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Advice on successful propaganda from a left-winger

George Lakoff says, ‘Liberals do everything wrong’

“Progressives want to follow the polls … Conservatives don’t follow the polls; they want to change them. Political ground is gained not when you successfully inhabit the middle ground, but when you successfully impose your framing as the ‘common-sense’ position.”

If all political belief originates from one of two wellsprings, if the last thing you should do to propagate your belief is to water it down, if backing it up with facts just weakens it, what would a debate look like, in a world of perfectly understood frames?

It is, plainly, the longstanding failure to protect nature that powers Lakoff’s exasperation with liberals. “They don’t understand their own moral system or the other guy’s, they don’t know what’s at stake, they don’t know about framing, they don’t know about metaphors, they don’t understand the extent to which emotion is rational, they don’t understand how vital emotion is, they try to hide their emotion.

Unlike Professor Lakoff, I think that liberals (in the US sense of the word) propagate their ideas quite successfully, but his advice on framing seems well worth following.

28 comments to Advice on successful propaganda from a left-winger


    Good post (as usual) but please stop calling illiberal people ‘liberals’.

  • I would not trust Lakoff’s advice. His worldview is one in which you are either a conservative or a liberal (that is, socialist), and there are no other options—that is, specifically, he doesn’t even envision libertarianism as an option. I suppose if he thinks of it at all he envisions it as a splinter faction of extreme conservatism.

  • Tedd

    From the article, it’s difficult to tell what is Lakoff’s argument and what is Zoe Williams’s argument. Williams makes it sound as though Lakoff is attempting to use his linguistic theories to explain the straw men that each side puts up for the other. But I suspect that’s not quite what he means.

  • Lakoff is about as straightforwardly Manichaean a political thinker as you could ask. There is his party, which is the good guys, and there is a single other party, which is the bad guys. Having read some of his work on cognitive science with interest, I hoped to find some insight in his Moral Politics, but instead it was straight progressive propaganda.

  • David Moore

    I don’t think ‘liberals’ have ever made the mistake of backing up their narrative’s with actual facts. Those on the left from Toynbee to Krugman just makes the facts up as they go to reinforce the narrative.

  • Alsadius

    I’ve heard it said that liberals don’t understand conservatives, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen it so straightforwardly illustrated:

    “To liberals, a lot of conservative thinking seems like a failure of logic: why would a conservative be against equal rights for women and yet despise the poor, when to liberate women into the world of work would create more wealth, meaning less poverty? And yet we instinctively understand those as features of the conservative worldview, and rightly so.”

  • Andrew

    “I don’t think ‘liberals’ have ever made the mistake of backing up their narrative’s with actual facts.”

    Socialist, and one of the founders of syndicalism, Georges Sorel offered this advice: “If you place yourself on this ground of myths, you are proof against any kind of critical refutation.”

    And one of Marx’s tenets on spreading the word was that how a socialist utopia would work should never be explained.

    Not that some of their propaganda methods shouldn’t be studied – they do extraordinarily well for a cult with a track record of poverty and starvation.

  • chuck

    I think Lakoff is disappointed that we aren’t yet a totalitarian socialist state run by elite academics and philosopher kings. I also think he believes that the vision of such a state would be universally popular if presented honestly. I don’t think that is true, on the contrary, I think that ‘progressives’, nee communists, have been very successful by hiding their true aspirations and presenting themselves as ordinary liberal Democrats, an extinct species in my estimation. No doubt they bullshit themselves as easily as they do the ordinary voters, but that isn’t always a bad thing in politics.

  • Paul Marks

    If the nonaggression principle is correct people should be prepared to argue for it.

    And by “correct” I mean both in moral terms and in terms of practical effects.

    For example, either it is wrong for government (or private gangs) to use the threat of force to say “you may not employ that person at that wage” or it is not wrong.

    If it is wrong to threaten force to make wages a matter of government edicts (not supply and demand) then we should say it is wrong.

    Wrong both because it will increase unemployment, and because it is wrong (just wrong) to threaten violence (fines, imprisonment and so on) to forbid the employment of a person at a wage they have agreed to.

    “But we can not get elected talking like this”.

    Then the debate is already lost – the public have already accepted totalitarian “Social Justice” assumptions (as they seem to have done in most of Latin America) so civilisation will fall – if these assumptions are not challenged.

    “Wining the election” by following the same principles of the enemies of civilisation (whether they falsely call themselves “liberals” or not) is pointless – as it just means that “conservatives” preside over the fall of civilisation not “liberals”, civilisation still falls – the evil that is “Social Justice” still reduces everything to ashes and dried blood. And, besides, if the public really are convinced of the “Social Justice” case, they will vote for people who express their belief in it strongly – not “conservatives” who are just pretending to believe in it.

    If evil (the threat of violence to control other people – for the “good of the poor”) is the new good – then most people will support those who express support for evil with passion (as they do in most of Latin America).

    And if evil is to be rejected – it must be rejected with righteous passion (which is the way to get areas that have fallen to “Social Justice” back).

  • bloke in spain

    Interesting comment, Paul.
    I’m now going to change a line & see if you keep your opinion.

    “For example, either it is wrong for government (or private gangs) to use the threat of force to say “you must not refuse to employ that person of that race” or it is not wrong.”

  • BiS: Who employs who, for whatever reason, should not be the government’s business at all. I think anyone should be able to say “we do not employ blacks/whites/jews/muslims/christians/atheists/women/men/straights/gays/people who wear blue/etc etc…”

    … and I should be able to not do business with them if that offends me.

  • BIS,

    Sorry, but something like the Jim Crow laws could survive only as long as they did because they were, well, laws. They were enforced by the state using the threat of violence, just as the anti discrimination laws which replaced them are.

    That sort of nonsense, if not enforced by law, would last only so long as everyone, and I mean everyone, valued racial exclusivity more than they did making a bob. If individual firms start hiring the best person for the job, rather than judging by some other criterion, they would enjoy a competitive advantage which would flow through to the bottom line. Others would notice.

  • CaptDMO

    Polls, yeah.
    When I’m faced with emotional citations of “there oughta’ be a law, because (appeal to “intellectual” citation of “fairness”, backed by “90% of people SAY”, I usually ask folks to look up the word “Intellectual” in the dictionary, as well as ask what the IQ of 50% those poll respondents is?

    “9 out of ten of the doctor’s surveyed say….”
    Excessive pouting ensues before they move on to corner less critical victims, with the same drivel, only LOUDER.

  • bloke in spain

    Hey! nFelines, Mr deH. I’m not arguing with you. But “the State should stay out of things” spiel is so often followed by “I didn’t mean things like that. I mean…well…it’s obvious. Things like that just have to be enforced. For all our good. It’s …er… natural justice…or something”

  • Yeah Bloke, obviously you and Paul are both new here, and you never read his opinions on this.

  • Paul Marks

    No bloke in spain – my view remains the same.

  • Ebenezer Flamsteed

    Two things struck me about the article (and yes it was hard to tell who was actually doing the talking there). First was the smug assurance that Lakoff and the left’s views were superior and that this was beyond argument. Very typical of the Guardian.

    Second, though, was the absolute lack of substance. Lakoff seems to be saying that it doesn’t matter what you’re saying, it’s just how you say it. Shows why it’s so hard to get a leftie to discuss real facts and policies. Let’s remember that Detroit tried this in the 70s — their cars were crap but they convinced themselves that if the sales pitch was good enough it didn’t matter. You can see how that worked out. At some point you have to deal with reality, regardless of the frame/sales pitch.

  • Russ in Texas

    Lakoff’s been hitting his “Framing” argument forever and ever – he gets some press every few years, but I’ve always basically considered him a rube, the sort who thinks rhetoric actually sways politics. I’ve yet to see the foggiest evidence that “framing” arguments has even the slightest ability to affect an argument which is based on peoples’ perception of their own interests.

  • TDK

    The most successful example of Framing in recent years was Theresa May agreeing that Conservatives are the nasty party.

  • bloke in spain

    Alisa. Oh I have. Repeatedly. Call it an attempt to riff of the OT & point out the name of the game is to get elected. The progressive left has been successful in this because they do understand that’s the name of the game. Opinions with out power are just opinions.

  • Paul Marks

    bloke in spain.

    If to “get elected” you have to support leftist polices that is the road to where we have are.

    The point is to win people over to your way of seeing things – not to copy the left.

    Copy the left and, in effect, you ARE the left.

    See Richard Nixon and Edward Heath.

  • bloke in spain

    Paul. You’re as bad as Perry. The point is use the left’s tactics to your agenda. Or do you prefer libertarianism to remain as a discussion subject for intellectuals with time on their hands

  • Paul Marks

    bloke in spain.

    Some of their tactics perhaps – but a lot of the left’s tactics will only produce the left’s results (as the tactics are designed to produce those results).

    There are a only a few tactical things we can pick up from the left that will work for us.

    That means we are going to use different tactics – because we want different results.

    For example…..

    Instead of promising people stuff at the expense of others (the classic leftist move even before Pericles – for example Cyrus the Great promised the Persians stuff at the expense of the Medes). Go straight to the darkest fears……

    The fears (that are quite justified) that civilisation is a thin surface lawyer – over a pit of molten lava.

    That humans are only ever a few days away from savagery, chaos and starvation.

    That only be constant effort can the forces of darkness be held back (let alone driven back).

    Yes people have their vile corrupt side – that is why the tactics of the left work.

    But they also have a heroic side (for example most people will suffer a lot for the sake of their children) – that is the side of their nature that the truth appeals to.

    If we are bold enough to tell them truth.

    Calmly (yes – calmly) tell the people the truth – that the threat to their children is real, but there are things they can to fight it.

  • bloke in spain

    Paul. People don’t want the truth. Have never wanted the truth. Ask them to confront the truth & they’ll run a mile. So you’re on a hiding to nothing trying to sell it to them. They’ll buy the more comfortable lie. If you want to sell them the truth it’s like any medicine. Sugar it.

  • Laird

    That’s a pretty cynical position, Bloke, but I think there’s a lot of truth to it. Emotion “sells” far better than reason.

  • I think it not wise to assume that one approach fits all – and by ‘all’ I mean both speakers and audience. Some people are better at emotional approach, and are likely to be better received by people who better “connect” with it. Others are better at rational arguments, and so they would naturally drawn to others who better connect on that level. There’s more than one way to get from here to there.

  • bloke in spain

    @ Laird
    The vast majority of people think in narratives. They’re conditioned to it from nursery stories, fairy tales, the bible right up to films, books, soap operas on TV. Simple stories with simple messages. Heroes, villains, ugly sisters, the works. Unattached facts cannot work, however true, if they buck the narrative requirement. It’s something the left really do understand. If libertarians want to promote libertarianism it has to be presented in a narrative structure. Yes. I know that’s diametrically opposed to a rationalist perspective. Worry about that when you’ve sold it. If you don’t sell it, you don’t get to have the problem, anyway.

  • bloke in spain

    Rational argument is childs’ play. That’s why it’s done in the kindergartens of universities. Selling ideas is grown up stuff.