Sunday, 20 July 2008

Framing politics

It's George Lakoff week in my house. In addition to continuing with Metaphors We Live By - which is excellent - I also took a punt on Don't Think Of An Elephant.

The latter was produced in the wake of Dubya's re-election as a guide to Democrats and fellow travellers on how to talk politics, rooted in Lakoff's work in linguistics and cognitive science. Sounds interesting eh? And it is, as far as it goes. One of Lakoff's big ideas is that the split in American politics is principally a different conception of America as a family. The Right subcribes to a 'strict father' model, whereas the Democrats favour a 'nuturant parent' model, and from these fundamentally different views flow all kinds of other ideas.

He also argues that we understand issues principally in terms of frames. So, for example, the Republicans talk about 'tax relief' rather than 'tax cuts'. Tax relief suggests that taxation is an affliction, and that whoever brings relief is a hero, and whoever opposes them is a villain. Lakoff's point is that once such a frame is established it is basically part of the wiring of the brain, and as such we will ignore or seek to undermine information that does not fit the frame (confirmation bias explained a different way by the sounds of it). As such he argues that Democrats need to develop alternative frames, rather than challenging Republicans within the frame they have already established.

There are some good ideas here. Lakoff argues, for example, that the fundamentally different views of the 'America as a family' metaphor explain why lefties and righties sometimes just cannot grasp why the other side would advance a particular idea. It's not that they are being thick, certain ideas just don't make sense within a certain framework. But he also says most of us have both conceptions and may apply them differently in various parts of our lives. He gives the example of blue collar families who may have the strict father model in actual family life, but the nurturant parent model in their political views. Therefore part of what lefties can do to get their ideas across is to trigger the nurturant parent model in people's minds by framing their policies correctly.

Actually there's a bit where he describes how people can have both models in their heads by reference to the fact that lefities can 'get' Arnold Schwarzenegger movies, even though such films typically push the strong father model. Conversely that made me think of the times when I have watched a movie (usually a US one) and felt uncomfortable because of the kind of implicit views about families being propagated.

He also makes the very good point that whereas the Right tends to talk in terms of values, the Left tends to talk in terms of programmes, yet values probably explain a lot of voting behaviour. That sounds quite close to the criticism of Gordo that there are 100 initiatives, but people don't understand the vision. In contrast Cameron is super-light on detail yet we all probably have a view of him as being a liberal Tory who cares about the environment.

The problem comes when he shifts from describing the problem to setting out the solution. A lot of the advice reads like very basic media training (though if the book is aimed at campaigners, maybe that is understandable) and some of the suggested arguments (ie reframe tax as sensible investment) look weak. That said, Lakoff argues that the Right's frames to some extent have power because they have been repeated over and over, and that the Left has a lot of catching up to do.

Anyway, it's less than £7 on Amazon, and you can read it in a day so worth a look to anyone interested in this kind of thing.

No comments: