Dean, Lakoff, and the Elephant.

By Edward LeClaire of Portland,Oregon who describes himself as "a Montana liberal living in Oregon."

When Howard Dean came to town last week and debated Richard Perle at the twenty-third annual Pacific University Tom McCall forum, Dean said that his job as the new chair(man) of the Democratic National Committee was to stop debating conservatives within their ideological frames. In doing so, Dean was clearly referencing the work of George Lakoff, and his popular book 'Don't Think of an Elephant' for which Dean wrote the foreword.

Dean's reference to frames gives us the perfect way to measure his recent debate. To understand frames, Lakoff gives the example of the phrase 'tax relief,' which combines two otherwise benign words to create a catch-phrase rife with ideological underpinnings. 'Tax relief' necessarily assumes that taxes are an evil affliction from which we need relief. After all, how could anybody be in favor of taxes while using the term 'tax relief'? This exemplifies a basic principle of framing: avoid using the other side's language while debating them. Lakoff challenges us as progressives to come up with our own catch-phrases that frame the debate from our ideological perspective.

Dean clearly had frames on his mind. When asked by a panel member about whether the last election gave Bush a mandate on his war on terror, Dean replied that the real lesson was about not letting them set the terms of debate. Dean was clearly working hard to overcome the conservative frame which paints liberals as peace loving wussies who don't have the courage to wage a war. Dean stated several times that, 'Democrats are not weak on defense.' Ouch. This made me think of Nixon saying 'I am not a crook,' which only served to convince everyone that he was, indeed, a crook. Why not just state it without the negative? 'Democrats are strong on defense.' I believe it.

Dean's framing needs work. He had a few great lines, like when he talked about security being more than just swaggering around saying you are going to kick Saddam's butt. Yet when Perle trotted out the tired line from the last election that liberals had a weak record on defense as exemplified by years of voting against it, Dean still had no stock response.

He was forced to say something about how just voting for every Pentagon appropriation request does not equate with strength on defense. The saddest part was that this was a perfect time for Dean to shine, to start framing by twisting the conservative's established phrasing to point out their internal inconsistencies. Writing a blank check to the likes of Haliburton is not security; it is fiscally irresponsible corporate welfare.

When Dean talked about security starting from fiscal discipline and he invoked the dangers of allowing the Saudis and the Chinese to hold our debt(s), Perle responded by mocking Dean and changing the topic to discuss how in a trading situation partners naturally end up holding each other's currency. Before answering his next question, Dean said that Perle had twisted his words on the previous question and this was what he wasn't going to let them do anymore. As I eagerly waited for Dean to deliver a rhetorical bomb, explaining the real differences between holding our paper currency and holding our paper debt (like treasury notes), Dean instead repeated, 'Democrats are not weak on security.' Ouch. It just reminds me how Nixon was not a crook.

The framing of debates on a national scale has dire repercussions at the local level. Here in Oregon, the national framing has left us victim to national groups that target Oregon and its initiative process. We are left in a strange situation where a popular democratic governor has admitted defeat on the tax front and plans to balance the budget with only current funding. That's what not paying attention to frames gets us. Although I really like Dean and tend to agree with him, his leadership on framing shows me that we must lead him from the ground up, framing the debate for ourselves as we go.

  • Miles (unverified)

    Wish I'd seen that performance, but your basic assessment of Dean is consistent with everything I've seen from the man.

    Many of his instincts are good, but his ability to frame an issue in a way that feels natural and persuasive is.... limited.... plodding.... something just doesn't click... again and again. It's a very frustrating performance to watch. Yes, we can learn from sociologists, but the minute you talk like a sociologist you have utterly lost the public debate (unless you are gunning for tenure in a department of sociology.)

    Let's hope Dean gets it together in this regard.

    By the way, counter rhetoric for tax relief is "tax responsibility", in my opinion. It' about responsibility, the kind that adults take for their families and communities, the kind of responsibility that progressives advocate and the conservatives want relief from.... tax responsibility, for responsible adults... tax relief for selfish children.

    Happy troping.

  • William Neuhauser (unverified)

    Well, having the right instincts puts him ahead of the pack! Instead of "eating our young" by picking them apart as they are starting out, recognize that he's moving ahead and he's taking the party there too. After all, he can't invent all the frames needed on his own on the airplane. He also gets credit for organizing a country-wide Democracy for America meet-up last month solely about framing.

    There are some interesting efforts out there which I'd encourage everyone to join in on: Frameshop and Grassroots Dems.

    On the specific issue of framing WRT national security, I have my own ideas which you can read here (the first half is background discussion, the second half a reframing excersize).

  • Miles (unverified)

    I saw the column and my post as friendly constructive criticism... "Dear Dr. Dean, please get real, soon, we're counting on you."

    ...and since I'm full of tropes today... I think the Democrats should start talking about Double Security, social security and national security.

    "We're the party that doubles your security... we understand that a weak society can't sustain a strong military."

    "National security means social security and military security..."

    Not, as the column notes, "we care about security too"... but rather "they talk about security, but for 70 years we've been providing it...."

    "Social security is a pillar of national security..."

    "You wouldn't defend America's military security with thousands of private militias would you? (Well, actually, military outsourcing is heading in just that direction, but most people wouldn't like it if they knew it) So why would you defend America's social security with thousands of private brokerage houses? "

    Take it away Dr. Dean.

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    I agree to a small extent that Dean could have contributed more rhetorical bombs. I attended the debate too and I thought that overall he was quite good. I blogged thoughts on it at

    I take issue with the idea that Dean should have been more wonky when it comes to talking about currency and trade. Most people's eyes glaze over when you go down that road. What I thought Dean did really well was change the frame on Republicans being strong on defense. He does need to get off of "Dems aren't weak"...but he did manage to turn it around and say "Republicans are short sighted".

    It's definitely a start. Keep in mind that the Republicans are well disciplined and well practiced. Democrats haven't been at all. It will take some time to get our frames into the lexicon.

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    And speaking of framing, how in the world did we let the anti-choice people get away with framing themselves as "pro-life"? That should make us all say ouch, especially since many of them likely support the war and the death penalty.

    I agree that "Democrats are strong" is better than "Democrats aren't weak," but both get the message across and at least people are listening.

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    you might also want to try the Rockridge Institute - Lakoff's new think tank for framing issues.

  • Phil Hollenback (unverified)

    A well-reasoned analysis of the situation. Ed, I see you as the liberal George Will - but that's probably just because of the bow tie. I hope to read more of your articles in the future.

  • LT (unverified)

    With regard to Dean, I think he is doing a good job turning the large battleship that is a national political party into a new direction.

    Talk about "frames" all you want, but it seems to me that what needs to happen is giving the 2004 first time volunteer an outlet for energies as well as getting non-political folks to pay attention. Dean's recent email from the DNC had some responses to his online invitation to "It is your party, what do you want it to do?". One was from Oregon:

    "For people who want to get involved in a Democratic movement, but haven't really done any 'active' organizing or operations in the past, it can be kind of daunting about where to go first -- please provide a clear path." -- Daniel (Oregon)

    Think about the sort of person who never considered themselves political but wore a Tom Potter button for much of 2004. How can that person be convinced to vote for other progressive candidates and perhaps even get involved in a campaign?

    And sometimes "framing" is best done in personal conversation. With regard to "pro-life", I once had a chance encounter with a friend who was a swing voter (guy with a rural background working on both a Democratic primary of a guy he admired as a volunteer and also on the Billy Graham crusade in Portland as a volunteer). He said, all excited, "Hey! Isn't this great! I just found out that --- is pro-life!".

    I said "That's nice. Does this person volunteer at a hospital, or with needy kids, or at a school or a food bank? Or are you saying this person is anti-abortion? Webster was not making a statement on abortion when he put the definitions for pro- and anti-in his dictionary".

    This guy was stunned. He'd never thought of it that way. Next time I saw him, he said I had made him think and he had become a board member for the local chapter of Court Appointed Special Advocates to help needy kids who come in contact with the court.

    It is like the quote from former Sen. Dale Bumpers on how he responded to questions like "Are you a Christian". He said that by responding "I certainly hope so, but only God can judge that", people didn't pester him about being born again, views on abortion and other such issues.

    It has been my experience that individuals tend to back off argument when someone makes them think.

    And with regard to the Dean-Perle debate, I am glad it happened. But how many people you see in your everyday life (co-workers, neighbors, grocery clerks, etc)even know it happened? And do you really believe those folks will base 2006 votes on what was said that night?

  • Tenskwatawa (unverified)

    I like LT's comment, saying to me that no single point or single debate is ever going to shift anything. Nor is any series of them. I think winning on a hundred separate issues can never accomplish what 'the vision thing' can. Draw the spine first and then attach issues to it; because it doesn't work the other way around.
    I don't even care about 'shifting' votes. The dithering ones may as well flip a coin. Dithering and indecisive minds are like string -- you can't push them, you have to lead them.
    A frame Dem's could consider is a New World frame, for New Voters: Come on, get in the Party, let's go, there is a Bush mess to erase and clean up, and we have each other's support to make a New World, a good world, and New Voters have the key to it.

    I think Lakoff's framing for anti-abortion moralists is 'anti-choice.' Anti-choice or forced choice sure is a fitting description of the rest of their thinking, too: "It is my mission to save you, you have no say in that, and I won't stop until you think like me and bow down to the god I bow down to. You don't get a choice and you can't stop me from targetting you." That's what they sound like to me.

    And Lakoff on 'taxes' is 'investment.' We don't pay taxes, we make investment -- in our community, in our society, in ourselves. Investments grow and mature and pay back dividends, just like honoring our tax responsibilities. Who is for 'tax relief' when it means cheating money out of our savings account?

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    Choice is a bad frame for abortion. Choice sounds too much like a grocery store, equating the choice of abortion vs. childbirth to bananas vs. pineapple. This frame cannot stand up to the Life frame used by conservatives. It sounds worse to be labeled "anti-life" than to be labeled "anti-choice". Being "anti-life" is way worse than being "pro-choice".

    Instead, we should speak in terms of Rights. Abortion is about women's rights and health. Thus, it is more powerful to say that someone is "anti-rights" or "pro-rights". Being "pro-rights" stands up against being "pro-life" and being "anti-rights" is about as bad as being "anti-life". Further, the word "rights" signifies more than just abortion, consolidating greater progressive coalitions and increasing the negative reaction associated with being "anti-rights". Thus, I advocate a frame of Rights over one of Choice.

    Further, with regards to the environment, it is key that we emphasize the personal motivations for protecting it. To do so, we should equate the environment with the backyard. No one wants a dirty, messy, unhealthy backyard, full of weeds or big box stores. People want clean, green, healthy, vibrant, natural backyards, places where they can enjoy the outdoors, have some fun, and relax. By framing the environment as the backyard, we increase everyone's level of interest in protecting it.

    And when it comes to arguments that we are "weak on defense" or any other thing, the worst response is "No, we are not weak on defense." Rather, take a cue from conservatives and answer the question you wish you were asked. Just say "We have the strongest defense plan because..." or "Republicans are weak on defense because..." That way, you don't perpetuate their bad frame, but rather go straight into pushing our own.

  • Anthony (unverified)

    I don't know why people are down on "pro-life," which has to be one of the most successful euphemisms in recent political history.

    Perhaps it's simply found its limits, as euphemisms are prone to do.

    As such it may provide a lesson on the limits of the potential of "framing" issues, as important as that can be.

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    I just downloaded the Frank Luntz playbook for the 2006 elections. It's 160 pages of framing done by the guy that actually has a long track record of spinning and winning.

    Lakoff is cool, but Luntz is Da Man.

  • Sid Anderson (unverified)

    Shameless self promotion 'cause I love love the concept of framing: New Frames

    It gets me all hot and sweaty!

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