Tag Archives: George Lakoff

Framing the Political Spectrum

Framing political opinion as either left or right puts people into boxes that often don’t fit them. George Lakoff identifies basic two systems of moral reasoning, which he calls the “strict-father model” and the “nurturant-parent model.” His books about politics and many of his blog posts describe these, and I strongly recommend reading Lakoff. So far this seems to support the left-right political spectrum, right?

Ah, but Dr. Lakoff’s research has found that many–if not most–Americans use both systems of moral reasoning on different political issues. For example, I want government to be a nurturant parent toward citizens most of the time but a strict father toward misbehaving corporations. All of a sudden, we’re not just one or the other.

I think a better metaphor than the left-right political spectrum is the Political Compass. This makes left and right one axis and authoritarian-libertarian a second axis. Take its test and see what you think!

A potential problem for this system in America is that the term libertarian refers to a specific set of ideologies and even a political party. I do think that progressives should talk about authoritarianism when appropriate. But if we don’t want to advertise the libertarian movement, what term should we use as the opposite of authoritarian?

Framing Workers

While extreme conservatives frame business owners and the 1% as job creators, George Lakoff makes an important point about the role of workers in business. Chapter 14 of his excellent Little Blue Book is titled “Workers Are Profit Creators.” And so we are!

Here’s what he recommends saying (emphasis in original, p. 85):

  • Workers are profit creators. Corporations can profit only if people work for them.
  • Health care benefits and pensions are part of the pay earned by workers. They are deferred payments for work done.
  • Health care benefits and pensions benefit the workers and the companies that provide them.
  • Health care benefits and pensions add to profits. They buy loyalty so that companies can avoid the costs of recruiting and training new employees as well as the costs of operating with untrained employees.
  • Corporations have an ethical responsibility to pay in full for work done. That includes benefits and pensions.
  • Corporations are ethically responsible for setting aside funds for workers’ deferred payments and not using them for anything else. Spending those funds–on capital investment, stockholder dividends, or payments and bonuses to top managers–is unethical.

I strongly recommend the book. But how do you think workers should be talked about?

Framing Sequestration

According to Dr. Paul M. Johnson, sequestration  is the withholding of funds from government agencies by the US Treasury that exceed a cap set in current law. The effect is to limit the funds available to Federal agencies.

In today’s sequestration debate, the process is being used to automatically cut government spending nearly across the board. George Lakoff points out that, although the current sequestration was intended to be distasteful to liberals and conservatives alike, it serves a major goal of extreme conservatives: “maximal elimination of the public sphere”.

Even though it looks likely that a deal reducing sequestration cuts for two years will pass Congress, sequestration isn’t going away. Therefore, it’s important that progressives reframe this debate so that Americans can see what’s immoral about this budget-slashing.

A great place to start is to talk about progressive views of government and public resources, which are under attack everywhere. Dr. Lakoff sums it up like this:

The public sector makes business, the nonprofit sector, and family life possible. Eroding the public sector puts all of these at risk.
The public sector makes business, the nonprofit sector, and family life possible. Eroding the public sector puts all of these at risk.

Progressives tend to believe that democracy is based on citizens caring for their fellow citizens through what the government provides for all citizens — public infrastructure, public safety, public education, public health, publicly-sponsored research, public forms of recreation and culture, publicly-guaranteed safety nets for those who need them, and so on. In short, progressives believe that the private depends on the public, that without those public provisions Americans cannot be free to live reasonable lives and to thrive in private business. They believe that those who make more from public provisions should pay more to maintain them.

I’ll add (as Lakoff has elsewhere) that from a progressive perspective, protection of citizens’ rights, health, safety, and opportunity to prosper is a moral mission of government in a democratic society. Shirking these responsibilities is wrong and deprives citizens of our right to enjoy “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

After framing government in terms of progressive values, it’s time to reframe what is now known as “the sequester.” This term makes it sound like the issue is dollars. The same is true for budget cuts and automatic spending cuts. Talking about money keeps the focus on the conservative narrative of out-of-control government spending. Progressives should avoid such language and frame the issue as the government’s responsibility to protect Americans’ lives, liberty, and wellbeing.

I’m not sure what phrase should replace “the sequester” and would love to hear your suggestions. Here are some ideas:

  • budget cuts for the 99% but not the 1%
  •  the shirking (e.g. “We cannot allow the shirking to continue because Americans’ lives, freedom, and wellbeing are in the balance.”
  •  irresponsible
  •  billionaire’s budget
  •  the increasing-inequality budget
  •  the inequality budget

What do you think?

Framing Pensions

One reason it’s important for more Americans to understand framing is that it’s so easy to use words and phrases that sound neutral but actually contain ideological bias. Do you know if journalists are taught framing theory in college? If you have knowledge or experience with this, please let me know. I think journalists should be taught this if they aren’t already.

The phrase I have in mind is “unfunded pension liabilities.” If you search online for this phrase, you’ll find it in countless articles.

This probably is a politically-neutral term among accountants. After all, in accounting, a liability is just a minus on the spreadsheet. For example, my phone bill is a monthly liability in my budget. That doesn’t make it bad; it just means it needs to be paid.

The words "unfunded" and "liabilities" add unfortunate connotations to "pension."
The words “unfunded” and “liabilities” add unfortunate connotations to “pension.”

But since conservatives have made government debt a major issue, the words unfunded and liabilities when applied to pension serve the conservative narrative of reckless overspending by government. Because the word liability does mean bad and risk to be avoided in the world where we non-accountants live, it implies that pensions are somehow bad. This reduces resistance to abolishing pensions and replacing them with retirement-savings plans that may or may not provide the hoped-for income in retirement.

Given a nationwide campaign against pensions, it’s important to reframe the issue. What should progressives say when, e.g., the mayor of Omaha argues that pensions should be replaced with 401(k)s and 403(b)s?

As George Lakoff argues in this latest Huffington Post article, “Pensions are delayed payments of wages for work already done, and taking away pensions is theft.” The wages have been delayed to increase the workers’ security in retirement. To ensure that retired workers have a measure of financial security is a way that we Americans support each other and ensure broadly-shared prosperity. To renege on pensions is is irresponsible and wrong, and we should say so.

When well-meaning people (or pension opponents) say “unfunded pension liability,” we could say, “The liability isn’t the pension but the failure to fund the pension. We have to ensure that retired workers get what they’re owed and can enjoy the freedom and security they’ve earned in retirement.”

How do you think progressives should defend pensions?

Framing Babies

What dark times these are when the plain Anglo-Saxon word baby has to be reclaimed from politics! But as George Lakoff points out in The Little Blue Book, baby is one of several important English words that have to be reclaimed from the anti-women’s rights crowd.

Life begins at conception. This means a  fertilized egg is a baby. Babies are children and citizens. Therefore, personhood, childhood, and citizenship begin at conception. Therefore, ending pregnancy for any reason  is infanticide.While no one disputes that “life begins at conception,” what needs to be disputed is the radical claim that this means that personhood, citizenship and childhood begin at conception. This is false and dangerous.

Although we sometimes speak affectionately of an unborn child as “baby” and sometimes even name it while in the womb, it becomes a baby at birth when the umbilical cord is cut. That’s why we call birth “having a baby.” We do not call conceiving a child “having a baby” because we don’t have it until it’s born. That is when personhood, childhood, and citizenship begin. That has always been my understanding of the word baby.

Why does this matter? Because it is the false claim that the unborn are already babies that is the basis for the emotionally powerful but logically untrue slogans “Abortion is murder” and “It’s not a choice; it’s a child.” The claim that the unborn are already babies also is the basis for efforts to pass laws defining citizenship as beginning in the womb. These efforts threaten the rights of women to make important choices about their lives that belong to them and not to state or church.

Drew Westen, author of the excellent The Political Brain, points out in that book that logically refuting such an argument isn’t enough.

Imagine the following: I’m running for office and debating my opponent. My opponent thunders, Abortion is murder and I reply, No, it isn't because it isn't a baby until birth. I lose, hands down. This is because my opponent’s slogan carries moral, emotional power that arouses even people that don’t agree with it. My reply is a factual quibble that stirs no one’s soul.

For this point to have moral force that moves people’s hearts, it would have to be made in a story that frames the issue in terms of progressive values. Drew Westen accurately describes the fetus as a potential person that becomes more like a baby as pregnancy progresses and notes that this evolution is why Americans are more supportive of restrictions on late-term abortions than on earlier ones. He proposes the following as a principled stand on abortion:

Abortion is a difficult and often painful decision for a woman to make. It’s a decision only she can make, based on the dictates of her own conscience and faith, not on the dictates of someone else’s. But except under exceptional circumstances, such as rape, incest, or danger to her health, she should make that decision as early as she can, so she is not aborting a fetus that is increasingly becoming more like a person. (The Political Brain, p. 184).

This avoids the word baby and emphasizes the woman’s conscience, faith, and responsibility to decide early. What do you think? Is it important to be careful about the using the word baby, or am I overreacting? What do you think of Westen’s statement above?