Saturday, October 29, 2005

Progressive-politics theorist Lakoff: GOP has "framed" Democrats

ORIGINALLY POSTED: Saturday, October 29, 2005

By Jim Mulvihill
North Adams [Mass.] Transcript

WILLIAMSTOWN -- Among the 250 people who turned out for a lecture by political theorist George Lakoff at Williams College Thursday night (Oct. 27) were a handful of diehard Democrats who first saw Michael Dukakis speak at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts in North Adams, then raced up Route 2 to catch the second half of Lakoff's address in Williamstown.They may have been chagrined to find that their party's present looks a lot like its past. Lakoff spent the bulk of two hours explaining how the Republicans have secured a stranglehold on public discourse that could take years for Democrats to overcome.

Lakoff, a linguistics professor at the University of California, Berkeley, exploded into the mainstream this year with his book "Don't Think of an Elephant! Know Your Values and Frame the Debate," which has elevated "framing" into a buzzword worthy of an 8,600-word feature story in The New York Times Magazine last summer.

The idea is that politics and winning elections is about framing your ideals in a way voters will identify with, regardless of whether your message is relevant, or even accurate. Thanks to the billions of dollars they've spent establishing conservative think tanks, publishing companies and even their own booking agency to maximize media exposure, Republicans have dominated this game, disseminating an increasingly focused message while Democrats struggle to define what they stand for.

''It's not an accident,'' Lakoff said. "Conservatives have turned 'liberal' into a dirty word. Over the years, what they've done is branded it.''

To illustrate how the Republicans properly frame their agenda, Lakoff pointed to President Bush's tax reform plan.

"On the first day that George Bush took office, (former White House counsel) Karen Hughes put out a press release that used the phrase 'tax relief.' A linguist looking at the phrase tax relief says, "Ah-ha! When you have a word like relief, what do we know about it? Every time you hear the word 'relief ' there is what we call a "conceptual frame."

If relief is in the works, the reasoning goes, there must be an affliction. There must also be a reliever who takes the pain away, and anyone who stands in the way of relief must be the enemy. "Add 'tax' to that and it says 'taxation is affliction,''' Lakoff said.

This kind of wording frames tax reform within the context of the Republican party's desired image as the man in charge who can get things done and protects your personal interests.

Another prime example of how the Republicans use language to their advantage, Lakoff said, is the war in Iraq. Lakoff credited Republican adviser Frank Luntz with coining the phrase "War on Terror," which helped to vaguely link the conflict to the World Trade Center terrorist attack.

"During the beginning of the 2004 campaign he sent out a memo that recommended that during the campaign, everybody will not say the 'Iraq War,' but 'The War on Terror.' And then Fox News, every time they'd put up a picture of the Iraq War, it would say 'The War on Terror.' What that did was associate 9/11 with Saddam Hussein."

According to Lakoff, a University of Maryland survey of Bush voters demonstrates the success of this strategy. "Turns out 80 percent of them believe that Saddam Hussein was behind 9/11," he said. "Why? Luntz."

The notion that Republicans are better at sticking to talking points and spreading catchphrases is nothing new. Lakoff, however, utilizes his cognitive science background to explain why and how these methods win people over. The book's title refers to a classic challenge posed by meditation gurus to advanced students . whatever you do, don't think of an elephant. Of course, the student goes off and can't think of anything but elephants.

Lakoff uses this lesson to demonstrate how our minds naturally associate words and phrases to ideas whether we know it or not. The professor hypothesizes that there are two understandings of America . the Strict Father Model and the Nurturing Parent Model. The "strict father" is the Republican party and the "nurturing parent'' is the Democratic party.

Everyone understands both models, but people respond more favorably to the one they relate to most. Republicans capture swing voters by appealing to the part of them that trusts the "strict father" to raise an upstanding citizen.

This means using language that conjures discipline, self-reliance and tough love. Lakoff said that Ronald Reagan "gained the nation's trust because of the character he projected and not because of policies."

Democrats didn't understand why Reagan was winning when people didn't agree with his positions," Lakoff said. "Bush is doing the same thing."

If Democrats are to compete in national elections, they have to frame debates in ways that are acceptable and easily digestible to the subconscious.

"When you repeat a word over and over, people learn the word and the meaning that goes with it," Lakoff said. "Their brain has to change. Over 35 years, a lot has been said by conservatives over and over again until they become part of people's brains. This is not brainwashing. Brainwashing is done under duress. It's just ordinary, normal repetition. And it's not illegal; it's just smart."

Copyright, 2005, New England Newspapers Inc., All Rights Reserved.


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