15 December, 2006Issue 6.1North AmericaPolitics & SocietyWorld Politics

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Linguists on George W. Bush

Michel Paradis

Geoffrey Nunberg
Talking Right: How Conservatives Turned Liberalism into a Tax-Raising, Latte-Drinking, Sushi-Eating, Volvo-Driving, New York Times-Reading, Body-Piercing, Hollywood-Loving, Left-Wing Freak Show
Public Affairs, 2006
304 pages
ISBN 1586483862

George Lakoff
Whose Freedom: The Battle over America’s Most Important Idea
Farrar Strauss & Giroux, 2006
288 pages
ISBN 0374158282

George Lakoff and Geoffrey Nunberg share many things in common. Both are linguists at the University of California at Berkley. Both take frequent occasion to write outside the academy on the intersection between language and culture. Both have recently authored books whose central question is familiar: where did American liberals go?

It is a troubling question for many liberals in America. For nearly sixty years, liberalism utterly dominated the American political conversation. From 1994 with the Contract with America and continuing in haste through the George W. Bush administration, voters kept both elected branches of American government firmly in the hands of conservatives. Even the recent electoral success of the Democrats was not achieved with a rousing chorus of the Internationale, but by fielding candidates (including some former Republicans), who ran on those old conservative chestnuts of reducing government spending and increasing accountability.

How could this have happened? There have been a series of books asking this question, most famously, Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter with America. Nunberg’s Talking Right and Lakoff’s, Whose Freedom? are neither author’s first volumes on modern American political discourse, but they do share a common supposition: by (un)scrupulously redefining the core vocabulary of political speech, conservatives have wrested control over the core ideas of America’s republican democracy: ‘values,’ ‘elite’ and, most of all, ‘freedom.’

Both books reveal their authors’ ability to analyze problems of great scope and minute detail that has made both widely read in their home field of linguistics. Nunberg’s is a far better crafted book, with his often drole style and penchant for making effective metaphors out of linguistic observations:

The contempt that American liberals have for Bush is very unlike the attitude of the Europeans, who tend to associate him uncritically with their age-old stereotypes of American boorishness … To liberals, the brush-cutting, g-dropping, “nucular”-challenged Bush seems to personify the larger game the right has been playing when it tricks itself out in the guise of just folks.

Nunberg is equally not reticent about lambasting the Democratic Party for thinking about their linguistics deficits shallowly and ineptly. In commenting on the Democrats’ slogan, ‘Together, Americans can do better,’ Nunberg gently points out that the it is not only vapid but ungrammatical. It is an apt icon ‘for the Democrats’ general failure to get their communicative act together, right down to an inability to get their adverbs and subjects to agree.’ Nunberg’s book is also further reaching, looking at how the language of race, class and values changed over the course of a twentieth-century that until recently had left conservatives silently out in the cold.

Lakoff can be forgiven for his much narrower focus on how all of these issues can and should be characterised by liberals in terms of freedom, since he has reached wider in recent titles such as Don’t Think of an Elephant and Moral Politics. Lakoff’s style is also sometimes rather jarring, with a too frequent use of bullet points that makes one feel as if one is reading either an early manuscript or a strategy memorandum.Indeed, since Lakoff himself is a key player in the liberal think tank, the Rockridge Institute, one senses that the book is designed to be a handbook for water-cooler arguments.

Lakoff’s core effort is to present how ‘freedom’ is characterised by what he sees as two competing conceptual ‘frames,’ a word that has gained currency as a talking point for the new Democratic Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. The notion of framing is one that he has worked on for many years and can best be summarised as deeply rooted, and fundamentally irrational, assumptions on which we contextualise and interpret daily experience. Frames can be temporary, so that in business, ruthless self-advancement is tolerated, if not encouraged, whereas such behavior in the frames of family and friendship simply makes you jerk. Or frames can be permanent, firmly fixed attitudes and associations brought to bear on everything from the way to raise one’s children to political choices.

Indeed, the connection between familial frames and political ones is Lakoff’s central thesis and one expounded in Moral Politics in considerable depth. Lakoff sees a dichotomy between what he terms the ‘nurturant parent’ frame and the ‘strict father’ frame, that respectively translate into the American liberal and conservative worldviews. The nurturant parent family emphasises that ‘the job of a parent is to nurture his or her children, and to raise the children to be nurturers of others,’ fostering the values of ‘empathy and responsibility,’ and ‘strength, competence, endurance, and so on.’ The strict father family, by contrast, emphasises that ‘the strict father is the moral authority in the family; he knows right from wrong, is inherently moral, and has the authority to be head of the household.’

Thus, in politics, the nurturant family calls for compassion and the betterment of the commonwealth, where the strict father calls for discipline and self-reliance. The nurturant family views problems in collective, systemic ways (such as cycles of poverty), whereas the strict father deals only in individual, direct, pull yourself up by your bootstraps responsibility. In terms of freedom, the lens through which Lakoff describes every contentious issue in contemporary American politics, this dichotomy roughly works out to Isaiah Berlin’s positive and negative liberties: do we seek to be free for something or from it?

The family-political connection certainly traces its roots to the Greeks and great political divides have routinely been described by social scientists in such terms. Perhaps the most ambitious work was Emmanuel Todd’s, Explanation for Ideology. Published in the mid-1980s, it was a globetrotting account of family demographics as the source of which countries lined up on either side of the Cold War. While much more limited in scope and expressly not aimed at explaining why someone would have one frame or the other, Lakoff’s political work is clearly within this tradition.

The difficulty with this analysis is that by Lakoff’s own account, conceptual frames are deeply rooted. They are the product of a lifetime’s experience, calcifying over time and, like language itself, creeping in development. If such deep frames were at the root of America’s ostensibly polarised political climate, how could it be that for most of the twentieth century, liberalism of the kind Lakoff advocates reigned virtually unchecked in America? The New Deal preceded Dr. Spock and the era of nurturant families. Richard Nixon, the epitome of a strict father, signed the laws that established the Environmental Protection Agency and expanded Social Security benefits for the poor. Ultimately, nurturant parents opposed and strict fathers favored Bill Clinton’s reform of welfare programs whose direct payouts came at the systemic cost of cultural listlessness.

These dichotomous frames, particularly about the family, show more about the power of characterization than any social forces at work. Any number of metaphors can draw different dichotomies, trichotomies and taxonomies of political life. The very effectiveness of vague value metaphors such as ‘freedom’ stems from their ability to evoke a wide and contradictory range of beliefs tied to a rhetorical core that sounds incontrovertible and noble. Even ‘red’ and ‘blue,’ an accident of the media coverage of the 2000 election, can be made to have inherent conceptual significance. ‘Red-blooded’ Americans oppose themselves to ‘blue-blooded’ coastal elites, even though ‘better dead than red’ was not likely to be heard on the Berkley campus in the 1960s.

According to Nunberg, ‘It’s a question of understanding that values themselves aren’t what motivate people; instead it’s the emotions evoked by the narratives that give values flesh.’ American conservatives have succeeded because they have been far better at deploying a common narrative that is vague enough to encompass disparate interests and repeated often enough to give it a resonance that stands in for coherence.

The American conservative mantra is two words, ‘personal responsibility.’ Those words do not express a value, but a narrative about values. Central to Nunberg’s thesis is that ‘personal responsibility’ and the word ‘values’ itself stand in for a populist narrative that can stir a hostility toward business regulation in the same breath as resentments toward a secular, urban lifestyle that rural Americans rarely encounter and mythologise as an ‘elite.’ Likewise, when Lakoff exalts the ‘commonwealth,’ he is not advancing a position as much as hoisting a linguistic standard for a party coalition of unions, trial lawyers and identity politics.

Political affiliation therefore becomes not a matter of ideology, not of values or frames as Lakoff uses them, but of brand. As Nunberg’s title indicates, this is expressed in consumer societies through fashion, recreation and the products we buy (though he points out Republicans are greater consumers than Democrats of brie cheese). The problem, he argues, is that liberals have not cultivated their own brand and fall into the trap of fecklessly co-opting the conservative one. ‘In the absence of an alternative populist narrative, or for that matter any compelling narrative at all, the Democrats’ invocations of “values” don’t have the same power to stir moral indignation the way the word does in Republican mouths, where values is just another word for “morals”.’

Indeed, Nunberg shows that ‘values’ is far more linked with ‘conservative’ than ‘liberal,’ even among newspapers commonly associated with the ‘liberal media.’ Lakoff as well looks into that linguistic microscope that is Google News to show that all sorts of conservative phraseology make it to press. What he does not point out is that liberal talking points appear just about as readily if not more. When I conducted my own experiment with the liberal counterparts to his conservative phrases, ‘tax relief’ does get 2580 hits, but ‘tax cuts’ gets 5540. Where ‘cut and run’ gets 1160 hits when paired with Iraq, ‘Vietnam’ gets 5090. Where ‘judicial activism’ gets 81 hits, ‘independent judiciary’ gets 255.

As Nunberg himself admits, lambasting the press for bias is the equivalent of working the ref. The American news media is an industry with a product. If that means presenting policy debate as a political boxing match, Democrats gain little by crying that they forgot their shorts.

What is unfortunate is that neither book delves meaningfully into the circumstances where political language moves more than polls. Linguists focus on media and electioneering because that is where the best data is, but political leaders most important political actions are often linguistic choices. As is brought out in Nanor Kebranian’s review in this issue, the Bush Administration was uniquely empowered to christen Darfur a ‘genocide.’ Equally, when President Bush rolls out phrases like ‘alternative set of procedures’ for interrogations and ‘illegal combatants,’ it inevitably implies that the rules for detainee treatment have changed. Words imply inevitable conclusions. That can be called a ‘frame’ or a ‘narrative’ or whatever you like, but government employees follow the expectations put on them political leaders because their jobs (if not lives) are at stake. The average voter does not.

As far as the language of retail politicking, American liberals do have a narrative problem and its roots are in 1932. The architects of the current Republican coalition were politically reared as a minority party that had to scrap and strategise for every vote. The current Democratic leadership came of age when it was unthinkable that Congress would ever be in anything by Democratic hands and is now left with a coalition whose centers of gravity have dispersed or evaporated completely.

Precisely because the Republican leadership has lost credibility as the center of their own coalition, Democrats will be returning to both Houses of Congress with a majority. They have done so in an intensely polarised political climate and in the face of endlessly repeated mantras about ‘cutting and running’ in the Iraq war and ‘taxing and spending’ at home. Exit polls show that the Democrats achieved this by winning over many demographics that went decidedly for President Bush in 2004, most notably evangelical Christians and white women. The failure of the Republican’s to persuade these demographics with their tried and true narrative and of the Democrats to come up with any frame at all may just be the sign that 2008 will be a much needed realignment.

Whose coalition grows and whose falls apart will depend on who realises what Neil Postman observed twenty-years ago. In his book on the cultural influence of television, Amusing Ourselves to Death, he argued that effective politics is not Orwellian but Huxlean. ‘New-speak’ has euphamism’s short shelf life and sustained political coalitions, such as that brought by the New Deal, go not to those who talk about hopes and dreams, but to those who satisfy them.

Michel Paradis is a DPhil student in linguistics at Balliol College, Oxford, and senior editor of The Oxonian Review of Books.