The Left

the Reframing Delusion

Jedi Mind Trick
George Lakoff
George Lakoff
George P. Layoff, born May 24, 1941, is an American cognitive linguist, best known for his thesis that lives of individuals are significantly influenced by the central metaphors they use to explain complex phenomena. | George Lakoff, Linguist, Noam Chomsky, Cognitive,

Republican voters know what they're doing.

Cognitive scientist George Lakoff has a simple solution for how Democrats can win over Trump voters: just stop talking about racism and sexism and stuff like that.

In a recent post about how Republicans frame issues and how Trump voters react, Lakoff explains that liberals should fight back by reframing the debate in their favor. For example, by talking about "the people" instead of "the government" and emphasizing liberals want "freedom" and "justice" rather than specific policies. On top of which liberals must "give up identity politics. No more women’s issues, black issues, Latino issues. Their issues are all real, and need public discussion. But they all fall under freedom issues, human issues. And address poor whites! Appalachian and rust belt whites deserve your attention as much as anyone else. Don’t surrender their fate to Trump, who will just increase their suffering."

This is just one example of a theme in Democratic punditry going back more than twenty years: Democratic policies are obviously better for poor and working class whites, so those classes should logically vote Democratic. They vote Republican because they identify Dems as the party of blacks and Latinos and feminists, and because Dems disrespect conservatives' deep religious faith (where Republicans pander to it) by championing things such as abortion rights. If Democrats would just compromise on that stuff, or at least stop talking about it, Republicans would vote for them in droves!

Like his predecessors, Lakoff fails to see this is a fantasy. For starters, I don't think it's possible to reframe issues of sexism and racism as purely "freedom issues, human issues." Sure, feminists often talk about "women's rights are human rights" when discussing why honor killings or Saudi Arabia's oppressive gender policies matter. They talk about the right to abortion and birth control as "the right to control your own body." But feminists don't stop talking about the fact that the right to equality and the right to control your own fertility affect women much more than men.

Besides, liberals do reframe things, all the time. Defenses of Muslim rights are typically painted as a "freedom issue," the freedom of religion that all Americans are entitled to. Contrary to Lakoff, the Muslim haters haven't stopped hating ("As we support religious freedom, we see now that we were wrong to single out Muslims."). Instead we get arguments that the First Amendment only applies to Christians, or that Islam isn't a religion. Bill Clinton's call for abortion to be "safe, legal and rare" tried reframing the abortion debate (painting abortion as a right, but a kind of shameful, squicky one); the right-to-life movement didn't fade away. And no matter how much Obama has spoken about his love of America and his Christian faith, millions of conservatives still see him as an unAmerican, foreign-born, Muslim sleeper agent.

I do agree with Lakoff that some of poor whites' issues need addressing (Obamacare, for example, has provided millions of poor people with medical care they couldn't formerly afford). But for many Trump voters, the burning issue is that "their" country has been taken away from them by blacks, women, gays, Latinos and Muslims; there's really no way to address that issue other than "It's their country too. It always was. Deal with it."

I don't think liberals should give up on reaching the other side, but we should recognize that it's often a long shot. Reframing the issues isn't a Jedi mind trick: it's not going to blind conservative voters that liberals are concerned about racial discrimination, sexism, discrimination against gays and other "identity politics." And I don't see any reason to hide that concern, or to avoid acknowledging that being white, as writer John Scalzi put it, is the lowest difficulty setting in the game of life.

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Updated Apr 24, 2017 7:34 AM EDT | More details

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