George Lakoff dissects the war on terror

Monday 30 August 2004This is almost 19 years old. Be careful.

Just in time for the Republican National Convention, esteemed linguistics professor George Lakoff talks about the way slogans frame the debates over policy: Linguistics professor George Lakoff dissects the “war on terror” and other conservative catchphrases. In particular, he faults the Democrats for letting Republicans choose memes through slogans, and not fighting fire with fire:

Conservatives have branded liberals, and the liberals let them get away with it: the “liberal elite,” the “latte liberals,” the “limousine liberals.” The funny thing is that conservatives are the elite. The whole idea of conservative doctrine is that some people are better than others, that some people deserve more. To conservatives, if you’re poor it’s because you deserve it, you’re not disciplined enough to get ahead. Conservative doctrine requires that there be an elite: the people who thrive in the free market have more money, and they should. Progressives say, “No, that’s not fair. Maybe some should have more money, but no one should live in poverty. Everybody who works deserves to have a reasonable standard of living for their work.” These are ideas that are progressive or liberal ideas, and progressives aren’t getting them out there enough.

What progressives are promoting is not elite at all. Progressives ought to be talking about the conservative elite. They shouldn’t be complaining about “tax cuts for the rich,” they should be complaining about “tax cuts for the conservative elite,” because that’s who’s getting them.


What balderdash. This "professor" is living on Mars. I love his assertion that "the conservatives are the elite". Right. That is why far more donations to left-leaning groups are in the multi-thousand dollar range, whereas right-leaning groups get most of their money in the $100-$200 range. Does the name George Soros mean anything? Steve Bing? Steven Spielberg?

This guy is typical of the ivory tower liberal echo chamber that the left lives in these days/ Hopefully, this guy will go queitly insane when Bush takes 40 states in the fall...

Just more of the standard "we are smarter and know what is best for you" garbage. Enjoy your padded room, "professor"
Sylvain Galineau 10:41 AM on 30 Aug 2004
OK, I will bite. At length. (Slow day).

- Overall, Lakoff seems to be having a hard time rising above the stereotypes and partisanship he describes. Kerry, Edwards, Soros, Corzine and many others are certainly part of the elite. Senators Kennedy and Rockefeller are not exactly common folks either. The richest member of the House is California Democrat Jane Harman. Wealth is common in politics, period.

And just like they pay most taxes, wealthy people bankroll politics. Hollywood gives overwhelmingly to the Democratic party; in the past decade, in fact, nearly as much as the oil & gas lobbies to the Republican party ($100m for the former, $110m for the latter). There might be a lot of modest steel workers and teachers registered as Democrats, but this is not where the money is coming from, and they are not the ones running the show either.

Whether in France, the UK or the US, politics is very much an elite sport, even if it is more open than it used to be; a very large proportion of US Senators on both sides are independently wealthy men and women. Both sides tend to consider their personal wealth as a proof of virtue, and keep claiming the other side's to imply, if not some sort of corruption, an inherent contradiction.

If you are a Republican, your wealth is a clear proof of conflicted interests and greed; if Democrat, of the vacuity of any claim to represent the less well-off. It's part of the ritual.

- As for slogans and name-calling, there has been no shortage of them on the other side, especially in the past four years. 'Conservative' is of course used to describe all Republicans by people who do not understand the nuances and flavors, just like 'liberal' has turned into a catch-all for Democrats in general.

Accusations of 'McCarthyism' have been common, some have described the 'Taliban wing of the Republican party' at length, people get called 'wingnuts' on every other message board, 'neo-conservative' has become synonymous with warmongering and extremism, anyone who is a bit more forceful than everage is immediately dismissed as an 'ideologue' etc. And Lakoff's answer seems to go above and beyond the war of cliches with the same old ones.

- No Republican I know believes that poverty is deserved. Although I never met one, I am sure such individuals exist but generalizing it to the whole crowd undermines Lakoff's pretense at a minimum of academic detachment. Claiming that relative poverty - and relative poverty is usually the one talked about - is inherently and always unfair and a collective responsibility is equally simplistic and wrong-headed.

- Finally, I didn't realize the 'conservative elite' - and why is that not another silly, predictable slogan by the way ? - were the only ones who benefited from the tax cuts. Are Senator Kerry and his spouse, and all those generous donors from Beverly Hills explicitly exempted by the tax code ?

And speaking of the 'tax cuts for the rich". See the actual CBO report; without the Bush tax cuts, the top 20% of taxpayers would have paid 78% of the income tax this year. Instead, they paid 82% of it. Which doesn't quite jibe with the fashionable belief of a tax burden shifting to the middle class, and probably shows the ability to hijack a debate with manipulative populist slogans is no conservative monopoly.

With a progressive tax system, where a minority pay most of the tax, across-the-board tax cuts tend to go to those who pay most of it. It's a mathematical unavoidability. Somehow, it is fair that 20% of taxpayers shoulder 80% of the burden, but when they get 80% of the cut, it's shamefully unfair. Well, duh. Maybe the unfairness of this is a reflection of the unfairness of that.

- In the end, Lakoff comes across as a nice and jovial dude, except he only succeeds at confirming the other side's stereotypes.

- And Democrats are fighting fire with fire. Populism against populism, cheaper one-liners against soundbites. I won't nostalgize about it since I don't what it was like before 1995. It's always been like this for as long as I have lived here. The Democrats are at least as shrill and hysterical about Bush as the Republicans were about Clinton. To me, it sounds like business as usual : Accusations of 'framing the debate' and right-wing conspiracies against those of 'liberal bias' and class warfare etc. And in a rather perverse way, it's comforting.
I wish I had something to add to this discussion.

Sylvain, that was great, the fact that English isn't your first language is astonishing. I think you should write more, you may have a unique perspective that native born Americans lack.
for more of Sylvain's writings (with only an occasional word or two in French) see
Andrew and Sylvain: I think you've missed the point. Lakoff is a linguistics professor, not political science. His point is not about the facts of one policy vs. another; it's that the terms used influence people's thinking about policy.
My compliments, Sylvain, on a well thought out and dispassionate analysis, particularly with respect to the inevitability of politics being an elite field. This is glossed over too often, along with the fact that politics, economics, power, and money are inextricably linked. No matter how much we try to deceive ourselves into thinking that ideals are paramount in politics and even statesmanship, the thorny issue of who gets to control scarce resources will always get in the way.

With respect to the CBO report, however, it's a big report and there are many more that either of us could choose from to cherry-pick numbers that make our cases. E.g., if instead of looking at the delta in percentage of contribution to total federal revenue under the Bush tax cuts, we could look at the delta in percentage of contribution of household income. Of course we get a differenct story. Which number is more meaningful? The conservative point of view would of course emphasize the former, and the liberal (or progressive, a word I prefer these days because it is less demonized) point of view or course emphasizes the latter.

Yes, we do get some fringe liberals and lefty pundits (Carville, Franken, et al.) indulging in the same practice, and they're none too subtle about it either -- just as the fringe/pop conservatives are also not subtle (Matalin, Coulter, et al.). What I believe that Lakoff is interested in, however, is how the mainstream politicians and operatives of the left and right are using language. My observation is that the mainstream politicians and operatives of the conservative side seem to have been more prone to (and are definitely more adept at) labeling than their liberal counterparts. That's entirely why "liberal elites" has stuck in the national vocabulary, while "conservative elites" has not even though it's just as valid.

Sylvain Galineau 8:08 AM on 31 Aug 2004
Ned, I don't think I missed the point. I did expect a linguistics analysis, if at all possible of both sides' messages and all I found in there were more cliches, tired stereotypes and slogans for the benefit of one political side, mixed with condescending patronizing of those people who are, you know, nice people, "we" just need to educate them and make them see the light. All under the outward pretense of academic detachment, of course. They should call them 'taxes for the conservative elite' because "that's who's getting them". If this is linguistics, Rush Limbaugh and Michael Moore qualify for tenure in Lakoff's department. Maybe I should apply.

So yes, to the extent he seems to be as much a victim of the process as the rest of us, Lakoff has made the point that slogans and soundbites do influence and condition people. But his inability or unwillingness to analyze 'conservative catchphrases' outside of his own political beliefs greatly undermine the effectiveness of his attempt.

Overall, this is a political interview through and through, not some detached academic discussion about the linguistics of the game. And it certainly demonstrates that having a PhD and tenure in a given field does not grant one a deep insight in other topics. The man might be brilliant with language studies and more articulate than most but his politics seem quite ordinary.

So I guess that from your description, I went in with high expectations of insight and detachment. Oh well.

Richard, point well taken. The numbers can be used, and are used, and abused, in many ways. However, I do not hear Democrats repeating ad nauseam that the top earners got a bigger reduction of their tax rate, which is factually correct. They are saying the middle class is carrying more of the overall burden, which is demonstrably false but a better argument, from a populist standpoint (victimhood vs. envy). However legitimate you believe their beef to be, Democrats are as able to frame issues in a misleading way as their opponents.

As for who is more prone or able to label or control the vocabulary around certain issues, I honestly don't think we can ever settle this one. The topic is inherently subjective. Most conservatives I know - as opposed to Republicans - feel every bit as under siege in the perception game as the hard-core Democrats I have met. And it's perfectly normal. People with strong beliefs are much more sensitive to any public deviation from their dogma by others. Those assertions and claims that fit with their own agenda are taken for granted since they are, by definition, the truth. Hence their shared perception of a biased media and their concerns about their opponents' disturbing ability to manipulate the agenda.

This, incidentally, was the kind of process and dynamic I expected someone like Lakoff to delve into when I followed this link. I think you can understand my disappointment.
Ned, I think they simply found Lakoff fundamentally flagrantly offensive in his assertions and abuse of power as a professed academic, claiming to be somehow more objective than the rest of us, etc. An ivory tower progressive; an elite progressive. Instead of a linguistics professor, he seems more like a political strategist, but in linguistics clothing. I think Chomsky was better at not confusing the two subjects, at least. In your quote, he's clearly bashing conservatives, and is off-base, in the guise of some new academic insight. "The whole idea of conservative doctrine is that some people are better than others"??

If you had quoted his talk about frames and "war on terror" phrase, or how he was gaining attention from the Democratic leaders and the media, I think that might have made the point clearer. But everything kind of falls apart once he says things like "we don't go to war as an instrument of economic policy."

We shouldn't profess academic/linguistic "research" as an instrument of political games, either.
Check out Latte, the Blog for the "Liberal Elite" which is exactly on this topic...

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