top of page

Introduction to the Work and Ideas of George Lakoff

By Ninveh Mansour (Spring 2018) -

George Lakoff, cognitive linguist and renowned author of the book that took Washington and the Democratic party by storm in 2004, entitled Don’t Think of an Elephant, believed he could help solve a distinctly progressive problem of communication in politics.

In his writings and the work he has done with the Rockridge Institute, Lakoff claims that Democrats were struggling to harness the political prowess of words—specifically of framing.

Lakoff believes that Conservatives fully understand how language and framing can propel their political agenda, and encourages Progressives to follow suit. According to Lakoff’s theory, if the Democratic party was able to frame issues according to their own moral agenda, be clear with their values and character, and place enticing language ahead of policy-speak, Democrats can successfully engage the voters and control Washington politics.

According to Lakoff, the “Conservative language machine” is so powerful because Conservative leadership realized the importance of language long ago, and set off to build the language infrastructure we now see. Today, it culminates to Conservatives having “... spent decades defining their ideas, carefully choosing the language with which to present them, and building an infrastructure to communicate them”.(1) This sort of standing infrastructure is difficult to infiltrate or compete with. It is well defined and secure, leaving most Conservative voters confident that the same ideas they have supported their whole life will continue to be defended—no matter who is in leadership. Lakoff believes that the strength of Conservative communication systems comes from their highly skilled ability to frame the issues, adherence to what he calls “Strict Father Morality” in their policies, the clear and understandable nature of their platform, the manner in which they lead with personality before policy, and their willingness to act and say whatever is necessary to appeal to their base.

In an interview, when asked why Conservatives are particularly good at framing, Lakoff’s simple response was: “Because they've put billions of dollars into it. Over the last 30 years their think tanks have made a heavy investment in ideas and in language”.(2) His explanation for the strength of the Conservative language machine, lies in the way think tanks are set up for Conservatives as opposed to Progressives. In a Conservative network, large sums of money are awarded to institutions yearly, with an almost limitless realm of possibilities to use it, the only charge—produce something useful. As a result, their reach is much further and the resources at their command, much greater. In a Progressive network, the situation is very much the opposite. Liberal institutions are often awarded grants with the stipulation that the money is to be used in very specific ways, to advance certain causes and everything is documented. So, argues Lakoff, the issue which produces the large contrast between the two parties language and marketing skills is foundational. All of this is based on the foundational ideology that the conservative and liberal systems are based off of of two moral systems: strict father vs. nurturing parent. Conservatives follow strict father morality. Lakoff describes this as: The basic idea is that authority is justified by morality (the strict father version), and that, in a well-ordered world, there should be (and traditionally has been) a moral hierarchy in which those who have traditionally dominated should dominate. The hierarchy is: God above Man, Man above Nature, The Disciplined (Strong) above the Undisciplined (Weak), The Rich above the Poor, Employers above Employees, Adults above Children, Western culture above other cultures, Our Country above other countries. The hierarchy extends to: Men above women, Whites above Nonwhites, Christians above non-Christians, Straights above Gays.(3) This model, as the foundation of the Conservative party, shapes every move the party makes. It is a clear platform that their supporters have bought into and now expect the party to follow. The Nurturant Parent model of the Liberals, on the other hand, is described as: Rooted in the values of empathy and mutual responsibility. This model is gender neutral, and understands the role of parents as nurturing the inherent ‘goodness’ within their children through providing protection, showing them how to lead a fulfilled life, and teaching them how to empathize and care for others.(4)

The two models explain the core differences between the two parties, the nuances to their policy decisions, and the base they each appeal too. Innate to each one, is varying levels of distinction. For Lakoff, the strict father morality of Conservatives is much more well defined, detailed, and easy to follow, while that of the Liberals is much more dynamic and open to change. This has given Conservatives the advantage of clarity in their moral stance, and since American voters vote by moral not policy, the Conservative voter is most likely to vote for party over candidate.

This all culminates into their skill at framing political issues. Their well-funded think tanks, led by a well defined ideology, allows their machine to churn out easily digestible material that gets their ideas into the public sphere. Some examples Lakoff uses to define the conservative frame are “tax relief” or “pro-life”.

The particular word choice in this is incredibly important, states Lakoff. He explains that the term ‘relief’ immediately insinuates that there is something overbearing that the American people need to be relieved of—in this case, taxes. He describes the situation depicted by this frame as: “Taxes are an affliction, proponents of taxes are the causes of affliction (the villains), the taxpayer is the afflicted (the victim) and the proponents of tax relief are the heroes who deserve the taxpayers' gratitude. Those who oppose tax relief are bad guys who want to keep relief from the victim of the affliction, the taxpayer.”(5) In short, this one phrase has presented conservatives as the party of the average American, made the democrats appear as arbiters of high taxes, and ultimately painted taxation as arbitrarily onerous. They have managed to get their whole policy into a convenient soundbite, which then dominates the discussion about the topic in the political and media spheres. Lakoff states that the advantage of such framing is that it now defines the issue and whenever the words “tax-relief” are mentioned, it automatically activates the frame within people’s minds. This is true whether or not the discussion is positive or negative towards the conservative view, either way, their position automatically is activated in your thought process. It’s for this reason that Lakoff often urges progressive politicians to create their own frames, and refrain from reiterating the opposing frame—as in doing so, they are indirectly adding to its influence.

Beyond the frame, Conservative politicians are also more adept at understanding the values appreciated by their audience. As they are guided by strict father morality, it follows that appearing as victorious or dominating promotes their moral system. Lakoff states that this phenomenon is why Trump finds success in insulting and arguing with his opponents. His ability to “win” a game of insults makes him appear stronger and elevated.(6) In the conservative strict father framework, a victory makes you a formidable candidate, one capable and deserving of winning. Beyond Trump, the party’s refusal to admit its wrongs also adds to its appeal with the base. A good juxtaposition between the two parties can be found most recently in the way the Conservatives denied wrong-doing in reference to Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh even in the face of very clear evidence while democrats like Al Franken, publicly apologized and renounced their position in Congress.Morally, it is clear that Franken’s decision was the right one. However, in terms of the created image, the conservative method was more politically successful.

The question that remains, is what could Progressive politicians do to compete with the established conservative language machine? First, as a base, they can create a concretely defined narrative of the party platform. One that constituents can easily regurgitate, follow, and understand. A clear guiding strategy from which progressive politics can align itself with. Get ahead of conservatives, frame policies according to our goals and ideals before they are able to coin the issue. An important add-on for this, do not reuse a frames that Conservatives have coined, even in moments of convenience. Lakoff also puts a lot of emphasis on the usefulness of authenticity and taking the moral high ground.

Perhaps the most consequential argument that Lakoff has made in his writings for Progressives, is the need for a progressive frame in policy issues. In an interview Lakoff conducted about his book Don’t Think of an Elephant!, he stated that the policies progressives stand behind are actually: “positions and actions that most of the public supports, but absent appropriate “framing” [voters] often vote their fears instead of progressive beliefs”.(7) He argues that in order to maintain our base and gain more voters, our policy needs to be grounded in easily understood, comprehensive rhetoric that the average person can get behind. His support for this lies in the science of Cognitive Linguistics, in which, the connections between words in people’s brains have very specific functions. He claims that Progressives don’t understand this effect of language on people’s brains as well as Conservatives because while conservatives come from a background of marketing, progressives come from academic fields that lack this language component like: political science, public policy, law, and economics.(8)

For example, Lakoff’s response for progressives to combat the “tax-relief” frame of the conservative party is to reframe taxes into what they truly are: membership fee of being an American. Within this framework, he states that it is important to be upfront and name all the benefits of a taxation system. He encourages progressives to take an open and active approach at exposing the private industry’s reliance on public investments like infrastructure and cites Elizabeth Warren as a great example on how to do this. He further explains that: … most Democrats understand that “the private depends on the public,” namely, that public resources for all allow for private freedoms, whether in private enterprise or private life.

Republicans talk about freedom all the time, but the Democrats are the real party of freedom and need to say it. The truth of progressive freedoms is part of what we take for granted, so much part of the fabric of our lives that we don’t pay attention to it. Naming it makes you pay attention to it.(9) It seems that Lakoff’s main goal for the progressive party is to become more bold in the ideals they stand for, to have confidence in their values, and to clearly communicate that to the American people. Lakoff argues that progressive values are the true moral backbone of America, even if there are some who choose to deny that fact. He states, “Progressive values are the best of traditional American values. Stand up for your values with dignity and strength. You are a true patriot because of your values.”(10) With such a strong moral basis, progressive politicians are working against themselves by not leading first and foremost with moral values. Lakoff’s seemingly largest critique of progressive politics is the constant desire to lead with facts, figures, and high minded policy speak. In doing so, Lakoff states that Progressive politicians often lose the average voter who, at their core, is disinterested in such quantitative analysis and reasoning. Yes, it is good for policy to be informed by facts and figures, however, a voters main concern is the heart behind the policy maker—according to Lakoff.(11)

While Bill Clinton was regarded as one of the most personable and relatable presidents, Hillary Clinton was criticized for coming off as cold and leading with facts rather than heart.

While Bill Clinton was regarded as one of the most personable and relatable presidents, Hillary Clinton was criticized for coming off as cold and leading with facts rather than heart.

An important PR note which Lakoff seems to favor, never go on the defensive. A defensive posture immediately assumes a position of weakness. The ability to remain collected and appear on the offensive in the conversation is more likely to give the appeal of victory, therefore garnering large swaths of support. Lakoff states that because conservatives have “commandeered so much of the language”(12) surrounding political issues, progressives are often put in the position of defense by default. He argues in those moment, that it is most effective to stand on your moral platform. Lastly, he argues that in the face of negativity and adversity to always go with the moral high ground. He advises: “keep out of nasty exchanges and attacks. Keep out of shouting matches. One can speak powerfully without shouting.

Obama sets the pace: Civility, values, positivity, good humor, and real empathy are powerful. Calmness and empathy in the face of fury are powerful.”(13) He argues that this ability to be empathetic and show your true concern for American lives and values is the key to gaining support and gaining political victories.

In summary, Professor Lakoff makes 6 points that he believes will help Progressives take back the national conversation because they really do possess the moral high ground:

  • Create a concrete guiding ideology, that voters can easily follow.

  • DO NOT reuse the Conservative frame, in any situation. i.e. tax-relief, pro-life.

  • Never go on the defensive, it automatically makes you appear weak.

  • Frame issues from a Progressive perspective, before Conservatives get the chance.

  • Lead with values, the average American voter cares less for policy than it does for the policy maker.

  • Always take the moral high-ground. Think Michelle, “when they go low, we go high”

Notes (1) (2) (3) (4) (5) (6) (7) (8) (9) (10) (11) (12) (13)


Bonnie, and Azab Powell. "George Lakoff Tells How Conservatives Use Language to Dominate Politics." Accessed April 04, 2018.

"George Lakoff on The Obama Code." FiveThirtyEight. May 07, 2014. Accessed April 04, 2018.

Lakoff, George. "The Mind and the Obama Magic." The Huffington Post. May 25, 2011. Accessed April 04, 2018.

Winer, Dave. "Obama as Told by George Lakoff." The Huffington Post. December 07, 2017. Accessed April 04, 2018.

Mduenwald. "Deconstructing Obama." The New York Times. January 17, 2007. Accessed April 04, 2018.

"Framing the Dems." The American Prospect. Accessed April 04, 2018.

Kenen, Joanne, Natalie Villacorta, Jack Shafer, Edward-Isaac Dovere, and Theodoric Meyer. "The Selling of Obamacare 2.0." POLITICO. November 13, 2014. Accessed April 04, 2018.

White, Daphne. "Berkeley Author George Lakoff Says, 'Don't Underestimate Trump'." Berkeleyside. August 15, 2017. Accessed April 04, 2018.

"How to Respond to Conservatives." How to Respond to Conservatives - Rockridge Institute. Accessed April 04, 2018.

Lakoff, George. "Understanding Trump." George Lakoff. August 19, 2016. Accessed April 04, 2018.

Lakoff, George. "What Conservatives Really Want." George Lakoff. February 25, 2011. Accessed April 04, 2018.

Lakoff, George. "In Politics, Progressives Need to Frame Their Values." George Lakoff. November 29, 2014. Accessed April 06, 2018.


bottom of page