Freedom isn’t just another word for winning elections.
There is a scene in the Marx Brothers’ film Duck Soup in which Mrs. Teasdale (the redoubtable Margaret Dumont), believing she is alone, begins undressing. When Chicolini (Chico Marx) emerges from under her bed, the following exchange ensues:
Mrs. Teasdale: I thought you left.
Chicolini: Oh no. I don’t leave.
Mrs. Teasdale: But I saw you leave with my own eyes.
Chicolini: Well, who you gonna believe, me or your own eyes?
George Lakoff is on Chico’s side. To the Berkeley linguist-cum-Democratic guru, what matters are not the facts, but the frames through which the facts are viewed. As he assures us in his new book, Whose Freedom?, “frames trump facts”–that, if facts are inconsistent with frames, they will be ignored. In his view, what ails progressives is that conservatives are far more aware of their guiding assumptions and more self-conscious about using language to “frame” issues to their advantage–regardless of the facts. To regain effectiveness, then, progressives must fight fire with fire. Instead of arguing the facts, Lakoff says, they must substitute their frame for that of the conservatives and reclaim the concept of freedom–in his words, “America’s most important idea.”
Lakoff is entirely correct in placing freedom at the center of American identity and politics, yet like Chico, he ignores reality and only endorses as facts the assertions that are consistent with his worldview. Whose Freedom? could have been a provocative book from one of the few members of academia with real influence on Democratic leaders; instead, it is a jerry-rigged polemic built to fit Lakoff’s political agenda. And that’s a shame, because progressives can–and should–enter the debate about what freedom means in America today.
Lakoff’s analysis–as previously laid out in his best-selling Don’t Think of an Elephant! Know Your Values and Frame the Debate–has proved appealing to many Democrats. Its underlying message is reassuring: Forget about rethinking anything except your rhetoric; there’s nothing wrong with the party that a more self-conscious and aggressive articulation of the progressive frame can’t cure. Indeed, Lakoff dominated the post-2004-election post-mortems and was showered with invitations to brief Democratic lawmakers and strategists.
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.
While his approach in answering the question “Whose Freedom?” is deeply flawed, Lakoff’s point of departure–that freedom “defines what America is”–is one with which I agree. It was no accident that Franklin D. Roosevelt described the Allies’ war aims as the “four freedoms.” It was to ensure the survival and success of liberty that John F. Kennedy declared that we were prepared to “pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe.” Yet during the past generation, as liberals and progressives have abandoned the language of freedom in favor of justice, equality, and diversity, conservatives have appropriated it. Freedom, at home and abroad, was the theme of George W. Bush’s second inaugural address, which Lakoff rightly regards as a document meriting close analysis. In response, thinkers who cannot accept the conservative interpretation of freedom, such as University of Arizona political scientist John Schwarz, are trying to take back the term. Lakoff argues (and again I agree) that the definition of freedom has become a matter of political contestation and is now “up for grabs.”
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