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George Lakoff George Lakoff, UC Berkeley linguistics professor and Rockridge Institute Fellow. (BAP photos)

Linguistics professor George Lakoff dissects the "war on terror" and other conservative catchphrases

– With the Democratic National Convention over and the Republican one beginning next week, it seemed a good time to check in with George Lakoff, the UC Berkeley professor of cognitive linguistics whose scrutiny of the language of politics has begun to bring him national recognition. The author of the seminal book "Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think," Lakoff's specialty is dissecting "framing," or the ways in which conservatives and liberals position issues to fit their respective moral worldviews. (For more on framing, read this excerpt from the NewsCenter's October 2003 interview with Lakoff.) He grasps how Republicans use language more effectively than Democrats, and what Democrats can do about it.

When we last talked to Lakoff, he had just embarked on a one-year sabbatical from UC Berkeley to work on three books, none of them about politics. He got sidetracked. Presidential candidate Howard Dean made "Moral Politics" required reading for his campaign staff, more than 200 advocacy groups called for Lakoff's advice, the Democratic senators invited him twice to their policy retreats, and he began getting calls from progressive groups around the country. The Rockridge Institute, the progressive think tank he cofounded with seven other UC professors to reframe public debate, began buzzing with activity. In response to demand, Lakoff set aside his linguistic research for intense - and in many ways more challenging - study of the application of linguistics and cognitive science to politics.

In the last couple of months he has written a short book, "Don't Think of an Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate," which will be marketed at first over the Internet with the help of a host of advocacy groups. Billed as the "essential guide for progressives," the book is praised by such members of the liberal pantheon as Dean, the founders of MoveOn.org, the Sierra Club's Carl Pope, and billionaire political activist George Soros. The $10 paperback can be ordered from the publisher, Chelsea Green, and from BarnesandNoble.com; it will be published around September 8.

 UC Berkeley linguistics professor George Lakoff filed daily dispatches about the language used in the major speeches of the Republican National Convention. (Bart Nagel photo)
•  August 30: All terror, all the time
•  August 31: Pull yourself up by your bootstraps — if you can afford the boots
•  September 1: Red-meat night frames Kerry
•  September 2: Freedom, liberty, freedom

Next week Lakoff returns to teaching at UC Berkeley with Linguistics 290L, a seminar that will train students to recognize frames and follow their usage in the presidential election. And starting August 30, he will comment for the NewsCenter on how issues are being framed by Republican Convention speakers.

What's in this new "essential guide for progressives"? Even the Democratic Party seems to have trouble defining what makes a liberal.

Well, for that reason I wrote a chapter on what unites progressives - a moral system, certain political principles, and what I call policy directions as opposed to policies. A policy direction is something like "Let's have a sustainable environment" and "Working people shouldn't be living in poverty" and "Everybody should have health care." The problem is that the Democrats have wanted to talk about programs rather than policy directions, and programs call up distinctions, which tend to separate people. For example, Kerry should be talking about health care for everyone, and just put a white paper with the details of the program on his website. The values, principles, and general directions are what people care about and what brings them together. It's pointless to argue about the policy-wonk details, because they're going to change anyway.

In another chapter I tell progressives how to talk to conservatives. This is not rocket science: you should show respect, know your values, always reframe, and say what you believe. The important thing is not to accept their framing of the issues, nor just negate their framing - that just reinforces it. Simply confronting them with facts won't help. Frames trump facts. The facts alone will not set you free. You have to reframe the issues before the facts can become meaningful and powerful.

Some conservatives are ideologues and you're not going to sway them. But most conservatives are nice people. What you want to do is activate their nurturing model, engage their empathy. Ask them who they care about, what they care about, and why. Find out where their empathy lies. Connect with the part of them that shares your values, and get that to spread to other issues.

Last October you said that "liberals don't get it" - they don't even realize that conservatives are controlling the terms of debate. Have they gotten any better at framing?

There's been a lot of improvement. In nine months we've managed to reach a lot of people. You saw it in action at the Democratic Convention, in the speeches by Bill Clinton, Ted Kennedy, Barack Obama, and John Kerry. They talked about values. That's a big change, and it's not an accident. They talked about unity, not the culture war. They began to explain why Democratic values are traditional American values - an important step. The idea is very simple: Look at the things we are most proud of in this country, from the Declaration of Independence to the present. We had slavery then. We abolished it. Only male property owners could vote. Now both non-property owners and women can vote.

The New Deal, the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act - these too are all products of progressive, liberal values. They represent advances of the nurturant parent model versus the conservative "strict father" model [articulated in Lakoff's "Moral Politics," see here for a brief discussion]. These movements are also seen as stemming from traditional American values, part of our shared heritage. So, when you start looking at what this country is rightfully proud of, it's the extension of progressive values. And it's time to say that loud and clear.

One of the values that Democrats seemed to drop into every sentence of the Convention was "strength." How is that part of the progressive canon?

You have to fight strength with strength. That's straight out of "Moral Politics": the strict father has to be strong, but the nurturant parent must also be strong. However, I don't think the Democrats did a good job of defining what the difference is in Kerry's kind of strength, because they refused to use the word "weak" in reference to Bush. They wanted to have a completely positive campaign - which it isn't anyway - but they didn't want to say that Bush has made the country weaker. The issue of weakness awakens the stereotype of liberals, so instead they said, "Look, we just want America to be stronger."

But "stronger" doesn't necessarily imply weak. They could have talked more directly about all the ways Bush has weakened the country. When they have a case to be made on the basis of a pattern of behavior, they don't tend to use a grammar that really nails the message, like "We're weaker in education, and here's why. We're weaker in security, and here's why." You could write this argument in half a page. The Democrats aren't there yet, by any means.

George Lakoff
'A "war president" has extraordinary powers. And the "war on terror," of course, never ends. There's no peace treaty with terror. It's a prescription for keeping conservatives in power indefinitely.'
-George Lakoff

Why do conservatives like to use the phrase "liberal elite" as an epithet?

Conservatives have branded liberals, and the liberals let them get away with it: the "liberal elite," the "latte liberals," the "limousine liberals." The funny thing is that conservatives are the elite. The whole idea of conservative doctrine is that some people are better than others, that some people deserve more. To conservatives, if you're poor it's because you deserve it, you're not disciplined enough to get ahead. Conservative doctrine requires that there be an elite: the people who thrive in the free market have more money, and they should. Progressives say, "No, that's not fair. Maybe some should have more money, but no one should live in poverty. Everybody who works deserves to have a reasonable standard of living for their work." These are ideas that are progressive or liberal ideas, and progressives aren't getting them out there enough.

What progressives are promoting is not elite at all. Progressives ought to be talking about the conservative elite. They shouldn't be complaining about "tax cuts for the rich," they should be complaining about "tax cuts for the conservative elite," because that's who's getting them.

Speaking of taxes, Democrats seem to have at last stopped falling into the trap of using the phrase "tax relief" - thereby adopting conservative framing that taxes are an affliction from which citizens need to be rescued. But they haven't yet presented an alternate frame for taxes.

Every now and then they slip and say "tax relief for the middle class," but yes, they're learning. The Republicans, meanwhile, have increased their usage.

Recently I've been talking about taxes as investments for the common good. In the past the government made certain wise investments in things like the interstate highway system. You just get in your car and drive; you don't think about how every time you use the highways you're getting a dividend on that previous investment - and so is every business that sends a truck over the interstate highway system. The Internet is another example. It started out as a network funded by the Defense Department, by the government investing taxpayers' money. Now, every time you surf the Web, you're getting a dividend. Drugs and medical advances that come out of National Institutes of Health grants are financed by taxpayers. Computer chips in our computers and cars exist because of the government's early investment of taxpayers' money in semiconductor research.

But wouldn't conservatives argue, as they have with Social Security, that individuals can invest their money better than the government?

That's simple. Would you prefer to have the government build and maintain the highway system, or do it yourself? Would you rather have a private company owning the highway system and the Internet, and charging you God knows how much to use them? You like the army, but do you want to build your own? How about your own police and fire departments? No. You want a government that can do the things you need, in the areas where private companies can't or won't do them or simply can't be trusted to do them right. One of progressives' main goals is a better future for all. A wise and efficient government is needed for that in hundreds of ways.

When it comes to government investment of your tax money, businesses benefit even more than ordinary people. To start a business, you don't have to invent computer science or the telephone network, you don't have to build a highway system. They're just there for businesses to use, as is the Federal Reserve, the Treasury Department, the SEC, the Commerce Department, and the courts. A company doesn't have to make up a way to adjudicate its disputes with other companies; we paid for it already. Nine-tenths of the courts are there for corporate law. Corporations get enormous benefits paid for by other taxpayers, but they've stopped paying their way. Corporate income tax used to make up about 38 percent of all U.S. taxes. Now it's less than 10 percent. Ordinary taxpayers are making the investments in infrastructure, and corporate stockholders are getting the dividends. And that's just not fair.

You've said that progressives should never use the phrase "war on terror" - why?

There are two reasons for that. Let's start with "terror." Terror is a general state, and it's internal to a person. Terror is not the person we're fighting, the "terrorist." The word terror activates your fear, and fear activates the strict father model, which is what conservatives want. The "war on terror" is not about stopping you from being afraid, it's about making you afraid.

Next, "war." How many terrorists are there - hundreds? Sure. Thousands? Maybe. Tens of thousands? Probably not. The point is, terrorists are actual people, and relatively small numbers of individuals, considering the size of our country and other countries. It's not a nation-state problem. War is a nation-state problem.

What about the "war on drugs" or the "war on poverty"?

Those are metaphorical. Real wars are wars against countries, and in the "war on terror," we are attacking countries. But those countries are not the same as the terrorists. We're acting at the wrong level. Meanwhile, by using this frame, we get a commander in chief, as the Republicans keep referring to Bush - a "war president" with "war powers," which imply that ordinary protections don't have to be observed. A "war president" has extraordinary powers. And the "war on terror," of course, never ends. There's no peace treaty with terror. It's a prescription for keeping conservatives in power indefinitely. In three words - "war on terror" - they've enacted vast political changes.

Bush has positioned war with Iraq as part of the "war on terror." How can progressives frame opposition to the Iraq war without being tarred as unpatriotic or as in league with the terrorists?

By criticizing Bush for weakening us. By saying out loud, while waving the flag, that the Iraq war has made us more vulnerable to terrorists in many ways. Iraq had nothing to do with 911 or al Qaeda. By moving troops from Afghanistan to Iraq, Bush may have let Osama bin Laden escape, and he certainly allowed al Qaeda and the Taliban to regroup. Moreover, the Iraq war has recruited more terrorists. The $200 billion we've spent there could have been used to enhance homeland security, which has mostly been ignored. It could also have been used to address the root causes of terrorism, which the Bush administration is ignoring. Moreover, Bush has allowed North Korea and Iran to move toward becoming nuclear powers, while he concentrated our efforts on Iraq, which had no nuclear weapons program. Allowing nuclear proliferation aids terrorism.

The Bush reply is always avoidance: that we're better off without Saddam Hussein. Clinton gave the clearest rebuttal of that argument: There are other bad guys like Saddam Hussein in the world, in North Korea, Iran, and Sudan. There are bad guys all over the place. Are we going to invade all these countries? As Clinton said, we can't possibly attack, imprison or kill everyone who's against us. We have to make friends.

You can also take a patriotic stand and criticize Bush for being ineffectual. You have to be on the offensive. Why did we go into Iraq without a peace plan? Without properly equipping our troops? Without our allies?

How do you frame this issue of Iraq? You say, "We go to war when we have to, when it's really necessary, when we're being attacked. We don't go to war as an instrument of economic policy. We don't go to war as an instrument of geopolitical positioning. We go to war when we have no other choice. We go with a plan for winning the peace, and we go with enough troops to be effective. Those are the minimal conditions." In short, you don't have to go on the defensive at all.

The old definition of a conservative was someone in favor of maintaining the status quo, that is, upholding tradition and opposing major changes in laws and institutions. Are Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and Ashcroft et al. mainstream conservatives?

As I say in the new book, they're radicals. They're not trying to conserve anything. They're trying to impose a strict father model taken from a terrible, disastrous parenting method - one ruled by the use of abusive power and force - on America and the world. If you're disciplined enough to make enough money to buy good health care, you deserve it, and to buy a good education for your children, you deserve it. Otherwise you don't deserve it and you won't get it.

This goes against American egalitarianism and the idea of economic equity - that is, if people work hard and play by the rules, they should have a decent standard of living, assuming there's enough money in the economy as a whole. There is enough money in this economy. To deny good health care and education to people who work goes against the best in American policy. It's radical and it's un-American.

 

More information

• The website for the Rockridge Institute has many articles describing framing and progressive policies in more detail

• Lakoff was interviewed July 23, 2004 by David Brancaccio for PBS's "NOW with Bill Moyers." Read the transcript or watch a RealPlayer video

• "Framing the Dems: How conservatives control political debate and how progressives can take it back," by George Lakoff, The American Prospect, Sept. 1, 2003

• "Wiring the vast left-wing conspiracy," by Matt Bai, New York Times Magazine, July 25, 2004

• "Framing the issues: UC Berkeley professor George Lakoff tells how conservatives use language to dominate politics," by Bonnie Azab Powell, UC Berkeley NewsCenter, October 27, 2003