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George Lakoff: Progressives Need to Use Language That Reflects Moral Values

George Lakoff speaking at a 2008 conference. (Photo: kk+)

Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club, writes of “The Little Blue Book” (authored by George Lakoff and Elizabeth Wehling): “Blending insight and rigor, Lakoff and Wehling have produced a Rosetta Stone that translates progressive ideas into fundamental human values that will resonate with Americans of all backgrounds and beliefs.” Lakoff is the foremost authority on “framing” political messaging to reflect personal and group values. To get a copy of “The Little Blue Book,” just click here. Make a minimum donation and support progressive writers and Truthout.

Mark Karlin: Why are conservatives so successful in “framing” much of the national political discussion?

George Lakoff: They’ve been working at it for over three decades. They understand the importance of morally-based framing, the importance of language, the importance of repeating language, the importance of not using the opposition’s language, and the importance of an extensive communication system that operates daily everywhere, election or no election.

Mark Karlin: Can you explain how this played itself out in the public perception of the Affordable Healthcare Act (which the Republican Party successfully branded as Obamacare). In particular, can you explain why most Americans support a large number of the specific provisions of healthcare reform, but resoundingly have opposed the bill as a concept in polls?

George Lakoff: The specific provisions of the act were chosen (via polling) to be provisions that most Americans (60-80 percent) liked – and they still like those provisions (e.g., no preconditions). Conservatives never attacked those provisions. For example, they never said there should be preconditions. Instead, they shifted to a different part of the brain, changing the framing from a practical medical care framing to a moral framing. They used two moral frames: freedom and life, with the slogans “government takeover” and “death panels.” They repeated these slogans over and over, until their moral framing came to dominate the public discourse. Less than half of Americans support the whole plan, while 60 to 80 percent support its provisions.

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Mark Karlin: What are the limitations of rational discourse and presenting public policy proposals as reasonable in electoral politics? How do certain narratives ignite an emotional response that overrides a logical argument?

George Lakoff: The question presupposes a classical view of “rational argument,” namely the use of classical logic (e.g., mathematical logic) in the service of self-interest.

But that is not how real rationality works. Political argument starts with moral framing – what is assumed to be right, not wrong or morally irrelevant. Conservatives and liberals differ on what is right. Real rational argument uses the logic of frames and metaphors, as well as the use of emotion in setting goals. For example, poor conservatives may care more about their moral identity as conservatives than about their financial self-interest. This is not “irrational;” it is a matter of what is most important to a given individual — moral identity or financial self-interest.

Mark Karlin: You’ve talked and written repeatedly about progressives and Democrats reinforcing and thus legitimatizing conservative memes and concepts. You refer to this as bringing the elephant in the room. How does this play out in the creation of the parameters of the national political debate?

George Lakoff: Over three decades, conservatives have framed taxes not as money that is required to be spent so that our citizens as a whole can thrive, but rather as money taken out of individuals’ pockets by the government and wasted on people who don’t deserve it. More recently, the deficit has been framed in terms of two conservative metaphors that define a conservative frame. The metaphors are:

1) The Nation’s Wealth Is the Government’s Wealth,


2) The National Budget Is a Family Budget.

Right now, America is at a peak of wealth: American individuals and corporations, collectively, are richer than they have ever been. But most of that wealth is concentrated at the top, and the most wealthy want to keep as much of that wealth as they can, rather than to yield a fair portion of it to provide what is needed to the citizenry as a whole, whose work has provided that wealth.

In a family, when you have a great deal of debt, it is usually wise to spend less. The metaphors define a conservative frame for economic policy.

But in a government, it is wise to spend more on what expands the economy – public works, education, and basic research. Economic expansion of this sort, rather than a cut in spending on those things, is what economics recommends for a government, as liberals have observed.

Mark Karlin: Many of us on the left tend to think of political conversation as taking place on the verbal level only. But as a species, we absorb and process information through a variety of ways. One key additional impact on us – especially in politics in the television age – is gesture and visual image. Was Reagan a model of this – sort of the apogee of metaphoric narrative, visual image (including his Hollywood look and carefully staged sets) and gesture?

George Lakoff: Reagan understood what voters found important in a president: moral values, connection with the public, clarity of communication, the appearance of authenticity (saying what he believes), trust that he will do what he says, strength of character, and a personal identification with him. This is often mistaken by liberals as “likeability.”

Image plays an important role in these matters. Do your gestures match what you are saying? If not, then you’re not saying what you believe and your inappropriate gestures give you away. Al Gore, for example, had gestures that did not fit what he was saying, which allowed conservatives to attack his veracity in general.

Mark Karlin: Given the major party debates are now over, what is your take on how the two candidates might have visually been perceived if the sound were turned off. Let’s take, for example, the first and second presidential debates.

George Lakoff: In the first debate, Obama looked down a lot, showed low energy, and appeared unengaged, while Romney stood tall, appeared to be in authority and in control. In the second debate, Obama went on the offensive, took authority, and Romney became defensive.

Mark Karlin: You have emphasized over the years many Republicans being attracted to a strict paternal authoritarian model of national government. Can you think of one exception to that theory in the last 50 years among GOP presidential candidates? I can’t.

George Lakoff: I can’t either.

Mark Karlin: I’d like to bring up a point that you often point out. In “The Little Blue Book” (co-authored with Elizabeth Wehling) and your other past works dealing with “framing,” you are not proposing any short term fixes. Your theories – born of your internationally recognized research as a professor of cognitive linguistics at Berkeley – are dependent upon building a long-term foundation. Is that right?

George Lakoff: That’s right. You think with your brain. Everything you can understand requires the right brain circuitry. To learn anything at all, the neural circuitry in your brain has to change. That usually takes a while. Most synaptic change is slow.

Mark Karlin: On your “The Little Blue Book” blog you have a section on the basics of “framing.” You have a set of guidelines, including this one: “Facts have no meaning outside of frames, metaphors, and moral narratives. Always discuss facts within moral frames, because people do not reason outside of those moral frames.” Can you elaborate on that concept?

George Lakoff: Everything you understand is a matter of framing. And what counts as a fact depends on the frame used in understanding. For example, Mitt Romney claimed that President Obama cut $716 billion from Medicare. Is that a fact?

In the president’s frame, the $716 billion was a reduction in “waste” over the next 10 years, where “waste” is taken to mean money not spent on health care but instead going to “excess” profits for drug companies and certain hospitals. That cut in “waste” meant that there would be $712 billion more to cover real health care needs, including extending Medicare’s full solvency from 2016 to 2024. If you think that it is moral for seniors to have their medical needs covered as fully as possible, then this was a good thing to do; it is not a cut in what Medicare is there for; instead it is an increase in what Medicare is there for.

Now consider Romney’s framing. Romney sees corporate profits as morally good, and spending on people in need as violating personal responsibility and giving people things they should be able to provide for themselves, which he sees as morally bad. The Bush Medicare program included a drug program that allowed drug companies to make huge profits from Medicare – money that could have been spent on actual medical care for seniors. Romney assumes this was morally right. Technically, the $716 billion was scheduled to be spent via Medicare on drug company profits over the next decade. Romney saw the elimination of those profits as “taking $716 billion out of Medicare.” Instead it will be spent on seniors who need care, technically via the Affordable Care Act, which Romney sees as immoral. Romney frames the $716 billion as being taken out of Medicare and put into Obamacare.

Here you can see that the agreed-on number, $716 billion reassigned, is understood as two different “facts,” with two different moral values, depending on framing.

Mark Karlin: For many years, BuzzFlash (now BuzzFlash at Truthout) has thought of you as a prophet of sorts, a Jeremiah. Why does it appear that so many national Democratic and progressive leaders don’t follow your advice on communicating on the basis of values and morals?

George Lakoff: What I do is apply what has been learned from the brain and cognitive sciences to the study of political discourse. It’s just ordinary science, no magic, no prophesy.

My book “Don’t Think of an Elephant” was used widely in the 2006 and 2008 elections. I watched the 2012 Democratic convention and noticed that the framing in the speeches was better than in any convention I’ve ever watched. That tells me that the lessons from the work that I and others have done on framing has been widely absorbed by the speechwriters, communications directors and many of the political leaders. That’s a major step forward and I’m delighted.

But there’s still more to be done. This election is mainly about the major moral divide in this country. I’ve been writing about it since 1996 in “Moral Politics,” but that moral divide has not yet been overtly discussed in public discourse. There are a number of reasons for this.

First, it requires the knowledge that most thought is unconscious. This finding is just beginning to permeate into the pop science press, but hasn’t made it into the political media. Thus, the fact that all politics is moral and that political framing uses largely unconscious moral framing is not widely recognized.

Second, it requires some knowledge about unconscious metaphorical thought. Though I and other cognitive linguists around the world have made deep discoveries about how metaphorical thought works, it has still barely made it into the pop science press.

Third, there is the difference in the education of liberals and conservative communicators. When liberals go to college they tend to study political science, law, economics, and public policy, where the cognitive and brain sciences are rarely taught. Instead they study enlightenment reason and the rational actor model, assuming that rational thought consists of consciously-used classical logic about self-interest, with language as neutrally fitting the world. This is an inadequate theory of reason and language, which leads to many liberals thinking that what is moral is universal and can be taken for granted, and that all one has to do is present the facts and people will reason to the right conclusion. It keeps not happening. This theory of reason often leads liberals to misunderstand framing as just a matter of words, a search for slogans, when it is really the study of the moral basis of policy and the deep truths on which policy is based.

Conservative communication specialists know better, since they have often studied marketing and marketing professors know that people really think in terms of frames, metaphors, images, narratives, and emotion. Though liberals are slowly catching up, they are still behind when it comes to two things: expressing the nature of the moral divide, and stating the very general deep truths that link moral principles to specific policies. It was to remedy this that Elisabeth Wehling and I wrote “The Little Blue Book” and op-eds on

No matter who wins this election, “The Little Blue Book “will still be needed by Democrats. The conservatives are not going away. Our moral ideals, our ideas, and our language have to be brought into public discourse. Communication politics is not just about elections. It needs to be practiced effectively every day everywhere if the progressive ideals on which this country was founded are to be revived for an overwhelming majority of Americans.

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George Lakoff is the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Distinguished Professor of

Cognitive Science and Linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley, where he has taught since 1972. He previously taught at Harvard and the University of Michigan.

Professor Lakoff has been a co-founder of a number of scientific movements: Generative Semantics in the 1960’s; Cognitive Science and Cognitive Linguistics in the 1970’s; and the Neural Theory of Thought and Language in the 1990’s.

Since the publication of “Moral Politics” in 1996, he has been a public intellectual, bringing results from the cognitive and brain sciences into our understanding of politics. He has spoken twice to each of the Democratic Senatorial and House retreats and to both caucuses. He is a popular speaker on political issues. From the late 1990’s until 2008, he served as a founding senior fellow of the Rockridge Institute, a think tank dedicated to revealing the nature of political discourse and improving it. Over the years, he has worked with hundreds of NGO’s and foundations on virtually the full range of social issues, working to improve an understanding of social issues and how to communicate effectively about them.

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