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No Guru, No Method, No "DaVinci Code"

I agree with pretty much every word of
Ken Baer's negative review of the cognitive linguist George Lakoff's book Don't
Think of an Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate
-.
And yet, at the same time, I think it is largely unfair to George Lakoff.

I know Lakoff a little bit. I read Moral Politics in the first edition, ten years ago, and found it useful. I visited Lakoff's Rockridge Institute last year when it consisted of a room 12 feet square with four people working in it. That was shortly before he became the darling of the left-wing funding world.

I found his insights about language useful in the 1990s and they are useful today. For anyone trying to master the role of language and mental images in political life, it is extremely helpful to grasp what linguists and cognitive scientists know about how people hear and use words, and the mental frames that language evokes and fits into. It provides some rigor and theoretical underpinning to a part of what a speechwriter is trying to do.

In addition, Lakoff significantly helped liberals understand the difference between policy proposals that are simply good ideas with a constituency, and those that have a much broader resonance, such as the Apollo Initiative to reduce dependence on foreign oil by creating U.S. jobs in energy research.

But as Baer points out, when Lakoff is asked to recommend specific political proposals, his answers are pretty much what you would expect from a Berkeley humanities professor who hasn't spent much time outside of the coasts or actively trying to master the political process: redefine spending as investment. A living wage. "Understanding and restraint" rather than war in Afghanistan. And his policy proposals, as well as the underlying analysis, are profoundly ahistorical. As Baer points out, Lakoff seems to believe that the Right recently invented the
term "tax relief" and that with a similarly savvy choice of words, liberals might undo a 
century's worth of anti-tax politics. I don't think so.

But is it Lakoff's fault that he's a cognitive linguist, not a historian or a congressman? Or is it the fault of those Democrats, such as the consultant Baer cites at the beginning of his review who brings out a heavily underlined copy of Don't Think of an Elephant at the beginning of a campaign meeting and proposes to use it as an atlas to political success? Is it Lakoff's fault that people who should know better fall at his feet, despite the fact that he's never had the slightest involvement in American politics, and beg him for pearls of wisdom? "Oh, Professor Lakoff, please tell us the magic words that will unlock the gates of the promised land?"

The deeper problem is in liberals' search for a guru, which inevitably leads to a cycle of over-expectation and disappointment, with Lakoff one day and someone else the next. What happened to the ability to take some insight like Lakoff's, and some insight from a historian like Alan Brinkley or Kevin Mattson, and some insight from an economist like, say, Edward Wolff, and a sociologist here and a journalist or three, and put them in perspective and integrate them? Why is that so difficult? Perhaps the problem is that too many of the people in the fawning audience for this don't have a solid, multi-disciplinary liberal arts education that enables them to do that. They're political science majors with masters' in public policy, and the world of linguistics is mysterious and enthralling, and the fact that it seems to be based in "neuroscience" (oooh!) makes it somehow an extra-powerful secret code.

It's the same problem I have with David Sirota's "DaVinci Code" article from the American Prospect. Sirota identified four utterly idiosyncratic Democrats mostly from rural states or districts, ranging from one of the most deeply conservative Southern Democrats to Socialist Bernie Sanders in Vermont, and declares them to have some kind of magic formula that would revive liberalism and the Democratic Party. If they do, it's certainly not the same magic formula! Each of his four politicians has found a distinctive way of connecting their own strengths and their ideas to their own consitituency. Good for them. There's something to be learned from that. But it is not a code, and Lakoff's ideas are not a code either. Moral Politics (not Don't Think of an Elephant) is a book worth reading. But so are a hundred other books.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on January 19, 2005 | Permalink

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Comments

Generally agree. Like all good Americans, we're on the endless search for the Great Miracle Diet ... and somehow we're never in winning trim when the swimsuit competition rolls around.

Lakoff's good insights are good insights. His urge to help is commendable. His view of politics as a series of symmetric, noncontact, clean-slate encounters on an essentially level playing field is -- as you say -- ahistorical, and potentially harmful if it steers the patient away from competent diagnosis and effective treatment.

The Lakoff Diet isn't the answer to everything. At the same time, I'm probably missing some good suggestions by reflexively clicking past most anything that says "Lakoff" in the lede graf.

Posted by: RonK, Seattle | Jan 19, 2005 2:22:30 PM

Mark, you should listen to this bit of Marketplace commentary that describes how Ken Mehlman goes about his business.

What Democrats need to recognize is that there isn't any "one message to rule them all"--the market for politics is extraordinarily fragmented, and the key to winning is to identify different messages and approaches that resonate with different audiences in such a way that the numbers add up in you favor.

Posted by: praktike | Jan 19, 2005 3:44:44 PM

Praktike is quite right, and that's one of the reasons why when the Republicans want strategic communication tips, they don't read books by linguists -- they go to the advertising whores and the PR hacks, who have lots of experience slicing and dicing target markets.

Lately, I've also been wondering if the Rovians aren't making use of the psy war specialists over at the Pentagon, or their comrades in the private sector. A lot of their propaganda techniques have a "black op" feel about them - the WMD hysteria, the Swift boat ads, the Kerry-looks-French campaign, and now the great Social Security "crisis." Personally, I think we can probably add feeding phony memos to CBS to the list, but of course I have no proof.

Maybe the gang has figured out that in an almost evenly divided country, persuation and argument are for losers. Fear and hatred and irrational appeals to emotional biases are the ticket now. It's not about telling the truth more eloquently, it's about lying more effectively. And these guys have had plenty of practice.

Posted by: Billmon | Jan 19, 2005 9:03:13 PM

I would say that Lakoff's value is not the specifics of his persuasion methods, but more the mere fact that he's trying to study the science of persuasion. By simply studying the art of persuasion, he has awakened Democrats to the fact that persuasion is critical, that it is a learnable skill, that it requires training, and that it requires research. The details are of little importance: if we can get the whole team *thinking* about how to persuade, then we will have come a long way.

Posted by: Josh Yelon | Jan 19, 2005 11:28:01 PM

Amen to the criticism of the "Lakoff is a savior" and the "Lakoff is a fool" crowds. The willingness of people to drop into either of these binary categories and ignore the ample and fruitful gray area is astounding.

But hey, it makes for a good story, right? "Everybody's (Liberals!) Crazy About X....But Did You Know that X Actually Sucks?"

Meanwhile, the Republican Lakoff equivalent (a certain consultant with a very bad toupee) continues to be unscathed by the media.

Posted by: Crab Nebula | Jan 20, 2005 12:05:05 PM

Thank you for this. I've seen the effect of the Lakoff road show. And it has givne me two thoughts. The first is, we have a linguistics expert and they have Frank Luntz, who is using polling and focus grouping to smash words and phrases inductively in the manner of a supercollider. Lakoff is theory and good theory. And reflection on the theory might make us more efficient in what we test. But we still need a super collider to smash those words.

My second though and biggest concern is that Lakoff will - unintntionally - completely prevent progressives from having any sort of message discipline. The number of my friends and aquaintances who are talking about how they are thinking about framing is both inspiring and somewhat appalling. I saw Kristen Wolf - a communications consultant - answer a question on this not too long ago: "My organization is looking at how to frame this or that" and she pretty much said that we needed to get a better sense of whether each of us was a frame maker or a frame user. I have no problem with a collective venture to create frames, but to the extent we talk about that rather than actually talking to neighbors, friends, etc, we have real trouble.

Posted by: benton | Jan 20, 2005 12:51:18 PM

My favorite Lakoff -- and where I think the best nuggets of insight are found -- are where he doesn't try to apply his cognitive approach to politics per se.

I'd reach even further back in time than Mark -- to the seminal "Metaphors We Live By." It was one of the core applications of key ideas in Berger & Luckmann's equally seminal "Social construction of reality: A treatise on the sociology of knowledge."

Lakoff's and Mark Johnson's "metaphors" were an epiphany. By now, the perspective they presented has been thoroughly incorporated into how Americans see things in their information marketplace, even if some of us aren't totally "fluent" yet in metaphors, narratives and frames. Certainly this stuff is mothers milk today for the successful marketing and advertising hacks Billmon's talking about, whether they work in the political sphere or are just flogging commercial products.

The research program of Lakoff and his co-authors over the past few decades, or of cognitionists (somebody help me out, what's the right term?) who are heavily influenced by his core ideas, is similarly rich with ways of understanding how the process of talking about what we think has such an impact on the way we think and even what we think/believe. Those concepts have endless application to politics.

The giant Lakoff-hug happening now just illustrates that we always need somebody to be the popularizer of these sorts of ideas. Most political hacks -- Democrats or Republicans -- aren't going to troll through the rather dense pages of current debates on such relevant issues as epistemology, heuristics and decision-making in quick-time, and how all of that is being affected by the acceleration of the unintermediated horizontal flow of information and ideas represented by the internet.

We need the Gladwells and Surowieckis to do that for us, as in their week-long BookClub discussion in Slate earlier this month. But even that step isn't enough. We then we need another round of popularizing -- to take the concepts and insights that have been boiled down and reframed by the Gladwells et al and then show how they apply in a particular setting. In the case at hand, the realm of domestic politcs.

This process isn't somehow unique for the fighters and their managers in the arena of political combat. It's the same for the business managers and marketing professionals who apply new insights emerging from cognitive neuroscience and its various "liberal arts" counterparts -- whether linguistics, rhetoric, neuroeconomics, etc. The business-types have one big advantage over the political-types, however. The B-schools produce first-rate popularizers of these concepts. The B-school professors do the trolling for nuggets for the managers, and do the digesting, synthesizing and finding real-world case studies to apply these ideas.

Business types and politicos have this behavior in common: thinking they've found the guru and the silver bullet when all they've found is the "flavor of the month." A favorite object of B-school studies is the company that got screwed up by management's over-eager embrace of "lessons" taken out of context from the latest business-best-seller. So the fact that practitioners of Democratic strategy and communication think they have found the recipe for gold shouldn't come as a surprise.

I certainly agree with Mark that we need people who digest insights "...like Lakoff's, and some insight from a historian like Alan Brinkley or Kevin Mattson, and some insight from an economist like, say, Edward Wolff, and a sociologist here and a journalist or three, and put them in perspective and integrate them." I also think he makes a very important point that it takes an old-fashioned cross-disciplinary "liberal arts" mentality to do that. We all pay a price for the narrowing academic professionalization/specialization of the humanities and social sciences.

I'd add that it's not just a matter of finding people with the right breadth of mind to do the digesting and thinking for the vast majority of us who aren't going to do it ourselves. I'd suggest an equally important part of the overall problem is the absence of a group of competent popularizers who can do the same thing for politics as the B-school professors do for business and marketing.

As Mark points out, it's really rather unfair to Lakoff to expect him to be intellectual innovator, applied research scientist, and popularizer all in one. Unfortunately, I think Lakoff's not applied some lessons from his own important work to himself. But he's not the first intellectual to be blinded a bit by the bright lights of the public stage.

Maybe while we're talking about expanding Democratic-oriented policy centers and think tanks we should add a "Policy Center for Epsitemology and Rhetoric" to do the popularizing?

Posted by: nadezhda | Jan 20, 2005 1:47:11 PM

"The deeper problem is in liberals' search for a guru, which inevitably leads to a cycle of over-expectation and disappointment, with Lakoff one day and someone else the next. What happened to the ability to take some insight like Lakoff's, and some insight from a historian like Alan Brinkley or Kevin Mattson, and some insight from an economist like, say, Edward Wolff, and a sociologist here and a journalist or three, and put them in perspective and integrate them? Why is that so difficult?"

Well, that process of integration is the job of a proper guru. Take a look at the work of a skillful practitioner like Frank Luntz on the other side of the aisle.

There's nothing wrong in wanting a guru. If you pick the right one, and take their contributions for what they're worth, it can pay tremendous political dividends.

But, of course, you are correct that Lakoff is not that guru.

Posted by: Petey | Jan 22, 2005 6:38:28 AM

{Standing ovation.}

Posted by: Nell Lancaster | Jan 22, 2005 8:27:18 PM

This is a refreshing idea. I've read Lakoff's book, and it is definately possible to take things too far. That said, I think one of its redeeming values is the insight into how lefties and righties see the world. Its the first thing I've heard that makes sense. Not unlike the way evolution ties together so much of biology and zoology into a coherent whole.

In any case, There is one message in Lakoffs book that is worth committing to memory: Words matter. I've been reading and thinking about the right and its misuse of language, and I think its time that we fought back. The words themselves can carry so much meaning. Its time that we chose them with greater care, and put them to work for us.

Posted by: Robert Sexton | Jan 31, 2005 7:59:00 PM

Decembrist: I have thought about giving a go at a review of Lakoff's recent book. Now I see there is a cottage industry in just that. In any event, your point is well taken--we can't expect too much from him or his theory. Yet the danger is precisely in the theoretical elegance of this business of "framing." So put me on the negative side, then. The "linguistic turn" that has influenced the social sciences for the last twenty years (at least) has come to politics. I can't know what it was like to read the anthropologist Clifford Geertz's essay on ideology (which as a theoretical statement depended heavily on the social power of language) in the mid 70s, but it must have seemed to many like having an epiphany. Here was a way to explain situations, political, sociological, and even historical, that pointed to the messiness of empirical reality but did not require too much actual wading through it in order to land on an explanation. There was a magic bullet quality to it, which I think is even more pronounced in Lakoff's compact analysis. To the degree that the notion of "framing" is ahistorical, that is, inattentive to the question of power, as in who (or what group) has the ability to meaningfully "frame" an issue, how they got that power, and how it got to be so effective, its practical application in politics will only extend what we already have: Madison ave. models, with slightly more sensitive capacities for the "slicing dicing" of the electorate.

Posted by: Rwells | Feb 4, 2005 10:45:58 PM

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Posted by: cnn | Apr 19, 2005 7:43:35 AM