Lakoff Part Deux

Professor Robinson brought up some <a href=”″>great points</a> in his comments about my last post regarding <a href=””>George Lakoff</a>. I would like to address them and other issues that have crept up over the past couple weeks.

<em>”…the real debates are not about frames–they are about fundamental policies.”</em>

Professor Robinson is right, the real debate is about fundamental policies. The debate between Democrats and Republicans are fundamentally about the differences in policies. We have no need here, to rehash the differences, as long as we take as fact, that there are differences. The differing policy positions truly determine how someone is going to lead and what they are going to do while in office. This is probably the most vital functions of elections. Determining which policy position is the correct one. I would challenge the majority of people to tell us the last person to win the office president who focused their campaigns on policy positions.

Kerry and Gore focused their campaigns on policy, Bush didn’t. Clinton, Dole and Bush Sr. did not focus on policy. While Clinton did not focus on policy issues he did touch on it. Bush Sr. in 1988 did not focus on policy Dukakis did. Reagan spoke very generally about policy but was more focused on ideas and vision. As far back as most people would like to go, the winning presidential candidate’s focus was not on policy.
The American people unfortunately have a history of voting for people who are not focused on policy. The general consensus is that Bush Jr. won two terms because he was somebody people <a href=””>wanted to have a beer with</a>, Clinton was a charmer and had a silver tongue he was able to present a vision which people believed in and clung to:

Bush Sr., was someone that people trusted was a continuation to continue the Reagan legacy. None of these Presidents focused on policy, instead they all won election from something far more intangible, they won because they were able to “argue” that they were the best man for the job. They were able to “frame ” an argument in which the majority of the populace (excepting Bush Jr. in 2000) that they were the “correct” person to lead the country. To convince a large group of people that they are the cight person for the job, the candidates had to campaign in way to alienate the least number of voters. Often people talk about being disappointed that they had to vote for the<a href=”;jsessionid=E82DC2AEC0DDD5D47E9482627A9B522B.tomcat1?fromPage=online&amp;aid=105425#”&gt; lesser of two evils</a>. In reality, this is by design.

Lakoff argues that the Democrats have the progressive ideals that people crave. He also argues that the Democrats have forwarded policies which aggressive enough to capture most of the left but not so progressive that it alienates those people in the center. I would argue that the democrats ideas and policies have been the right policies for each particular moment in history. That however does not change the fact that over the past thirty to forty years, the democrats have been on the losing side of the vast majority of presidential elections. I believe that both Lakoff and I would argue that the lack of winning is not because the policy proposals are bad or not good enough; instead these losses are directly attributable to a lack of communicating these policies in a way which is easily conformable to <a href=””>sound-bites</a&gt;.

A political sound-bite is not a way of communicating policies but instead a way of communicating ideas. The key is to frame the policy in a way that the ever present <a href=””>fourth estate</a>, will decide to use in their own interests. For instance, a policy proposal on taxes will in some way effect every American. Realistically, something that is going to affect all Americans is going to be fairly lengthy. Something that is short enough to fit into a 8 to 30 second sound-bite is unlikely to contain or able to communicate a policy proposal.

Politics today largely come down to these sound-bites. As a result policy can only be on the periphery of the discussion. While it is the most important part of the discussion, it is in no way influential enough. Instead it is more important to frame the policy debate in a way which will receive the most electoral votes. This is done through framing sound-bites and framing an argument which reaches beyond the base. A presidential candidate has to frame themselves not as the best person for the job; instead they must frame themselves as a better person for the job then their opponent. This, in successful presidential campaigns, is done through framing the argument to promote themselves and/or denigrating their opponent/s.


Filed under McCain, Media, Negative Campaigning, Obama, Voter Demographics

4 responses to “Lakoff Part Deux

  1. Lance Thibert

    American politics has never been about policy, it’s always been about personality, “sound bites”, and smear tactics.

    Don’t believe me? The race between Jefferson and Adams was one of the nastiest in history, Adams accused Jefferson of being an atheist and an anarchist who slept with his slaves. Jefferson accused Adams of wanting to return American to Britain, or become king himself.

    Many presidents were elected off of rhymes, which were big in the 1800s. Things like “Tippicanoe and Tyler too” were the sound bites of their day. “fifty four or fight” was also what led to the modern boundary of the northeast, however a saying is hardly policy, but it sounded good.

    Personalities such as Andrew Jackson, Teddy Roosevelt, and Grant have always played a larger role in campaigns than policy, as personality turns out votes, policy doesn’t. (see: George McGovern.)

  2. Stephen Noriega

    I feel compelled to defend the boring yet effective presidents of our history. James Polk, the president responsible for the greatest acquisition of territory since the Louisiana Purchase, is not praised for his personality but for his ability to achieve administration objectives. Woodrow Wilson was nothing compared to the mega-personality of Theodore Roosevelt yet he served two terms and completed major institutional changes that remain today.

    I would argue that most people who run for president have charisma. In the good ole days, charisma was dispensed from the back of a train on exhaustive tours. Now it is planes and Google. I do think it is more intense now with our immediate gratification society. We are definitely more peacock and less policy.

  3. Shawn_Scanlon

    With regard to Polk; wasn’t Manifest Destiny essentially a soundbyte? Despite Polk’s supposed lack of charisma, the ideology of Manifest Destiny was quite powerful, and had an extremely simplistic message behind it.

    While he may not have coined the term, he certainly followed its premises. Many may see him as effective, but Polk makes me disappointed: I’m not terribly proud of America’s march to the Pacific.

    I know, off-topic. My sinceres.

  4. Tony Robinson

    I fundamentally disagree with Lance’s allegations and others that politics in America is always about sound bites and not about policy preferences. Here is evidence for my claims that policy and serious ideological differences are the core of political choices by the electorate–not simply sound bites and ignorant responses to images on TV, etc.

    1) This election. Voters are well aware of fundamental policy differences between the candidates on taxes, economic reform, Iraq, etc. And they voted that policy. I don’t believe the story of this election is simply that Obama looked better on TV and spoke better. Something more serious is going on.

    2) If it were all about sound bites, then why are there a deep and enduring divides in the electorate between black voters and white voters, between middle to upper income voters and poor voters. Lower income, non-white voters consistently vote DEM by large margins. Upper-income, White voters consistently break GOP. If its all soundbites, why is it that black and white, rich and poor respond differently to the moronic/meaningless soundbite? They don’t. What’s really going is that people understand which party best speaks to their self-interest, to their historic identity, and their needs and they vote that way. Affluent people know that with the GOP they will get a larger share of the national pie and have lower taxes; poor folk and minorities know that the Dems are more attuned to their needs. The masses are not asses, and they can actually vote their interests.

    3) American National Election Survey Data and many other long-term national tracking polls show that Americans turned a(way from a desire for large government social spending and from taxation during the late 1970s and through the 1980s–and that’s when the GOP rose to power. REcent ANES data (many of you looked at it for the workbook in this class) shows fundamental american values changing. Americans are more willing to support increased taxes for new social programs. Surprise, surprise, the Dems are rising to power.

    The rise to power of the Dems is NOT because they have better sound bites. It’s not because they are suddenly “framing” issues better and talking about their values more persuasively (a la Lakoff). It’s because the fundamental values of voters are changing (in response to REAL changes in the world and the economy such as climate change, iraq and economic crisis) and because of REAL changes in underlying demographics of the electorate who generally understand who best butters their bread.

    That’s how I see it.

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