I recently had the pleasure of speaking with Peter Teague, whom I know from our mid-2000’s associations with American Environics and the Nathan Cummings Foundation. As we reminisced, somehow our conversation wandered to this question: What happened to George Lakoff?
To be clear, we were not thinking of George specifically, who is 82 and has most recently turned his attention to understanding Trump’s approach to rhetoric. Instead, we were wondering about what is arguably Lakoff’s most famous book, Don’t Think of an Elephant. In it, Lakoff presented the idea that the left could win in politics by capitalizing on people’s cognitive frames, or the underlying metaphors, usually activated by terminology, that motivate their politics. Liberals needed to stop talking about elephants—his metaphor went—and change the broader narrative.
To inform that narrative, Lakoff offered two political frames: the strict dad on the right, and the nurturing parent on the left. This idea was wildly popular (Steven Pinker called Don't Think of an Elephant! a “liberal talisman”) and Lakoff segued his writing into political consulting.
In this style of work, Lakoff wasn’t alone. In the mid-2000s, Lakoff existed within a constellation of public intellectuals on the political left, loosely held together by the idea that people’s pre-existing value structures gave rise to their politics, and should be operationalized for the betterment of society. One of my longtime intellectual heroes, Thomas Frank, was part of this cultural zeitgeist. In his book, What’s the Matter with Kansas, he asked why residents of flyover states voted against their economic interests, and how the left could change the political landscape. It was on the NYT bestseller list for over a year. Also popular was “nudging”, originally proposed by behavioral economists Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler. With nudging, a particular behavior isn’t mandated, but rather an individual is “nudged” in a better direction. Dan Buettner, after looking at “Blue Zones” (geographic areas with exceptionally long human lifespans) consulted with state and local planning departments to nudge communities into making better decisions with respect to diet, exercise, and the environment.
At face value, none of this seems highly problematic; it maybe even seems exciting. So then, as Peter and I wondered…where did it go?
The first edition of Don’t Think of an Elephant was published nearly 20 years ago, but the public momentum behind framing, nudging, and the like has tapered off. In 2008, Lakoff’s progressive think thank, The Rockridge Institute, closed, allegedly due financial issues. After more study, little evidence has been shown supporting nudging’s effectiveness. Lakoff’s most cited papers were published in 2003, 1999, and 1993. And while framing remains a political tool, it is no longer a talisman.
After revisiting this era and the ideas that constituted it, I propose three interrelated explanations for what happened. One, framing can’t fix everything, and people are motivated by more than just language. Two, operationalizing people for any goal is ethically problematic. And three, framing and nudging can be used for outcomes that don’t further the social good.
Framing can’t fix everything, and people are motivated more than just language.
From the beginning, the left was overly ambitious about what framing could achieve. As Steven Pinker wrote, “George Lakoff's theory of conceptual metaphor is a lollapalooza. If Lakoff is right, his theory can do everything from overturning millennia of misguided thinking in the Western intellectual tradition to putting a Democrat in the White House.” (Here is Lakoff’s response to Pinker; they also had fundamental differences as to how they understood linguistics). Others argue that people operate using multiple frames simultaneously or shift between them. Framing also put the blame for any failures onto the left itself in a kind of reverse ego-trip; if only we used the correct frames in our communications strategies, we could achieve our objectives. It was disconnected from larger structures of power, funding, and influence that drive electoral outcomes.
Lakoff likely over-estimated the power of language to drive politics because when you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail. But a better “turn of phrase,” as framing became distilled to mean in the public consciousness, is simply not enough to change underlying worldviews. Frames are deeply rooted. And the number of factors contributing to decision-making, politically or otherwise, is far beyond the scope of language.
Operationalizing people for any goal is ethically problematic
Nudging, framing, and otherwise steering society toward a particular set of goals may seem fine if those goals are “for the greater good of society.” It is hard to criticize encouraging more walkable cities. But this can be a slippery slope. Who decides what the “right” type of society looks like? Is it decided by committee? Who serves on that committee? There is no collective “right way” for society to function; what that is conceived as will always have normative, subjective agendas with varying levels of transparency.When one is nudged at the level of the individual, ethical issues arise with respect to autonomy and personal choice.
To have a goal immune to criticism because it is “for the greater good” is problematic, and this has been recognized in a number of fields. The field of environmental education, for example, has critiqued the way in which the UN’s sustainable development goals provide a neoliberal framework for human progress. And even environmentalists with good intentions fall into this trap; with the rush to adopt renewables, especially in places like California, the short life cycles of solar panels—and therefore the amount of waste they may create—have escaped scrutiny. Observer Dustin Mulvaney calls this a “green halo.” But people envision their ideal society differently, and to the extent that they don’t harm others, many ideas should be allowed to flourish.
In an interview, Thaler and Sunstein (the behavioral economists who originated the concept of nudging) address this concern and provide some good guidelines: nudging should be transparent and consistent with people’s values—at bottom, “nudge for good.” But what constitutes good and evil is subjective.
Let’s be honest. Those on the left cared about Thomas Frank’s people in Kansas to the degree to which they could further the left’s broader political goals. In the years since, stakeholder engagement has become less instrumentalist and more lateral. Ultimately, it wouldn’t be framing or nudging that would establish respectful, long-term collaborations with potential allies.
Framing and nudging can be used for outcomes that don’t further the social good
There is no guarantee that a frame or nudge will produce an outcome that benefits the common good, whatever that is decided to be. Sophisticated algorithms and the exponential increase in the availability and volume of digital media have made it extremely clear that nudges can be highly problematic and divisive, too. As online radicalization increases, the power and embeddedness of our core cognitive frames can lead to outcomes with real-world consequences that further violence, hate, and death.
Lakoff inspired society to see stances on individual political issues as reflective of underlying cognitive structures saturated with narrative, meaning, and identity. And over the last 20 years, we have become more realistic about the assumptions, challenges, benefits, and implications of framing. This is a fruitful discourse that ultimately points toward a more reflective, balanced, and respectful way of thinking about politics and one another. It won’t be words that change politics, though, it will be the underlying collaborations and engagement that gives rise to those politics. Encouraging this dialogue might be Lakoff’s most impressive legacy.