Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Language, Liberalism, and George Lakoff

Linguist George Lakoff writes that conservatives have become the majority because liberals do not choose terms that frame the issue properly. For example, when conservatives talk about “tax relief,” that phrase implies that taxes are a burden, framing the issue in a way that reinforces their ideas.

There is some truth to what Lakoff says about framing, but the problem is that Lakoff sticks with the approach that liberals have had ever since the New Deal. He wants more government spending to provide people with more services. That was the central issues in the scarcity economy of the 1930s, but it is no longer the central issues in our surplus economy.

Consider two phrases that liberals have introduced successfully. The phrases “smart growth” and “NIMBY” have changed the debate about urban development since they became popular during the 1990s.

Both of these phrases do a good job of framing the issue. “Smart growth” implies that opponents want dumb growth, and even more important, it positions itself as the moderate stance: some people are in favor of all growth, some people are against all growth, but we are in favor of the appropriate sort of growth. “NIMBY” (which stands for Not In My Backyard) is clever, and it frames the issue well by implying that anyone against smart growth is motivated by narrow self interest.

Apart from framing the issue well, these phrases have been successful because they have raised a new issue that is central to our surplus economy. Most Americans live in neighborhoods where they have to drive every time they leave home, creating traffic congestion, environmental problems, and the economic burden of supporting multiple cars per family. This issue did not even exist at the time of the New Deal, when Americans were less affluent than they were today.

Simpler living is another central issue of our time, and we need some good phrases to frame the debate about it. Juliet Schor has come up with two, “the overworked American” and “the overspent American.” But she uses the term “downshifting” to describe the alternative to overwork, and this phrase it too negative to be appealing.

But even more than new phrases, liberals need new policies that allow Americans to live more simply, like the policies that the Netherlands has to encourage part-time work.

When liberals start promoting the policies that are needed in today’s surplus economy, then the effective phrases will follow. As long as liberals focus on policies left-over from the scarcity economy of the 1930s, policies that do not deal with the central problems of most Americans today, then all the catchy phrases in the world will not let them recover their majority.


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