Beyond Spin

University of California cognitive linguistics professor George Lakoff is a framer—not of paintings, but of ideas. Snowed under by an avalanche of conservative thought, the left desperately needs creative solutions to be heard and understood. Lakoff notes that conservatives have spent decades refining their values, honing the best language to present them, and building an infrastructure to support and disseminate those ideas. It’s worked so well that liberals find themselves scrambling to catch up.

Lakoff believes progressives must take back the content of the national debate. In his 2004 book, Don’t Think of an Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate, a how-to manual much used by answer-seeking progressives, Lakoff suggests how liberals can reframe their values. He recommends that the left get on the offensive, stop engaging in the right’s often-unethical or besides-the-point arguments, reclaim the arena of morals, and articulate values that matter.

When the left seems to be hampered by telling truths that people don’t want to hear—e.g., global climate change—how do environmentalists convince a public, increasingly polarized as evidenced by talk radio, about the need to address critical environmental issues? How do you get the SUV-driving soccer mom (Republican or Democrat) to see the bigger picture, the longer-term picture, to take personal responsibility for environmental issues rather than just dealing with her family’s immediate needs?

Irene Barnard asked Lakoff about the fractured political climate in America today.

Irene Barnard: The environmental movement, as well as the left in general, has been in crisis. What strategic initiatives could progressives employ that would benefit the environment?

George Lakoff: There are three types of strategic initiatives. The first is a multifaceted initiative, which says it does one thing but really has other effects as well. An example for the right is tax cuts, which also cut social programs and environmental defenses. Another example is tort reform, whose real purposes are to eliminate any possible public intervention, even if harm is being done, and also to defund the Democrats, as most tort attorneys are big contributors to the Democratic party.

The second type is the wedge initiative, such as the right’s use of gay marriage, which has already deeply divided the left. The third is the slippery slope initiative, which inevitably leads to other steps. A conservative example is allowing some privatization of Social Security, which would ultimately lead to its complete elimination.

An example of a left-wing strategic initiative is the New Apollo Project, with its $300-billion-dollar investment in alternative energy, which would affect several different areas: jobs, which would remain domestic and not be exported overseas; health, where medical problems such as asthma would be alleviated; and foreign policy, because you’d eliminate our need for Mideast oil. The project would create a major Third World development program, where former energy consumers would become energy producers and would no longer need to borrow money to pay for oil or interest on loans.

An example of a leftist wedge initiative is the issue of mercury: nobody, right or left, wants his or her children to be drinking water tainted with mercury. This could also qualify as a slippery slope initiative, because once people widely accepted the idea about mercury, you could then move on to other poisons.

Looking at the bigger picture in general is important. The problem with the Democratic Party, and also the environmental movement, is that they tend to focus on isolated issues, but people don’t vote on issues; they tend to vote in terms of their identities. The majority of Americans identify themselves as environmentalists, but they don’t vote as environmentalists. The word “environment” itself suggests that it’s a separate thing, outside of you, whereas people vote in terms of what’s inside them.

Health, jobs, religion, hobbies, families and their recreation—these kinds of identity points are outside of ecology, which is a science. The word “environmentalism” adds a component of nurturant morality to that science. It’s important to separate the two. Seventy percent of Americans support the environment—and that includes a lot of Republicans. Environmentalists are people who care about their own and their families’ health, conservative religions concerned with preserving God’s environment, sportsmen who want to be able to eat what they hunt and fish, etc.

Identifying these notions of identity, and matching them with various types of Republicans, will tell environmental groups where they need to go to reach out. They need to expand the notion of environmentalism to include more than science and morality—to be inside us, not just outside of us, a part of us rather than something separate.

Many problems of the left as a whole are also reflected in the environmental movement. You were cited as a major influence in Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus’s essay, “The Death of Environmentalism,” which faults environmentalists for being too narrowly focused. Do you think linking environmental with other issues will be an effective strategy?

It all depends on how well it’s done! The essay mostly supports environmental organizations, but I don’t agree that it’s time to give up. I’ve worked with many environmental organizations, and they know what needs to be done and where they need to go from here.

You use family structure as a metaphor for the defining characteristics of conservative and liberal worldviews. In the “moral order” of the conservative, “strict father” type, humans are placed above nature. The liberal point of view is more egalitarian. With two such differing ideologies, is it worth reaching out to conservatives?

Not all conservatives have this moral order in all aspects of their lives. They may appear to have the strict father model in operation but can still be thought of as “partial progressives” that environmental leaders must recognize.

How do corporations, traditionally “evil” in the liberal value system, play into this family model?

Not all corporations are evil, it’s just that liberals have focused on the corporations that do bad things. Most businesspeople are honest and try to do the right things, unless they happen to be under pressure not to. It’s very important for environmentalists to support and recognize ethical business and to support corporate reform such as accounting that is full, open, and honest. For example, eliminating and making illegal such externalization as dumping, not paying for proper disposal, forcing the public to pay part of the costs. This is also an important strategic initiative for progressives and environmentalists: to make business ethical.

Yet conservatives see their moral order as the dominant one in nature. Does the right’s use of terms such as “Clear Skies” and “Healthy Forests” come into play here?

The right uses Orwellian language where it knows it’s weak, when it tries to sell an unpleasant idea to the public.

How do you argue against the American value that self-interest is the highest concern?

The question assumes that rational arguments work, but they don’t. You need to change the argument, to develop an entirely new system.

Is “putting a positive spin” on an issue another way of reframing it?

Reframing is not re-spinning. Spin uses framing, but is more of a surface idea, an attempt to avoid embarrassment. Framing is deeper, and goes to the heart of what you believe and how you understand. I don’t think anybody on the left should use spin or Orwellian language. Framing adopts an explicit system of thought and tries to use language that best expresses that system. We must feel it in the gut, in order to articulate explicitly what we believe.

How would you reframe global warming?

The environment is not separate from health, labor, or foreign policy, contrary to thought by “purely” environmental organizations. Framing doesn’t work issue by issue, you must establish a whole system of frames for everything you believe. That way you don’t have to worry about global warming separately because the position naturally would flow from your belief system. It must become a personal issue, understanding what global warming means in terms of your own identity, your moral vision, and how you identify who you are.

Do you think liberal frames will increase political participation in a climate of consumerism and apathy?

Yes, if they give a moral vision. Those who are apathetic, cynical, and alienated are often deep-down idealists who don’t see an idealistic alternative and need one presented to them.

For more about the Apollo Project or Lakoff’s work, see,,

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