Framing Issues Is Hard; Just Ask George Lakoff

The Rockridge Institute sought to help Democrats package their issues for mainstream success. But the group couldn't ever package itself.

The Rockridge Institute closed down at the end of April not with a bang but a whimper. Staffers who had been drawn to the Berkeley think tank by the chance to redefine progressive politics and lead the Democratic Party out of the wilderness quietly packed their boxes, posted a farewell essay on the web site, and shut the door behind them. Rockridge, which was co-founded by celebrity linguist George Lakoff, had simply run out of money, a terribly prosaic ending for a group with such grand ambitions.

Rockridge was supposed to continue the work begun in Lakoff’s exasperated 2004 book, Don’t Think of an Elephant, in which he explained how Republicans had used the principles of framing to their political advantage: think “tax relief,” “family values,” and “the war on terror.” As presidential candidate John Kerry went down in flames that year, once again failing to sell the public on the Democrats’ vision for America, it seemed a sure bet that the party would turn to Lakoff’s think tank for advice on how to reframe political debates for the 2008 election.

Instead, in the middle of the best election-year drama in recent memory, the group that was supposed to serve as an ideas factory for the left has collapsed. Lakoff, a professor at Cal, was too busy with the last week of classes to speak with Ideopolis. But two staff members who reluctantly abandoned their desks in April explained that the Rockridge Institute’s issues were two-fold: it had money problems and image problems.

Because Lakoff’s best-selling book had received such acclaim, everyone assumed Rockridge was flush with cash. “People thought that they should just get stuff from us for free,” said Joe Brewer, a fellow who wrote about environmental policy. He said advocacy groups would approach Rockridge talking excitedly about how they could use the institute’s resources; when they heard there was a price tag attached, “they just turned off,” Brewer said.

In fact, Rockridge suffered from the same fund-raising issues that plague all progressive organizations, where funding is often doled out in dribs and drabs for small, specific projects. Conservatives don’t have that problem, Brewer said. “The Cato Institute will get a million dollars a year for five years, and the donor will say, ‘Do whatever you need to do to reach your goals,'” he said. Whereas in the progressive world, it’s more like: “Here’s $20,000 and we’re going to watch how you spend every penny, and no you’re not going to get any more,” he said.

To add to its difficulties, Rockridge was set up at a tax-exempt non-profit, which prevented the group from getting involved in political campaigns or lobbying for specific legislation. So the very people most inclined to seek out the Institute’s expertise on framing, and who could pay fat consultant fees, were turned away.

But beyond these infrastructure concerns was a bigger problem: Many progressives and Democrats didn’t understand what Lakoff’s team wanted to do.

Brewer and his colleague Eric Haas both say that the group realized six months ago that “framing” was the wrong word for its focus. Too many people took that word to mean that the Rockridge Institute worked on spin, propaganda, and messaging, and that it wanted to slap some new labels on candidates and policy proposals to trick the public into supporting them. A review of Lakoff’s best-seller in The Atlantic called framing “psychobabble,” and Democratic Congressman Rahm Emanuel devoted a section of his own book to bashing Lakoff, saying that Lakoff is “flat-out wrong” to think that Democrats can win campaigns through word games.

In the waning days of Rockridge, Haas said the group finally found the right phrase for its focus: the development of “cognitive policy.” Every policy proposal has an often-ignored cognitive aspect, said Haas, an underlying idea that people need to buy into if they’re going to support that policy. “That’s what we were working on recently, and that’s what progressives don’t really understand,” he said.

For an example of the need to work on cognitive policy, take the fact that 47 million people in America don’t have health care. “If you think that we have an obligation to each other as human beings, and also believe in this idea of shared prosperity, that’s very alarming,” he said. “But if you come at it from a conservative mindset, then you think that people need to struggle to understand their worth, and that if someone doesn’t have heath care, they’ll try harder.”

If progressives really want to enact universal health care legislation in the next few years, Haas said, they need to push the underlying ideas of empathy and shared prosperity. “Simply repeating, ’47 million people don’t have heath care’ doesn’t mean the same thing to all people,” he said.

What the left really needs, Haas said, is a “cognitive infrastructure” that can promote the progressive values that support many Democratic policy proposals, from climate change to immigration. It’s just a shame, he said, that Rockridge ran out of money just when it figured out its purpose.

Critics of Rockridge may say that the group’s new buzz-phrases are just another example of Lakoff’s rhetorical sleight of hand. But Rockridge staffers say that the way the negative associations of framing killed interest in the group only underscores the power of people’s perceptions. “It’s really tragic and ironic,” Brewer said. “Rockridge was framed wrong from the very beginning.”

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