoff, who now has a think tank behind him called the Rockridge Institute, had yet to learn how to reduce his rich brew of cognitive linguistics down to an easily digestible form. Despite his clear, often lightly funny prose, Moral Politics was not a book to devour on the redeye.

On the other hand, Don’t Think of an Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate, with its foreword by Governor Howard Dean, verges on the tone of an instructional manual, the kind that might teach single women how to manage their money and snag a spouse. Among its guidelines for battling conservatives: "Never act like a victim" and "Stay away from set-ups." It’s written in the comforting language of what Lakoff would call the "nurturant parent" — his metaphor for the liberal politician (as opposed to the conservative’s "strict parent" model). It’s framing made easy for the frustrated and righteous.

And unlike Moral Politics and Where Mathematics Comes From, Elephant became an instant best-seller, soaring to No. 8 on a week after its release. Inspired by an e-mail from, readers downloaded 12,000 copies of the book’s first chapter from the Web site of its publisher, Chelsea Green. By November, the man who last May asked a group assembled at the Berkeley Congregational Church to pardon his nervousness — "I’m used to a little seminar room," he told the unexpectedly large crowd — turned up on Now With Bill Moyers, Good Morning America, CNN and even Fox News. His book and his ideas have since replaced rigged voting machines as the topic of discussion at progressive house parties, which recently convened across the country to watch the new DVD How Democrats and Progressives Can Win: Solutions From George Lakoff.

"Progressives are constantly put in positions where they are expected to respond to conservative arguments," writes Lakoff. "But because conservatives have commandeered so much of the language, progressives are often put on the defensive with little or nothing to say in response."

"We understand the world in terms of frames, in terms of conceptual structures," he explains, "and if the facts don’t fit the frame, the facts . . . bounce off. Think of all those people who still believe that Saddam Hussein was part of al Qaeda." He exhorts liberals to talk about their values, back up their arguments with personal stories, use rhetorical questions and words like accountability, responsibility and common sense. "Once your frame is accepted into the discourse," he writes, "everything you say is just common sense. Why? Because that’s what common sense is: reasoning within a commonplace, accepted frame." Never let yourself be put on the defensive, and "never answer a question framed from your opponent’s point of view." If someone asks how you feel about the "Healthy Forests Initiative," re-frame: "You mean ‘No Tree Left Behind’?" The other side wants to stereotype you as a wimp, he cautions. Don’t let them.

For progressives, liberals, lefties — whatever you choose to call us — this is all useful advice. But Elephant might just as well be titled Don’t Think of Frank Luntz, because it’s impossible to read it and not think of the pollster and de facto Republican Party linguist, who advised conservatives in a string of public memos. In one called "The Environment: A Cleaner, Safer, Healthier America," circulated just before the 2002 congressional race, Luntz warned conservatives they were vulnerable on the environment unless they learned to frame the argument. "Facts only become relevant when the public is receptive and willing to listen to them," he wrote by way of explaining why environmentalists had, in the spring of 2001, so successfully convinced America that the Bush administration was tainting their drinking water with arsenic. "You must explain how it is possible to pursue a commonsense or sensible environmental policy," he said. He encouraged Republicans to talk about their values, back up their arguments with personal stories, use rhetorical questions and words like accountability and responsibility.

"A caricature has taken hold in the public imagination: Republicans seemingly in the pockets of corporate fat cats who rub their hands together and chuckle maniacally as they plot to pollute American for fun and profit," Luntz cautioned. George Lakoff, in essence, has retooled Frank Luntz.

The problem isn’t just that Lakoff’s linguistic theories so closely mirror Luntz’s chirpy playbook in substance and tone. That’s annoying, but not reprehensible. The real problem is that Lakoff has, in the last few months, used those ideas to manufacture a self-help franchise for people who need him about as much as single women need self-help books. He offers comforting solutions to problems that don’t necessarily exist. Because if the Democrats failed — and you could argue that losing by 3 percent of the vote to an incumbent president at war was not really such a resounding defeat — they didn’t fail because they failed to frame the debate. They more likely failed because they didn’t even raise a debate. Not, at any rate, one that mattered to the 55 million voters who picked Bush, sometimes with serious reservations.

Luntz wrote his memos to the congressional Republicans because he needed to keep 2002’s crop of candidates from coming off like the greedy corporate toadies who were occupying the White House. Since then, things have only gotten worse. During the Bush administration’s first four years, the National Park Service’s maintenance budget has been slashed, development-friendly federal judges have been ushered into office, and wilderness areas have been unceremoniously torn open to oil and gas development. The administration is now seeking to undo the good work of the Clean Air Act, dismantle endangered species protection and drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge — despite the opposition of 55 percent of the American public. If Republicans were vulnerable on the environment in 2002, they remained so in 2004: In November’s local races around the country, from Colorado to Illinois, pro-environment, Democratic candidates like Ken Salazar and Barack Obama were sent to Washington by constituencies keenly aware of the ecological stakes. Before the election, when Newsweek asked readers which of the two major presidential candidates they most trusted on the environment, close to two-thirds of them picked Kerry. But the appeal of the environmental movement was hardly tested, because Kerry almost never brought it up.

Nevertheless, within the environmental movement itself, a framing revolution is under way, inspired by George Lakoff and instigated by Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus, two public-relations experts with credentials in the environmental movement, who recently published a controversial essay titled "The Death of Environmentalism."

"We are especially grateful to George Lakoff," it says in the essay’s acknowledgments, and, in the footnotes, claims: "The work of linguist George Lakoff on how conservatives more effectively frame public debates than liberals is being badly misinterpreted . . . The key to applying Lakoff’s analysis is to see vision, values, policy, and politics all as extensions of language." (The authors could have just as easily credited Luntz’s memo, from which at least one of their subheadings has been lifted, nearly verbatim: "Getting Back on the Offensive.") Shellenberger and Nordhaus’ thesis, based on interviews with 25 environmental leaders (some of whom are now complaining about being misinterpreted), is predicated on the notion that the environmental movement needs to re-frame its issues to reflect alliances with business and industry.

"Environmentalists are putting the technical policy cart before the vision-and-values horse," they write. "Investments in cleaner coal should be framed as part of an overall vision for creating jobs in the energy industries of the future, not just a technical fix."

In a similar vein, the authors argue that environmentalists should promote more fuel-efficient cars, not because they’re better for the environment, but because the U.S. auto industry can’t compete with the Japanese unless it develops a cleaner fleet. "That was the right framing [in 1975, when the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards were crafted], and it’s the right framing now."

There’s nothing wrong with couching your arguments and principles in non-defensive language the general public can understand — no one could argue that liberals in general and environmentalists in specific need to whine more. But learning to use constructive language is a debating tactic, not a political strategy, easily mastered in an afternoon seminar. What Lakoff, Shellenberger and Nordhaus are all pushing for is something much grander: the use of "framing" to solve all our current crises, from poverty to oil dependence to global warming. In making their cases, they imply that progressive values and environmentalism are terribly unpopular — so unpopular that we need to somehow euphemize all progressive ideals to shove them down people’s throats.

But Bush didn’t win by a landslide, fuel-efficient vehicles are in ever-higher demand (the waiting list for a Prius is many months long), and a lot of people are frightened about the now obvious changing of the climate — which includes not just higher overall temperatures but an increase in precipitation, without a corresponding relief from drought (with the higher temperatures, the snowpack that feeds reservoirs evaporates too quickly).

What’s more, throughout history, public policy has not changed radically because this or that person put this or that argument in a palatable frame, but because someone sounded an unmistakable alarm. Society has moved forward because somebody — Martin Luther King Jr., Betty Friedan, David Brower, Rachel Carson — had the courage to stand for something that at the time seemed radical, unequivocally and without any linguistic trick but with sheer eloquence and truth.

he Public Media Center has been around for 30 years, and many of the ideas in its "10-point guide to social change," such as "communicate values" and "act like a winner," presaged Lakoff. But the 10 points also include more radical lessons, such as "be oppositional," "be diverse" and "make enemies, not friends." To get the media’s attention, PMC advises activists to be "responsible extremists," not "reasonable moderates," because "extremism sets the agenda." If no one is willing to occupy the extremist positions on the left, or if establishment liberals distance themselves too far from the fringe, the far right will come to seem as though it represents mainstream values. And to PMC executive director Herb Chao Gunther, the problem with the environmental movement is not that it’s incorrectly framing the debate so it comes off as too radical. "Mainstream environmental groups are getting millions of dollars from corporations," he gripes. "There are people sitting on their boards from Waste Management Inc. Tell me they’re making environmentally sound decisions about landfills."

In the summer of 2003, the San Francisco–based Bluewater Network launched a searing campaign against Ford Motor Co. for presenting itself as environmentally sensitive even as it rolled out the least fuel-efficient fleet in the industry. Two years later, Ford has announced four more hybrid-electric vehicles to be developed in the next three calendar years and is outfitting the state of Florida with new Ford E-450 hydrogen buses next year. The campaign against Ford has begun to work, says Gunther, "not because anybody ‘framed’ the debate so Ford could understand, but because Bill Ford, who will only book a hotel room if the windows open, thinks of himself as an environmentalist, and it hurts him when he sees a picture of himself in the Detroit News being described as a liar. It worked because the ads held him accountable in a public way for two years."

And that, after all, is the beauty of being American. "You can speak out against a corporation and not be taken to a wall and shot in the head."

As for the Democrats in general, Gunther believes it’s wrong to see the last election as historic. "George Bush’s legacy will be how he contributed to the burning of the planet with his limited vision or empathy or learning or knowledge. He really is Nero [fiddling] while the planet burned." And Democrats should stop responding as though the Republicans are succeeding mightily in winning over the country.

"There’s nothing profound going on," Gunther insists. "You don’t need to read George Lakoff, or be Karl Rove, to understand it. Just read Machiavelli’s The Prince to see all the tactics that have worked for every society, including America. That the Democratic candidate still got more votes [than Gore in 2000] and more people voted than ever before doesn’t mean we did something wrong. It means the other side had slightly more money and a war. If that only got them 3 million votes and the smallest margin of any president elected, it doesn’t mean it’s the time to watch our language. It means it’s the time to attack.

"We don’t need more politicians who are carefully framing their positions," Gunther concludes. "We need activists who are willing to make some enemies." It won’t necessarily guarantee a Democrat in the White House four years from now, he admits, but who knows for sure what will? "Being on the left isn’t about winning and dominating," he says. "It’s about aligning yourself with the values your culture holds dear; it’s about social justice. That’s not a fight that’s ever won for good, because there will always be bad, greedy people, and you will always have to fight them when they come to power." In the meantime, "You can teach new cultural habits to people." Energy conservation, for instance, is a goal that turns out to be wildly popular among Americans — in the summer of 2003, a full 86 percent of 1,500 respondents in a survey "somewhat" or "strongly" agreed with the statement that President Bush should come out and ask Americans to conserve energy.

The poll was conducted by Frank Luntz.


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