George Lakoff has long held the view that the Republicans control the national debate (they frame it) by always keeping the Democrats on the defensive. According to author Bonnie Azab Powell of the UCBerkeley News, the conservatives have spent years defining their ideas and carefully choosing the language with which to portray those ideas. And they have cleverly built a sort of infrastructure with which to communicate them. From his years of observing this sad truth, Lakoff and others formed one of the nation's only progressive think tanks, the Rockridge Institute.
It will take you a few minues, but please read and digest some of his comments.
Lakoff said, in an interview which appeared in the article linked at the end of this post:
"The conservative worldview, the strict father model, assumes that the world is dangerous and difficult and that children are born bad and must be made good. The strict father is the moral authority who supports and defends the family, tells his wife what to do, and teaches his kids right from wrong. The only way to do that is through painful discipline - physical punishment that by adulthood will become internal discipline. The good people are the disciplined people. Once grown, the self-reliant, disciplined children are on their own. Those children who remain dependent (who were spoiled, overly willful, or recalcitrant) should be forced to undergo further discipline or be cut free with no support to face the discipline of the outside world."
"So, project this onto the nation and you see that to the right wing, the good citizens are the disciplined ones - those who have already become wealthy or at least self-reliant - and those who are on the way. Social programs, meanwhile, "spoil" people by giving them things they haven't earned and keeping them dependent. The government is there only to protect the nation, maintain order, administer justice (punishment), and to provide for the promotion and orderly conduct of business. In this way, disciplined people become self-reliant. Wealth is a measure of discipline. Taxes beyond the minimum needed for such government take away from the good, disciplined people rewards that they have earned and spend it on those who have not earned it. "
"The background for Rockridge is that conservatives, especially conservative think tanks, have framed virtually every issue from their perspective. They have put a huge amount of money into creating the language for their worldview and getting it out there. Progressives have done virtually nothing. Even the new Center for American Progress, the think tank that John Podesta [former chief of staff for the Clinton administration] is setting up, is not dedicated to this at all. I asked Podesta who was going to do the Center's framing. He got a blank look, thought for a second and then said, "You!" Which meant they haven't thought about it at all. And that's the problem. Liberals don't get it. They don't understand what it is they have to be doing.
"Rockridge's job is to reframe public debate, to create balance from a progressive perspective. It's one thing to analyze language and thought, it's another thing to create it. That's what we're about. It's a matter of asking 'What are the central ideas of progressive thought from a moral perspective?' "
"Language always comes with what is called "framing." Every word is defined relative to a conceptual framework. If you have something like "revolt," that implies a population that is being ruled unfairly, or assumes it is being ruled unfairly, and that they are throwing off their rulers, which would be considered a good thing. That's a frame. "
"If you then add the word "voter" in front of "revolt," you get a metaphorical meaning saying that the voters are the oppressed people, the governor is the oppressive ruler, that they have ousted him and this is a good thing and all things are good now. All of that comes up when you see a headline like "voter revolt" - something that most people read and never notice. But these things can be affected by reporters and very often, by the campaign people themselves.
"Here's another example of how powerful framing is. In Arnold Schwarzenegger's acceptance speech, he said, "When the people win, politics as usual loses." What's that about? Well, he knows that he's going to face a Democratic legislature, so what he has done is frame himself and also Republican politicians as the people, while framing Democratic politicians as politics as usual - in advance. The Democratic legislators won't know what hit them. They're automatically framed as enemies of the people. "
"The phrase "Tax relief" began coming out of the White House starting on the very day of Bush's inauguration. It got picked up by the newspapers as if it were a neutral term, which it is not. First, you have the frame for "relief." For there to be relief, there has to be an affliction, an afflicted party, somebody who administers the relief, and an act in which you are relieved of the affliction. The reliever is the hero, and anybody who tries to stop them is the bad guy intent on keeping the affliction going. So, add "tax" to "relief" and you get a metaphor that taxation is an affliction, and anybody against relieving this affliction is a villain."
And how about that administration-coined term "time horizon"! You can bet that one came from a conservative think tank. (I like what Jon Stewart said recently, which was basically that the administration is using a term which by definition is athing you can see, but no matter how close you get to it, you can never quite reach it.)
Another good example of a think-tank term is renaming the Estate Tax "the Death Tax". Even though the Estate Tax affects only a minute fraction of one percent of Americans (the wealthiest of us), by calling it the "Death Tax" the GOP makes it sound like the Democrats will tax us all when we die! Or even after we're dead! And that is about as far as most voters are going to go in examining the Estate Tax...
I think what Lakoff describes is what is happening to Obama right now. The GOP is doing all the framing, and as a result Obama is constantly on the defensive. I declare that Barack Obama is now John McCain's official punching bag. It seems like the Democrats don't have a clue as to how to respond to McCain's attacks or about how to reframe issues in terms the press, and subsequently America, will gobble up.
The GOP, through its clever manipulation of language and its elaborate communication network, is convincing Americans that Barack Obama will "raise taxes", that he wants to "forfeit" the Iraq war, that he is "against lower gasoline prices", etcetera ad nauseum. Newt Gingrich is hinting that the GOP will force a government shutdown unless Congress gets back together to approve of more offshore drilling. The Democrats will respond to the GOP attacks by trying to use logic, and this never works.
Just watch... Congress will get back together and pass some awful offshore drilling legislation. Why? Because the Dems are scared. The Democrats don't have a clue about how to respond to the GOP's use of language that paints them as the bad guys, so rather than mount an effective response, they will roll over for fear of being perceived as the "bad guys". I think this is why they have continued to knuckle under to the Bush administration on such issues as war funding. It will be painful to watch them knuckle under once more, this time on energy.
Our "media" is way too quick to pick up on these GOP think-tank terms and use them in our daily "news". Is the media on the right wing's side? Sure it is. Is it because the media prefers McCain? Not neceessarily. Sure, the right wing media outlets (i.e. FOX, Washington Times, etc.) all prefer McCain. After all, there are something like 1,500 right wing radio talk show hosts in the country... But I think what is much worse than that is that the parts of the media that aren't flat-out controlled by the right wing have been suckered into unwittingly spreading the Republican message anyway. I'm sure many in the corporate media consider themselves savvy, but I would submit that in this case, "stupid is as stupid does".
I am sorry for being such a negatorian here, but I'm beginning to think it rather unlikely that Barack Obama will be our next president, for this reason more than any other: the GOP knows how to use language and how to control the national debate, and the Democrats simply do not. They don't have a clue!
If it looks like Barack Obama is not doing an effective job fighting off John McCain's daily attacks, whether those attacks are founded or not, it is because... he isn't! Sitting back and absorbing his opponent's blows until his opponent tires, like Muhammad Ali used to do with his "rope-a-dope" boxing technique, is not going to work for Obama in this election campaign. Waiting for the GOP to implode will only work if McCain proves to be completely addled and inept, and does himself in with some huge gaffes (and if such gaffes actually get reported in our national "media").
So far, McCain has been too good a fighter. And he has a great punching bag.
Here is the article from which I took Lakoff's quotes. There is much more here:
And I would be remiss to not include the link to Rockridge. Here it is, please check it out: