George Lakoff on language, politics and public policy

For decades, the Radical Right and the Republican Party have controlled the national dialogue through clever use of loaded terms and pejorative concepts. They have so effectively managed their takeover of our language that many on the Left now unconsciously accept The Right’s definitions and biases. In a fascinating article, George Lakoff explains how that process works, how it corrupts the thinking of even sophisticated political leaders, how it constantly redefines our political process in favor of Right-wing Reactionary viewpoints, and what we on the Left must do about it.

“…progressives need to build a communication system of their own to (1) express the values they really believe in, to (2) to communicate the truth, (3) to use their own values-based language to show the moral significance of those truths, and (4) avoid communicating conservative beliefs they do not hold, especially by avoiding the language of conservatism.”

The article is long and detailed, but more than worthwhile. It is a comprehensive exposition on the single most critical element for understanding why the Right has been able to dominate the country, and what the Left needs to accomplish if we are to educate the Muddled Middle and stave off the colossal disaster that Reactionary politics and policies are leading us towards.

Instead of complaining that some leader somewhere needs to do something, we on the Left need to seize the initiative and do something ourselves. If we are as clever and educated and articulate – and as correct – as we claim to be, we should be able to put those assets to use in a positive way. Whining and moaning and grousing are fine for working off frustration, I’m the first to accept that I do them a lot, but they do very little to move public opinion in a positive, progressive direction. If we on the blogospheric Left spent one-eightieth as much energy on developing and promoting positive concepts as we do on negative rants, we and the country and the world would all be far better off.


10 responses to “George Lakoff on language, politics and public policy

  1. hipparchia

    just off the top of my head, maybe the democratic party could quit educating the public by polls, and start talking to them — at length.

    • grahamfirchlis

      Hmmm, well, yes, but….

      It would be wonderful if the “Democratic Party” could do a better job of communicating. Unfortunately, there is no such entity in any practical sense. What is commonly referred to as the “Democratic Party” in fact is a very loose aggregation of disparate interests who are scarcely aligned and often speak with conflicting voices because they do not share the same set of goals.

      We on the Left are a minority not just in America, but also within Congress and even within the Democratic caucuses. It is futile to expect Congress or for that matter the Democrats to do anything other than promote goals that serve their own interests, and those will always be inherently Conservative – at best. What I suggest, as does Lakoff, is that we stop expecting the “Democratic Party” or Obama or any other fundamentally Conservative agency to act in our interests and start doing more ourselves.

      So long as the Left continues to allow the Right to define language terms, they will also define the terms of debate and force it ever rightward. We, not some amorphous entity with its own differing agenda, are the ones who need to take responsibility for driving the debate and shaping the future. Or so I believe. That all the angry huffing and puffing (earnest huffing and puffing, to be sure) on the Lefty blogosphere over the past two years has had no measurable effect on policy formation could be a clue that I and Lakoff are on to something.

      Your work on single-payer is a fine example of what I’m calling for. Instead of demanding that somebody else do the work, you built an impressive body of knowledge and persuasive argument in favor of the only health care assurance program that makes sense. It came up short this time, but what we are engaged in is a process, one that will take more than a couple of years to reverse decades of Regression. Your efforts are valuable, and will in time if pursued bear fruit. I am confident of that; you should be too.

      But if you look broadly at the Lefty blogosphere you will find that the vast majority of posts and comments, even comments on the threads following your own posts, are consumed with damning Obama and The Democrats and making laundry list demands for what those entities ought to do. What are generally lacking are practical, plausible, rational recommendations for what WE can be doing to force the change we seek. Your approach = helpful; all that whinging, not so much.

      • making laundry lists of what to do?

        damn straight we are. those people — the democratic party — have been given a cushy job with a plummy salary and lovely benefits in exchange for the work they are supposed to do, and a pile of taxpayers’ money with which to fix the multitude of problems on that ‘laundry list’.

        whinging masses are another tool that we can deploy, but we need more and better whingers to be effective. i won’t reprise it here, but you and i had a conversation some time back about the communists and the socialists and the rioters in the streets and fdr crafting the new deal to placate them all….

      • grahamfirchlis

        To-do lists only work if the people you want to do them are paying attention. Otherwise, exercise in futility and that just closes the loop to more and bigger frustration. Pretty soon it is just screaming, and I don’t suppose that motivates you any better than it does me. Obama and Pelosi and Reid et al neither, they just tune it out.

        We do need many more complaining, and loudly, but to get that and to have them heard we need better complaints. I’m suggesting that we – that is an inclusive we, me at the top – need to do a better job than we have been doing for oh say the last 40 years. Repeating the same lists over and over with no major benefit is, well, somewhere between silly and insane.

        Yeah, FDR, what a hero. Where did all the communists go? Where are the rioters in the streets demanding jobs and health care and education and an end to stupid wars and putting a stop to trips to fucking Mars when we can’t even feed our children? The Right has the crazies all fired up, and they are getting the press of course and also the attention of the more spineless Democrats. When the Left can turn out masses of people with guns and torches and pitchforks, then we’ll get some attention too. Until then, we’ll get ignored.

  2. The Other Sarah

    Will Rogers was right, except he was a master of understatement.

    We’re Democrats. We couldn’t organize our way out of a wet paper bag if you gave us two katanas apiece.

  3. grahamfirchlis

    First of all we’d need a study group, then open discussion over several months to be sure we’ve covered all the options and solicited everyone’s opinion, then take a retreat to review and meditate followed by drafting a position paper that would have to be voted on and that means setting up fair and impartial procedures for registration including minority outreach, but just to be safe the real voting power bloc would have to secretly be vested in the current officeholders and their most significant backers. Whoops, time for lunch! Maybe a salad, with organic dressing, double the arugula, hold the beets, and afterwards a half-caf-half-decaf soy latte, and what was it again we were trying to do?

  4. The Other Sarah

    half-caf, half-decaf?


    Pleasant Sunday drive today, out to Silver Falls.
    four days of rain put a lot of water in White River.

    Don’t think much actually fell in the Lake Meredith watershed, but in a week or so Lake Thomas ought to be rising…

    • grahamfirchlis

      Good for you. Spent my Sunday moving dirt, under what turned out to be a blazing hot solid blue sky. I am a red neck now, for real.

      Our reservoirs are all topped out, the spring releases are already beginning as we’ve got a very nice snow pack to boot. Plenty of water for everybody except the South Valley farmers, who will get 50% of previous allocations if they’re lucky. Many lawsuits, much wringing of hands, but the plain fact is we’ve been starving the Bay and destroying the fisheries for the sake of subsidizing cotton and rice and assorted other high-water uses and now it has to stop or there won’t be any fishery left. Water wars, at the dawn of the 21st century; you’d think we’d have gotten more mature by now.


    Graham, you are a riot.

    I suspect what is coming for the Democratic Party is what is happening now with the Republican Party and the Tea Party movement. The Tea Party folks are moving into vacant precinct committee slots or voting out conservatives.

    Perhaps the best way to move the Democratic Party to the left, to the progressive side, is to have more progressives running the party at the grassroots.

    Traditionally, the Left has always operated outside the Democratic Party and tried to pressure it to adopt its policies. Working from inside the party may be a better option.

    But, Lakoff’s article was brilliant. But it starts with having a progressive message. Obama has the words but he is a centrist, compromising, conservative Democrat at heart.

    I’m thinking that if the Dems get drubbed in November, the progressives and labor unions might rethink their strategy. I’m not sure the Dems will get drubbed. But with Obama at the helm anything is possible.

    Just a thought.

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