Saturday, October 09, 2010

George Lakoff and value "frames" (1): Don't think of Tippecanoe

US President William Henry Harrison (1773-1841)

I heard a speech by linguist George Lakoff this past Wednesday in which he talked about his concept of "frames" and how they work in political communication. He said he illustrates the concept for his classes by telling them, "Don't think of an elephant." His point is that even when put in the negative, the word "elephant" creates a frame of concepts that makes you think of an elephant.

Lakoff has lots of interesting things to say. But I find his scientific linguistic discussions more persuasive than his attempts to apply them to political communication. He pointed out, as one example, that when people use hand gestures to talk about a progression of time, we strongly tend to use a gesture to our left side to refer to earlier, to our right side to refer to later, though the same pattern does not hold in speech. He also talked briefly about the neurological basis of metaphors, like referring to old age as "the autumn of life."

He also makes sense when he says that Democrats reinforce Republican frames of political issues when they respond in Republican terms, e.g., talking about "tax relief," which he says is identified with Republican anti-tax, anti-government notions. He did mention with obvious delight a recent example on the other side, from Delaware Senate candidate Christine O'Donnell (R-Tea Party):

By declaring "I'm not a witch," she was using a similar formulation to, "Don't think of an elephant." Rather than directing attention away from her somewhat embarrassing but otherwise inconsequential mention on TV years ago that she had dabbled in witchcraft before becoming a Christian, she instead called attention to it.

There is also some intuitive appeal to Lakoff's argument that the Republican and Democratic Parties each operate from one of two value sets that he says predominate in Americans' political concepts. The Republicans play the role of the disciplinary father, the Democrats the role of the nurturing mother.

And he argues that retail politics is all about values. He thinks the Democrats' great failure in communication is that they fail to connect the points they make with an identifiable set of values, and in particular "their" nurturing-mother set of values. Whereas the Republicans are generally good at relating their messaging to their disciplinary-father values. He did say that Obama was good about doing so during his campaign, not so good during his Presidency.

Jerry Brown has been offering what looks to me like the kind of appeal to values that Lakoff has been advocating for Democrats to use. Here he addresses the question of undocumented workers (Economic Pessimism Pervades Heated California Governor Race PBS Newshour 10/08/2010):

JERRY BROWN: There's also a question of values. How do you treat people? And this raises the larger question of the underground economy. There is a group of people, numbered in the millions, who are being exploited and who are vulnerable and our laws should protect. And if I'm governor, I will do precisely that.
(Yes, the California Governor's race has really been capturing my attention this past week or so.)

He also made an amusing but interesting point. Young Republicans who want to go into politics tend to study business, while aspiring young Democratic politicians tend to study political science or history. The Republicans learn to think about marketing, the Democrats learn to think in terms of reasoned discourse. The result is that Republicans are good at marketing their cluster of values. While the Democrats have an incredible tendency to argue points on the assumption that reasonable discussion is the best way to persuade people. I believe he even put it as bluntly as saying that facts don't matter in this context, only values do.

At this point, despite the interesting and perceptive observations, I've got doubts popping up all over the place about his point. Is there a solid empirical basis for his father/mother concept of the two broad clusters of values by which most Americans perceive politics? Or is he reading an interpretation onto the dualism that a two-party system like our produces that may be based on more dominant determining factors? Because the Democratic base has more working-class and minority composition than the Republicans', it's arguably a rational economic calculation for the Democratic voters to favor "nurturing" programs like unemployment insurance. But does that really connect to something meaningfully described as a nurturing-mother cluster of values?

If these sound like those Democratic rational-thinking questions Lakoff warns us about, I confess: I majored in political science in college. But then I studied business in graduate school, so I don't quite fit his Democratic model. Which brings me to another point. How much of an empirical basis is there for the intuitively attractive notion that Republican candidates have a better background in marketing than Democratic candidates? I would suggest that the Republicans, as the Party that represents billionaires who would prefer not to pay taxes, tends to pursue policies that damage the interests of the majority of the American public. And so they have to have better marketing to sell a bill of good like that in elections.

This phenomenon goes back a ways. When the Whig Party formed as the representative of the Money Power against Jacksonian Democracy, they soon figured out they would need a more downhome image than the old Federalist Party had projected. When Virginia aristocrat William Henry Harrison (Tippecanoe of "Tippecanoe and Tyler, too") became the Whig nominee for the Presidency in 1940 against Democratic standard-bearer Martin Van Buren, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. describes in The Age of Jackson what happened: "A Baltimore paper observed loftily that Harrison would be entirely happy on his backwoods farm if he had a pension, a log cabin and a barrel of hard cider." The Whigs picked up on the imagery and decided to turn it into a virtue. To make Harrison appear to be the kind of guy you'd like to have a beer with, you might say:

Hard cider and a log cabin? . . . Yes,, the answer soon rang across the land, the Whig party is the party of hard cider and log cabins, and it will defend them to the end against all the sneers of the Democrats.

With tireless industry and bewildering resources Whigs everywhere rushed to doff their broadcloth and flaunt their homespun. Every speech, song and slogan held up the rustic and plebeian as closest to the Whig soul. The staid meetings of their past gave way to barbecues, clambakes, excursions and noisy processions. Raucous campaign songs echoed in the streets, as the Whigs marched by in disorder, shouting and staggering in the yellow light of torches: —

Farewell, dear Van,
You're not our man;
To guide the ship,
We'll try old Tip.

Log cabins were everywhere - hung to watch chains and earrings, in parlor pictures and shop windows, mounted on wheels, decorated with coonskins and hauled in magnificent parades. Large ones were set up in the principal cities, surrounded by barrels of cider, with the latchstring dangling out in welcome for all comers. ...

Wood engravers and lithographers were kept perpetually busy turning out pictures: Harrison, the Hero of Tippecanoe, astride a monumental horse; Harrison as Cincinnatus at the plow; Harrison greeting his comrades at arms at the door of his log cabin, with a long latch-string hanging down; Harrison as an Indian chief, paddling furiously toward the White House from which Van Buren ("the Flying Dutchman") was fleeing; Harrison as a boxer administering a thrashing to Van Buren, with Old Hickory, as Van Buren's trainer, looking on in gloom. Brass and copper medals were struck off, with a log cabin, a flag, a barrel and a cup on one side, Harrison on the other: "He leaves the plough to save his country." And always the din of songs. the blare of drum and fife, the hoarse voices of orators, the immense crowds, the endless processions, the barrel on barrel of cider, the torches smoking and flaring in the night.
As Arlo Guthrie once said, "Some things don't change, you know. Some things do." The Whig Party is gone. And television ads have long since replaced torchlight procession as electoral tools. But the party of the plutocrats is still selling itself as the downhome representative of Real Americans. Al Gore brings the story closer to the present in The Assault on Reason (2007), writing of the Cheney-Bush Administration:

The essential cruelty of Bush's game is that he takes an astonishingly selfish and greedy collection of economic and political proposals and then cloaks them with a phony moral authority, thus misleading many Americans who have a deep and genuine desire to do good in the world. And in the process he convinces these Americans to lend unquestioning support for proposals that actually hurt their families and their communities.
A final concern about Lakoff's approach, for this post. He cited the health care reform fight as an example of how the Democrats' response to the Tea Party protests against the reform as an example of how they did bad messaging, responding to an appeal to values and emotion on the part of the Tea Partiers with lists of factual points.

The problem with that point is, the Democrats won the health reform battle. The Tea Party didn't derail it. In fact, a solid majority in the House voted for a health care reform including the public option, and 59 members of the Senate were prepared to do so. The omission of the critical public option was not a result of inadequate messaging. It was a result of the deal the White House had made with the insurance and hospital industry to leave it out. In other words, the messaging was connected to the policy: the White House didn't want the kind of messaging that would have gotten the public option approved.

A larger concern, which I'll discuss in a separate post, is the implication of Lakoff's argument that reason is largely if not wholly dispensable in democratic electoral politics.

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