FRAMING….On Tuesday Digby wrote a post about George Lakoff’s view that conservatives are really good at framing issues to favor themselves while liberals are really bad at it. Matt Yglesias linked to Digby’s piece and I posted this comment at Matt’s site:

Maybe I just don’t know enough about Lakoff, but my main problem with him is that he doesn’t seem to have much concrete advice. It’s all very well to say that we need to do a better job of framing issues — and I agree — but then you need to step up to the plate and come up with some good ideas. I’m not sure I’ve seen him do that.

In response I’ve gotten half a dozen emails pointing me to this interview with Lakoff and wondering what I thought of it. The thing is, it was that interview that inspired my comment in the first place. Here are a few excerpts:

  • On taxes: “There’s actually a whole other way to think about it. Taxes are what you pay to be an American, to live in a civilized society that is democratic and offers opportunity, and where there’s an infrastructure that has been paid for by previous taxpayers.”

  • On the California energy debacle: “The so-called energy crisis in California should have been called Grand Theft. It was theft, it was the result of deregulation by Pete Wilson, and Davis should have said so from the beginning.”

  • On gay marriage: “‘Marriage’ is about sex. When you say ‘gay marriage,’ it becomes about gay sex, and approving of gay marriage becomes implicitly about approving of gay sex. And while a lot of Americans don’t approve of gay sex, that doesn’t mean they want to discriminate against gay people. Perfectly rational position. Framed in that way, the issue of gay marriage will get a lot of negative reaction. But what if you make the issue ‘freedom to marry,’ or even better, ‘the right to marry’? That’s a whole different story.”

I’m not trying to rag on Lakoff, but these ideas sound surprisingly naive for a guy who specializes in this topic. It’s not that I disagree with the importance of framing, or with Lakoff’s contention that Democrats tend to run campaigns based on a laundry list of programs instead of on general values, it’s just that his framing examples don’t seem very realistic to me. They just won’t work. (Like some other commenters, I’m not a fan of his “strict father/nurturant parent” metaphor either, but that’s a different subject entirely.)

Now, from my own work as a marketing guy I’m well aware that this kind of thing is really hard and has a helluva long lead time, so Lakoff is doing everyone a favor just by raising our awareness that we have to think harder about this stuff. Still, after everyone’s gotten the message we’re still going to need some concrete ideas, and if your notion of a concrete idea is to convince Americans that they should be happy to pay taxes ? well, it just isn’t going to work.

I do agree that Democrats should spend more time developing a core set of values to talk about and then figuring out good ways to frame and promote those values. But the framing needs to be based on a brutally honest examination of what people respond to, not on a fuzzy notion of what liberals wish people responded to.

Humans respond best to fundamental appeals to:

  • Fairness ? everyone should be treated equally

  • Territoriality ? it’s my property to do with as I please

  • Group identity ? us vs. them

  • Aversion to being taken advantage of ? punish the cheaters

  • Family ? protect the kids at all costs

Republicans appeal to these basic motivations in their stands on (respectively) affirmative action, taxes, national defense, welfare, and inheritance taxes. Regardless of our differing policy positions, and regardless of our appeals to our better natures, Democrats better make sure we also cover our bases on appealing to these basic human desires. If we don’t, it’s going to be an uphill battle every time.