Friday, October 06, 2006


I trust you’re familiar with Keith Olbermann, the former ESPN Sports Center host who now has a news show on CNBC at 8:00 p.m. Olbermann is one of the tiny, tiny group of progressives with the courage to speak with passion about their views on television. If he were on Fox News and flipped what he has to say by 180 degrees, he’d fit in great. But since he’s a progressive, he stands out on TV like a sore thumb.

Recently, I was watching him launch a broadside against the present Administration when I noticed that he repeatedly used a synonym for the word “conservatives.” He kept referring to them as “authoritarians.” My God! I said to myself. He must have read “don’t think of an elephant!” by George Lakoff. More than that, he must actually have paid attention to what he was reading.

In case you haven’t heard of Lakoff’s 119-page book, you’re not alone. Two months ago, I hadn’t either. But it has made the New York Times Bestseller list and has been endorsed by such prominent progressives as Howard Dean, George Soros, Arianna Huffington, Daniel Ellsberg and Robert Reich. The book’s thesis is simple to state: up until now, the conservatives have devoted a ton of money and effort to choosing language that will frame political issues in the “right” way. If the progressives wish to compete in the marketplace of political ideas, they had better devote money and effort to the science of creating language frames of their own.

What’s a frame? Let’s take the above example. Think of a friend whom you’ve referred to as a “conservative”? Now reflect on what that word connotes. It’s actually quite likeable. A conservative is a person who wants to preserve the values that we hold dear, a person who recognizes that if it ain’t broke don’t fix it, a patriot who deeply admires the founders of our political traditions and our religious traditions. Try instead to think of your friend as an “authoritarian.” That doesn’t mean to demonize him, but merely to take his values and understand the flip side of what they stand for. With one simple word change, your friend has been transformed into a person who wants to tell you who you should be able to marry and who you shouldn’t, a person who wants to control what you have growing inside your body, a person who posits that if you support your country, you’ll support its wars, even when they were sold for reasons that turned out not to be true.

Frames are succinct. They speak to archetypes in your mind. Conservatives, I mean authoritarians, have mastered the art of framing. Consider the following: “strong defense,” “free markets,” “lower taxes,” “tax relief,” “smaller government,” “family values,” “compassionate conservative,” “pro life.” These are only some of the authoritarian frames that Lakoff discusses. We all know them. And while many of us have ridiculed them, we can at least appreciate viscerally why they’re so appealing.

Authoritarian frames are manly, and they’re manly in a benign way – in the same way that John Wayne or Ward Cleaver is manly. They’re rock solid, but they’re also caring. While they may not go out of their way to help the poor, to pick a progressive’s favorite example, it’s not because they’re indifferent to the welfare of the poor. It’s just that they want the poor to learn how to help themselves. Icons like Wayne and Cleaver are loving—it’s just that they believe in tough love. That way, we’ll all develop the same kind of manly virtue they exhibit, and in the long run, we’ll all be better off. That good ol’ Invisible Hand authoritarians love to talk about will make sure of that.

Are you wondering what “authoritarianism” has to do with the commitment to laissez-faire economics, that unifying philosophy of the political right? The Wayne’s and Cleaver’s would like to say that Government involvement in the economic world is the epitome of anti-authoritarianism or, to use one of their favorite frames, the epitome of “paternalism.” Please, don’t fall prey to that logic. Laissez faire economists know their Scriptures – justice and charity are synonyms, or at least were synonyms to the founders of the Abrahamic faiths. Those who wish to stop the excesses of rapacious corporations or transfer money from the luxuries of the top 1% to the necessities of those who do most of the nation’s hard work are merely applying traditional religious, community values. But authoritarians have a different set of values, and they’re ultimately based on Social Darwinian principles. At bottom, authoritarians believe in opportunity, to be sure, but they would extend attractive opportunities only to the smartest, the fastest, the wealthiest, the healthiest. Safety nets? “Rubbish,” say the authoritarians. “If you need such a net, you’re obviously not trying hard enough. Let everyone compete, and if they win, they can join us. If not, we – the manly men – will decide how much of their measly welfare to foster. They can come work for us, we who have demonstrated our superior virtue by thriving in the free marketplace. Just don’t expect us to pay them what those liberals call a ‘livable wage.’ We have our own frames, our own justifications, for why the minimum wage must be kept low.”

Get it now? “Conservativism” in all its forms ultimately rests on an authoritarian ethic.

Anyway, the verbiage I’ve used to characterize authoritarian values is a far cry from the way they discuss their own philosophies. We mustn’t fool ourselves: authoritarian frames are appealing. Who doesn’t believe in “family values”? Who doesn’t appreciate some “relief” from the oppressive nature of taxes (at least the process of filling out those God-forsaken forms)? Who doesn’t appreciate some value in economic markets? Or want those beloved markets to be “free”? Who doesn’t support the sanctity of “life”? Who doesn’t believe in military strength? Or in personal responsibility? Or in law and order?

So here’s the $64,000 question: what have the Progressives done to create their own frames? Precious little, if you believe Lakoff. To read his book is to agree with him, and for more reasons than even he would want to admit.

Consider how authoritarian frames gained hegemony over society. Lakoff points out that the American right has devoted unlimited amounts of money supporting think tanks like the Heritage Foundation where ideas can be brainstormed, analyzed, and developed. If you’re an intellectual with an interest in politics and a desire to think for a living, there’s only one “right” place for you.

Once these ideas are developed by the intellectuals, Lakoff says, they are vetted by the authoritarian power brokers who determine if they will become part of the conservative canon. Check this out: “Grover Norquist has a meeting every week of major conservative leaders and spokesmen, at which they air their differences on issues of the day. When there is a consensus or a majority view, then the group tends to agree as a whole to support that consensus or majority view. If they happen to disagree with it this week, they know that next week or the week after, their views will be the consensus or majority views. Under this system everybody knows that they will win most of the time, but not all of [the] time.” Get it? The authoritarians have developed a process to guarantee as much unanimity as humanly possible before their spokespeople start airing their views in public. And, Lakoff states, when the frames are ready to be trotted out in the real world, they are always, ALWAYS steeped in values. Not “competence,” my dear Mr. Dukakis, but values!

What emerges from this process is a set of value-laden frames with broad appeal to anyone who has been raised in an environment of strong, manly role models. You don’t have to watch westerns to appreciate GOP frames. You need only watch family-oriented sit-coms. And if you don’t like those, you could get by with an appreciation for action movies. Indeed, it’s hard to find a GOP frame that doesn’t resonate with one component of American pop culture or another.

As Lakoff points out, GOP frames are often little more than spin. Authoritarians claim that they’re against big government, for example, but do the facts bear that out? Has our government truly shrunk during the last several years? The last I checked, we were spending ungodly sums of taxpayer dollars in Iraq and driving up the national debt in the process. How is that small government? The GOP appears to believe in a very large government, albeit one that dislikes spending money on certain types of programs – like “entitlement” programs for the poor. Notice the frame: the GOP mocks those programs as “entitlements” to drum home the point that the poor aren’t truly “entitled” to suck on the federal tit (to quote one of my authoritarian friends), and are actually being harmed by the liberal-aided “culture of dependency.”

So what are the progressives to do, Dr. Lakoff? The prescription is simple -- and familiar. Spend tons of money on left-leaning think tanks. Get left-leaning leaders and spokespeople together to vet the think tankers’ ideas and decide which ones to rally around. Never forget that the ideas have to focus on values, for the war we’re discussing is all about competing values. And then flood the airwaves with new value-laden frames that captivate Americans from the viscera on out.

Easy, right? Well … consider the good doctor’s specific suggestions. This is his personal nomination for “our ten-word philosophy versus theirs,” and I’m quoting him directly:

Progressives Conservatives

Stronger America Strong Defense

Broad Prosperity Free Markets

Better Future Lower Taxes

Effective Government Smaller Government

Mutual Responsibility Family Values

Huh? Methinks the good doctor is a tad better at diagnosis than at treatment, wouldn’t you agree? Then again, that’s not uncommon for a doctor, particularly one who deals with an extremely grave disease.

I would urge all progressives to read Lakoff’s little book precisely because agreeing on the diagnosis is a vital first step before any treatment plan can be adopted. But allow me to state the obvious: if “the dude who wrote the book” can’t do any better than the above, that should tell you how pitifully the guys on TV are doing. Consider the buffoon who Sean Hannity beats around on a nightly basis: Alan Colmes. Do you honestly think that man knows the first thing about how to frame political issues so that they put progressives on the offensive and authoritarians on the defensive? Clearly, that sacrificial lamb needs help: from think tanks, from weekly meetings of left-leaning leaders, and from people like you and me who must muster the guts to utilize progressive frames when we hear a few that actually resonate with our viscera. (Mutual responsibility? I think not.).

I quickly thought of a few suggestions for frames – “environmental sanity,” “freedom from Big Brother,” “credibility overseas,” “economic justice at home.” And above all “declaring war on hypocrisy.” But I really haven’t spent much time brainstorming. Do you have better ideas? I’d love to hear a few suggestions.

Before concluding, I would be remiss without mentioning the final chapter of Lakoff’s book, which is entitled “How to Respond to Conservatives.” The beauty of that chapter is its call for civility. After writing 110 pages of a completely partisan work, Lakoff concludes by reminding us that any attempt at framing will be counterproductive if the frames are delivered in a shrill, emotional, or disrespectful way. Progressives, you see, must come across as even stronger, more stable, and more compassionate than their ideological opponents. They can and should use humor, to be sure, but it must be done in a classy manner – as in the manner that Jon Stewart has mastered on his Comedy Central show.

So next time you see someone foam at the mouth in support of some progressive cause, tell him or her to take a valium. This is serious business. Really, this is a war – a war of words, not of guns, but a war nonetheless. As in any other war, the only soldiers who survive are those who can control their ammunition. And now, thanks to Lakoff, we have a new name for our ammunition. They’re called frames.

No comments: