Survival of the Fittest and Why Language Matters

By Bobbie Kithcart (LD22)

I went to bed early on election night. I dreaded what was coming and wanted to postpone the beginning of my anxious suffering. You see, I’m married to a Republican Trump supporter.

The months following the election were difficult for us as we navigated the reality of a Trump presidency. We were both so firmly entrenched in our ideologies every talk triggered a lethal rant or tortured, desperate defense. We had no way to discuss issues effectively. So, I became a student of all things Conservative and discovered Conservatives are much better at articulating and supporting their ideology.

Shortly after, I met someone at an AZBLUE 2020 meeting who spoke about the war of language between conservatives and progressives. He shared examples of the succinct simplicity of conservative-speak opposed to rambling, policy-wonk progressive-speak. Frankly, my attention drifted hearing my own party’s descriptions, overwhelmed by facts, measurements, nuance, and caveats.

Clearly, conservatives use language far more effectively than progressives, but how? For that, I had to turn to George Lakoff, the “Father of Framing.”

Lakoff, a retired professor of cognitive science and linguistics at UC Berkeley, demonstrates the technique behind successful framing in the title of his updated book, “Don’t Think of an Elephant.” What do you think of when you read that title? Is it an elephant? Even though he just told you not to think of one? Duh!

That’s exactly the type of impulse behind some of the most successful political framing. Lakoff describes his purpose in writing the book to make the “unconscious conscious, to find out and let the world know what is determining our social and political behaviors.” I had finally found someone who could teach me the why and how of debating politics with my own husband and, if done right, how to shape the progressive message in a way that is clear, compelling, and aligned with our social conditioning.

Framing is not just catchy marketing slogans. Good political framing activates the familial and cultural conditioning to which we are exposed. It evokes feelings surrounding authority, responsibility, power—ideas fundamental to our moral development. When a member of Congress puts forth a bill, the inherent meaning is the bill is right, good, moral. And when parents raise their children, they raise them according to a similar moral code, their values.

Expanding on that familial analogy, Lakoff describes the framing differences between “strict father” conservatives and “nurturant” progressives.

As a conservative parent there are a set of assumptions that Lakoff dubs, the “strict father” model of parenting. Some basic tenets of this conservative frame are:

  • The strict father will protect the family, support the family, and teach children right from wrong.
  • The world is dangerous and will always be because there is evil in the world.
  • There is an absolute right and wrong and the supreme strict father is our guide, the Almighty.
  • Children are born bad and just want to feel good, not do what is right. They need discipline, even punishment, and if they don’t learn from that discipline—then they have made their bed and can sleep in it.
  • There are winners and losers, and the strict father is there to tell you how to be a winner in this competitive world; it is up to you to discipline yourself to follow those critical steps.

The strict father is the moral authority and that authority sets up the innate hierarchy in life. Lakoff explains those hierarchies as, “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, America above other countries. The hierarchy extends to: men above women, whites above non-whites, Christians above non-Christians, straights above gays.”

The strict father model is grounded in personal responsibility, with prosperity representing the reward for self-discipline. In this frame, it is moral to pursue your self-interest. And, if you are not a disciplined person you don’t deserve wealth or success.

So, you see, conservatives view people on social welfare systems as undisciplined, and therefore undeserving, dependent, and unworthy. That’s why they see social programs as wasteful spending and something for which they should not have to pay. It doesn’t exist within their neurological frame so talking to them about it in progressive terms like fairness, equity, and freedom, just doesn’t register. It’s like speaking a foreign language.

Often, progressives will pass social programs by explaining their worth not in human terms, but in economic terms. For instance, how Obama co-opted the language of commerce to pass the Affordable Care Act.

Conservatives are for some government programs—those that reinforce authority like the military and national security, and those programs that maximize self-interest like corporation-friendly trade and taxation. (The reason you don’t want any “shit-hole” nations in your backyard, to quote our illustrious 45th president.)

Progressives, surprise, use the exact opposite neurological frames, because they are hard-wired into our brains; more about that later. Lakoff contrasts the concerted, self-interested or self-responsible model of conservatives with the nurturant parent frame of progressives. The set of assumptions in the nurturant parent model are:

  • The nurturant parent worldview is gender neutral, so both parents are responsible for raising the children.
  • Children are born good and can be made better with guidance.
  • The world can be made a better place and our job is to work on that.
  • The nurturant parent job is to raise their children to be nurturers of others.
  • Nurturance means three things: empathy, responsibility for yourself and others, and a commitment to do your best not just for yourself, but for your family, community, country, and the world.

Progressives are about social responsibility rather than self-responsibility. As you can see these are polar opposites. It’s no wonder it’s so hard to converse across the aisle!

For nurturant parents, empathy leads to other values. Lakoff describes how when you empathize with your child you provide protection which is a value that comes to play in our politics. We want to protect workers, consumers, and citizens with regulations, from seat belts to smoking, environmental protections to removing poisonous food additives. Protection from terrorist acts is important as well, but progressives haven’t articulated their “protective framing” as well as conservatives’ “authoritative framing.”

With empathy guiding ideology it is no surprise progressives want safety nets and programs to help people reach their full potential. If you empathize with your child, you want them to be fulfilled and happy. Your moral responsibility is to model this happy and fulfilled role as a parent. There are other nurturant values like freedom, opportunity, prosperity, fairness, honest and open communication, community building and trust.

As Lakoff says, “if you are a progressive you know you have these” and you also know there is no electrical circuitry in your brain for the other side’s frames! And, physically there isn’t. Boom! There it is! Your brain activates when presented with the framing that aligns with your perception of the world. Neurons that wire together, fire together!

But what if you fall in the middle? The independent who works across the aisle? Lakoff describes them as biconceptuals who hold both values, so either frame can activate depending on the language used around them. For example, some fathers are very strict at home but are nurturant at work within their Unions. Often these values manifest in different parts of their lives.

From a brain physiology perspective, these persons cannot hold both frames in their brain at the same time, and have to switch back and forth between them. Therefore, they can be influenced to accept nurturant values if you speak from the areas where they are nurturant, and connect that framing to political ideals. It’s the reason Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump can both energize someone who feels like they are being left behind in a rapidly globalizing society, but with radically different ideas for how to remedy that situation.

As I learned this, it was clear my husband was more bi-conceptual than strictly conservative. So, I practiced how to speak to him using language that would evoke his nurturant feelings specific to political issues. Understanding how to counteract that ingrained, unconscious framing gave me hope for our current polarized, political situation.

There is a great deal to absorb and implement if Progressives are to appeal to a wide range of individuals and shake the “elitist” moniker. Hopefully this blog presents a framework for how to begin doing so.

Deep entrenchment of these frames within the brain’s physical wiring is the why and how of our political polarization. But with Lakoff’s guidance, you now possess a foundation for how to mold the political discussion in a way that continuously activates progressive, nurturant ideals through the strategic use of language.

Now you know why people voted against their self-interest in the last election. People don’t vote for policies, facts, or programs! They vote for whom they identify as sharing their values.

One word of caution from Lakoff: if we do not unify as progressives and repetitively state our shared frames in every public discourse—like conservatives do—winning elections will continue to elude us. Lakoff helped me to understand why we must work together to create frames based on our unifying values and address the myths that prevent us from framing properly. Hopefully he got you thinking about your values and how you might start to frame them.

The next time you hear a candidate speak, listen for their frames.

Whirled Peas, Please.