Meet George Lakoff
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Who is George Lakoff and what's he doing with Howard Dean?
George Lakoff is not the secret mastermind behind the Dean campaign. In fact, he is careful not to play favorites toward any of the candidates; he says he is simply a resource for any progressive candidate who wants to hear what he has to say.
But by now, anyone following the Dean campaign must be wondering about Lakoff, even if just a little. Time Magazine's recent cover story on Dean refers to Lakoff and Dean's interest in his writing. U.S. News and World Report's latest Dean story also mentions Lakoff. In fact, the candidate himself refers to Lakoff from time to time when asked about how, if he gets the nomination, he could actually win the general election against a popular President Bush.
All this for a cognitive scientist out in Berkeley, Calif.?
Lakoff is a linguist at the University of California, Berkeley, where he has taught since 1972. He is a senior fellow at the Rockridge Institute, a progressive think tank in California. He is also the author of a book called "Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservative Think," in which he lays out his theories on moral worldviews from opposite ends of the political spectrum. He discusses framing, a term Lakoff describes as "using language to evoke ideas."
This past summer, Lakoff met privately with Dean for about a half hour following a California fundraiser. They discussed framing and "Moral Politics," but Lakoff won't go into details about their conversation. Certainly the talk made some impression on Dean; enough at least for Dean to cite Lakoff's work on the stump as support for his claim that he can beat Bush.
The idea that the two men agree upon begins with the swing voter. Polls, Lakoff says, show that the swing vote in America has shrunk. Whereas the political center in America used to be as large as 25-30 percent, both Lakoff and Dean believe that portion of America is now closer to 8-10 percent because the Bush administration has proved polarizing.
Therein lies the rationale for Dean's strategy: go for the base first and the swing vote second, the reverse of Democratic efforts in the recent past.
"We have a metaphor of the nation as family," Lakoff explains. Within that family are two types of parents, two models. Lakoff views the conservatives as the strict father model and the progressives as the nurturing parent.
"The strict father family has a background assumption," Lakoff says of the conservative approach. "The world is a dangerous place. It's a difficult place. And kids are born bad and have to be made good." The strict father model, to offer just one applied example, would not allow for social programs because they offer unearned rewards. Within this model, the very notion of such a program – an unearned reward – would be immoral because it would not serve to raise the "child" to be self-reliant.
The nurturant parent, on the other hand, Lakoff writes, believes "that children are born good and should be kept that way." The two core ideas to the nurturing parent are empathy and responsibility. Lakoff emphasizes that the empathy component within the nurturing model should not be interpreted as weakness:
"The nurturant parent is neither permissive nor weak in being empathetic. Rather empathy-carried-out requires responsibility, both personal and social. Responsibility implies strength, competence, and promoting the value of both personal and social responsibility in others."
The key factor of these two models, as it applies to Howard Dean, is that according to Lakoff, "Most Americans have versions of both worldviews … many people use both models – in different parts of their lives."
Lakoff believes, and Dean's stump speech would suggest he agrees, that either element within the swing voter can be excited. And so it follows that Dean is trying first to excite the Democratic base, and by so doing attract swing voters by tapping into their nurturing model more than the Republicans tap into their strict model.
Sound easy enough, right?
Lakoff thinks not. The conservatives, he believes, have created the notion that they are representative of morality and liberals are not. "Liberals have morality but have not been able to articulate it," he says of their language.
Conservatives, Lakoff believes, have spent millions of dollars and 40 years to develop a language to convey their ideas. The language, exemplified in such terms as "tax relief" and "partial birth abortion" brings with it a moral interpretation that the Democrats have not been able to counter.
Lakoff uses tax relief to explain. By substituting the word "relief" for "cuts" when talking about Bush's tax policies, the Republicans are able to associate a sense of morality with their agenda.
"If you have relief there has to be affliction, an afflicted party," Lakoff says. Once the notion of affliction is activated, even if unconsciously, the parties at play are assigned their roles. The party that relieves the affliction is a hero, while that which attempts to thwart the relief is a villain.
What kind of moral person, after all, would want to undo relief of the afflicted?
As Dean continues to face questions about wanting to repeal all of the Bush tax cuts, he speaks increasingly of "tax fairness," a term Lakoff feels is good, but not good enough. As much as Dean would like to focus the election on jobs, healthcare and education instead of "guns, God, and gays," Lakoff says trying to appeal to practical issues is no way to beat George Bush.
"The conservatives understand that poor conservatives are going to Bush not because it's in their self-interest," he says. "People vote their identity much more than their self interest."
To beat Bush, Lakoff believes, a Democratic candidate will have to establish a set of ideas, develop a language to represent them, then speak and repeat.
While he's not especially impressed with "tax fairness," Lakoff says other elements of Dean's stump speech get to the right point. "If you're going to quote people, you quote Lincoln," Lakoff says. Dean ends nearly every stump speech with Lincoln's famous line, "A government of the people, by the people, and for the people, shall not perish from this earth."
Lakoff, who has spoken with Dean's speechwriters and campaign manager Joe Trippi a handful of times, said he also suggested using the term "Bush tax." On the stump and in press releases, Dean, in fact, does use the term to label what he claims is a rise in costs of property taxes, health care and college tuition because of the funding lost as a result of the Bush tax cut. (Lakoff does not take credit for Dean's use of the term, and the Dean campaign could not confirm the phrase's origin.)
Also key to Dean's speech is his reference to wanting to return U.S. foreign policy to its "high moral purpose" – an element Dean claims was lost when President Bush launched the war in Iraq. Lakoff believes the suggestion of a foreign policy with "high moral purpose" is not an effort to appeal to voters' self-interests but rather a more important effort to connect with their sense of values.
This is not to say that Howard Dean is calculating his choice of words in every line of his stump speech. Senior adviser Steve McMahon says when Dean goes out to speak, the audience hears Dean's own words, not the recitation of some calculated, focus group-tested compilation of phrases and one liners.
Furthermore, Dean and his staff do not necessarily agree with all of Lakoff's theories. Campaign manager Trippi says he agrees with Lakoff roughly 80 percent of the time. Trippi thinks there is, in fact, an addendum to be made to the parent model that incorporates personality.
The nurturing parent in policy, Trippi believes, can be complimented with what he sees as Dean's disciplinarian style personality in a way that can ignite the interests of both components within a swing voter. "One of the reasons we appeal to Republicans and independents is because of that," Trippi says.
Certainly Dean is not a "feel your pain" politician. He's more of a doctor looking for a solution to what he sees as a great ailment. Like the doctor he is, Dean seeks to identify the root of the ailment (in his mind, Bush's tax cuts and foreign policy) and provide a remedy quickly and directly. Lakoff believes Dean still needs to develop a language that expresses a values-based vision for America, but he feels the doctor is off to a good start.
"You have to have the ideas there first," Lakoff says. "The framing can only get out there if you repeat it over and over."
With upwards of six campaign stops a day planned during the final push to the Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary, Gov. Dean shouldn't have any problem with the repeat part.
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