The Moral Imperative  
Talking To George Lakoff, Part Two

Sharon Basco is executive producer of TomPaine.com.

In part one of this interview, George Lakoff, author of Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think, set out a basic metaphor of the American nation as a family. "There are two different ideal models of the family that I’ll call a Strict Father Family and a Nurturing Parent Family," Lakoff said, theorizing that conservatives embrace a strict father ideal, and liberals a nurturing one. Here, in part two, Lakoff, a professor in the department of linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley, talks to TomPaine.com’s Sharon Basco about the coming presidential election.

TomPaine.com: You note that in the last election, George Bush framed himself as a "compassionate conservative" even though he is a mainline ideological conservative. Can he continue with depicting himself that way in the next election, despite his record?

George Lakoff: Of course he can. Unless the liberals do something about it. If the Democrats don't figure out a way to do something about it, he can go on doing this as long as he wants.

Look at the way he did the State of the Union address. That address was very carefully crafted. What you have in the first part of it is examples of how he cares, and how conservatives care. Now, all of the examples are deceptive. So, for example, they say, "We are going to give $3 billion additional to AIDS in Africa." Well, they didn't say where the money is coming from. The money is coming from inoculations and drugs for other diseases in the Third World. They didn't say, "We are going to take money away from other health problems in the Third World and give it to AIDS in Africa."

So it sounded as if they were going to give the $3 billion -- as if they had it to give. They are taking it from somewhere else. They said, "We are going to give $1.5 billion to fuel cells so we can clean the air." What they didn't tell you is that the $1.5 billion is going to support the getting [of the] hydrogen from coal, natural gas, oil and nuclear stuff. So that it is going to these industries. And then where is it coming from? It is coming out of money for developing alternative clean fuels!

TP.c: If consulted about facing the GOP campaign effort in the next election, what advice would you give a Democratic candidate? How can he discuss issues with nuance and make himself heard?

Lakoff: Conservatives have spent 40 years developing a conceptual system that they can all pretty much agree on. Forty years ago, they were in disarray, they disagreed with each other, they hated each other, they fought. They have spent a lot of time on their think tanks with their intellectuals, developing an overall approach to conservatism and to conservative politics and morality that they largely agree on, and they have developed a language for that.... It is not easy, because you really have to do a lot of long-term work. But does that mean you can't fight it at all? No. You certainly can, but there are certain things you have to do. You have to understand your moral worldview. You have to have your moral messages. You have to be able to not just negate what the other guy is saying. Let me give you an example. Take the anti-war movement. You say, "We are against the war, we are anti-war." Now what does that mean?

...Simply saying, "I am against this," does not necessarily communicate effectively. You have to frame things in terms of what you are for. That doesn't mean you can't attack, it doesn't mean you can't say negative things, but the question is how you say negative things....

What you need to do is frame your positive ideals, get those ideas out there, and express them in such a way that you can see that the Bush administration is a nightmare, that you can attack them relative to your frame. And that is what you have to do. You can't just take their frame and say we are against it, because you support their frame. These are the kinds of things that can be done.

There are some other things that can be done linguistically. Let me again take a non-political example. Consider opposites. A word like thrifty has the opposite, wasteful. A word like stingy has the opposite, generous. A word like responsible has the opposite irresponsible or frivolous. So when you say "We are responsible," in an opposition situation, you are suggesting that the other guy is irresponsible. There is a way to attack without ever saying anything negative by doing things of that sort.

There are many ways to counter the Bush administration and their media blitz, but you need to do it effectively, and you need to be thinking about all of these issues.

TP.c: You write about how conservatives support their intellectuals -- they built infrastructure and invest in the careers of their best thinkers and writers -- and progressives tend not to. How did that come about?

Lakoff: The knowledge is there, the people are there. The money hasn't been put there. The money has been given to pollsters, people who run focus groups and PR people. I am not against PR people in any way, but they haven't learned the basics of framing, they haven't learned the basics of moral discourse and not only that, there is a real problem in the way that polling is used, and this is extremely important.

Conservatives have spent 40 years developing a conceptual system.

Democrats tend to think of things in terms of one issue at a time, as opposed to thinking of a general progressive worldview, and how the issues fit in to that. Therefore, the Democratic Leadership Council wants more votes, they think, "Gee, we should move to the right to get more voters." Now you can't imagine the conservatives moving to the left to get more voters. They, in fact get more voters by staying on the right. There's a reason for that, and the reason is deep and important. There is a progressive worldview and a conservative worldview and language to express them, and there are about 35 to 38 percent of the voters on either side who are confirmed liberals or confirmed conservatives. Liberal candidates are not going to get less than 35, 34 percent -- something like that. Conservative candidates are not going to get less than that.

Now, the so-called "voters in the middle," are not in the middle. They are people who have both models, and use them in different parts of their lives. They may have had a strict father and a nurturant mother, or have somehow got both models. They may be, let's say, blue collar workers who are strict fathers at home, but nurturant in terms of the workplace. They may be professionals in business, who are strict fathers in their business, but nurturant at home. There are many, many different combinations of this sort of thing. What you want to do from the point of view of the study of the brain -- all of these ideas are there physically in your brain -- is, you want to activate your model.

What you want to do is talk in a way that that activates the progressive worldview. The conservatives talk in a way that activates the conservative worldview, and it activates them, with these "voters in the middle" -- making them look at the world from more of a conservative perspective. What the progressives have to do is get them -- "the folks in the middle" -- to activate their progressive worldviews, and spread them over more issues. That is the way that you hold your base and extend it. The conservatives know this, the Democrats haven't a clue. They don't understand this yet.

TP.c: A liberal talk show network has been proposed. It’s of course intended to present competition to the right-wing programs. But how useful can it be when language for a liberal agenda has not yet been developed and understood?

Lakoff: If you started a liberal network tomorrow, you would be faced with a set of problems. Right now, you don't have a liberal discourse form. Now, how did the conservative discourse form get the way it is? It started with Bill Buckley, with Crossfire. That was the first thing.... You had Buckley, who had been framing everything from a conservative perspective, getting some so-called "liberals" and conservatives arguing with each other, but he controlled the debate and the framing. People saw that that worked very well, and they developed that into a whole way of talking. They have also developed framing and language. Then they have trained people. There are overt trainers, and training sessions and training manuals for this.

If you are going to develop a liberal network, you need to find out who are the spokesmen, who know how to frame issues from a liberal perspective, and what are the discourse forms that are most effective. We don't know that yet. We don't know, for example, the fighting discourse form: being in your face and screaming at people as you get on the Fox Network -- that is not the appropriate liberal discourse form.

What are the discourse forms that are most effective? We don't know that yet.

Well, how do you get out of it? What is it? Is it Terry Gross? Is it Michael Krasny? Is it Christopher Lydon? Are there other discourse forms that are more effective? Would people be bored by those forms? Are there other forms that would be exciting and interesting? We don't know yet. The question has not yet been seriously posed. I don't know if people are really thinking about it, but they should be. The research has not been done. It could be done fairly quickly -- it is not that nothing is known about this.

TP.c: Since a framework is not yet there for a progressive language and agenda, is it out of the question to think that a democratic candidate in 2004 can change the language of a conversation on important issues?

Lakoff: I think that the resources are there, they haven't been used. There are some candidates who are quite skilled at this, and others who are not, and that the skilled people can possibly do well if they work at it. I think that an organization that took this seriously and put it together could be built. I don't see it as hopeless.

TP.c: Professor Lakoff, thanks for your time and insights.

Lakoff: And thank you for having me.

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Published: May 09 2003