The Man Who Framed Himself

How George Lakoff got trapped in his own metaphors


Like potholes after a snowstorm, when Democrats lose an election the linguist George Lakoff will surface to explain the defeat. Between the recall of California Governor Gray Davis and the failure of the Kerry campaign, he has had countless opportunities to make the case that Democrats must rethink how they frame their issues. Language matters, he argues; everyday phrases can come bundled with unspoken assumptions.

That much is common sense, and should be obvious to anyone who has spent time unpacking the rhetoric of politicans and the press. The best recent illustration I've seen was sketched by Steve Koppelman, a liberal blogger with a libertarian streak, as the Bush-Kerry race entered the home stretch:

If someone owns a large home on a big piece of land with horse stables, a guest house and servants' quarters, and doesn't use the land for farming, what do you call it?

What if it's in Massachusetts or Pennsylvania?

What if it's in Texas?

Now try this: Every time you see or hear a reference to George Bush's "ranch," substitute the word "estate." When you see a reference to John and Teresa Heinz Kerry's "estates" in Massachusetts or Pennsylvania, substitute the word "ranch."

Lakoff's favorite example is a little less impressive. He doesn't like the phrase "tax relief," he writes in his 2004 booklet Don't Think of an Elephant!, because "When the word tax is added to relief, the result is a metaphor: Taxation is an affliction." When Democrats use language like that, he warns, they're "accepting the conservative frame. The conservatives had set a trap: The words drew you into their worldview." Lakoff himself seems to have embraced a key component of the Republican worldview: that the Democrats are the party of taxes.

But the problem with Lakoff isn't merely that he's politically tone-deaf, nor that he's unwilling to confront the possibility that there's such a thing as a bad tax. He is hardly the only Democrat to suffer those two debilities. The problem is that he has a frame of his own to sell, a model that may have some explanatory power but which he has stretched far beyond its limits. The difference between left and right, he argues, is best understood as a split between two concepts of the family. Conservatives follow a "strict father" morality; liberals favor the "nurturing parent" approach. Both project their preferred ideal onto the nation.

In his 1996 book Moral Politics, Lakoff presents the details of these rival visions. He also acknowledges some of the complications that set in when you remember that left and right are not monolithic blocks. These are "radial" categories, he writes, in which a "central model…gives rise to systematic variations that radiate out from the center like the spokes of a wheel." He then sets about cramming outlooks into one wheel or the other—a surprisingly easy task, since he doesn't clutter his research with interviews or other sociological investigations, sticking instead to reading some representative texts. (Or even less: His brief comments on the militias are based only on unspecified "reports" that "former KKK members have been joining the militia movement.") Racial nationalists of the left are ignored. Feminists are sorted into piles of left and right. Libertarians are shoved under the "strict father" ethos, even though many prefer arguments that reflect Lakoff's "nurturing parent" values—and quite a few don't really fit either category at all. If there's one thing libertarians ought to agree on, after all, it's that nations and families are not analogous.

It would be interesting to see some real research on the relationship between political and family values, and perhaps some day some admirer of Lakoff will confirm, refute, or complicate the correlations the linguist has extrapolated from James Dobson's childrearing manuals. For now, we're left with an elaborate variation on the ancient libertarian joke that Republicans want the government to be your father, Democrats want the government to be your mother, and libertarians want to treat you as an adult. Except that Lakoff's frame doesn't have room for the third option, or for any variations of the left or right that call the parental metaphor into question. (This may be related to his apparent inability to reconcile social justice with low taxes.)

If Lakoff's frame is limited, then so are his rhetorical skills. One reason to understand an opponent's frame, after all, is not to overthrow it but to hijack it—to make a case for your policies in the language of the opposition. The liberal pundit Matthew Yglesias, for example, has suggested that opponents of Bush's Social Security plan should reject the phrase "private accounts" in favor of "forced savings," a clever bit of rhetorical ju-jitsu that might have traction with conservatives skeptical of government requirements. (Of course, "forced savings" describes the status quo as well, except perhaps the "savings" part.) Lakoff himself notes that conservatives have learned to dress up unpopular proposals in liberal lingo, but he doesn't seem interested in teaching transvestism to the left.

Instead he proposes a full-fledged reorientation of the language, a project he is somewhat ill-suited to lead. Near the end of Don't Think of an Elephant!, he writes that conservatives "have figured out their own values, principles, and directions, and have gotten them out in the public mind so effectively over the past thirty years that they can evoke them all in a ten-word philosophy: Strong Defense, Free Markets, Lower Taxes, Smaller Government, Family Values." He proposes a similar ten-word philosophy for liberals: "Stronger America, Broad Prosperity, Better Future, Effective Government, Mutual Responsibility." Maybe I'm just missing the frame, but that sure sounds like mush to me.