Frame Wars

George Lakoff and Frank Luntz take on American values and political language.

The conventional view of politics says that people are swayed by words, images, or facts. But that’s false, according to Frank Luntz and George Lakoff, two of the most successful practitioners of political reality construction. They believe that increasingly political forces will clash less over reality than over how it’s shaped.

At first glance, both men appear well equipped to deal with a complex world. They have PhDs (Luntz in political science and Lakoff in linguistics) and run consulting operations (the Luntz Research Companies and the Rockridge Institute, a think tank), and they’re gurus to opposing political parties (the GOP and the Dems) to whom they push, as they’ve done for years, what is essentially the same idea about language in politics. The idea? That the basic building blocks of political communication are “frames” (as Lakoff calls them) or “context” (to use Luntz’s word).

The most important resource that politicians have, they both argue, is the ways in which people understand the world. Their values. Their worldviews. (Lakoff adds to this: their brains.) If you tap into those values, inform them, tweak them, focus and reflect those values back at an electorate—that’s the way to win power.

In this struggle to control political reality through language, you don’t dispute specific words or rebut the facts; you don’t even attack your opponents’ frames. What you do is assert your side’s frame, making it so big, so omnipresent, so unavoidable that it’s as natural as talking about the roundness of the Earth. Disputing such a fact seems counterintuitive. Even heretical.

A prime example in this election season is the phrase “war on terror,” which evokes a tangible, winnable conflict. Done right, the framings should be invisible, not the product of human hands. They should give the impression that the world actually is that simple and hasn’t merely been simplified. For conservatives, this is easy because they have invested decades into creating their frames. Liberals, meanwhile, have so much catching up to do that they have to be taught how to frame explicitly. Enter George Lakoff, who over the last year has boiled conservative language down to its bare bones in books, numerous interviews, and presentations. (In 2003, the Rockridge Institute finally received funding to start building a response to conservative frames.) Until now, the left hasn’t had anything like Lakoff or Rockridge, partly because of liberal pride. To some people, Lakoff’s ideas smack of propaganda and spin, which they find morally objectionable. Still others suffer from a sort of intellectual arrogance.

“The people on our side have been brought up to think from an Enlightenment perspective, to think that the facts will set you free, that you can just negate the other guy’s frame,” Lakoff says. “But that’s not how it works.”

Regardless of the outcome of the November 2 election, Luntz and Lakoff will continue to be at the forefront of a growing conflict over American values, political language, and the intersection of the two. Call it the frame war. It’s not a battle of style over substance because truth is not at stake. Truth has nothing to do with it.

Most Americans believe that SUVs are safer vehicles to drive. Not only SUV drivers think this—any parent whether they feel more at ease with their teenager in an SUV or a Mini Cooper, and they’ll choose the SUV even though SUVs aren’t actually engineered to be safer than other vehicles. They’re only bigger. That makes them less safe: They roll over, they’re less maneuverable, and they take longer to stop. Yet “bigger is safer” is a frame that you can’t shake loose with the facts.

Lakoff says that we engage frames in the simplest acts of thinking or talking. “Framing is the most ordinary everyday thing,” he says. “Every word we use comes with a frame, and the conventional frames are there in your brain.” Take a more political example: the word “war.” In the same way that the size of an SUV resonates “safe,” “war” evokes not only battles, but also sacrifice, martial glory, and an ultimate victory. It’s not simply a figurative or a poetic connection—it attaches to the way people see reality and determines how they act. Every use of the word “war” ratifies this frame.

This is why the phrase “war on terror” has been so devastatingly effective. It’s so engrained that it gathers conservatives and so effective at explaining the world that people who aren’t conservatives find it appealing. The phrase can be strangely soothing. Clarity oozes from it. It subtly encodes a frame in which an intangible, terror, can be targeted and conquered, partly by recycling a Cold War frame in which we waged war on another intangible, Communism. And we won! The phrase offers the promise that we can win this one, too, because it invokes a history of military victories and strength. America, after all, wins its wars.

Of course, America doesn’t win all of its wars. The conservative frame depends on the martial fantasy of inevitable victory, and that is why John Kerry’s criticism of the Vietnam War angers Republicans. It also depends on the rush that absolute moral victory provides, which explains why the administration was able to both attack Kerry and shore up the common sense behind the “war on terror” frame when it criticized the senator for stating that the nation’s goal should be to make terrorism a nuisance.

Kerry and his team could have done a better job of asserting their own frames, but fortunately for them, Bush let the conservative one slip. Frank Luntz says that invoking the “war on terror” set up the conditions for an electoral win by Bush. “If the public sees what the president’s doing as a war on terror, he wins. If they see it as a war on Iraq, Kerry wins. What is the context of what the president is doing? Define it one way, you have one outcome; define it another way, you have a different outcome.”

In the first and second debates, Luntz says that President Bush failed “somewhat” to keep the focus on his advantageous frame. “Look how rarely he talked about the war on terror. He was responding to Saddam Hussein. Was Saddam Hussein a threat? Rather than, was Saddam Hussein a contributor to terror? He did not change the context of the question. He did not reset the way the public would look at the issue.” Once Bush let the simplifying “war on terror” frame slip, all the complexities of domestic policy, especially economics, hung out in the air, unexplained.

It’s a strange admission for Luntz to make, as he’s one of the pillars of the conservative infrastructure, whose frames he helps prop up. He regularly gives presentations to GOP groups, to whom he circulates memos that tell people the right way to talk about the environment, terrorism, or other topics. He’s also partnered with former Oklahoma congressman J. C. Watts to form a communications firm, Watts-Luntz Communication. Luntz is most famous for “writing” the Contract with America in 1994. He’s also been successful at coming across as an objective social scientist—mostly. To borrow a term from a recent New York Times Magazine article, Luntz casts himself as a member of the “reality-based community,” someone who studies the world as it is. In fact, he is part of a media apparatus (MSNBC) that’s creating reality for the rest of us, and part of a GOP apparatus that gives the media its talking points. His status as an “objective” social scientist has also been questioned. In 1997, he was censured by the American Association of Public Opinion Researchers for refusing to disclose the methods he used to conclude that 60 percent of Americans apparently agreed with the Contract with America.

In the frame wars, the people who do the frame work are themselves framed, shaped, buffed, and branded. Lakoff is the “professor,” an instant credibility that can work to his advantage, though it’s also damaging—people immediately assume that what comes out of his mouth is too hard to understand, divorced from reality, impractical. (An interview in a recent Believer magazine labeled him a “mandarin.”) In person, Lakoff is actually down to earth and will answer nearly any question clearly and succinctly. His political analysis is keen, his sentences brief. (“Deep but simple,” observed Glenn Smith, a Democratic political consultant who was instrumental in bringing Lakoff to Texas in 2001).

Luntz, meanwhile, has successfully allied himself with the forces of common sense, one reward of playing for the side that has control of the frames. But that image has begun to fray as Luntz is challenged on his objectivity. For the debates, MSNBC sidelined Luntz after a liberal media group complained about his GOP affiliations. While Luntz has a fatter portfolio, Lakoff has gained access to national Democratic leaders, and his ideas have become increasingly visible. His 1996 book, Moral Politics, was required reading by the Howard Dean and Dennis Kucinich campaigns. His new book, Don’t Think of an Elephant, a stripped down version of the earlier tome that includes a punchy to-do list for progressives, is selling well on As a senior fellow at the Rockridge Institute, Lakoff can’t advise campaigns, but as a private citizen he’s an advisor to Kerry. None of this proves that his ideas are viable, but it does suggest that Lakoff might be on the cusp of becoming the new common sense.

In Moral Politics, Lakoff applied a theory of language and mind to political beliefs, and the result is a useful pocket guide to conservative and liberal worldviews. Conservatives, he argues, believe in a family led by a strict father who protects moral dependents, punishes moral inferiors, and aims to raise independent children to fend for themselves in a dangerous world. Liberals believe in the family led by a nurturing parent who encourages children’s inherent goodness so they will treat others with fairness and equality. All policies and positions shake out from these models and help predict what each side will do, according to Lakoff.

From this perspective, Bush’s accusations in the first debate that Kerry sends “mixed messages” about Iraq are akin to calling him a poor father. In the strict-father mentality, a father lays down the law unwaveringly and never reflects on his authority. (It’s a line that social conservatives in the sexual-abstinence movement also use to bash the pro-condom sex educators: Saying “Don’t have sex, but if you’re going to, use a condom” is a mixed message.) Whether or not Bush wins the election, Republicans will also continue to push the language of the “ownership society.” It’s a phrase that resonates with people’s desire to have equity, even if they’ll never own much property. It trades on the promise that government makes to citizens through social programs like Social Security, and it replaces that promise with what’s more culturally desirable: the ability to work hard and be rewarded.

How can progressives respond? They have to figure out what they believe and then put words to it. “When you think you just lack words, what you really lack are ideas,” Lakoff writes in Don’t Think of an Elephant. “Ideas come in the form of frames. When the frames are there, the words come readily.”

The frames for progressives to use to counter the “ownership society” will probably reflect how they value fairness, accountability, and opportunity. What words and images they use won’t mention those values explicitly; they’ll evoke them, and make them seem like the only values worth having.

One of the more thorough critiques of Lakoff that combines conservative thought with language expertise comes from Justin Busch, a computational linguist who lives in San Diego and blogs about politics at Busch says that “Lakoff’s problem, and this is one area where Frank Luntz just by virtue of his job has a real advantage…is that he doesn’t see enough ordinary people and discuss these things.”

To Busch, Lakoff simplifies the world the wrong way, citing the linguist’s assertion that environmental progressives see the Earth as the goddess. “This is straight out of cloud cuckoo land,” Busch says. “You and I know that unless he’s dressing up in druid robes and going out to Stonehenge, that he doesn’t really think that. The Earth is goddess is just something that he tossed off as poetic and imaginative, but it’s also freaking disastrous.” As Busch sees it, Lakoff doesn’t offer hard evidence for his claims about what conservatives or liberals think, and he relies too much on his own stereotypes and experiences in his simplification of conservatives. Lakoff counters by saying that his books are empirically based and that more evidence for the models is on the way.

A key to victory in the frame war is the way the ideas about frames are themselves accepted and disseminated. What makes liberals open to Lakoff’s ideas is that they believe in openness. But the same profile, drawn in terms of the family metaphor, exposes a few other liabilities about liberals. For one thing, liberals are invested in an intellectual egalitarianism that can be crippling. (Conservatives may be more content with a division of labor in which some people do the thinking and others do the shouting.) “A lot of liberals don’t want to admit that they don’t have all the ideas,” Lakoff says. “It’s a major problem. A lot of liberals think, ‘Well, I don’t have the words, but I have all the ideas.’ The fact is, they don’t.”

A glance at the liberal blog gives you some idea of the readiness of the troops that Lakoff is sending into battle. In late September, the site’s main blogger, a Berkeley, California, lawyer named Markos Moulitsas posted a short review of Don’t Think of an Elephant, calling it “the best book this cycle.” In the thread of responses that followed, the liberal stereotypes were on parade. The moralist: “I hate pr/marketing/spinning.” The feminist: “Ummm…wonder what he’s got against women?” The post-feminist: “I don’t want to be known as the Mommy party. We’re the party of Solomon.” The literal: “I’m not the child of the government.”

As long as liberals and progressives insist that having the facts on their side is all that matters, they are doomed to impotence. The next move for the left in the frame war is to accept that it’s okay to cherry-pick reality as long as it conforms to a frame that’s morally acceptable. According to Lakoff, we already do it every day.

Contributing writer Michael Erard is writing a book about verbal blundering.

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Published at 12:00 am CST