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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Lakoff: Progressives Won Big Linguistic Battle

George Lakoff’s latest post, “Escalating Truth” at his Rockridge Institute webpage credits progressives with a significant victory in the linguistic battle for hearts and minds. Lakoff’s article, posted just before the non-binding resolution opposing the increase of U.S. troops in Iraq passed the House, focuses on the media usage of the terms “surge” vs. “escalation.” Says Lakoff:

Escalation is a more accurate description of Bush’s plan. But its use – and the diminished use of surge – did not happen without a disciplined and focused effort by progressives.

Lakoff notes a recent study by the Project for Excellence in Journalism, which found that “surge” was the preferred term used by the press over “escalation” by a margin of approximately 9 to 5. However, he explains that the horse race numbers are beside the real point:

The Project for Excellence in Journalism missed the significance. Though it announced “surge” as the “winner,” the real story was being ignored.”Escalation” had 10,112 uses! “Surge” had only 18,118 — relatively small considering that it was the official White House term, the one unquestioning journalists would feel safe using. The point is that “escalation” and its meaning got out there in the press — enough to have a major effect, to blunt and offer a counterforce to the meaning of “surge,” as well as to call attention to the real Bush policy. The Democratic leadership is still using “escalation,” as it should. The idea is out there more than enough, and that is what matters.

Lakoff argues that this was more than just a linguistic skirmish, as some have argued:

People all over the country noticed the “surge” framing immediately, and quickly — and accurately — reframed the President’s proposal as an “escalation.”..The Democratic leadership has been using the word, naming the policy accurately and thus challenging the lie implicit in “surge.” In previous years, before the Democrats became savvy about the importance of accurate framing, they might have just argued against the Bush “surge.”

And he believes it’s also a victory for ‘framing’ as a central element of political strategy:

Conservative ideas and frames must be confronted and contested. Progressives cannot succeed if they treat frames as nothing more than word games, if they fail to understand that the use of a term like surge reinforces the conservative worldview. We are not playing games with words. We are fighting over ideas, and the moral world views that underlie those ideas.

Democrats have clearly learned the lesson that refusing to allow the adversary to define the terms of debate is an essential element of political victory. Lakoff deserves primary credit for promoting this awareness, and, in this battle especially, the progressive blogosphere carried the message far and wide.

One comment on “Lakoff: Progressives Won Big Linguistic Battle

  1. Jo Ann Richmond on

    I have read three of Lakoff’s books on this very subject, and about to start my fourth. His emphasis on framing the issues in progressive terms is exactly what is needed in order to change how Americans look at them. I highly recommend all progressives and democrats to especially read his book “Moral Politics” which gives an in-depth discussion as to how this is carried out and why it is necessary.


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