Friday, January 07, 2005

Democrats: Verba non Acta

This LA Times piece about linguist George Lakoff's efforts to help the Democrat Party re-frame their message confirms my past delineation between rhetoric and ideology (not that I had made any groundbreaking discovery or anything).
"People think in frames," Lakoff writes in the opening chapter of his new book, which credits a national network of conservative think tanks and sympathetic media outlets with abetting the GOP's neural conquest. "To be accepted, the truth must fit people's frames. If the facts do not fit a frame, the frame stays and the facts bounce off."
Here, Lakoff is talking about ideology and is essentially "re-framing" the points made by Bernard Bailyn 40 years ago.
To his detractors, Lakoff's work amounts to political junk science, the equivalent of a diet plan that promises you can eat all you want and still lose 5 pounds a day. (Just talk differently and you too can win the White House!)

Samuel Popkin, [a] former Clinton campaign advisor, suggests Lakoff's work on language and political persuasion is not just simplistic but derivative. "He acts as if people haven't known this every day for the longest time," says Popkin, a UC San Diego political scientist who has extensively researched the way voters make up their minds. "George did not invent the wheel … framing is something a million people write about." (Indeed, George Orwell had some notable things to say about the political use of language half a century ago.)
It also seems Lakoff may not differentiate between rhetoric and ideology enough.
"Language matters a lot," says Al From, head of the Democratic Leadership Council, an organization that has worked to tug the party rightward, feuding with Dean and others who accuse the group of selling out the party's core principles. "But so does substance. . . . It wouldn't have made any difference if we'd just gone on the same way and changed the rhetoric," says From. "If you're really trying to show people you're different, you can't just do it with a slogan."
Again, this is the difference between rhetoric and ideology, whereby the former can be used to help explain the latter, but the latter is only powerful when its tenets are put into place. Yet, Lakoff, like many Democrats, seems more enamored with reframing their rhetoric as they are convinced that they lost based on presentation (It's Kerry's Fault!) and not on their ideas.
"The danger of his approach is convincing Democrats all they have to do is make rhetorical changes when what's at stake, perhaps, is a need for more substantive changes," says Bruce Cain.
Until the Democrats get past the same tired belief that the Republican's win either because they are great salesmen (like Reagan), or because they pull the wool over the eyes of the American people (like "W"), they will continue to lose. So long as they embrace their current ideology, that is a good thing.

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