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“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
Amazon.com a week after its release. Inspired by an e-mail from MoveOn.com,
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.