Election 2004

Interview with George Lakoff

A message is only as effective as the frame in which it is delivered. Linguist George Lakoff explains what this means in terms of current political discourse.
Following is a transcript of NOW's co-host David Brancaccio interviewing linguist George Lakoff on PBS.

David Brancaccio: Four years ago, [George Lakoff] and colleagues at the University of California Berkeley and UC Davis decided to start a think tank called the Rockridge Institute. They felt Republicans were awfully good at winning the battle of words and they wanted to come up with new rhetorical weapons for the other side.

Lakoff is a noted linguist and the author of eight books including "Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think." We began our conversation with ways that language builds the frame in which we view political issues.

Now you say "frame," that's a key to understanding this. What kind of frame?

George Lakoff: Well, frames are everywhere. Think of what happened on the very first day that George Bush took office. A press release came out using the words "tax relief." Now a linguist who looks at the word "relief" would say, "Ah-hah, there's a frame in which there is an affliction, an afflicted party who's harmed by this, a reliever, who takes away this affliction. And if anybody tries to stop them, they're a bad guy.

You add "tax" to that, and you get taxation is an affliction. And if the Democrats oppose the President's tax relief plan, they're bad guys.

Bush We need tax relief now…in fact we need tax relief yesterday. And I will work with Congress to provide it.

Lakoff: So the word "tax relief" goes out to every radio station, every TV station, every newspaper, day after day after day. Soon, everybody's thinking tax relief with the idea that taxation is an affliction unconsciously, automatically.

Bush We're going to talk about some of that tax relief right quick.

What was in the tax relief package…

If you pay taxes you're going to get relief…

Tax relief…

Tax relief…

Because of the tax relief we passed.

Lakoff: And then the words become part of normal everyday language, and the conservative frame becomes part of the way you think about it.

If you're a Democrat, you want to really change the frame. The problem is that there is no existing frame out there. You have to create it.

How do you think about taxes? Taxes are what you pay to be an American, like paying your dues to have democracy and freedom and opportunity, and all the infrastructure that America provides.

Brancaccio: At what point do we, as voters, notice that being used on us? Whether or not we're conservative, whether or not we're liberal?

Lakoff: Only when it's framed in the right way.

A lot of liberals believe that the facts will set you free. It's in our inheritance from the enlightenment. Where, in the enlightenment that everybody is a rational person, all you have to do is just tell them the facts, they'll reason to the right conclusion. It's false.

And the Republicans have learned that it's false. They've set up a frame, they set up a narrative, and they set it up in terms of their values. And they get it as part of normal, everyday language and normal everyday thought.

Once they've done that, the facts are irrelevant unless the Democrats can learn to re-frame the issues from their point of view, and then make the facts fit other frames.

Brancaccio: Well, controversial issue that perhaps frames would help: trial lawyer. John Edwards is one. How do you use that as a political weapon or an asset?

Lakoff: Well, you use it as a weapon because it's been made into a weapon with terms like "frivolous lawsuits," and so on.

Lakoff: That is a frame that has been constructed by conservatives to attack trial lawyers, because trial lawyers, you know, support the Democratic Party in many parts of the country. So they're trying to de-fund the Democrats by attacking trial lawyers.

Now instead of trial lawyers, you should say what folks really are doing. These are public protection attorneys. They're doing public protection law. These are…

Brancaccio: Protecting the public.

Lakoff: Protecting the public from corporations and professionals who are either negligent or unscrupulous. And they're the last line of defense we have.

That's what, you know, public protection law is really about. And the Democrats need to come back and talk about public protection law and public protection.

Brancaccio: It's interesting how these phrases get inserted into the synapse. You say through repetition is one good way. Want you to take a look at this. We have President Bush couple years ago talking about his Healthy Forest Initiative. And he doesn't, as you'll see, talk about cutting down trees.

Bush Forest policy can be common sense policy.

A policy that is based upon common sense.

We need to make our forests healthy by using some common sense.

Common sense.

Common sense.

Common sense forest policy.

Brancaccio: If I were covering that speech, I'd say that the lead might have something to do with common sense.

Lakoff: Yes. And what does that mean? It means experts are not needed. And who are the experts? They're ecologists, environmentalists. This says, "Don't listen to the experts. Just think about it yourself. And we're going to tell you how to think about it."

Now when they say Healthy Forest for a bill that's going to, you know, clear cut forests and destroy forests, what do you do if you're on the other side? Well, what you have to do is rename it.

Now, I mean, if it had been renamed something like Leave No Tree Behind, that would have been, you know, perfect. Or, you know, The Forest Destruction Act. You know?

Then what that does is allow you to bring it up as an issue, and allow you to ask the experts in as the arbiters. That's the way you deal with the attempt of common sense to say, "This isn't an expert issue. We don't listen to the experts."

Now the person who I think taught me most about this is one of your former guests, Frank Luntz.

Brancaccio: Frank Luntz, the Republican pollster and opinion researcher.

Lakoff: That's right.

Luntz puts out a little workbook every year or so. And last year in his section on the environment, he said something very interesting.

He said that on global warming, the Democrats have the science on their side, but we can win with language. What we need to do is use words environmentalists like, like "healthy," "clean," and "safe."

Now what that does is each word like that evokes a frame. But what they do is they evoke frames that are the opposite of what they know they mean. These are sort of Orwellian frames. These are ways to manipulate the public.

So whenever you hear an Orwellian term like "Clear Skies Act" or "Compassionate Conservative," means they know they're weak on something. And what you have to do is rename it. Rename it to fit the truth.

It is the Dirty Air Act. It is the Forest Destruction Act.

Brancaccio: A lot of the hot button political issues of the moment really can be framed and re-framed. Big debate this summer over gay marriage. You might re-frame it, I don't know, you could call it "right to marry the one you love." That's a different kind of frame.

Lakoff: Exactly right.

You have to change the terms and change the words to make them your words all the time. As soon as you say, "gay marriage," the image of gay sex is going to come up.

Most people, you know, if you say, "Are you in favor of gay sex," will say, "Who me? No." But if they say, "Do you think the state should tell people who they should marry?" Different question. Different frame.

Brancaccio: So what do you do, say it over and over?

Lakoff: Over and over and over, just as they say it over and over. That's how they get people to think the way they want them to think.

And it's not an unfair, people think it's an unfair tactic. It's an effective tactic. It's true. It works that way. That's how people do think.

Brancaccio: Republicans tend to talk about being moral, family values. But I don't know if you've seen some of Kerry's speeches this summer.

Kerry: For values that make America strong.

The values that matter most.

Values that you live by.

The values that unite us, the values that define us.

Values, values.

Narrow values.

Shared values.

Now I'll tell you what values mean.

Brancaccio: Spot the key word there. I think it has something to do with values. About a 40 minute speech, we counted 28 usages of the word "values." What's he trying to do there?

Lakoff: Well, he's bringing up the issue of values, and he's right. You have to say it over and over. But now here's the next step, you can't just repeat the word "values." You have to say what they are. You have to start talking about things like fairness, safety, freedom, community, trust, honesty. I mean these are values. Integrity.

Then he has to say why he has them, why progressives have them, why the Democratic Party has them, in detail. And then every time he mentions a program or an idea, he has to say why they follow from these values, and what they have to do with values. That's the sort of things that conservatives have been doing for many, many years.

Brancaccio: When you see that, though, where's that values word going? Who does John Kerry hope this word will resonate with?

Lakoff: Everybody. Because everybody is looking for a candidate who shares their values.

Brancaccio: And that applied to George W. Bush as well? In other words, people who voted for him saw something in him that they could identify with?

Lakoff: Absolutely. They saw it not only in the words, but in his body. They saw it in his gestures, they saw it in his dialect, in his choice of a particular, this kind of bubba dialect.

This is a guy who grew up in Kennebunkport, Maine around his father. His father didn't use that dialect. He went to Andover. He went to Yale. He went to Harvard Business School. He heard people not using the bubba dialect all the time.

But he also grew up in Texas, and he learned the other dialect, too. And he's used that very effectively to get people in the red states to identify with him and to say, "Hey, that guy is like me."

Brancaccio: You sometimes see that when you see a conservative critique of John Kerry. They say, "Well, that guy went to Yale." Now of course the President of the United States also went to Yale.

Lakoff: Exactly. They both went to Yale. You know? President United States went to Andover. I mean these are, you know, elite institutions.

Brancaccio: A couple of times you've used the word "progressive" interchangeably with I think the other word is liberal.

Lakoff: Yes.

Brancaccio: We moving away from liberal? Is liberal finally… even you admitting it's a dirty word?

Lakoff: Well, it's been branded by the other side. For the last 20, 30 years they've been putting other adjectives with liberal, like limousine liberal, latte liberal, you know, Chardonnay and brie liberal, even though more Republicans eat brie than Democrats do. Very important, you know…

Brancaccio: There's research about this?

Lakoff: There's research about this. Everything has market research. But the fact is that the identity has been given to the word "liberal." And people talk about the liberal elite when, in fact, it's the conservatives who have the real money in the country and the elitism. The Democrats should use that. The Democrats have to call the people who get those big tax cuts, not just the rich, but the elite. "Rich" is a good word in America. You know, remember, you have rich experiences. You want a rich life. You know? "Rich" is a good word. But "elite" isn't a good word.

Brancaccio: If you ever watch the Comedy Central program the "Daily Show", they have a mock newscast. But they seem to have caught the conservatives trying to use this word "liberal" as a weapon. Take a look.

[Clips from "Daily Show" with John Stewart]
CNN CLIP: "two of the foremost liberal senators"
CNN CLIP: "two of the foremost liberal US senators"
MSNBC CLIP: "the most liberal member of the United States Senate"
CNN CLIP: "the most liberal member of the United States Senate"
FOX CLIP: "who was the number one rated liberal in the United States Senate"
FOX CLIP: "the number one most liberal senator in the United States Senate"

STEWART: Wow! Those guys are liberal! In fact if I didn't know better I'd say they were the first and fourth most liberal senators in the whole Senate. And while we don't have any idea what that means or where those rankings come from or how they were arrived at or whether it's even true, I don't like the sounds of it.
[End clip]

Brancaccio: Liberals have lost the battle to hold onto the word "liberal," wouldn't you say?

Lakoff: They've lost it at least temporarily. There's no way they can get it back before November. They could take the word back over a period of years.

Now remember that the word "conservative" used to be a dirty word. Back in 1964, when Goldwater lost, nobody wanted to be called a conservative. But the conservatives took the word back over many, many years of working at it.

Brancaccio: Let's take a look at the President of the United States this summer. And he's making a speech, and he has a refrain which you're about to see.

Bush: [TV clips played] And the American people are safer.

The American people are safer.

And the American people are safer.

Brancaccio: Post-Iraq, presumably, the American people are safer.

Lakoff: He has to say the American people are safer, whether they are or not. Now notice what would happen if you went out and said the opposite. The American people are not safer. That's why…

Brancaccio: Say you were a Democrat…

Lakoff: You're…

Brancaccio: You said, "The American people are not safer."

Lakoff: Yeah. It's like Richard Nixon getting up there and saying, "I am not a crook," and people think of him as a crook. Right?

They think of the American are safer… not. Right? You have to say why they're not safer. You don't just say they're not safer. They say you have to say, "More terrorists have been created by the war in Iraq than were eradicated in, you know, in Afghanistan."

You have to say that things are more dangerous now.

Brancaccio: Are you going to hear that from Kerry-Edwards, all that their opponents will say is, "Well, you voted for the war, too?"

Lakoff: I don't know. So far a lot of Democrats are used to simply negating what the other side said. You know, like "Not safer." They have to learn to re-frame and put it in their terms.

Take, for example, the war on terror. You should never use the word "war on terror." Why? First of all, "war" gives the President war powers. And secondly, "terror" talks about everything that could possibly make anyone afraid. It's like it's a pervading thing in the world.

Whereas if you talk about terrorists, there are only a handful, several thousand terrorists. They're dangerous. But if you're a nation of 250 million people, you can deal with the several thousand terrorists if you really go at it.

The issue is fighting terrorists. You know, as opposed to this general thing on terror. If you use "war" then you have the President having war powers. He's Commander-In-Chief. And, you know, you go on a wartime basis where people can't criticize the government.

Brancaccio: But Democrats don't want to understate the threat. There's more than a couple of hundred or a couple thousand terrorists.

Lakoff: Whatever the estimate is, it's not millions. It's not hundreds of millions of al-Qaeda. The point is there is a threat, and there's a threat having to do with groups of individuals, not nations.

Brancaccio: Among George Lakoff's latest books is "Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think." George Lakoff, thank you so much for having come by NOW.

Lakoff: Okay. My pleasure
David Brancaccio is co-host for NOW.
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