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Lakoff: Ben Margot/AP • Frank: Handout

Who's getting framed?

Reason goes to the sidelines in American politics

Issue: "Bleeding economy," Oct. 18, 2008

In the dark days of 2004, Democratic strategists were desperately seeking the magic pill that would explain their sickness and point the way to a cure. The last two elections had been disastrous for them: Please, Doctor-what went wrong?

Democratic leaders seemed to find their answer in George Lakoff, Berkeley professor and author of Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think. Conveniently reissued in 2002, Moral Politics posited the ambitious theory that policy can shape public consciousness. A linguist by profession, Lakoff's studies in the neurological roots of language led him to the conclusion that reason is not an abstract quantity but rather an organic product of the motor-sensory system. That is, there's no real distinction between mind and body, and reason is whatever conventional wisdom makes of it.

Lakoff is an enthusiastic promoter of "frame semantics," meaning that words never just mean what they say, but actually bundle a range of ideas, images, and emotions. If certain words and phrases are repeated in public, individual brains will come to "frame" the policies behind them in a positive or negative way.

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It's hardly news that some words and phrases are loaded with connotation: "Thrifty," for example, sounds more commendable than "cheap," though both have the same basic meaning. But the Democrats of 2003 latched onto Lakoff: So that's our problem! We've been trying to make our case with bare-knuckled reason when we should have swaddled our punches with the velvet subtleties of semantic framing. It's not the issues, it's how we talk about them. If we speak of "membership fees" instead of taxes, and "public-protection attorneys" rather than trial lawyers, we'll sweep the next election!

As a matter of fact, they did. But not because of a sea change in semantics. George Lakoff's reign of influence was short, in part because his ideological structure was too grand to support the rough-and-tumble of an actual political campaign. Forget about shaping neurological patterns: We just want to win elections. Another guru appeared on the horizon in 2004, an intellectual Jack London who pulled no punches while explaining to Democrats what they wanted to hear. In What's the Matter with Kansas? Thomas Frank told the story of how cynical Republicans in his home state exploited voters by appealing to their innate social conservatism. By owning the issues of abortion, gay rights, and immigration, the GOP duped the rubes into "voting against their own self-interest"-self-interest being shorthand for tax-funded government services, regulatory agencies, and labor unions.

Frank again goes for the jugular in his latest book, The Wrecking Crew: How Conservatives Rule. We're not in Kansas anymore; he purports to demonstrate how conservatives over the last 30 years (has anybody here seen Bill Clinton?) conspired to "dynamite the treasury," "sabotage the regulatory process," and "force government shutdowns." Framing, schmaming; Frank is serving up smashmouth politics, which always works for Washington.

Unfortunately, though, it helps to destroy any middle ground for hammering out a reasonable policy. Personally, I believe a case can be made for New Deal liberalism. I also believe a better case can be made for classic conservatism, if both sides could avoid casting the opponents as traitors, cynics, or Rovian schemers (while acknowledging those types do exist). How likely is that? Martin Luther believed he could reason the pope into seeing things his way, and we know how well that turned out.

George Lakoff is right about reason being subject to emotional baggage. Most of us have too much of ourselves invested in a given view to entertain its opposite with perfect objectivity. But Lakoff is wrong to suppose that therefore reason does not objectively exist.

Reason is, in fact, based on the Logos (John 1:1), an indispensable tool of real communication (Acts 17:2, 17), a constant companion of prudence (Proverbs 8:12). And at this writing, with a credit catastrophe nipping at our heels and Congress deadlocked, reason seems to be sitting this one out.

Wisdom has built her house. Will anyone come in?

If you have a question or comment for Janie Cheaney, send it to

Janie B. Cheaney
Janie B. Cheaney

Janie lives in Missouri, is a columnist for WORLD, writes novels for young adults, and is the author of the Wordsmith creative writing series. She also reviews books at Follow Janie on Twitter @jbcheaney.


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