(Editor’s Note: If you are an activist who has heard some of the chatter about messaging and “framing” political messages, this article and the links provided will give you a quick and useful introduction to the work of George Lakoff – the dean of messaging. – Mark L. Taylor)
By Daphne White
George Lakoff, retired UC Berkeley professor and author of Don’t Think of an Elephant, is one of a very few people in Berkeley who does not underestimate Donald Trump. “Trump is not stupid,” he tells anyone who will listen. “He is a super salesman, and he knows how to change your brain and use it to his advantage.”
In fact, Lakoff predicted a year ago that Trump would win with 47% of the vote. (The actual total was 46%.) Lakoff even told Hillary Clinton’s campaign and PAC staffers how to counteract Trump’s message. But they couldn’t hear him.
As far back as 2006, Lakoff saw the writing on the wall. “A dark cloud of authoritarianism looms over the nation,” he wrote in his book Thinking Points, A Progressive’s Handbook. ”Radical conservatives have taken over the reins of government and have been controlling the terms of the political debate for many years.” The progressives couldn’t hear him, either.
Democrats are decades behind in understanding how to frame issues in a way that can reach swing voters.
Lakoff’s message is simple, but it is couched in the language of cognitive linguistics and neuroscience. The problem is that political candidates rely on pollsters and PR people, not linguists or neuroscientists. So when Lakoff repeatedly says that “voters don’t vote their self-interest, they vote their values,” progressive politicians continually ignore him. His ideas don’t fit in with their worldview, so they can’t hear him.
But a worldview is exactly what Lakoff is talking about. “Ideas don’t float in the air, they live in your neuro-circuitry,” Lakoff said. Each time ideas in our neural circuits are activated, they get stronger. And over time, complexes of neural circuits create a frame through which we view the world. “The problem is, that frame is unconscious,” Lakoff said. “You aren’t aware of it because you don’t have access to your neural circuits.” So what happens when you hear facts that don’t fit in your worldview is that you can’t process them: you might ignore them, or reject or attack them, or literally not hear them.
This theory explains why even college-educated Trump voters could ignore so many facts about their candidate. And it also explains why progressives have been ignoring Lakoff’s findings for more than two decades. Progressives are still living in the world of Descartes and the Enlightenment, Lakoff said, a neat world governed by the rules of logic. Descartes said, “I think therefore I am,” but Lakoff claims that we are embodied beings and that 98 percent of thought is unconscious.
Our thoughts are chemical in nature, and occur within the confines of a physical body: we are not 100 percent rational beings.
So if you are going to craft a message that can reach people who disagree with you, you have to understand their subconscious worldview. Lakoff calls this worldview a “frame,” and claims that Republicans have done a much better job with framing over the past 30 or 40 years. Republicans understand the narrative that governs many people in this country, and they target their message directly to that worldview. Democrats, on the other hand, ignore the worldview and focus instead on rationality, facts and policies.
It is a myth that the truth will set us free, Lakoff said. …
- Lakoff breaks down the four ways Trump uses Tweets to dominate the news cycle and push his message HERE.
- Access a linked index of Lakoff’s writings on political messaging HERE.