Given that language and politics are so linked, it’s remarkable that linguists and political professionals rarely mingle. So when George Lakoff, a Berkeley linguist, traveled to Austin for a day-long meeting with Democratic political consultants back in August, he was anxious. “I’m the novice,” he said at the time. “They know their candidate, they’ve been around for years.” Lakoff was being a little demure–it was hardly his first foray into electoral politics and public affairs. Lakoff’s no stranger to rhetorical battles, either; he survived fierce infighting among linguists in the late 1960s and 1970s; he later helped shape a popular discipline called cognitive linguistics. And his 1996 book, Moral Politics, applies cognitive linguistics to the political world.
Lakoff is the Democrats’ next tool for securing a portion of Texas’ two million Hispanic votes in 2002. Back in June, Glenn Smith, a political consultant, invited Lakoff to Texas for a mini-seminar to discuss how Democrats can use the Hispanic family as a model of political centrism. But by August, the election cycle had swung into gear, making the meeting a strategy session with definite outcomes. One result of this timing put Lakoff, a self-described pragmatic progressive, in the position of indirectly advising a more conservative Democrat, gubernatorial candidate Tony Sanchez, whose advisers were in attendance–Smith now worked as Sanchez’s campaign manager, speechwriter Kelly Fero was a spokesperson for the Democratic ticket, and Michelle Kucera, a former staffer for Tipper Gore, had replaced Robin Rorapaugh as Sanchez’s communications director. Also present were consultants Dave Gold, James Aldrete, Jeff Crosby, and Marge Becker. To Lakoff it didn’t matter that Sanchez is a Democrat when it’s pragmatic, rather than a pragmatic progressive. “As far as I can tell, he’s not my perfect candidate,” admitted Lakoff, who hadn’t met the multi-millionaire from Laredo. “But he’s so much better than the other guy.”
Ambitions like Lakoff’s require years to bloom. Getting a political party to communicate its values is a long-term, national project. “It took [the Republicans] thirty years and millions of dollars to do it,” Lakoff said.
“We have,” Smith replied, “fourteen months.”
How Lakoff got into politics–and what he has to offer Democrats in Texas–is an odd story that properly starts with a rainstorm in 1978. One day in class, a young female student interrupted Lakoff, who was starting to discuss the assigned reading.
“I can’t do this today,” she said, “I’ve got a metaphor problem with my boyfriend.” She’d come into class late, weeping and drenched from the rain. (The rain is salient, Lakoff says, because at first they tried to pretend that her tears were raindrops.) As everyone listened, she related how her boyfriend had told her that their relationship had “hit a dead end.” Puzzled, she asked her classmates for help interpreting the comment.
So professor and students listed expressions in which love is conceived as a journey. We’re spinning our wheels. It’s been a long bumpy road. We can’t continue this way. In each case, lovers are travellers; the relationship is a vehicle; the common life goals are destinations, and the difficulties are obstacles. At the newly discovered generalization, Lakoff was ecstatic. They’d discovered a widely shared cultural conception about love.
“I don’t care about your generalization,” the woman said. “My boyfriend is breaking up with me. He’s thinking in terms of these metaphors.”
Happily, the weeping student is married now, the chair of a linguistics department somewhere in the West. Lakoff won’t name her, yet everything he’s written since 1978 is an attempt to make sense of her comment. How can you “think in terms of a metaphor,” especially when the entire tradition of Western philosophy says you can’t? According to the classical conception, a metaphor works by imagination, not logic, and it’s simply a renaming when, for instance, you call an argument a “war of words.” For Lakoff, metaphors are deeper. They underpin all language, all culture, and all thought, and in his books he’s argued, to paraphrase William James, that it’s metaphors all the way down. The statement, “argument is war,” isn’t just a more colorful renaming; we treat as real its consequences, for instance, that arguments have winners and losers, that shouting is tolerated, that defections, betrayals, and subterfuge are expected. And while some metaphorical underpinnings are common across cultures–for instance, the conception of the future as physically in front of us–others are culturally specific. Only in Dyirbal, an Australian aboriginal language, is there a category containing words that have something to do with women, fire, and dangerous things (the title, by the way, of Lakoff’s most popular book).
As a result, the theory goes, you can uproot a group’s metaphors in order to understand the conceptual framework with which they order the world. In 1994, Lakoff looked at the G.O.P’s Contract with America and wondered if conservatives had any sort of coherent worldview. What did discouraging teen pregnancy and keeping U.S. troops from serving under U.N. command have to do with each other? Come to think of it, Lakoff thought, I can’t articulate my morality clearly, and most conservatives and liberals can’t either.
After looking for an underlying metaphor that would unify political positions that seemed contradictory, Lakoff hit on the metaphor of the nation as a family, a metaphor that structures the politics of conservatives and liberals, as he shows in Moral Politics. Conservatives prefer a “Strict Father Family” model, he argues, while liberals prefer a “Nurturing Parent Family.” Such generalizations seem dangerous, but the method produces a reliable map of American political discourse. For instance, it suggests why supporting the death penalty but criticizing abortion rights aren’t contradictory conservative viewpoints (a mistake that liberals often make), because the Strict Father punishes moral inferiors and protects moral dependents. And it’s why there are relatively few liberal thinktanks and scholarships for college students–liberals spend their money compassionately, not strategically. In a new afterword to the book’s next paperback version, Lakoff explains that Bill Clinton’s dalliance with Monica Lewinsky upset conservatives because, “It was an affront to strict father morality,” he wrote. “It was literally a family matter.”
The book, published by the University of Chicago press, has landed Lakoff several consulting gigs. Last spring he met with Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, the Democratic lieutenant governor of Maryland. He’s also tentatively lined up to do work for Robert Casey Jr., a likely Democratic candidate for governor in Pennsylvania. Would he ever work for a Republican political campaign? “Not a chance,” Lakoff says. Last year he also refused to support or work for Ralph Nader’s 2000 presidential campaign. “I was asked by many people,” he says. “I was asked by his sister [Laura Nader, an anthropologist at Berkeley], by one of the founders of the California Green Party, by one of their major funders. I just bawled them out. I said, you all shouldn’t be doing this. I might like what he’s saying, but he’s absolutely dead wrong on this and destructive.”
In other venues, Lakoff’s ideas are used to communicate progressive political values and complex scientific ideas to the general public, notably by two think tanks, the Rockridge Institute in California (which he co-founded) and the Frameworks Institute in Washington, D.C. This is, perhaps, fancy PR with academic credentials that depends on its intellectualism to be attractive. But if you can systematically collect and analyze the conceptual models people use to organize their experience, Lakoff argues, you also know the metaphorical resources they possess, some of which might be ignored and untapped, and which you can use to articulate ideas more effectively. On these principles, one of Lakoff’s former students, Joe Grady, and a colleague, Axel Aubrun, operate a consulting firm called Cultural Logic in Washington, D.C. In one recent project, they interviewed flea collar shoppers at PetSmart, asking them to explain why they put strips of toxic chemicals on their beloved pets and let them walk around inside the house. Usually people focus on the size of their pets relative to themselves and conclude that the toxic danger, like the dog, is small. But when Aubrun and Grady reframed the question, to focus on the shared environment, the shoppers’ reasoning broke down. That difference, Aubrun and Grady figure, may help predict which pro-environment messages are likely to fail and which will succeed. Normal pollsters are interested in surface phenomena, Aubrun says. “They’re interested in the weather. We’re interested in the climate.”
All of this brought Lakoff to Texas in August, to help get Texas Democratic operatives up to speed on how to appeal to Hispanic voters by producing messages that have a mix of values that are neither purely conservative nor liberal, in theory mirroring the values of the traditional Hispanic family. On one hand, Hispanic families (at least in their idealized forms) are led by strong male authority figures; on the other hand, they also extend compassionate regard to the extended family. In a Hispanic family, members find both discipline and nurture. “You don’t find extreme individualism, that isolated sink-or-swim attitude that you find in the right-wing use of the family metaphor,” Glenn Smith said. “Even though there’s a strict hierarchical nature to the family, there’s an egalitarianism in which everybody cares for everybody.” Within the “nation as family” metaphor, the Hispanic family becomes a model of political centrism.
One drawback is that Republicans already have an organizational advantage among Hispanics, at least in the highly visible presidential campaigns that build party loyalty. According to Federico Subervi, a UT-Austin professor who studies Hispanics, politics, and the media, the Republicans have consistently targeted Hispanic voters more effectively, hiring San Antonio ad mogul Lionel Sosa for his expertise at marketing Coca-Cola and General Motors to Hispanics–or “Hispanics,” since it’s less a homogeneous group than a collection of politically distinct subgroups with certain cultural affinities. Republicans, Subervi says, know this better than Democrats do. In 2000, the Latino Outreach Office at the Democratic National Committee was in such disarray that they goofed up Latino TV spots, did not use Spanish-language media (particularly Univision) as well as the Republicans did, and, most tellingly, failed to mobilize the traditionally Democratic Puerto Rican population that won Florida for Clinton in 1996.
But the biggest problem with the approach is the notion of the “Hispanic family”–it’s largely a fantasy that idealizes a cultural Other, critics say. As Cruz Torres, the director of the Hispanic Research Program at Texas A&M, points out, the sociological reality of Hispanic families is diverse, so much so that the political model breaks down. Moreover, as Latinos become more economically independent, they rely on extended family networks less. It’s difficult to separate what’s an embedded cultural norm from economic survival strategies, but the potential success of the Hispanic family model depends on whether political messages can tap into a lost or forgotten cultural heritage.
The consultants think they can. As one Austin political consultant puts it, Hispanics have a “latent ethnic gene” that can be targeted; in Federico Subervi’s words, Latinos increasingly rely on a “situational ethnicity,” in which individuals recognize situations where ethnic expressions are acceptable and valuable. What Lakoff’s model might help Democrats do, in other words, is to create a political environment in which Hispanics realize that the Democratic Party shares their values, then vote Democratic as an ethnic expression.
Will the outcome of Sanchez’s campaign validate the Hispanic Family model, and Hispanic families and Lakoff along with it? In a state like Texas, and with a candidate like Sanchez, it will be hard to tell. When Hispanic politicians like Sanchez sign on, it validates the Hispanic model, though it says less about a sociological reality than a political one, and one that defines ethnic expression according to narrow political goals.
Lakoff’s ideas will more likely win the center for the Democrats in other ways. In the short run, the Dems will save some money on polling; with the metaphorical model you can deduce your messages from your armchair. The party might be able to clarify its new theme, that it’s family-based. Back in August, Lakoff argued that the Republicans had gained exclusive use of “family values,” “responsibility,” and “care,” and he criticized Democrats for letting them do it. Democrats should steal these words back, he said. And steal the American flag back while we’re at it. Back in the 1960s, the Left “screwed up” by letting pro-war patriots appropriate the flag, Lakoff said. “It was their biggest mistake.”
There’s one irony to these new pages in Lakoff’s portfolio. More than 30 years ago, Lakoff and other M.I.T.-trained linguists mounted an attack on theories of language forwarded by Noam Chomsky. In the discipline, it’s widely held that Lakoff’s approach failed to work, and he was banished from mainstream linguistics. If Lakoff seemed triumphant, it’s because he sees his political sideline as more relevant than Chomsky’s, his old mentor and nemesis, who has a substantial career doing anarcho-syndicalist media criticism. “I see [Chomsky’s political work] as very much like his linguistics,” Lakoff said, “Where he’s got a philosophical view of language and doesn’t apply it to real language.” Cognitive linguists pride themselves on doing work that can be applied to people’s lives. “[We’re] anti-Chomskyan,” he said frankly. “It’s a democratic thing. We’re not trying to get converts by obfuscation.”
In Austin, this approach seemed to make the day go well. Like dutiful graduate students, the consultants were prepared to discuss the assigned reading. “That’s kind of impressive,” Lakoff said afterward. “I mean, liberals don’t read.” For his part he played the role of prickly outsider, while the eight consultants nodded and scribbled notes. With the Democratic Leadership Council’s State and Local Playbook sitting in front of him, Lakoff bluntly told them what Democrats have done wrong.
“It’s a dream come true,” Lakoff later admitted. “For years I’ve been cursing: These people shouldn’t be saying this. Well, guess who’s telling them what to say?”
Contributing writer Michael Erard lives in Austin.