Frame Wars

The conventional view of politics says that people are swayed by words, images, or facts. But that's false, according to Frank Luntz and George Lakoff, two of the most successful practitioners of political reality construction. They believe that increasingly political forces will clash less over reality than over how it's shaped.

At first glance, both men appear well equipped to deal with a complex world. They have doctorates (Luntz in political science and Lakoff in linguistics) and run consulting operations (the Luntz Research Companies and the Rockridge Institute, a think tank), and they're gurus to opposing political parties – the GOP and the Dems – to whom they push, as they've done for years, what is essentially the same idea about language in politics. The idea? That the basic building blocks of political communication are "frames" (as Lakoff calls them) or "context" (to use Luntz's word).

The most important resource that politicians have, they both argue, is the ways in which people understand the world. Their values. Their worldviews. (Lakoff adds to this: their brains.) If you tap into those values, inform them, tweak them, focus and reflect those values back at an electorate – that's the way to win power.

In this struggle to control political reality through language, you don't dispute specific words or rebut the facts; you don't even attack your opponents' frames. What you do is assert your side's frame, making it so big, so omnipresent, so unavoidable that it's as natural as talking about the roundness of the Earth. Disputing such a fact seems counterintuitive. Even heretical.

Lakoff says that we engage frames in the simplest acts of thinking or talking. "Framing is the most ordinary everyday thing," he says. "Every word we use comes with a frame, and the conventional frames are there in your brain." Take a more political example: the word "war." In the same way that the size of an SUV resonates safety, the word "war" evokes not only battles, but also sacrifice, martial glory, and an ultimate victory. It's not simply a figurative or a poetic connection – it attaches to the way people see reality and determines how they act. Every use of the word "war" ratifies this frame.

This is why the phrase "war on terror" has been so devastatingly effective. It's so engrained that it gathers conservatives and so effective at explaining the world that people who aren't conservatives find it appealing. The phrase can be strangely soothing. Clarity oozes from it. It subtly encodes a frame in which an intangible, terror, can be targeted and conquered, partly by recycling a Cold War frame in which we waged war on another intangible, Communism. And we won! The phrase offers the promise that we can win this one, too, because it invokes a history of military victories and strength. America, after all, wins its wars.

Of course, America doesn't win all of its wars. The conservative frame depends on the martial fantasy of inevitable victory, and that is why John Kerry's criticism of the Vietnam War angered Republicans. It also depends on the rush that absolute moral victory provides, which explains why the administration was able to both attack Kerry and shore up the common sense behind the "war on terror" frame when it criticized the senator for stating that the nation's goal should be to make terrorism a nuisance.

Kerry and his team could have done a better job of asserting their own frames, but fortunately for them, Bush let the conservative one slip. Frank Luntz says that invoking the "war on terror" set up the conditions for an electoral win by Bush. "If the public sees what the president's doing as a war on terror, he wins. If they see it as a war on Iraq, Kerry wins. What is the context of what the president is doing? Define it one way, you have one outcome; define it another way, you have a different outcome."

In the frame wars, the people who do the frame work are themselves framed, shaped, buffed, and branded. Lakoff is the "professor," an instant credibility that can work to his advantage, though it's also damaging – people immediately assume that what comes out of his mouth is too hard to understand, divorced from reality, impractical. (An interview in a recent Believer magazine labeled him a "mandarin.") In person, Lakoff is actually down to earth and will answer nearly any question clearly and succinctly. His political analysis is keen, his sentences brief. ("Deep but simple," observed Glenn Smith, a Democratic political consultant who was instrumental in bringing Lakoff to Texas in 2001).

How Lakoff got into politics is an odd story that properly starts with a rainstorm in 1978. One day in class, a young female student interrupted Lakoff, who was starting to discuss the assigned reading.

"I can't do this today," she said, "I've got a metaphor problem with my boyfriend." She'd come into class late, weeping and drenched from the rain. (The rain is salient, Lakoff says, because at first they tried to pretend that her tears were raindrops.) As everyone listened, she related how her boyfriend had told her that their relationship had "hit a dead end." Puzzled, she asked her classmates for help interpreting the comment.

So professor and students listed expressions in which love is conceived as a journey. We're spinning our wheels. It's been a long bumpy road. We can't continue this way. In each case, lovers are travellers; the relationship is a vehicle; the common life goals are destinations, and the difficulties are obstacles. At the newly discovered generalization, Lakoff was ecstatic. They'd discovered a widely shared cultural conception about love.

"I don't care about your generalization," the woman said. "My boyfriend is breaking up with me. He's thinking in terms of these metaphors."

Happily, the weeping student is married now, the chair of a linguistics department somewhere in the West. Lakoff won't name her, yet everything he's written since 1978 is an attempt to make sense of her comment. How can you "think in terms of a metaphor," especially when the entire tradition of Western philosophy says you can't? According to the classical conception, a metaphor works by imagination, not logic, and it's simply a renaming when, for instance, you call an argument a "war of words." For Lakoff, metaphors are deeper. They underpin all language, all culture, and all thought, and in his books he's argued, to paraphrase William James, that it's metaphors all the way down. The statement, "argument is war," isn't just a more colorful renaming; we treat as real its consequences, for instance, that arguments have winners and losers, that shouting is tolerated, that defections, betrayals, and subterfuge are expected. And while some metaphorical underpinnings are common across cultures – for instance, the conception of the future as physically in front of us – others are culturally specific. Only in Dyirbal, an Australian aboriginal language, is there a category containing words that have something to do with women, fire, and dangerous things (the title, by the way, of Lakoff's most popular linguistics book).

As a result, the theory goes, you can uproot a group's metaphors in order to understand the conceptual framework with which they order the world. In 1994, Lakoff looked at the GOP's Contract with America and wondered if conservatives had any sort of coherent worldview. What did discouraging teen pregnancy and keeping U.S. troops from serving under UN command have to do with each other? Come to think of it, Lakoff thought, I can't articulate my morality clearly, and most conservatives and liberals can't either.

After looking for an underlying metaphor that would unify political positions that seemed contradictory, Lakoff hit on the metaphor of the nation as a family, a metaphor that structures the politics of conservatives and liberals, as he shows in his 1996 book, "Moral Politics." Lakoff applied his theory of language and mind to political beliefs; the result is a useful pocket guide to conservative and liberal worldviews. Conservatives, he argues, believe in a family led by a strict father who protects moral dependents, punishes moral inferiors, and aims to raise independent children to fend for themselves in a dangerous world. Liberals believe in the family led by nurturing parents (or parent) who encourage children's inherent goodness so they will treat others with fairness and equality. All policies and positions shake out from these models and help predict what each side will do, according to Lakoff.

For instance, it suggests why supporting the death penalty but criticizing abortion rights aren't contradictory conservative viewpoints (a mistake that liberals often make), because the Strict Father punishes moral inferiors and protects moral dependents. And it's why there are relatively few liberal think tanks and scholarships for college students – liberals spend their money compassionately, not strategically.

It also explains Bush's accusations in the first presidential debate that Kerry sent "mixed messages" about Iraq are akin to calling him a poor father. In the strict-father mentality, a father lays down the law unwaveringly and never reflects on his authority. (It's a line that social conservatives in the sexual-abstinence movement also use to bash the pro-condom sex educators: Saying "Don't have sex, but if you're going to, use a condom" is a mixed message.) And after Bush's victory, Republicans will also continue to push the language of the "ownership society." It's a phrase that resonates with people's desire to have equity, even if they'll never own much property. It trades on the promise that government makes to citizens through social programs like Social Security, and it replaces that promise with what's more culturally desirable: the ability to work hard and be rewarded.

How can progressives respond? They have to figure out what they believe and then put words to it. "When you think you just lack words, what you really lack are ideas," Lakoff writes in "Don't Think of an Elephant." "Ideas come in the form of frames. When the frames are there, the words come readily."

The frames for progressives to use to counter the "ownership society" will probably reflect how they value fairness, accountability, and opportunity. What words and images they use won't mention those values explicitly; they'll evoke them, and make them seem like the only values worth having.

One of the more thorough critiques of Lakoff that combines conservative thought with language expertise comes from Justin Busch, a computational linguist who lives in San Diego and blogs about politics at Busch says that "Lakoff's problem, and this is one area where Frank Luntz just by virtue of his job has a real advantage, is that he doesn't see enough ordinary people and discuss these things."

To Busch, Lakoff simplifies the world the wrong way, citing the linguist's assertion that environmental progressives see the Earth as the goddess. "This is straight out of cloud cuckoo land," Busch says. "You and I know that unless he's dressing up in druid robes and going out to Stonehenge, that he doesn't really think that. The Earth is goddess is just something that he tossed off as poetic and imaginative, but it's also freaking disastrous." As Busch sees it, Lakoff doesn't offer hard evidence for his claims about what conservatives or liberals think, and he relies too much on his own stereotypes and experiences in his simplification of conservatives. Lakoff counters by saying that his books are empirically based and that more evidence for the models is on the way. If you can systematically collect and analyze the conceptual models people use to organize their experience, Lakoff argues, you also know the metaphorical resources they possess, some of which might be ignored and untapped, and which you can use to articulate ideas more effectively.

On these principles, one of Lakoff's former students, Joe Grady, and a colleague, Axel Aubrun, operate a consulting firm called Cultural Logic based in Providence, R.I. In one project, they interviewed flea collar shoppers at PetSmart, asking them to explain why they put strips of toxic chemicals on their beloved pets and let them walk around inside the house. Usually people focus on the size of their pets relative to themselves and conclude that the toxic danger, like the dog, is small. But when Aubrun and Grady reframed the question, to focus on the shared environment, the shoppers‚ reasoning broke down. That difference, Aubrun and Grady figure, may help predict which pro-environment messages are likely to fail and which will succeed. Normal pollsters are interested in surface phenomena, Aubrun says. "They're interested in the weather. We're interested in the climate."

In the same way, the key to victory in the frame war is the way the ideas about frames are themselves accepted and disseminated. When Lakoff‚s ideas are framed as ways to win elections or persuade swing voters, they can be dismissed as slick marketing with an intellectual sheen. But his ideas seem most attractive – and more useful to liberals in the long run – when they're framed as a method for improving public discourse by accurately representing what most people value. What makes liberals open to Lakoff's ideas is that they believe in openness. But the same profile, drawn in terms of the family metaphor, exposes a few other liabilities about liberals. For one thing, liberals are invested in an intellectual egalitarianism that can be crippling. (Conservatives may be more content with a division of labor in which some people do the thinking and others do the shouting.) "A lot of liberals don't want to admit that they don't have all the ideas," Lakoff says. "It's a major problem. A lot of liberals think, 'Well, I don't have the words, but I have all the ideas.' The fact is, they dont."

A glance at the liberal blog DailyKos gives you some idea of the readiness of the troops that Lakoff is sending into battle. In late September, the site's main blogger, a Berkeley, Calif., lawyer named Markos Moulitsas posted a short review of "Don't Think of an Elephant," calling it "the best book this cycle." In the thread of responses that followed, the liberal stereotypes were on parade. The moralist: "I hate PR/marketing/spinning." The feminist: "Ummm ... wonder what he's got against women?" The post-feminist: "I don't want to be known as the Mommy party. We‚re the party of Solomon." The literal: "I'm not the child of the government."

As long as liberals and progressives insist that having the facts on their side is all that matters, they are doomed to impotence. The next move for the left in the frame war is to accept that it's okay to cherry-pick reality as long as it conforms to a frame that's morally acceptable. According to Lakoff, we already do it every day.

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