An Interview with George Lakoff

James Verini
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When he’s not a professor—mandarin may be a better word—at the University of California, Berkeley, where he teaches cognitive linguistics, George Lakoff turns out books at a prodigious rate and serves as an unofficial aide-de-campe to the John Kerry campaign. He thinks a lot about how conservatives and progressives speak, and why conservatives are so much better at peddling their strict-father model of society, as he puts it, than progressives are at pushing their nurturing-parent outlook. (See Lakoff, George, Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think, Second Edition, 2002.) So concerned has he become with the subject, indeed, that he’s started the Rockridge Institute, a think-tank whose mission it is to help progressives catch up. Can they? Sure, says Lakoff, by effectively framing—using novel terminology and calling on unconscious metaphors to make their points (it’s simpler than it sounds).

The Believer reached Lakoff by phone at his Rockridge office, with its calmly view of the Berkeley campus (so his assistant claims). He was in an exceedingly good mood. His new book, Don’t Think of an Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate—The Essential Guide for Progressives, which he co-wrote with Howard Dean and Don Hazen, was climbing up the Amazon best-seller list, and his role as unofficial linguistic consultant to John Kerry’s campaign seemed to finally be paying off. Kerry had delivered a scathing speech on the Bush Administration’s failures in Iraq the night before…

—James Verini

THE BELIEVER: When did conservatives become so good with language?

GEORGE LAKOFF: Well, with Reagan.

BLVR: Wasn’t it before that, though? I just read Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus by Rick Perlstein, and it seems like they started even that long ago, in the early sixties, with Conscience of a Conservative and all that.

GL: Well, yes. He tried doing it. (William F.) Buckley had started it, but they didn’t get far with it, and it wasn’t very effective. After the ‘64 campaign, no one wanted to be a conservative. And what’s interesting is that Goldwater’s numbers are exactly the same as the hard conservative numbers today. I don’t know if you’re aware of that. Goldwater lost with something like 37 percent to 39 percent. It was something like 61 percent to 39 percent in the general election. Well, take a look at the Pew Poll now. The Pew Poll is interesting, because it segregates the strong support from the support, and if you look at the strong support for both Kerry and Bush, it’s in the range of like 36 percent to 40 percent. The conservatives had had that same percentage of people straight on through from ‘64 to the present, but what they’ve done is they’ve managed to get people in the middle, people who have sympathy for both models—the strict-father model and the nurturing-parent model—they’ve gotten a lot of them to vote with them.

BLVR: What in those models explains why the liberals are so much less on-message than conservatives lately?

GL: It’s not in the model. It’s in the historical circumstances that surround all of this. The model is an unconscious model of values, of where their values come from, of what makes them liberals or conservatives. However, the problem is the conscious understanding. And that comes out of the Enlightenment. So, liberals are taught that they are bringing down Enlightenment values with them. They include separation of church and state—the Enlightenment was about getting rid of the Pope and the king and having a civil society—and reason. The idea is that reason is what defines people and makes them what they are, and therefore if you just give people the facts, the facts will set you free. People will reason to the correct conclusion. And that’s the disaster. Because what it means is liberals always try to fight frames with facts, and that doesn’t work. They negate things. They’re anti-this and anti-that, instead of pro. And they define elections as going after self-interest. That doesn’t win elections. You’ve got to know what’s most important for winning, and what’s most important is values and identification and trust. It’s that kind of thing that they’re missing.

BLVR: You mentioned Reagan. Who have been some of the other great conservative framers?

GL: Well, remember [William] Safire was one of their writers.

BLVR: For Nixon.

GL: For Nixon, right. And Nixon’s vice president, Spiro Agnew. *quot;Naddering nabobs of negativism”—right? They had these guys writing back then. And they were starting their big think tanks then. Reagan was doing it when he was governor of California, and by the time he ran for president he had the think tanks behind him and a much more sophisticated language apparatus. Roger Ailes was his man. He runs Fox News now. Ailes was one of the geniuses behind this.

BLVR: Is Karl Rove Bush’s Ailes?

GL: Well it’s not just one genius. What you’ve got is forty-three think-tanks. Two billion dollars. Thirty-five years of experience. And thousands of people working on these projects. All the leadership institutes they have, which give them language training. Given all that, Karl Rove can integrate it.

BLVR: Who are some of the more successful framers among Democrats?

GL: Well, obviously Clinton. Clinton was masterful. [Barack] Obama shows promise. The Kennedys and Martin Luther King were great. That’s part of what made them great leaders—their ability to frame things. Take the most famous quotes from these guys and it’s right there.

BLVR: What about Clinton?

GL: The “I feel your pain” stuff. It’s just there in his body. I mean, you look at him and you feel that.

BLVR: Can you explain to me in layman’s neuroscience terms how September 11 changed the way we think?

GL: It reshaped our brains. That’s why they had to keep showing the towers falling over and over and over again. The imagery meant that the towers were people. The planes going in are like bullets going through your brain, the people falling are you falling. Here’s a picture of you dying. The other thing was it was framed in terms of war, instead of crime. Then it was not just war, but metaphorical war, where the enemy is this abstract thing: terror. Terror, which is in you. That’s what’s sort of weird. The enemy is inside America. It’s terror, not terrorists, the outside guys. Of course, by saying ña war on terrorî you can never feel safe. The locus of the war is in you.

BLVR: Are the conservatives who formulated all of these terms aware of these other meanings?

GL: Yeah. I suspect Karen Hughes is smart enough to understand that.

BLVR: Really?

GL: Sure. Think about the image of those towers falling. Think about your empathic response. What you see there you feel in your body. You feel that the terror is in you. You feel that the destruction is in you. Just by looking at it over and over and over, it’s come into you, it’s changed your brain. And so you become the war. It’s not over there in Iraq. Now, you justify the war by saying, “It’s better that it’s fought there than here,” which is the relief. But of course, metaphorically, it’s here. There are people all over the Midwest worrying about the war, especially women, who are empathic, feeling it themselves, worrying that the war is going to come to Peoria, Illinois.

BLVR: Karl Rove’s strategy seems to be to take a Democratic candidate’s greatest strength and manage to turn it into their greatest weakness. He’s good at it. They did it with John McCain in the 2000 South Carolina primary, and with the Swift Boat thing. Is Kerry finally learning that lesson?

GL: That’s the idea. That’s just what happened. He’s learned exactly that lesson. In fact, he’s learned three of those lessons. They came out in that speech the other night. One lesson is to go after Iraq. Two is to go after Bush’s character by questioning his honesty. And three is to bring up the issue of weakening the country. And he finally started doing all three in the same speech and it was thrilling.

BLVR: Were you impressed with the tightness of the Republican convention?

GL: Incredible. Very impressive. What the Republicans did was craft a new complex frame bringing everything together. They had a job for each night. The job for the first night was to take the war on terror and generalize it to include Iraq, to say the Iraq war is an inherent part of the war on terror and is not only necessary, but inseparable. And then to generalize that to say “This is the great calling of our generation.” So you had lots of FDR, Lincoln and Reagan. Over and over again. It was weird to see FDR being pushed by conservatives who want to get him off the dime.

BLVR: Have there honestly been proposals to take him off the dime?

GL: Oh yes, it’s a big deal. There is a group of conservatives who want to replace him with Reagan.

BLVR: Good god.

GL: Yeah. But, getting back to the convention… They said the war on terror defines this generation. This is a defining moment. When you say that, it has a bunch of entailments. But the essence of what we have is the most important thing: the war. Everything else must be considered from this point of view. Our reaction to the war on terror defines who we are. And if we don’t take up this challenge we fail their essence test.

BLVR: I want to move back a bit —

GL: I was just talking about the first night.


GL: The second night was the compassionate conservatism thing, to point out what you need is discipline. Discipline is compassion. You have Arnold, who imbued everybody in America with discipline, and said everybody can pursue their dream. That’s the mythology. Anything is possible, blah, blah, blah. But it’s all for individuals, right? Individual discipline. His story is about individual discipline. He’s supposed to exemplify the typical immigrant coming here and what can be achieved.

BLVR: The Republicans have managed to take this idea of compassion, which was traditionally a kind of liberal franchise, and make it their own.

GL: Right. What they did was the following: They said they want to have an opportunity society, an ownership society. They want to get government out of the way of people who can do it for themselves. So what they’ve done is enable conservatives to call “self-interest” compassion. The true compassion is to take barriers away. That’s the message. To get government off your back, blah, blah, blah. And not only that but to support private faith-based institutions that do charity. Charity, of course, has very little to with policy.

BLVR: They’re using faith as a kind of quick symbol for compassion?

GL: Right.

BLVR: Do you ask conservatives for help when you’re writing?

GL: Yeah. Back when I was writing Moral Politics, I gave a talk on where I was at the time. Some conservative friends sat down with me said, “Hey, you don’t have it really right. You ought to fix it up in the following way.” And they were quite right. I encounter conservatives all the time. I just had to answer a bunch of letters from The Berkeleyan, which is one of these newspapers for faculty and staff at the University, and it’s mostly dull stories. You know, a memorial service for so and so, Campus Dedicates New Library, that sort of thing. But what they did, for the first time, was they took the daily dispatches I was writing on the Republican convention, I think it was the one on Schwarzenegger, and they ran it on the front page. Well, they got five or six irate letters saying that the University was promoting a liberal stance, and that the University should never engage in politics, blah, blah, blah. They were typical conservative letters, and very interesting ones. They took the analysis I gave, and they saw it as a partisan political attack on Schwarzenegger, answering him point by point. They could only see what I was doing in terms of the sort of thing you see on Fox News.

BLVR: Was that because of the acrimonious political climate or because there’s something about conservative framing that forbids interpretation?

GL: Well, remember that for them, everything is right or wrong, and therefore objective. So they don’t see themselves as doing framing. They assumed that framing meant spin. They couldn’t get the idea that framing was normal everyday stuff. They assumed I was accusing the Republicans of framing, rather than complimenting them on their framing. Then they said, “Democrats frame too! And here are some examples!” They didn’t get it. The problem is that Democrats haven’t just borrowed Republican frames—they’ve accepted them. The Republicans talk about “partial-birth abortion,” and the Democrats say “partial-birth abortion,” rather than talking about “ending pregnancy,” or “control of life.”

BLVR: In Metaphors We Live By, you show—maybe inadvertantly—that the dominant metaphors behind how Americans think and talk are war and money. We talk about talking, about argument, in terms of war, and we have a propensity for turning the most abstract concepts, like time, into monetary terms. All of of us do this, liberals and conservatives. It seems like we’re all taken with wealth and bellicosity on some fundamental level. Reading it, it made me wonder, doesn’t this make us all—well, aren’t we all, you know, closet conservatives in a way? Aren’t war and money kind of the poles of the strict-father model?

GL: I don’t have a simple-minded answer for that. When you’re talking about the traditional values of a country, you’re talking about unconscious values. And that shows in the metaphor system. There is a lot of strict-father thought in the unconscious values of Americans. How much, I don’t know. Whether there’s an equal amount of progressive thought, I don’t know. Of course, we all have both models. If you’re a progressive and you can understand a John Wayne movie, that means you have a conservative model. You may not live by it, but it’s there, passive. The same thing goes for conservatives who can understand Oprah. I don’t know. It’s an interesting question—I’ll set my students on it.

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