Thursday, December 7, 2006

Framed: George Lakoff argued, persuasively, that in the aftermath of the 2004 election, what mattered more than anything in politics was the way in which facts were framed. But the journal Democracy argues, in their Fall 2006 issue, that Lakoff's argument runs aground when you consider… well, facts:

Yet, as critics pointed out in reviewing his first book, there is a limit to how much analysis can fit into a frame; facts do matter. Lakoff is blind to this truth. For example, here's my favorite of Lakoff's assertions masquerading as facts: He blithely assures us that the percentage of "strongly progressive Democrats" equals that of "strongly conservative Republicans"-roughly 35 to 40 percent. Alas, surveys consistently show that conservatives outnumber liberals by a margin of at least three to two and have done so for the past three decades. According to the National Election Survey, liberals hover around 20 percent of the population, while conservatives typically score in the low 30s. The remainder (45 to 50 percent) describe themselves as moderate. This asymmetry, a basic structural feature of contemporary politics, helps define the arithmetic of party competition at the national level. Because the Democrats' base is so much smaller than that of the Republicans, they must win not just a majority, but a supermajority, of the voters in between. John Kerry received almost all the liberal vote and about 55 percent of the moderates; it wasn't enough. Unless conservatives are so demoralized that they don't turn out, Democrats need upward of 60 percent of the moderate vote. And a Berkeley-style "progressive" agenda is unlikely to get them there.

In addition to ignoring facts, Lakoff underestimates their power; facts can-and do-trump frames. Take Iraq. No war has ever been more deliberately framed than the 2003 U.S. invasion, and it initially enjoyed strong public support. But facts on the ground proved inconsistent with the expectations the Bush Administration's frames had engendered. Weapons of mass destruction were nowhere to be found; our troops were not greeted as liberators; and Iraqis seemed more interested in settling ethno-religious scores that in embracing the democracy we so earnestly proffered. And, famously, the "mission" turned out to be anything but "accomplished." As the months went by and reality sank in, Americans turned against the war in droves.

Lakoff believes that Chico-style politicians can get away with their misdeeds indefinitely, if only they frame them correctly. But they can't; they can deny reality for only so long before citizens begin trusting the evidence of their own senses.

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