Notes on a Theory…

Thoughts on politics, law, & social science

Posts Tagged ‘George Lakoff

Defending Social Insurance: Solidarity is More Powerful than Individualism

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I recently argued against a common framing when it comes to fending off attacks on Social Security and Medicare, which come in the form of referring to these programs as “entitlements” which must be “reformed.” The standard response, as I said then, is  ”Social Security (or Medicare) is not an entitlement.  It’s an earned benefit.” I argued that this is troubling because it is weak to simply deny the claim and that it is factually wrong, because these programs are entitlements (i.e. rights).  By making the rights frame explicit, we can put opponents on the defensive by using their own term against them and better mobilize our side. That’s how you build power.

I didn’t point out, but I should have, that this phrasing also suffers from the “Don’t Think of an Elephant” problem. As George Lakoff has says, when someone tells you not to think of an elephant, you will in fact think of an elephant. Using the word evokes the image, even if you do so as a denial. That’s just how our brains work.

But I also said that  ‘earned benefit’ is just a weak term.  It’s that claim I want to defend here.

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Written by David Kaib

October 31, 2013 at 2:46 pm

Economic Rights Must Be Contested

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Mike Konczal has a good post asking What Policy Agenda Follows From “You Didn’t Build That?” It’s well worth reading (and not just for all the great FDR quotes), and I agree wholeheartedly with the rejection of the idea that economic rights are pre-political and natural.  But I have one objection.

And so “liberty” for one comes at an expense of “liberty” for another. Since there’s no neutral way for the government to set these rules, certainly no abstraction like “economic liberty” to guide the path, the question over social control of property, as Leonard Trelawny Hobhouse put it, is “not of increasing or diminishing, but of reorganizing, restraints.” The issue here isn’t that everything is up for grabs – it’s that there is no “neutral,” and appealing to higher abstractions as “rights” or “ownership” don’t get you anywhere.

Now it’s true that there’s no neutral way to settle these questions.  But politics is rarely about neutral terms.  Liberty, like freedom and equality, are what Gallie called inherently contested concepts (pdf).  They are terms that have a evaluative dimension, that have a relatively uncontested core, but extensions will be disputed.  As Lakoff has long argued, it won’t do to abandon terms that are contested.  That just allows conservatives to advance their own vision of these terms.  It strikes me that conservatives have long since figured out that they can make anything contested simply by contesting it, which is a central way they seek to change the boundaries of the possible.

Because the New Deal ultimately rested on the Constitutional foundation of the Commerce Clause, it’s easy to forget that activists didn’t.  They relied instead on a contested version of economic freedom,  drawing on the Thirteenth Amendment, barring slavery and involuntary servitude, to justify labor rights and government efforts to manage the economy to ensure it met human needs and human dignity.* (By the way, Balkin and Levinson have a new paper on The Dangerous Thirteenth Amendment I haven’t had a chance to check out but looks very interesting).

The conservative view of liberty is one of  domination–that employers should be free to dominate their employees, that the ability of capital to organize in corporations is a fundamental right but the ability of workers to organize in unions violates the rights of employers, that the right of the rich to further enrich themselves at the expense of workers inheres in the right of property while the right of workers to make enough to live is “socialism.”  Oligarchy unchecked by government or free association by workers.

Personally, I don’t believe that is an attractive view. And I don’t think most Americans think so either. But they rarely hear it put in such stark terms.  Bu they will only hear it if we engage in vigorous contestation. Avoiding contestable terms gets in the way of that, as does allowing the limits of the politics of the day to narrow our own conversations about what is to be done.

*The same thing happened during the Civil Rights Movement, where activists drew on notions of freedom and equality (not just the latter) and the Equal Protection Clause (which clearly requires government to affirmatively use law to protect people, not simply refrain from discriminating itself) but the DOJ and ultimately the Supreme Court relied on the Commerce Clause.

Written by David Kaib

July 25, 2012 at 12:11 am

Why is Framing So Misunderstood?: The Distorting Lens of Democracy

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There has been a lot of attention in progressive circles about framing, but because of the way we tend to think and talk about politics, framing itself is poorly understood. Our standard frame of politics is steeped in a particular view of the US constitutional system – American democracy. This view places two party electoral politics at the center, sees formal decision making (without attending to the boundaries of what’s possible) as the only thing of significance in politics, and includes a sharp distinction between the economy and politics, or markets and government. This view is a hindrance to progressive politics, I believe, because it is confuses a way of justifying a state of affairs (legitimation) with a way of making senses of a state of affairs.

What does this have to do with framing? When you use this politics-as-democracy lens to make sense of politics, you overestimate the role of elections, of formal decisions, and the role of individuals.  (I’ve referred to this idea that individual choice manifests itself in an unmediated fashion in politics and policy as ‘democratic efficiency’.)  As a results, the central (only?) drivers in politics appear to be 1) voting and 2) public opinion.  Given that, framing must be (it is inconceivable to think of it any other way) about changing the minds of voters usually in an unmediated fashion (i.e. presidential speeches producing shifts in public opinion, campaign tactics producing electoral majorities). Framing is about communication, only.

The problem is that this does not fit with the arguments of those who talk about framing.  To take George Lakoff as a prime example–his field  is cognitive linguistics, he has helped found the interdisciplinary field of cognitive studies, his books all reference thinking or the mind (Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think, The Political Mind: A Cognitive Scientist’s Guide to Your Brain, Don’t Think of an Elephant!: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate, Thinking Points: Communicating Our American Values and Vision).

Framing, then, is first and foremost about being clearer with ourselves about what we stand for. It’s about being clearer about what unites us, and what divides us from our ideological opponents.  This is necessary to build stronger coalitions, form longer term plans, and decide what things we want to push for, and it requires not just talking differently but building a progressive infrastructure to develop better frames and embed them in our institutions.  It’s about recapturing the confidence those on the left had in the post-Great Depression period that our approach is better than then alternative and more appealing. (This sort of confidence is something conservatives have built in the wake of the Civil Rights and it remains a key strength for their movement).  It’s about finding things that unite our side and divide or weaken the other side. It’s about mobilizing your own supporters and demobilizing* resistance.

Even so, some might think these things will involve persuasion. Certainly, any discussion of rhetoric will implicate persuasion, but the important thing to remember here is that people are ambivalent.  We listen to, or participate in, elite discourse, we organize our own thinking around liberal-conservative ideology, talk about opinion polls revealing beliefs.  But most regular people are not engaged with this discourse, don’t organize their thinking on a lib-con spectrum, and have more complex views than can be captured by a single poll question. Lakoff suggests that most people have progressive and conservative frames available to them, that many of us can actively use both frames, but that conservatives have been far more successful at activating conservative frames.  This means that even self-professed liberals / progressives often argue within conservative frames rather than challenging them. The issue is less convincing people to abandon a strongly held consistent position than activating one way of thinking over another.

Most people who study and talk about American politics don’t think like this.  They think about the importance of getting 50% plus 1.  As a result, talk of framing (and for that matter, organizing) sounds like naive gibberish.  Or in some cases, it means people who want to use framing but don’t understand it speak naive gibberish, thinking that if we could only get the right sound bite it would turn the tide, something Lakoff has always rejected.  I suspect part of the reason is that those who focus on framing haven’t really challenged the politics-as-democracy frame or recognized the way it distorts these discussions.

*It doesn’t mean putting barriers in the way of participation. I object to that on principle regardless of the context.

Written by David Kaib

June 21, 2012 at 12:45 pm

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