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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Dems Drunk on ‘Frames’?

The New Republic’s Noam Scheiber provides what may be the most thougthful critique to date of George Lakoff’s influence on Democratic Party strategy. Scheiber’s article, “Wooden Frame: Is George Lakoff Misleading Democrats?” nicely distills Lakoff’s ideas about “the subtle art of framing…evoking metaphors that leave voters with favorable impressions of your positions.” Says Scheiber:

Americans, Lakoff argued, vote their value systems. They care very little about individual issues; these things only matter to the extent that they reflect a voter’s worldview. The implication was that Democrats need to pay attention to the powerful, if not always obvious, signals they send about values through their choice of rhetoric and policies. Republicans have been doing this for years.

Scheiber limns Lakoff’s “Strict father” and “nurturant parent” analogs for the GOP and Dems, with swing voters embodying a combination of the two. Scheiber seems to believe that the concept has merit in helping to understand political attitudes. But, Scheiber, argues that Lakoff’s advice could be “a dangerously seductive tonic — the idea that the party can right its course merely by concocting better buzzwords.” Scheiber’s critique of Lakoff’s ideas echoes the DLC’s more conservative perspective:

Lately he [Lakoff] has begun promoting the idea that Democrats can regain their majority by embracing their more liberal impulses while emphasizing the values that underlie their positions. It is Democrats’ ineptness at showcasing their values, Lakoff says, not their liberalness per se, that has hurt them in the past. This has, not surprisingly, endeared him to the party’s liberal base. But, if this is the lesson Democrats take from Lakoff’s work, they could be in for a long, cold exile.

Scheiber takes Lakoff to task for naive tactical advice to various Democratic candidates and policy advocates. But he gives Lakoff due credit for awakening Democrats to some important insights, such as the need to avoid getting trapped in terminology that accepts “conservative premises” or false dichotomies (e.g. saving jobs or spotted owls). Scheiber concludes in agreement with Lakoff’s view that the GOP’s exploitation of the Terry Schiavo tragedy was a net loss for Dems, although opinion polls indicate they both may be wrong (see EDM’s March 8 post “New Poll: GOP Interferes In American’s Private Lives”)
All in all, Scheiber does a solid job of putting Lakoff’s influential views in a centrist perspective, and the entire article should be required reading for Dems of all leanings.