Wednesday, August 16, 2006

On the Limits of Liberal Framing a la Lakoff

This is a brief review of George Lakoff’s latest book, Whose Freedom? The Battle Over America’s Most Important Idea (2006), based on contrasting rather positive reviews with more critical ones, and focusing on the latter, since they are more substantive and have more to say about the limits of liberal framing a la Lakoff for promoting progressive strategy.

Whose Freedom? essentially argues that the liberal, not the conservative framing of 'freedom' is the dominant political tradition in the US, and makes suggestions on how to reframe issues and concepts around the core idea of freedom to counter the conservative frames.

In Reclaiming ‘Freedom’ (TomPaine, July 11, 2006), Bernie Horn, policy director at the Center for Policy Alternatives, basically agrees with Lakoff’s thesis, insisting that that progressives need to reclaim the public discourse from conservatives by reframing freedom and other core values along progressive lines, but criticizes him for not being specific enough about how to do that, and therefore not offering guidance to progressive messengers.

In George Lakoff’s Freedom Frame, Glenn Smith, who runs, emphasizes and illustrates the importance of Lakoff’s insight that the antagonists in the struggle over how to understand and realize freedom come from radically different worldviews.

Kevin Drum, who writes the Political Animal blog at the Washington Monthly, in his review entitled At a Loss of Words: The Latest Dispatches from the Framing Wars (Mother Jones, July/August 2006), provides interesting background on Lakoff’s rise, and criticizes him for overstating his core concept of ‘deep framing':
… 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. […]

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."
Drum also criticizes that Lakoff’s focus on rhetoric leads him to ignore the underlying economic reality. He contends that most Americans are simply still too comfortable for Lakoff’s (or for that reason anyone’s) economic populism to resonate successfully. He adds that conservatives won many battles, including over healthcare, not so much because of the way they framed the issues, but because they fought harder and with greater perseverance; and he calls on liberals to essentially fight more passionately:
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.
Unfortunately, this ‘advice’ hardly seems more valuable than Lakoff’s which, justifiably, he criticizes so harshly.

To clarify radically different strategic orientations, Robert Jensen’s review of Whose Freedom? is the most useful. Jensen is professor of journalism and media ethics at the University of Texas at Austin. He begins his critique in The Limits of Lakoff’s Politics: Outside the Frame (CounterPunch, August 14, 2006), by emphasizing the central irony that Lakoff’s worldview, which informs his frames, seems to prevent him from engaging in the very self-criticism that he urges liberals to pursue:
One of George Lakoff's key observations in his work on contemporary political discourse is that "frames trump facts" -- when facts are inconsistent with the frames and metaphors that structure a person's worldview, the facts will likely be ignored.

Ironically, Lakoff's new book -- Whose Freedom? The Battle over America's Most Important Idea -- demonstrates that problem all too well. His worldview seems to keep him from the very critical self-reflection that he counsels for liberal/progressive people.

Lakoff's "frame," simply stated is:

(1) Right-wing Republicans are the cause of our problems, and

(2) progressives working through the Democratic Party will deliver the solutions.

So, out the window must go any facts or analyses that suggest

(1) the problems of an unjust and unsustainable world may be rooted in fundamental systems, such as corporate capitalism and the imperialism of powerful nation-states, no matter who is in power, and

(2) the Democratic Party is not only not a meaningful vehicle for progressive politics but, as a subsidiary of that corporate system with its own history and contemporary practice of empire-building, is part of the problem.

To deal with those obvious and difficult challenges to his political proposals, Lakoff fudges certain facts and ignores others. Whether he does this unconsciously -- trapped by uncritical acceptance of his own frames and metaphors -- or is aware of it, we cannot know. But the result is a book that offers little to citizens who want to deepen their understanding of our political crisis and start to strategize about a new direction that can bring this country -- and human society more generally -- back from the brink of the collapse we face on many fronts. Whose Freedom? also has a sloppy, slapped-together feel which, together with its serious intellectual and political problems, raise serious doubts about Lakoff's fitness to play intellectual guru to any liberal/progressive movement, a role to which he has been elevated by many.
Jensen’s analysis and critique is highly relevant for thinking about progressive strategy in that it shows the interdependence of analysis, ultimate objectives, and tactics.

If you believe that the many serious problems in US politics and US society are primarily due to the dominance of conservatives and their frames, you are likely to think that a stronger Democratic Party could successfully address these problems. The main challenge then becomes how Democrats can win elections, and what Democrats stand the best chance of being elected – more liberal or even ‘populist’ ones or more centrist and moderate candidates, which obviously entails different tactics. The debate over this has been intensifying for quite some time now. Nevertheless, the ultimate goal is the same: To change US society by winning elections. In short, it’s an electoral strategy.

If, on the other hand, you are convinced that the many serious problems not only in the US, but in the world, are due to an excessive concentration of power and wealth in corporations and nation-states, who advance their interests at the expense of the majority of the people, and that the Democratic Party is an integral part of that unjust system, then you are likely to abandon the attempt to transform the Democratic Party to win elections, and will look for adequate instruments to achieve significant, structural, and long-term sociopolitical change. This assessment is of course reminiscent of that of Ralph Nader and others. One option would be to try to build up a third party, for example the Green Party; but the current US electoral system, which is highly unlikely to change in the foreseeable future, makes that a loosing proposition.

If the ultimate goal of progressive strategy is to realize a just and sustainable society, which necessarily implies structural sociopolitical change, the only viable tactic seems to be to make progressive infrastructure so strong that it would be able to move the whole country further to the left. To do so, it needs to be stronger than today’s conservative infrastructure, which only shows how far progressives are from achieving their goals. In this progressive grand strategy, transforming the Democratic Party into a truly progressive organization, and winning elections with truly progressive candidates, will be but important components. As will be changing the ideological climate to make it more progressive.

Ultimately, the success of this progressive grand strategy depends, as John Kenneth Galbraith reminds us in The Good Society: The Humane Agenda (1996), on the permanent perfection of inherently imperfectible democracy:
The decisive step toward a good society is to make democracy genuine. (p. 139)
Because we do have a choice:
We can have democracy in this country or we can have great wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we cannot have both. (Louis Brandeis)


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