At a Loss for Words

The latest dispatches from the framing wars

Illustration: Peter Hoey

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If you voted for John Kerry—and you probably did if you’re reading this—you’re familiar with this decade’s favorite liberal parlor game. It goes something like this:

Liberal A: All the polls say people like our positions. So why won’t they vote for us?

Liberal B: It’s because we’re wimps. We need to get tough like Karl Rove.

Liberal C: It’s because we’re prisoners of our interest groups. We need to whip them into line.

Liberal D: It’s because people don’t know what we stand for. We need a vision, not a laundry list.

Liberal E: No, no, no. You’re all wrong. It’s because we don’t talk right. We need to frame our ideas better.

Each of these schools of thought has its fans, but it’s the last one—framing—that’s recently drawn the most attention among the liberal cognoscenti. The concept is simple and appealing: Through repetition, certain words and phrases will produce a gut reaction entirely independent of their dictionary definitions. Smart politicians, therefore, try to create linguistic frames that help their own side while avoiding words that evoke their opponents’ frames.

An example helps here, and my own favorite comes from a 1947 Saturday Evening Post article about a Truman-era initiative to extend social benefits: “The opponents of such a system have an excellent case, but they do not help it by adopting precisely the words which put it in a favorable light. ‘Welfare’ is the key word. Who’s against welfare: Nobody!” Did you laugh out loud when you read that? “Who’s against welfare”? Nobody! Which goes to show two things: First, back in the day, liberals were pretty good at this framing stuff. (“Civil rights” and “senior citizen” are other examples of successful liberal framing from decades past.) Second, conservatives have recently gotten a lot better at it. After all, today the answer to the Post’s question would be, “Pretty much everyone.”

Ownership of language is an important part of winning political battles, and these two books make the case that liberals need to pay a lot more attention to words and framing if they want to get ahead at the ballot box. The better of the two by far is by Stanford linguist Geoffrey Nunberg, and its title makes its point before you read the first page. It’s a sparkling book, and Nunberg is a witty and authoritative guide to several decades of political linguistic history. “Elite”? It used to refer to economic class, but conservatives have hijacked it and made it into shorthand for out-of-touch, college-educated liberals. “Values”? In the ’50s, it was lefty jargon borrowed from the social sciences arena, but thanks to Spiro Agnew and his heirs, today it’s an all-purpose stand-in for a familiar basket of right-wing hot buttons that include abortion, school prayer, flag burning, and gay marriage.

And of course there’s the very word “liberal” itself, a term that’s been so successfully demonized by the right that even many liberals are ready to abandon it in favor of the everything-old-is-new-again term “progressive.” Nunberg disparages this attitude as defeatist, and his counsel here could apply to a dozen other words as well: “For as long as the Democrats refuse to come to terms with the liberal label, it will continue to dog them…. What’s worse, the Democrats’ phobia about the liberal label has given the right free rein to define the word in its own terms.”

This is sound advice, and most of Nunberg’s other observations have a commonsense flavor to them as well. His take on the right wing’s decades-long attack on the “liberal media,” for example, is a sharp one: The goal, he says, is not to hurt the media so much as it is to give its own supporters license to ignore anything they don’t want to hear. Problems in Iraq? Feel free to believe otherwise if you want. After all, the media wants us to lose the war.

As a linguistic archaeological dig, then, Talking Right is a fun and rollicking ride, but Nunberg doesn’t promise any answers to the current dilemmas of liberalism, and if that’s what you’re after, you may feel a bit cheated. But at least he knows his limits.

The same can’t be said of George Lakoff, the UC Berkeley linguistics professor who began a meteoric rise in progressive circles after a sympathetic activist offered him a grant in 2002 to advise liberal groups on their use of language. Within a few months, he was a rock star. He was invited to address Democratic senators at their annual retreat. Tom Daschle and Hillary Clinton sought out his advice. His think tank, the Rockridge Institute, began churning out white papers. During the 2004 campaign, Howard Dean predicted that Lakoff—then at the height of his bubble—would be “one of the most influential political thinkers of the progressive movement when the history of this century is written.”

It was heady stuff, and Lakoff’s notoriety came from his creation of a model of conservative ascendance that went beyond just words. Where the right has really succeeded, he said, is with “deep framing,” the process of assigning a constellation of emotions to individual words so they instantly evoke an entire worldview. This idea is fundamental to Lakoff’s core theory that people view politics the same way they view families: Conservatives value discipline, hierarchy, and competition, while liberals subscribe to a nurturing worldview that values empathy, fairness, and the common good.

Although this is a genuinely useful concept, Lakoff has always pushed it too far: Instead of using his model to explain some of the differences between liberals and conservatives—an effort that has the potential to be enlightening—he insists that it explains everything. Every conservative position from cutting taxes to cutting down old-growth forests is stuffed willy-nilly into his Procrustean bed, and too often the results are transparently strained and implausible. In Whose Freedom? he takes this dubious enterprise a step further by first using his family-centric model to define conservative and liberal versions of the word “freedom” and then squeezing everything into this new straitjacket. It has the feel of listening to a grassy-knoll crank explain how every conceivable piece of evidence supports his theory of how J.F.K. was assassinated. It’s a tour de force in a way, but when it’s done you just want to back away very slowly and hope you can escape safely back into the real world.

The result is richly ironic: A man who’s made his reputation advising liberals on how to use language more effectively has written a turgid and nearly unreadable book that rests on hundreds of short, disjointed sections and dozens of long bullet lists that demonstrate how, if you strain hard enough, commonplace concepts can all be rewritten in a way that includes the words “free” or “freedom.” And Lakoff’s lists make it clear that he can’t frame his way out of a paper bag. “Freedom judges” as a replacement for “judicial activists”? Spare me. And when it comes to the most salient topic in all of contemporary politics, the liberal response to the war on terror, he’s just stumped. In the entire book, Lakoff devotes only one platitude-filled paragraph to the subject.

As linguists, both Lakoff and Nunberg also fail to grapple with the reality underlying the language they critique. For instance, both men believe economic issues ought to be a core concern for progressives. But here, liberals are victims of their own success, not of conservative wordplay. In 1959, right before the liberal revolution of the ’60s, the median family income in America was $30,000 (adjusted for inflation) and the poverty rate was 21 percent. Today it’s $54,000 and 11 percent. So while it’s true that middle-class income has decreased (and poverty rates have increased) since George W. Bush took office, all the clever rhetoric in the world won’t change the fact that most Americans are simply too comfortable to start a ballot? box revolution over raw economic issues. Fighting for economic justice is still important, but liberals need new ways of doing it, not just new language.

That’s not a criticism of Lakoff and Nunberg. They’ve done liberals a service by making us think harder about political rhetoric and how it’s used. But it is a criticism of the political class that has uncritically lionized Lakoff, seemingly convinced that copying the conservative language playbooks made famous by Newt Gingrich and Frank Luntz will bring us back to power. Contemporary liberalism’s timid leadership would probably be better advised to spend more time on actual, substantive issues that people care about. Getting rid of America’s wobbly and Rube Goldberg-esque medical system and replacing it with an efficient universal health care service is something worth fighting for, for example, and it’s something that the language merchants could help with. But as with so many other issues, language isn’t really what’s holding us back. Backbone is. Republicans won the fight over health care—and much more—not so much because of the language they employed but because they never gave up—and that’s the playbook Democrats should emulate.

The jargon of the New Deal and the Great Society might not work anymore, but there are still plenty of issues we can win on if we have the guts to stand up and say what we really believe, instead of watering down our values and running them through a gauntlet of focus groups before poking our heads above ground to greet the TV cameras. The right words can help, but only if they’re backed up by genuine passion and principle.


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