Words That Don’t Work

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By George Lakoff

Progressives had some fun last week with Frank Luntz, who told the Republican Governors’ Association that he was scared to death of the Occupy movement and recommended language to combat what the movement had achieved. But the progressive critics mostly just laughed, said his language wouldn’t work, and assumed that if Luntz was scared, everything was hunky-dory. Just keep on saying the words Luntz doesn’t like: capitalism, tax the rich, etc.

It’s a trap.

When Luntz says he is “scared to death,” he means that the Republicans who hire him are scared to death and he can profit from that fear by offering them new language. Luntz is clever. Yes, Republicans are scared. But there needs to be a serious discussion of both Luntz’s remarks and the progressive non-response.

What has been learned from the brain and cognitive sciences is that words are defined by fixed frames we use in thinking, frames come in hierarchical systems, and political frames are defined in moral terms, where “morality” is very different for conservatives and progressives. What lies behind the Occupy movement is a moral view of democracy: Democracy is about citizens caring about each other and acting responsibly both socially and personally. This requires a robust public empowering and protecting everyone equally. Both private success and personal freedom depend on such a public. Every critique and proposal of the Occupy movement fits this moral view, which happens to be the progressive moral view.
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How to Frame Yourself: A Framing Memo for Occupy Wall Street

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By George Lakoff

I was asked weeks ago by some in the Occupy Wall Street movement to make suggestions for how to frame the movement. I have hesitated so far, because I think the movement should be framing itself. It’s a general principle: Unless you frame yourself, others will frame you — the media, your enemies, your competitors, your well-meaning friends. I have so far hesitated to offer suggestions. But the movement appears to maturing and entering a critical time when small framing errors could have large negative consequences. So I thought it might be helpful to accept the invitation and start a discussion of how the movement might think about framing itself.

About framing: It’s normal. Everybody engages in it all the time. Frames are just structures of thought that we use every day. All words in all languages are defined in terms of frame-circuits in the brain. But, ultimately, framing is about ideas, about how we see the world, which determines how we act.

In politics, frames are part of competing moral systems that are used in political discourse and in charting political action. In short, framing is a moral enterprise: it says what the character of a movement is. All politics is moral. Political figures and movements always make policy recommendations claiming they are the right things to do. No political figure ever says, do what I say because it’s wrong! Or because it doesn’t matter! Some moral principles or other lie behind every political policy agenda.

Two Moral Framing Systems in Politics

Conservatives have figured out their moral basis and you see it on Wall Street: It includes: The primacy of self-interest. Individual responsibility, but not social responsibility. Hierarchical authority based on wealth or other forms of power. A moral hierarchy of who is “deserving,” defined by success. And the highest principle is the primacy of this moral system itself, which goes beyond Wall Street and the economy to other arenas: family life, social life, religion, foreign policy, and especially government. Conservative “democracy” is seen as a system of governance and elections that fits this model.
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Why Democracy Is Public: The American Dream Beats the Nightmare

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By George Lakoff and Glenn W. Smith

Democracy, in the American tradition, has been defined by a simple morality: We Americans care about our fellow citizens, we act on that care and build trust, and we do our best not just for ourselves, our families, and our friends and neighbors, but for our country, for each other, for people we have never seen and never will see.

American Democracy has, over our history, called upon citizens to share an equal responsibility to work together to secure a safe and prosperous future for their families and nation. This is the central work of our democracy and it is a public enterprise. This, the American Dream, is the dream of a functioning democracy.

Public refers to people, acting together to provide what we all depend on: roads and bridges, public buildings and parks, a system of education, a strong economic system, a system of law and order with a fair and effective judiciary, dams, sewers, and a power grid, agencies to monitor disease, weather, food safety, clean air and water, and on and on. That is what we, as a people who care about each other, have given to each other.

Only a free people can take up the necessary tasks, and only a people who trust and care for one another can get the job done. The American Dream is built upon mutual care and trust.

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Obama Returns To His Moral Vision: Democrats Read Carefully!

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Last week, on April 13, 2011, President Obama gave all Democrats and all progressives a remarkable gift. Most of them barely noticed. They looked at the President’s speech as if it were only about budgetary details. But the speech went well beyond the budget. It went to the heart of progressive thought and the nature of American democracy, and it gave all progressives a model of how to think and talk about every issue.

It was a landmark speech. It should be watched and read carefully and repeatedly by every progressive who cares about our country — whether Democratic office-holder, staffer, writer, or campaign worker — and every progressive blogger, activist and concerned citizen. The speech is a work of art.

The policy topic happened to be the budget, but he called it “The Country We Believe In” for a reason. The real topic was how the progressive moral system defines the democratic ideals America was founded on, and how those ideals apply to specific issues. Obama’s moral vision, which he applied to the budget, is more general: it applies to every issue. And it can be applied everywhere by everyone who shares that moral vision of American democracy.

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The Real Issues: A Wisconsin Update

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The Wisconsin protests are about much more than budgets and unions. As I observed in What Conservatives Really Want, the conservative story about budget deficits is a ruse to turn the country conservative in every area. Karl Rove and Shep Smith have made it clear on Fox: If the Wisconsin plan to kill the public employees’ unions succeeds, then there will be little union money in the future to support democratic candidates. Conservatives will be effectively unopposed in raising campaign funding in most elections, including the presidential elections. This will mean a thoroughly conservative America in every issue area.

The media, with few exceptions, is failing to get at the deeper issues.

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What Conservatives Really Want

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—Dedicated to the peaceful protestors in Wisconsin, February 19, 2011

The central issue in our political life is not being discussed. At stake is the moral basis of American democracy.

The individual issues are all too real: assaults on unions, public employees, women’s rights, immigrants, the environment, health care, voting rights, food safety, pensions, prenatal care, science, public broadcasting, and on and on.
Budget deficits are a ruse, as we’ve seen in Wisconsin, where the Governor turned a surplus into a deficit by providing corporate tax breaks, and then used the deficit as a ploy to break the unions, not just in Wisconsin, but seeking to be the first domino in a nationwide conservative movement.

Deficits can be addressed by raising revenue, plugging tax loopholes, putting people to work, and developing the economy long-term in all the ways the President has discussed. But deficits are not what really matters to conservatives.
Conservatives really want to change the basis of American life, to make America run according to the conservative moral worldview in all areas of life.

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The New Obama Narrative

For the first two years of his administration, President Obama had no overriding narrative, no frame to define his policy making, no way to make sense of what he was trying to do. As of his 2011 State of the Union Address, he has one: Competitiveness.

The competitiveness narrative is intended to serve a number of purposes at once:

1. Split the Republican business community off from the hard right, especially the Tea Party. Most business leaders want real economics, not ideological economics. And it is hard to pin the “socialist” label on a business-oriented president. He may succeed.

2. Attract biconceptuals – those who are conservative on some issues and progressive on other issues. They are sometimes mistakenly called “moderates” or “independents,” though there is no one ideology of the moderate or the independent. They make up 15 to 20 percent of the electorate, and many are conservative on economic issues and progressive on social issues. He attracted them in 2008, but not in 2010. He needs less than half to win in 2012. He may well succeed.

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The “New Centrism” and Its Discontents

There is no ideology of the “center.” What is called a “centrist” or a “moderate” is actually very different — a bi-conceptual, someone who is conservative on some issues and progressive on others, in many, many possible combinations. Why does this matter? From the perspective of how the brain works, the distinction is crucial.

Because we think with our brains, all thought is physical. Our moral and political worldviews are realized as brain circuits with strong synapses. If you have two conflicting worldviews, you have two brain circuits that are mutually inhibitory, so that when one is activated, it is strengthened and the other is shut off and weakened. When a worldview applies to a given issue, there is a neural binding circuit linking the worldview circuit to that issue circuit in such a way that the issue is understood in terms of that worldview. The right language will activate that that issue as understood via that worldview. Using that language strengthens that worldview.

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Untellable Truths

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Democrats of all stripes have been so focused on details of policy that they have surrendered public political discourse to conservatives, and with it the key to the nation’s future.

Materialist Perspectives

The differences between Democratic progressives and the president over the tax deal the president has made with Republicans is being argued from a materialist perspective. That perspective is real. It matters who gets how much money and how our money is spent.

But what is being ignored is that the answer to material policy questions depends on how Americans understand the issues, that is, on how the issues are realized in the brains of our citizens. Such understanding is what determines political support or lack of it in all its forms, from voting to donations to political pressure to what is said in the media.

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