Frank Luntz, Save Us!

The Powell’s Books website has an interesting review (via The New Republic) of George Lakoff’s latest book about politics and language, Whose Freedom? Lakoff argues, as many others have, that framing political issues with the proper metaphors goes a long way toward winning the debate:

Political debates, according to Lakoff, are contests between metaphors. Citizens are not rational and pay no attention to facts, except as they fit into frames that are “fixed in the neural structures of their brains” by sheer repetition. In George W. Bush’s first term, for example, the president promised tax “relief,” which frames taxes as an affliction, the reliever as a hero, and anyone obstructing him as a villain. The Democrats were foolish to offer their own version of tax relief, which accepted the Republicans’ framing; it was like asking people not to think of an elephant. Instead, they should have re-framed taxes as “membership fees” necessary to maintain the services and infrastructure of the society to which they belong. Likewise, the lawyers who are said to press “frivolous lawsuits” should be reframed as “public protection attorneys,” and “activist judges” who “legislate from the bench” rebranded as “freedom judges.”

I wonder, though, if some of his recommended phraseology will really catch on. Will freedom judges get any more of a respectful response that freedom fries did? TNR reviewer Steven Pinker seems to share my skepticism (while getting in a quick, dismissive dig at Objectivists):

But Lakoff’s advice doesn’t pass the giggle test. One can imagine the howls of ridicule if a politician took Lakoff’s Orwellian advice to rebrand taxes as “membership fees.” Surely no one has to hear the metaphor “tax relief” to think of taxes as an affliction; that sentiment has been around as long as taxes have been around. (Even Canadians, who tolerate a far more expansive government, grumble about their taxes.) Also, “taxes” and “membership fees” are not just two ways of framing the same thing. If you choose not to pay a membership fee, the organization will stop providing you with its services. But if you choose not to pay taxes, men with guns will put you in jail. And even if taxes were like membership fees, aren’t lower membership fees better than higher ones, all else being equal? Why should anyone feel the need to defend the very idea of an income tax? Other than the Ayn Randian fringe, has anyone recently proposed abolishing it?

In defending his voters-are-idiots theory, Lakoff has written that people do not realize that they are really better off with higher taxes, because any savings from a federal tax cut would be offset by increases in local taxes and private services. But if that is a fact, it would have to be demonstrated to a bureaucracy-jaded populace the old-fashioned way, as an argument backed with numbers. And that is the kind of wonkish analysis that Lakoff dismisses.

It would be fascinating to see what would happen to a campaign (another military metaphor right there) which adopted Lakoff’s theories. Unaccountable bureaucrats become “liberated planners,” red tape is now “procedural certainty,” and when the government bans you from eating foods containing trans-fats, that would be “personal lifestyle health assistance.” And they won’t even require you to thank them.