Is George Lakoff misleading Democrats?

It's show-and-tell day in 50 Birge Hall. At least as close to it as you get at an elite university like Berkeley. George Lakoff, the instructor for this introductory cognitive science course, has asked students to bring in examples of popular "texts" containing hidden metaphorical meanings--the kind that play subtle tricks on the human mind. First out of the gate is a British student who holds up an ad for Splenda, the sugar substitute. The ad features a young girl sitting on her father's shoulders and covering his eyes with two large cookies. "Lucky girl," it reads. "You've got a Splenda daddy."

"What do you see in that ad?" Lakoff asks the class. "What is going on there? Why is the girl on her daddy's shoulders?" Soon the metaphors come gushing forth. "Security," says the woman who brought the ad. Others chime in: "Food is love." "Girls are sweet." "Good is up." "Knowing is seeing." A girl in an oversized red sweater with a spacey voice asks, "Isn't this a play on sugar daddy?" A hipster in the front row explains that the photo isn't necessarily staged--that the photographer probably snapped a hundred pictures of the same characters and just naturally gravitated toward "the one with all those entailments."

This cycle repeats itself more or less for the entire 80-minute period. A seemingly ordinary looking picture or text is presented to the class, which then deconstructs it at Lakoff's urging. There is a paragraph from this year's State of the Union speech. Then a quote from Ralph Nader. Finally, Lakoff shares his own example, culled from the day's New York Times op-ed page. The discussion turns to whether objectivity is possible, since every journalist brings his own "frames"--the metaphorical hard-wiring that helps him make sense of the world--to his writing. This prompts one student to recommend that journalists be forced to list their frames alongside their bylines, so readers will be aware of their biases. Another concludes, plaintively, "There are no facts."

This is the kind of exercise that must reinforce just about every conservative stereotype of liberal academics. But lately it's politically savvy Democrats who've been wringing their hands over Lakoff. That's because, in the last two years, the Berkeley linguist has become one of the party's chief advisers on the subtle art of framing--that is, evoking metaphors that leave voters with favorable impressions of your positions. For example, Lakoff has encouraged Democrats to "reframe" the tax debate as a discussion about investments in vital services and infrastructure rather than an onerous burden that citizens must be relieved of. (The latter, Lakoff never tires of pointing out, is a conservative frame.) Democrats from Howard Dean to Hillary Clinton to Tom Daschle, seeking a way to reverse the party's political fortunes, have solicited his opinions.

Many Democrats, however, see Lakoff's advice as a dangerously seductive tonic--the idea that the party can right its course merely by concocting better buzzwords. "Lakoff suggests that reframing American politics according to liberal values--in essence rewiring our collective circuitry--is but a matter of simple wordplay," Marc Cooper recently wrote in The Atlantic. Others wonder what a latte-sipping linguistics professor from Berkeley could possibly have to say to Democratic strategists. The party already has a tough enough time countering the charge of cultural liberalism that Republicans constantly level against it. As Dan Gerstein, a former aide to Joe Lieberman, put it in a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed, "[M]aybe all that needs to be said about our values vacuum … is: Lay off Lakoff and hire Hillary."

But, despite all appearances to the contrary (and I mean all appearances--during one of our conversations, Lakoff was literally sipping a latte with dark chocolate sprinkles), Lakoff the intellectual doesn't much resemble the caricature he evokes. His response to the student who questions the existence of facts is to reassure her that, "There are facts. Facts matter. You just have to frame them properly." Lakoff also has an unusually sophisticated understanding of the American right. He has, for example, digested many of the tomes penned by conservative evangelical leaders like James Dobson. And he is quick to chide fellow liberals who assign cynical motives to their ideological foes or who consider working-class people dupes for voting Republican. Lakoff's 1996 book, Moral Politics, was a remarkably shrewd assessment of the way people process political information. Americans, Lakoff argued, vote their value systems. They care very little about individual issues; these things only matter to the extent that they reflect a voter's worldview. The implication was that Democrats need to pay attention to the powerful, if not always obvious, signals they send about values through their choice of rhetoric and policies. Republicans have been doing this for years.

The real problem with Lakoff is that, as he has grown more prominent in Democratic circles, he has begun substituting the ideologically agnostic critique he laid out in Moral Politics with the liberal prescriptions he favors personally. Lately he has begun promoting the idea that Democrats can regain their majority by embracing their more liberal impulses while emphasizing the values that underlie their positions. It is Democrats' ineptness at showcasing their values, Lakoff says, not their liberalness per se, that has hurt them in the past. This has, not surprisingly, endeared him to the party's liberal base. But, if this is the lesson Democrats take from Lakoff's work, they could be in for a long, cold exile.

The day I met him in his Berkeley office, with its Miro prints and its eighth-floor view of the Golden Gate Bridge, Lakoff was stewing over recent criticism from fellow Democrats. Lakoff is, by nature, an affable and generous man; his doughy cheeks and close-cropped beard exude a warm-and-fuzzy, NPR-style liberalism. That his face appeared to register a hint of angst probably had more to do with getting up at six that morning to pitch the Hewlett Foundation, which is considering awarding him a grant. Still, Lakoff was sufficiently exorcised that he had stayed up late the night before responding to his critics. The first thing he asked me as we walked into his office was whether I had received the document he e-mailed to several dozen journalists and academics around two that morning.

In his own telling, Lakoff first got the idea for Moral Politics in 1994, while the GOP was busy taking control of Congress. Lakoff recalls perusing the House Republicans' Contract With America and thinking that their positions were utterly inconsistent. The Gingrichites claimed to be pro-life, but they favored the death penalty and opposed government-funded prenatal care. They harped on family values but favored legislation that would expose children to more carcinogens. They claimed patriotism as their highest virtue but constantly fulminated against government.

Then Lakoff had a second, more alarming epiphany: Not only was the sum-total of GOP positions incoherent; but, since he personally took the opposite position in nearly every instance, he was no better.

Lakoff began groping for the thread that connected these seemingly arbitrary views. What he came up with forms the backbone of Moral Politics. In the book, Lakoff divides people into two ideal types: the strict father and the nurturant parent. The first believes the world is a nasty, dangerous place and that humans are fundamentally corrupt. He protects his family by asserting absolute authority over them; the father's command is never questioned. Children are taught to be moral, self-sufficient adults through a combination of reward and punishment (often corporal). Once the child reaches adulthood, the father no longer plays much of a role in his life.

The nurturant parent is also deeply concerned with protecting his children and raising them to be upstanding adults.The difference lies in his view of human nature. Nurturers believe children respond best when parents explain their actions and encourage kids to ask questions. Nurturant parents place their highest priority on values like empathy and compassion. Whereas the strict father favors a tough-love approach to child-rearing, the nurturer cultivates deep emotional bonds. Nurturers believe children respond best not to the threat of punishment but to inner motivation and the desire to emulate their parents.

To make the leap from child-rearing to politics, Lakoff posited that people think of the nation as a family and the government as a parent. The way they view government typically follows from their views on child-rearing. So, for example, conservatives believe that single women who get pregnant should be punished by having to bring their child to term; a society that fails to punish women for promiscuous behavior is a society that encourages it. (The idea that abortion is murder becomes a kind of after-the-fact rationalization.) The death penalty is not only acceptable but moral for the same reason: People who commit murder must themselves be punished. Not to take a life in response would only encourage more murders. Conservatives also oppose most social programs because, like strict fathers, they believe able-bodied adults should fend for themselves. Giving them unearned benefits only undermines this ethic.

Lakoff's ideas can come off as a little precious. Several times during our conversation, I repeated some pet term of his only to privately wonder what the hell I was talking about. (Viz.: "What of the people who … have a strict father outlook even if they're biconceptual?") But the basic point, once you peel back all the academic-speak, is a profound one: People don't vote for the more objectively compelling set of policies; they vote for the candidate who best reflects their moral system--whether it's the strict father, nurturant parent, or some combination of the two. (Lakoff concedes in his book that, in reality, many people are a combination.)

According to this logic, Democrats should choose their positions not on the merits of each individual issue, but for their collective usefulness at convincing voters their worldview is sound. Lakoff suggests thinking about politics the way Billy Beane, the Oakland A's general manager featured in Michael Lewis's book Moneyball, thinks about building a baseball team. Beane's philosophy is that no single player is particularly important. The idea is to pick the nine players who collectively produce the most runs. Likewise, in Lakoff's telling, specific policies are less important than the larger goal of conveying the right set of values. Moreover, once the policies are chosen with this goal in mind, Democrats must frame them in ways that highlight the connection to people's worldviews--the way voters think of innocent life when Republicans use a phrase like "partial-birth abortion."

These insights help explain last fall's presidential election, among other things. For several months now, liberals have wondered how John Kerry lost despite taking majority positions on most issues--from preserving Social Security benefits, to expanding health care coverage, to suggesting the war in Iraq had made Americans less safe, to his commitment to work with the United Nations. From a Lakovian perspective, however, the loss was not particularly surprising: Voters infer values from the combination of positions and rhetoric a candidate embraces. The values they inferred in Kerry's case were not values they shared. For example, while voters like big government in practice, most oppose it on the level of principle. But Kerry never found a credible way to signal he wasn't a devout proponent of big government the way, say, Bill Clinton did by supporting welfare reform. And he never articulated a set of values that would justify these policies independent of his faith in government. Likewise, though voters favor working with allies, polls suggest they worry that a candidate who prioritizes alliances above security isn't sufficiently committed to defending the country. Kerry never convinced them otherwise. By contrast, George W. Bush's positions and his language reinforced what voters liked about him--his moral clarity--particularly at a time of heightened national security concerns.

Moral Politics sold only about 6,000 copies the year it came out--a strong showing for an academic book, but far below the expectations of its author, who felt he had crafted a best-seller. But, rather than fade away into out-of-the-way corners of college campuses, the book kept selling. Another year passed, and the book sold 6,000 more copies.Another year, another 6,000 copies.

The steady trade in Moral Politics didn't exactly make Lakoff a household name. But it did gradually raise his profile in the world of liberal activists, for whom he began doing the occasional consulting project. Then, in 2002, one of the activists he'd met through this work--a man named Peter Teague--landed at the Nathan Cummings Foundation in New York, which distributes grants to nonprofits. Teague asked Lakoff to advise these groups on how to broaden their appeal (for example, by connecting environmentalism to other issues, such as national security) and on basic communications tactics (such as how to avoid obscure jargon and how to frame statements in ways that don't implicitly accept conservative premises--e.g., the trade-off between saving jobs and saving spotted owls). In late 2002, the Foundation awarded Lakoff a one-year, $125,000 grant for this purpose. Soon, Lakoff's telephone was ringing off the hook with calls from groups like acorn and the League of Conservation Voters. (The Foundation gave Lakoff another $95,000 the following year, as well as a $280,000 grant for the Rockridge Institute, the think tank he helped found to put his ideas into practice.)

As Lakoff's consulting became more visible, word of his deeds spread to Capitol Hill. In the spring of 2003, he got a call from an aide to Senator Byron Dorgan, head of the Senate's Democratic Policy Committee, asking him to address the Democratic senators at their annual retreat on Maryland's Eastern Shore. Dorgan had read from Moral Politics and found the ideas intriguing. He asked Lakoff to build his presentation around three questions: What is framing? What is moral politics? And what is it that Frank Luntz, the pollster and message guru, seems to be doing so effectively for the Republican Party? Lakoff happily complied. At the retreat, he instructed the senators on the differences between nurturant parents and strict fathers and on how people's political worldviews reflected their views on child-rearing. He explained that Luntz was brilliant at tapping into these views and that Democrats needed to do the same thing.

According to Lakoff, the general reaction was along the lines of, "Oh my God, that's how this works." (Several Senate aides I spoke with offered similar accounts of subsequent presentations.) Hillary Clinton invited Lakoff to dinner one night during the retreat with then-Democratic leader Tom Daschle. At the time, the Democrats were fighting Bush's proposed repeal of the dividend income tax and his efforts to make several temporary tax cuts permanent. Daschle was so impressed with Lakoff's spiel that he asked him to address the senators in Washington when they returned to plot strategy. "[Daschle] said, 'OK, I'll tell you what. … We'll mail you our [proposal] … and come to the caucus and tell us about this,'" recalls Lakoff. In the month or so that followed, Daschle's office made a point of patching Lakoff into its weekly 9 a.m. message meeting by phone from Berkeley.

Yet, by and large, once he strayed from the broader point about the role of values, Lakoff's advice in these situations was naive. An aide to Nancy Pelosi told me, for example, that Lakoff advised Democratic House members last December to oppose Social Security privatization by emphasizing the biblical obligation to honor one's parents. On one level, it made sense to appeal to values rather than to focus on the benefit cuts that privatization would entail, which could etch the image of tax-and-spend liberalism further into voters' minds. The problem was the specific values Lakoff chose to highlight. Pollster Guy Molyneux has conducted extensive survey research on attitudes toward entitlement spending. He says that, when it comes to values, voters respond much better to arguments based on fairness--for example, that they earned their Social Security benefits by working hard and paying into the system all their lives--than to arguments based on obligations to fellow citizens. That's why, even though Social Security acts largely as a social insurance program, FDR designed it to look like a private insurance plan, in which your benefits reflect your contributions.

Likewise, on the dividend tax cut, the point Lakoff emphasized most strongly to Democrats was the importance of not calling the proposal "tax relief." "They just bought into the [frame] of the other side," he harrumphs, still incredulous."I said, 'The alternative is taxation as some sort of investment.'" But the "tax relief" metaphor resonates not simply because Republicans have successfully framed taxes as a punitive burden. It resonates because Americans have always had a deep suspicion of the government's power to tax, dating back to the founding of the republic. "Not using the phrase doesn't make people like taxes," says one former Senate aide, who rolled his eyes at Lakoff's prescriptions."People have never liked taxes." Lakoff responds by suggesting that U.S. history supports more than one interpretation. For every tax rebellion, there is another example of citizens working together for the common good--the barn-raising of frontier lore. But this argument doesn't explain why tax rates in the United States have historically been so much lower than in, say, Scandinavia.

Other Lakoff recommendations have been even more off-base. A second Senate aide points to another Lakoff presentation last year. During the question-and-answer session that followed, the senators began pressing Lakoff for a single turn of phrase that would capture all the values reflected in the party's many positions. Lakoff hesitated a moment, then suggested, "Come home, America." The aide's jaw dropped. "I sort of said, 'What? Come home, America? That was the theme of the McGovern campaign in 1972. I don't think that's going to work.'" (Lakoff doesn't recall the specific phrase, but says it would have been only one of several he suggested in the course of the discussion.)

Clearly, little of Lakoff's advice to Democrats in these situations has anything to do with the big ideas he lays out in Moral Politics, which functions on the abstract level of metaphors and moral systems, not the tactical level of sound bites and attack ads. But the Democratic politicians Lakoff advises typically want something more tangible than the basic observations that values drive voting behavior and that voters infer values from policies and rhetoric. They want specific instructions. Unfortunately, Lakoff is neither a message guru nor a pollster, as he is the first to concede. When he gives practical advice, he has no particular professional expertise to draw on; instead, he simply invokes his ideological predispositions. In these situations, Lakoff invariably recommends the kind of liberal policies and catchphrases that reflect his own nurturant worldview and that, as a result, don't often burst with electoral appeal.

The case in point is Don't Think of an Elephant!, the New York Times best-seller Lakoff wrote in five weeks last summer. In it, Lakoff argues that Republicans have spent the last 40 years embracing the values of their hardest-core supporters. They win elections because people in the political center find these values compelling absent a clear alternative from Democrats. (Lakoff believes swing voters are people who subscribe to both strict father and nurturant parent models, depending on the situation. The party that succeeds is the party whose moral system gets elevated in the minds of these voters.) "The conservatives do not move at all to the left, and yet they win!" Lakoff writes.

According to Don't Think, Democrats should embrace the nurturant parent values of their most loyal supporters the same way Republicans have embraced strict fatherhood. "I think it's really important … that [Democrats] not move to the right," Lakoff explains during our interview. "First, it's kind of dishonest, and one of the values of progressive thought is honesty. … Secondly, when they move to the right outside the scope of their own values, then they basically help conservatives, they offend their base. They're no longer in a single moral system."

One obvious flaw in this recommendation is that it presumes a majority of Americans are nurturers by, well, nature. "I think there are more [born] Democrats than Republicans anyway," Lakoff says. At least for the moment, though, that claim is empirically false: In the last election, 45 percent of voters identified themselves as moderates, 34 percent as conservatives, and only 21 percent as liberals.

The bigger problem with Lakoff's advice is that it conflicts with recent history--even his own reading of it. As Lakoff explains in his books, both Clinton in 1992 and Bush in 2000 projected centrist values through their choice of rhetoric and policy. Clinton appealed to nurturers on the left by underscoring government's obligation to give everyone a shot at the good life (hence Clinton's support for education spending and national health care). But, for the strict fathers on the center-right, the message was that people had to earn that shot (hence Clinton's support for welfare reform, his tough stance on crime, and his rewards, such as college scholarships, to people who "work hard and play by the rules"). Clinton's 1992 campaign themes--hope, opportunity, responsibility--amounted to an affirmative statement of largely nurturant values that nonetheless vanquished the image of Democrats as moral relativists, permissive liberals, and effete cultural elites, everything strict fathers detest.

Likewise, in 2000, Bush invoked compassionate conservatism to appeal to both strict fathers on the right and nurturers on the center-left. For the right, there were tax cuts, the death penalty, and an end to foreign policy as social work.For the center-left, there was education spending, government-subsidized prescription drugs, immigration reform, and lots of photo-ops of Bush with black children. Bush's faith-based initiative actually appealed to both groups--to strict fathers who wanted to reduce government spending on social programs and to nurturant parents who believed in helping the poor. In a sort of mirror image of Clinton, Bush's 2000 campaign highlighted his strict father credentials while expelling the image of Republicans as nasty and mean--which is to say, hostile to nurturing.

Lakoff is uncharacteristically evasive when I ask him about the contradiction between his advice that Democrats hew closely to the nurturant model and his observation that Bush and Clinton won office by mixing the two value systems.The closest he came to addressing the point directly was to suggest Bush is really a far-right conservative who simply lied on the campaign trail in 2000. That's true enough in retrospect. But, of course, no one had any way of knowing Bush was lying when they cast their votes. And, when Lakoff tries explaining away the success of Clinton's more conservative positions, it becomes clear that he is no longer drawing from the lessons of Moral Politics but from the imperatives of his personal political beliefs: "Why did he have to do that?" Lakoff asks when I mention welfare reform."He didn't have to do it. I still don't understand it fully."

In light of Lakoff's ideological blind spots, it might be alarming that congressional Democrats, according to several aides, are currently holed away putting the finishing touches on a top-secret messaging project partly inspired by his work. But the Pelosi aide assured me that the Democratic leadership in Congress has thought carefully about what it should take from Lakoff and concluded that "he is valuable because he speaks to the broader issues"--how people process political rhetoric--not for his thoughts on specific tactical or policy questions. As evidence, the aide pointed me to a national security study group recently convened by Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, which is to be headed by former Secretary of Defense Bill Perry. "I don't think that's George Lakoff's strength, frankly, to say, 'This is how we would approach the issue of North Korea.' That's not his area of expertise."

We'll soon find out if party leaders are capable of making this distinction. The evidence at the state level isn't encouraging. In California, where he has some of his deepest political ties, Lakoff has huddled with local Democrats numerous times. He devoted his presentation at a February retreat to offering advice on the issues that will dominate next year's gubernatorial campaign, such as a Schwarzenegger-supported ballot measure requiring automatic spending cuts in the face of budget deficits. On that question, Lakoff told the Democratic legislators they needed to denounce the cuts for what they are: An attempt by Schwarzenegger to gut state social programs. "A budget cut is not just a budget cut," he says. "It's a social program cut. You know, nobody is cutting off funds for highways and so on."

According to Los Angeles-area Assemblyman Joe Canciamilla, one of a dying breed of moderate California Democrat, what the legislators took away from the discussion was: Toe the liberal line on policy and come up with the right buzzword to convey its popularity. For example, their Lakoff-inspired strategy on the budget measure is to denounce the automatic process that would threaten social programs as mindless "robocuts." Never mind that controlling spending is a perennially important issue in the state that enacted Proposition 13, which has kept property taxes artificially low for decades. Canciamilla doesn't blame Lakoff for the leftward drift of his caucus in recent years. But he does view Lakoff as an enabler. "[The trend] is in line with some things he has talked about with respect to messaging.… [A] repackaging to make something more saleable," rather than a rethinking of substance. "That's where we are."

Among the activists and donors who form the Democratic Party's base--and who can exert enormous influence over party strategy--Lakoff's name has also become synonymous with tacking left substantively while deploying more artful rhetoric. Jon Cowan, the president of a new centrist Democratic advocacy group called Third Way, has spent the last several months in and out of meetings with high-powered donors. (Full disclosure: The New Republic will be co-hosting a foreign policy retreat with Third Way this fall.) Cowan told me that Lakoff comes up in almost every conversation he has in these settings. "When we say our mission is to modernize the progressive cause--you get those words out--and the first thing everyone says is, 'Oh, have you read Lakoff?' It comes up in every meeting you're in." Cowan says that what these donors have in mind when they cite Lakoff is, "If we had a little bit better language, buzzwords, it would all work out OK."

This is technically a misreading of Lakoff, who denounces the preoccupation with buzzwords. "One of the major mistakes liberals make is that they think they have all the ideas they need. They think that all they lack is media access.Or maybe some magic bullet phrases," he writes in Don't Think. "When you think you just lack words, what you really lack are ideas." But, by promoting the idea that Democrats can win without any substantive concessions to the political center, Lakoff essentially invites this interpretation.

Toward the end of our first afternoon together, I asked Lakoff for his thoughts on the Terri Schiavo episode. "The Republican strategy there had to do with becoming the party of compassion and life and making us the party of callousness and death, and that's what'll be remembered," he says. "A lot of [congressional Democrats] think they won. They have to give that up. They lost." This assessment struck me as devastatingly accurate. The party has been hurt for decades by the whiff of moral relativism surrounding its positions on abortion and euthanasia. Protesting the GOP's intervention to save a brain-damaged woman on largely procedural grounds may end up reinforcing those suspicions.

Then came Lakoff's recommendation: "[Democrats] have to come back with a series of pro-life programs"--pre- and postnatal care, end of life care, et cetera. All fine and good, I thought. But these are positions voters already associate with Democrats. What of the central question in this case: whether the government should intervene to keep alive a severely brain-damaged woman whose immediate family disagrees about her fate? If Democrats really want to become the party of life, don't they need a substantive concession--say, legislation requiring caregivers to "err on the side of life" in such cases--to make voters take notice? Don't they, in fact, need to move toward the center? "I know enough about neuroscience to know Terri Schiavo had no consciousness," Lakoff said. I took that as a no.

This article originally ran in the May 23, 2005 issue of the magazine.