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The Lakoff Backlash Arrives

In my largely critical comments on the Democrats' "framing" guru, George Lakoff, a few months ago, I wrote that what I really worried about was "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."

Well, "the next" has arrived, with the all-too-predictable backlash against Lakoff. The Atlantic Monthly has made itself "No Guru" headquarters, with two articles. In the current issue, Josh Green eloquently dismembers both Lakoff and the Democrats' latest in-house framing or -- this week's phrase -- "branding" expert, a fellow named Richard Yanowitch. Then, via Arts and Letters daily, I came across Marc Cooper's review from last month's issue, which I had somehow missed, of Lakoff's latest book as well as Thomas Frank's What's the Matter with Kansas, which is a much more forceful trashing of Lakoff. (The Cooper essay is not available online at the Atlantic, but it is available at Powell's books. ) Cooper's critique of Lakoff is merciless, bracing, and, unlike the review that launched my own post, by New Democrat Ken Baer, is situated firmly on the left.

But the Cooper review goes on in some very interesting directions. He takes on MoveOn.org, not from the Peter Beinart perspective, which is to challenge its members' leftism and pacifism, but for its insularity. He trashes a MoveOn poll after the election that found its members' biggest concerns were election reform and media reform, followed by Iraq, the environment, the Supreme Court and civil liberties. "In short," he writes, "the biggest problems liberals face are those damned voting machines and Fox News. Glaringly absent from this activist wish list is anything vaguely resembling an aggressive populist agenda...[or addressing people's] fears about their jobs, wages, health insurance, and school tuition."

Cooper suggests that "a far more challenging exercise after the election would have been for MoveOn to order its troops to meet with and listen to ten people who disagreed with them -- instead of talking, as usual, only to one another." Right on. He concludes, "The trick of effective politics -- as opposed to thinly disguised self-affirming psychotherapy and aesthetically gratifying rebel poses -- is precisely to unite people with different views, values, and families around programs, candidates, and campaigns on which they can reach some consensus, however minimal." Also true, though perhaps a truism.

I intend to come back to this in the next few weeks. As I probably indicated in my last American Prospect online article, I appreciate the structure of MoveOn, its more transactional form of membership, the fact that doesn't force people to declare themselves "environmentalists" or "political reform advocates" to the exclusion of other issues. It is in fact more political, more suited to the current ideological challenges, than older single-issue memberships. On the other hand, it creates a much greater insulation, I think and certainly Cooper thinks, by social/educational class and attitude than does, for example, participation in the environmental movement. But is there an alternative that could do both -- that is, combine a more broadly engaged, cross-issue kind of membership, with interactions across class and culture that help people master "effective politics"? Only one thing has ever done it: a broad, American-style political party. I will return to this question, I promise.

I hate the cycle of obsession and backlash, which may lead to what's good in Lakoff's ideas being forgotten as quickly as they became hot. But if in rejecting Lakoff, we can get closer to Cooper's insight, that will be progress.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on April 5, 2005 | Permalink

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Comments

Did you see Ezra Klein's recent post on Lakoff? I think he basically had it right--Lakoff is quite helpful on the conceptualization of frames and their importance, but some of his actual framing ideas seem intuitively terrible (nurturing parent, etc)

Posted by: djw | Apr 5, 2005 3:50:05 AM

I agree that Lakoff's little book is extremely lame, based around one very simple academic definition and extended through a lot of exceptionally poor brainstorming. But the premise behind "framing" isn't really any different from Frank's false consciousness argument. It's just that Frank is a lot smarter and funnier. We're talking about marketing, here.

Posted by: Ezra (not Klein) | Apr 5, 2005 11:50:01 AM

Cooper suggests that "a far more challenging exercise after the election would have been for MoveOn to order its troops to meet with and listen to ten people who disagreed with them -- instead of talking, as usual, only to one another." Right on.

Yeah, why spend all this time and effort on creating insular self-absorbed organizations, when I could just step outside and order the troops? Right. The only way someone can tell the members of MoveOn.org to reach out is after they have come together, and they are only going to come together on common interests. In other words, there is no conflict between an inward and an outward focus. Both are necessary parts of organizing and activism. Rather than criticize MoveOn for failing to take the second step, we should thank them for doing such a good job on the first step.

Similarly, the time honored role of the finest consultants is to help us get to the point where we don't need him anymore. I am looking forward to the day when we can put Lakoff's ideas in context, and not rely on him so much. In the meantime, we should be glad he's on our side.

Posted by: TomB | Apr 5, 2005 4:08:24 PM

What is baffling to me is the two groups dominating this discussion:

1.) the naive few who think Lakoff can deliver liberal victory by (choose your word) "tricking" voters, that it is some kind of rosetta stone, and

2) the larger, seemingly jealous commentariat, who think they understand political messaging (but don't), and have decided to assume that a) group 1) represents some kind of large faction, b) they are smarter than Lakoff -- though misreadings of Lakoff's work in this context are constant and nearly comical; and c) they need to find a scapegoat to do an old fashioned takedown to please their editors and gin up some conflict and readership.

And on top of that, I do think Elephant has several very weak chapters. Just to prove I'm not some starry-eyed acolyte. Moral Politics is the book to read.

Yes, Lakoff is about messaging and just messaging. And messaging is just a piece in the puzzle that is the work of building a new majority. Ok? Does everybody have that now? Finally?

Posted by: Crab Nebula | Apr 5, 2005 11:59:26 PM

Mark,

When you return to this topic, I hope you'll give some consideration to why Frank Luntz makes so much money.

Posted by: Ellen1910 | Apr 6, 2005 3:15:46 PM

The last paragraph of Cooper's article is a reasonable place to start.

The trick of effective politics -- as opposed to thinly disguised self-affirming psychotherapy and aesthetically gratifying rebel poses -- is precisely to unite people with different views, values, and families around programs, candidates, and campaigns on which they can reach some consensus, however minimal. Before liberals and progressives dash out with their new vocabulary to try to convince others of the righteousness of their values, they might consider spending some time listening to others instead.

I am not a high powered, deep thinking political talking head who can write for prestigious magazines. Rather I am a middle-aged progressive with a mortgage, kids and a monthly income that always dips in the red (my car is a 1996). What inspires me about George Lakoff is that he challenges progressives and more importantly, the democratic leadership, to find a backbone. George Bush won on values because he was bold enough to stand up and say "this is what your getting with your vote". Cooper is right, its not the quick fix picking of words that is the power of Lakoff. Rather its the reflection on what we feel deep inside- that belief that equality, fairness and hope for the future matter- and then be brave enough to share that with others. If progressives are courageous enough to tell that to anyone who asks (regressives included), we will certainly be on our way to common ground and therefore back into the American conversation.

Posted by: Michael Dechiara | Apr 8, 2005 10:54:31 AM