Swans Commentary » swans.com October 10, 2005  



George Lakoff: Wishful Thinking For Democrats


by Robert Wrubel





(Swans - October 10, 2005)   George Lakoff, University of California at Berkeley Professor of Linguistics, is the new guru of the Democratic Party, justly credited with a fresh understanding of the differences between liberals and conservatives, and an explanation of how Democrats can regain their pizzazz at the polls. (1) Conservatives have clearer (if more simplistic) values, conservatives know how to talk, they've taught their candidates to stay on message, and they know "people vote their identities, not their interests." Democrats, heirs of the technocratic New Deal, think issues are complex, get hung up on details and facts, and have trouble sorting out the smorgasbord of deserving causes and interest groups they speak for. By contrast, Conservatives are refreshingly simple: "less taxes -- less talk!"

Lakoff's advice to Democrats is to re-study their core values, understand their audience (this is a bit trickier, since the Democratic audience includes both college-educated, cosmopolitan liberals and labor, the unemployed, the retired, minorities and other groups struggling to hang on to the first rung of the ladder), and finally, reframe their message in simple, less technical language that reinforces those core values. Framing, the use of concrete, metaphorical language to reinforce underlying world views, is one of Lakoff's most interesting propositions, particularly for people who like language, but there's something tricky about it, in my view. We don't just want Democrats to become better speakers, using more effective language -- we want them to be better thinkers and take better positions. Is there any need to reframe "Get Out Now"? Just say it straight, and see what happens!

Lakoff's core insight is that liberals and conservatives have different world views. Conservative sees the world as a dangerous place, in which discipline and toughness are needed for success. Strict father figures are necessary to impress these traits on children (who are by nature pleasure-loving and absent-minded), and strong authoritarian leaders are needed to embody them for the nation. Liberals see the world differently -- not as hostile and dangerous, but as challenging, interesting and inviting -- a realm of self-development and pleasure, not self-defense. Liberals are created by nurturing parents, who teach empathy, responsibility, self-confidence and fairness. (2)

Lakoff's conservative archetype seems intuitively right, embracing both the prim self-righteousness of Orrin Hatch and the stern punitiveness of congressional zealots and pundits who wanted to impeach Clinton. The liberal archetype is less convincing, and seems rather to describe the values of a thin slice of the Democratic electorate, the bi-coastal, cosmopolitan intelligentsia or hedonista -- the latte liberals right-wingers like to hate -- than those of blue-collar workers and otherwise marginalized who make up the traditional Democratic base.

The Democrats' great era was the New Deal under Roosevelt. There, government for the first time became a significant player in the economy and society, a layer of expert management and strategic vision the society needed in order to function smoothly. Intelligent people, not only ambassadors from business, might actually work in government and contribute to the nation's development. This sense of enlightened bureaucratic management, born under Roosevelt, continued under the Kennedys, when academics and intellectuals were recruited to prominent positions, and the country embraced an aura of educated "class."

These heydays defined the idea of rule for Democrats, and became a sort of founding myth, in which intelligent, sophisticated men and women governed and set the tone for the rest of society -- open-minded, decisive and fair (serious and fun-loving, too!). This is still the self-image of liberals. The American Prospect, only a couple of months ago, urged us to return to the examples of our progressive forebears -- Galbraith, Acheson and Kennedy! The image hardly accords with reality, then or now.

In reality, Democrats were accidental inheritors of a crisis produced by the failure of the free-enterprise system to manage itself. With the help of WWII, and the expanded concept of government under Roosevelt, Democrats rode a new wave of state-managed capitalism through two post-war decades of increasing prosperity for workers and capitalists alike. This era ended in the seventies, when profits became harder to find, Democrats squandered their goodwill on a stupid war, and the business class summoned up the first of the new reactionaries, Thatcher and Reagan. While social and economic realities changed underneath them, Democrats continued to believe in the old vision of change managed by elites, and supported by the people, while Republicans recognized new realities in the electorate and exploited them.

By Democrats, here, I mean the Democratic electorate, not elected Democrats. Elected Democrats had no trouble grasping changing realities and adjusting to them. They saw their labor base melting away and looked to other sources of financial support. (The Democratic Leadership Counsel, and Clinton, are credited with the late eighties shift to the center of Democratic messaging, but before there was a shift of messaging, there was a shift of viewpoint required by the new sources of funding.) But while elected Democrats changed their stripes, the Democratic electorate, and particularly that professional, managerial, symbol-manipulating segment of the middle class who had ridden to comfort on the wave of the New Deal, clung to the old philosophy. Fairness, tolerance and responsibility are admirable virtues, and a nice reflection of the values of that class, but don't have the same widespread lustre they once did. (3)

Lakoff says people vote their identities, not their interests. This may be true of an alienated lower social stratum, whose primary emotion is resentment, or specialized niches like military families. I don't think it applies to the recently unemployed, the immigrant, the young looking for a rung up on the economic ladder, the African-American looking for a way out of the ghetto, those who are trapped in Wal*Mart-type jobs, or those who are victims of obvious injustice. Lakoff says Democrats have become unmoored from their core values. I would argue they've become unmoored from their core constituencies. Perhaps, in reexamining their core values, Democrats will rediscover their core constituencies, and in turn start to think about their core constituencies' core interests. If Lakoff indeed means something like that, then Lakoff's prescription could be the needed elixir for a tired-blood Democratic Party.

Democrats, and liberals in particular, are trapped by memories of their glorious past.

Liberals are also trapped by the dynamics of ideology. Liberal identities are in part ideological expressions of their economic self-interest. Intellectuals in particular want, and feel safe in, a society where curiosity and caring are public virtues, since that guarantees them a productive role or respected standing in the society. This is particularly true of environmental intellectuals, since management of society for environmental health would be one of the more arcane and all-encompassing approaches to government, requiring vast numbers of environmental intellectuals to undertake it, as well as vast sacrifices from more materialistic members of society. I am not putting environmentalists down at all in saying this, since I am one of them, but merely pointing out why other parts of the population have not responded to our sense of priorities as fervently as we would like them to.

I am also not saying we should give up on the Democratic Party. While politics is a realm of illusion, and corporate support makes the Democrats almost impotent, there still are battles in the political realm worth fighting -- defense of civil liberties, defense of privacy, defense of the right to vote, and defense of air and water. And while Democrats seem incapable of opposing an illegal war, or questioning the basic assumptions of our economy or foreign policy, it is probably safer to have them in place to clean up the mess than the harebrained conservative cabal who are creating it. So, yes, fighting on the political level is still important, and for that liberals only have one party, but fighting on the social level, the level of racial injustice and economic inequality, is more important still. On that level, we need more than the language of fairness and responsibility. We need a language of radical change.

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1.  See Moral Politics, 2002, and Don't Think of an Elephant, 2004.  (back)

2.  Professor Richard Lichtman presents a much more thorough and critical analysis of Lakoff's liberal/conservative archetypes in the May 28 issue of Counterpunch.com.  (back)

3.  Against my perhaps cynical view, there is the comment of Houston's Oak Creek High School Principal, Price Brown, who noted that even before his school enrolled 43 children of families made homeless by the flood, the announced school theme for 2005 was -- "Caring and Respect."  (back)

Internal Resources

America the 'beautiful'

US Elections & Democracy


About the Author

Robert Wrubel is a writer and activist living in Sausalito, California.



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Published October 10, 2005