Liberal and Conservative messaging – Lakoff

This is a rambling, thinking out loud post, so I won’t use my customary horde of links. Deal with it.

So a few days ago I mentioned that I’ve been reading George Lakoff. George Lakoff, for those of you who don’t know, is an influential progressive thinker and a prominent thinker on neuro-linguistics.

His big idea is to reject the Overton Window style of thinking of political rhetoric, and instead focus on manipulating language and linguistics through framing. Framing is a psychological concept, where a person associates many ideas and prejudices with each word. Thus, careful selection of words will lead to the desired frame, conservative or liberal.

People tend to try to deal with complexity through metaphor and simplification. Thus, we reduce the complex social construct of the American people into a metaphor of a family: Founding Fathers, Sons of Liberty, when we use soldiers we “send our sons off into war”, etc. The frame, or lens, that conservatives use is the “strict father” idea that harkens back towards calvinist imagery: The world is full of evil. Children are constantly tempted by evil, so they need a strong, authoritarian father to beat back the evil in the world and protect them. This strong father is needed to impose discipline on these children and force them to practice enough self-denial and use willpower to contain their evil impulses. Clear, Manichean good/evil dictonomy.

Here, let’s have Wikipedia explain it succintly:

Lakoff argues that the differences in opinions between liberals and conservatives follow from the fact that they subscribe with different strength to two different metaphors about the relationship of the state to its citizens. Both, he claims, see governance through metaphors of the family. Conservatives would subscribe more strongly and more often to a model that he calls the “strict father model” and has a family structured around a strong, dominant “father” (government), and assumes that the “children” (citizens) need to be disciplined to be made into responsible “adults” (financially and morally responsible beings). However, the “children” are “adults”, and so the “father” should not interfere with their lives: the government should stay out of the business of those in society who have proved their responsibility. In contrast, Lakoff argues that liberals place more support in a model of the family, which he calls the “nurturant parent model”, based on “nurturant values”, where both “mothers” and “fathers” work to keep the essentially good “children” away from “corrupting influences” (pollution, social injustice, poverty, etc.). Lakoff says that most people have a blend of both metaphors applied at different times, and that political speech works primarily by invoking these metaphors and urging the subscription of one over the other.[3]

I’m not entirely sold on Lakoff. He’s only one linguist: maybe he’s only relaying mostly basic linguistic thought, wrapped in the family frame model. Maybe some other bright linguist has a better idea of which frames are actually active in our minds. I’m also unconvinced that there are only two frames worth bothering with.

I like his emphasis on framing, however. Framing exists. The role of Narrative and the story arc exists. When you re-frame the recipients of welfare from virtuous white widows of coal miners to “welfare queens”, real political change follows. When you re-frame the estate tax from “making sure that inherited wealth doesn’t turn us into a psuedo-aristocracy” to “the death tax, which is destroying poor farmers”, the facts don’t matter. Just as power in Washington is the perception of having power, thus truth in our discourse has been replaced by the perception of truth. Things that sound as if they were true, if you sort of squint at them in bad light. Reality has been replaced by truthiness

And while the Media and their obsession with the story-arc bares some blame for the intensification on this “Assault on Reason”, there was really no golden age of the reign of facts. Progressives and Democrats are trying to point out that they have the best facts. Reactionary Republicans know that they don’t need facts as much as framing.

Stephen Colbert gets it. While there’s been a lot of mis-interpretation of his feelings on truthiness, he uses it to expose this phenomenon. (Video)

I didn’t read Lakoff’s academic papers, only his “field manual” (Thinking Like an Elephant), but the conservative mindview he presents here doesn’t seem right to me. Geoffrey Nunberg, the Author of Talking Right, challenges him in an intelligent-sounding way over at The New Republic, so go there if you want the perspective of another linguist who wrote a similar book. In my opinion, however, I’d like to quibble with Lakoff on details.

Do conservatives really feel that pregnant women who want to have abortions should be punished by being forced to have the baby? While the US as a family metaphor is of moderate strength, and the family is the first social unit we encounter, why does it necessarily follow that all political thinking is made through the frame of family?

Lakoff is great when he challenges the role that reason plays in political decision making. Progressives need to remember that the Enlightenment, while awesome, ended more than 200 years ago. We have new models of thought, so we need to update our views on how political thought works accordingly.

I’ll leave you with this Lakoff quote, which I agree with. Tomorrow, we’ll be discussing Reason, the Enlightenment, and the three-brained man.

We can no longer conduct 21st century politics with a 17th century understanding of the mind…. In thinking, the old view comes originally from Descartes’ 17th Century rationalism. A view of thought as symbolic logic was formalized by Bertrand Russell and Gottlob Frege around the turn of the 20th Century, and a rationalist interpretation was revived by Chomsky in the 1950’s. In that view, thought is a matter of (as Pinker puts it) “old-fashioned … universal disembodied reason.” Here reason is seen as the manipulation of meaningless symbols, as in symbolic logic.

The new view is that reason is embodied in a nontrivial way. The brain gives rise to thought in the form of conceptual frames, image-schemas, prototypes, conceptual metaphors, and conceptual blends. The process of thinking is not algorithmic symbol manipulation, but rather neural computation, using brain mechanisms…

These questions matter in progressive politics, because many progressives were brought up with the old 17th Century rationalist view of reason that implies that, if you just tell people the facts, they will reason to the right conclusion–since reason is universal. We know from recent elections that this is just false. “Old-fashioned … universal disembodied reason” also claims that everyone reasons the same way, that differences in world-view don’t matter. But anybody tuning in to contemporary talk shows will notice that not everybody reasons the same way and that world-view does matter.

By Tommy Belknap

Owner, developer, editor of DragonFlyEye.Net, Tom Belknap is also a freelance journalist for The 585 lifestyle magazine. He lives in the Rochester area with his wife and son.

7 replies on “Liberal and Conservative messaging – Lakoff”


Great post, Sahar! I’m about to go snorkling and thought I’d chck in. I’ve not read Lakoff, but interviews I’ve heard of him have always made me suspect that his take on politics is over-simple. I have to say that, from the outset, his concept of using framing in the Conservative model has always seemed objectionable to me. He says don’t talk like a Conservative, but ten advocates using the same basic concepts to reorder the field that Conservatives have created in political speech.

Wel, I think we’re starting to see one of those moments of American clarity where framing means crap. Just a thought.

But that’s as much as I can write on a WebTV interface.


Well, I kinda agree with him that framing really matters. He’s also definitely not the first scientist to explore the use of framing. I just disagree with him on the specific frames used, as well as the emphasis he puts on certain things.

Thanks for the kudos!

Comments are closed.