I’ve been a fan of George Lakoff’s writings on cognitive linguistics since reading Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things around 1990. Later, I observed his foray into political advocacy with increasing concern for him as the trajectory from expected savior to derided scapegoat became increasingly obvious. Now, the Chronicle of Higher Education gives us a retrospective, Who Framed George Lakoff, on Lakoff’s failure and eventual flameout as a political philosopher.
But the Chronicle stops short of the conclusion it could and should have reached, which is that George Lakoff framed himself. The man is a brilliant linguist, but never delivered better than an idiot’s travesty of his own best work when he tried to apply it to winning political campaigns.
Really. How else is one to react to Lakoff’s central, signature contention that conservatives see government as a “strict father”, liberals see it as a “nurturant parent” , and that by re-framing political discourse to reinforce nurturant-parent images Democrats could win over swing voters and more elections?
George Orwell once said “Some ideas are so ridiculous that only an intellectual can believe them”, and this struck me as a prime example; when I first heard my man Lakoff was pushing it, I found myself laughing in incredulous disbelief. Absent from Lakoff’s theory was any sense that for many people government does not fit the emotional frame of any kind of parent, being regarded instead in the way the framers of the U.S. Constitution intended — as (in George Washington’s words) “like fire, a dangerous servant and a terrible master”.
To see how fragile Lakoff’s theory really was, consider that even if it actually described the entire Democratic and Republican voter bases effectively, taking the framers of the Constitution seriously (or a prevalence of any alternate frames about government) among even a bare majority of the minority of swing voters would render it useless.
Lakoff’s assumption that the government-as-parent model pervaded the thinking of most voters was a comfortable prejudice projected on the entire political landscape from his own paternalistic and rather condescending brand of left-liberalism. Just as insidious was his belief that mere shifts in rhetoric could magically fill the vacuum that had opened up at the heart of Democratic Party ideology after Reagan, as not just the New Deal electoral coalition but New Deal redistributionist ideas ran out of steam.
To the extent Lakoff succeeded in teaching other left-liberals these premises, he crippled them rather than helping them. This seemed obvious to me even in Lakoff’s rising-star days, and conservatives must have noticed something similar since they by and large never bothered to even laugh at Lakoff, much less refute him.
The Democrats were dimmer. It took them a bit less than a decade of semi-idolizing Lakoff through two disastrous election cycles to notice that “reframing” wasn’t earning them anything much but mockery. And now his name is mud.
This is a bit of a tragedy, because where Lakoff’s conclusions weren’t infected by his politics he was undoubtedly right about quite a number of things, including the limits of rationality in political thinking and campaigning. Never mind that he was partly recycling conclusions that had been reached much earlier by Georges Sorel and the founders of the U.S. itself, who designed a representative democracy in large part out in fear of the emotionalism and fickleness of mobs; Lakoff’s work might have served at least as a useful reminder in modern language of some of these basics.
But Lakoff framed himself. Like many left-liberals, he lived (and probably still lives) in a sort of bubble world where intentions are everything, history has no place and economics is not permitted to intrude; there was no concept in his model of politics that political issues might have meanings for voters that could not be trumped by glib “reframing”. This was an academic’s sort of conceit, and reality repaid it in the usual way.