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Tuesday, December 28, 2004

My I-Pod can beat up your Lakoff

Posted by Bob Brigham

In some circles, George Lakoff is being framed as somebody who is all talk. That frame has implied that by being all talk he does not create action. But now this frame is also being explored as all talk, no singing.

Such as suggestion is easy to laugh off until you realize it is coming from Jim Ross, an all-action guy who also has a reputation as word-wise political strategist.

Ross brought up this angle in email to Chris Nolan:

Thank youĶ.For taking on Lakoff. The guy is the spokesperson for the Doormat Democrats. The liberals that have so much white liberal guilt that they can not stand up for themselves. He is in such vogue right now because he is part of the Moveon.org nexus. There is a whole world of deep liberal activists who don't know how to win and I think are a little scared of what they will do if they win.

In case you didn't notice, Ross doesn't pull punches, but all of that has been widely discussed. However, what Ross says next brings up an interesting angle:

The reason why Democrats keep losing national elections is people like this are trying to tell us how to communicate with people like this. The Democrat's audiences are not a bunch of liberals in Marin, San Francisco or Berkeley. But people living in trailers in rural Ohio, Oregon, New Mexico, Michigan and a thousand of other places around the country. Until we can talk to these people in a way that matters to them we will continue to lose.

Gretchen Wilson, political visionary?

We should not go to George Lakoff seeking guidance but to the record store, or iTunes and listen to the stories of the people in swing states. The are telling us what the want and what they want to hear, we just need to shut up and listen.

The stories are out there and Gretchen Wilson isn't the only one telling them.

Message isn't a collection of tested ideas, it is a story. And that story needs context and a connection before it can be told. If you dropped George Lakoff and Jim Ross off in the middle of some "fly-over state" Lakoff would be trying to communicate with the locals while Ross would be making new friends. While people might snicker about Lakoff being from Berkeley, few would guess that Ross lives in San Francisco.

To "shut up and listen" there needs to be a common ground between those crafting the message and the audience that message is targeting. Consultants and politicians need to want to expand that common ground and music might be as good a place as any to begin.

Posted at 01:16 PM in Netroots | Technorati


I don't question Lakoff's intentions I just don't agree with him and this new emphasis on tricking people to vote for Democrats. Like wars we are always fighting the last campaign. In 2000 the Democrats lost because of turn-out, or at least that was the spin coming out of the election, so this year we ran the largest GOTV operation in history. Now the spin coming out of the 2004 election is we lost because Republicans communicated better than we did. So now the move is to change the way we talk about issues. I don't disagree with Lackoff when he talks about the hundreds of millions of dollars Republicans and their supporters have put into right-wing think tanks. These think tanks have developed policies, ideas and ways to talk about them that Americans will support. What I hear from Lackoff and the MoveOn folks is that we have the policies and ideas, we just need to work on the communication, not developing new ideas and policies. Because we are not developing new ideas, have been put into the position of defending the status quo not fighting for progress. This must change or we will continue to lose.

I come from a working class family, my older brothers are contractors, I spent much of my childhood visiting my Dad's family in Coldwater, Kalamazoo and Madison. The reason why I pointed out Gretchen Wilson is she puts voice to the stories of so many people in rural America. These are not dumb people and we can not treat them as such. The Democratic Party came to power by helping people live a better life. We have lost sight of that mission and have let the Republicans take it from us. Listen to the Gretchen Wilson's story of picking up her drunk, mother at 2:00AM and ask yourself what are we doing to help her? This is how you win campaigns, not by trying to manipulate people. Because the last two elections have been so close we have tried to change the Democratic Party by increments. The truth is the Democratic Party needs to completely redefine itself and not by just changing the way we talk about issues. Since Newt Gingrich led the charge to take back the House, Republicans have used a strategy called maneuver theory to run the party. This theory is based on the theory that every action of an individual or organization must go through a series of steps called the O-O-D-A loop. O-O-D-A stands for observe, orient, decide, act. The theory is that which every group can go through this loop faster will win. The key to victory then is speed. If you look at the last two presidential campaigns I think we can all agree this is an element we have been missing. This theory can be beat in a variety of ways but we must know what our opponent is doing if we intend on beating him. It is time for the Democratic Party to decide what it wants to be, it can continue to be the comfortable loser who made a point or a force in pushing forward ideas that will change people's lives.

Posted by: Jim Ross at December 28, 2004 02:43 PM | Permalink | Edit Comment | Delete Comment

Lakoff is not advocating "tricking people" into liking Democrats. He specifically argues against this.

Lakoff comes from a cognitive science background and his studies have demonstrated that the mind works in certain ways when processing linguistic information. All he is advocating is that liberals start to fashion their messages according to the way the mind ACTUALLY works as opposed to the way we would LIKE it to work.

You don't have to agree with everything Lakoff says in order to see that he has some valuable insights that should not be ignored.

Posted by: Chris Andersen at December 29, 2004 12:39 AM | Permalink | Edit Comment | Delete Comment

Jim - can you show us where exactly Lakoff advocates "tricking" voters?

Posted by: DavidNYC at December 30, 2004 09:57 PM | Permalink | Edit Comment | Delete Comment

Hey Jim,

It might be helpful if you actually read Lakoff before you criticise him. He does not advocate "tricking people" with language and does not believe that Dems have the ideas and policies game down and just need to learn to communicate.

Quite the opposite.

Framing begins with the idea and the story. Lacoff writes that the Dems lack the proper frames, and have not created the ideas and the stories to provide the foundation for progressive frames. Without progressive frames you cannot communicate progressive values, ideas or policies.

Posted by: Timothy at January 1, 2005 01:24 PM | Permalink | Edit Comment | Delete Comment

Campaigns have always been about "tricking" people into voting for your candidate, and presidential candidates have whole teams of people dedicated to massaging their message in a way that resonates with the average voter. What do you think those stupid personal anecdotes are for? "I will work for ordinary people, like John Jackson, from Anyplace, Ohio, who told me..." These ideas are not new and campaigns use them regularly, so why are some people hating on Lakoff for drawing attention to them? When people make juvenile attacks on the guy for looking like a liberal, I start to look for hidden agendas. People in power like to protect their turf, so its no surprise that Lakoff would be the target of such unfocused and hyperbolic attacks.

For those people, the good news is that its unnecessary - Lakoff's ideas are no threat to you. Campaigners have this idea that putting certain people in office is the goal, but its not about merely change the members of Congress or who lives in the White House (although that can play a part), its about changing the world. "How do we win elections?" is asking the wrong question. "Why don't other people share our values?" is a better question.

As it turns out, most people are not political campaigners. There's this myth out there that if you want to change the world, you should vote, that every vote counts. That's bs - if you want to change the world, you should vote AND convince 10 other people to vote for your candidate. If you just keep your ideas to yourself and never really talk to people about them, you are pretty ineffective. Lakoff teaches the average world-changing liberal how to talk so conservatives will listen and how to be a more effective communicator. The fact that he looks like a Berkeley liberal and can't communicate with the average red-stater is meaningless, because his audience is made up of Berkeley liberals, not red-staters.

In summary: Lakoff's book is best used as a guide for communicating with conservatives you encounter in your life. It doesn't apply to political campaigns, because they already implement those ideas.

Posted by: MrTeacup at January 1, 2005 05:38 PM | Permalink | Edit Comment | Delete Comment

I've read both "Moral Politics" and "Don't see an elephant..." and agree that Lakoff explicitly says in each NOT to trick voters. He explicitly says to stick to your values, and learn to frame your arguments in terms of them using YOUR language that evokes YOUR values. Maybe you should read more than the jacket cover Jim. As far as the "criticism" of Lakoff being all talk, that is exactly what he is supposed to be. He is an idea person, a progressive analog of the right wing think tankers. Not everyone in the Republican party is an action person. Any complex organization has specialists. The Republicans have organized very well, with ideas from the foundations being promulgated to their base by the action people as described in "The Right Nation". It's up to us foot soldiers to put Lakoff's and other's ideas into action.

Posted by: Tom Wicker at January 4, 2005 10:05 AM | Permalink | Edit Comment | Delete Comment

OK, he's a professor, so what should he do besides research and talk? It is up to us to listen to him and act or do nothing. God, the Republican Party loves debates like this amongst ourselves.

Posted by: Doug in SF at January 4, 2005 01:34 PM | Permalink | Edit Comment | Delete Comment