Politics of Language

by Ross Silverman on July 26, 2004

On Friday, George Lakoff of the Rockridge Instutute appeared on NOW with Bill Moyers to discuss the need for Progressives to improve their ability to get their message out to the American people. Specifically, he says they must develop the ability to counter Conservatives’ ruthless efficiency and almost fanatical devotion to Staying On Message. In spite of the fact that the message may use terms which define something completely contrary to what they propose to do, Conservatives’ ability to claim the language in which the debate will take place both puts Progressives on the defensive and diminishes how the left’s position looks in the eyes of the public. Lakoff, who has written about this issue in The American Prospect, calls this “framing,”

On the day that George W. Bush took office, the words “tax relief” started appearing in White House communiqués. Think for a minute about the word relief. In order for there to be relief, there has to be a blameless, afflicted person with whom we identify and whose affliction has been imposed by some external cause. Relief is the taking away of the pain or harm, thanks to some reliever.

This is an example of what cognitive linguists call a “frame.” It is a mental structure that we use in thinking. All words are defined relative to frames. The relief frame is an instance of a more general rescue scenario in which there is a hero (the reliever), a victim (the afflicted), a crime (the affliction), a villain (the cause of affliction) and a rescue (the relief). The hero is inherently good, the villain is evil and the victim after the rescue owes gratitude to the hero.

The term tax relief evokes all of this and more. It presupposes a conceptual metaphor: Taxes are an affliction, proponents of taxes are the causes of affliction (the villains), the taxpayer is the afflicted (the victim) and the proponents of tax relief are the heroes who deserve the taxpayers’ gratitude. Those who oppose tax relief are bad guys who want to keep relief from the victim of the affliction, the taxpayer.

Every time the phrase tax relief is used, and heard or read by millions of people, this view of taxation as an affliction and conservatives as heroes gets reinforced.

The phrase has become so ubiquitous that I’ve even found it in speeches and press releases by Democratic officials — unconsciously reinforcing a view of the economy that is anathema to everything progressives believe. The Republicans understand framing; Democrats don’t.

Another example he pointed to on the show concerned the Bush Administration’s environmental policy. Bush touts “common sense regulations,” which is short hand for saying: “We don’t need to consult environmental experts (who almost universally oppose what we’re trying to do.” But it carries a compelling double message — we’re doing something straightforward, and those who oppose it are not using common sense. He also described how calling the elimination of terrorist threates to the US “The War on Terror” grants the President a nearly insurmountable PR and psychological advantage when it comes to national defense issues.

Frank Luntz is widely credited with honing Conservatives’ abilities in this area (see this Daily Show clip for how effectively the Right uses the media to disseminate their talking points and generate their brand of “conventional wisdom”). And, until recently, there hasn’t been much of an answer to this by the Progressives. Lakoff, by creating Progressive Frames for public policy issues, hopes he and the Rockridge Institute can become to the Dems what Luntz has become for the Republicans.

But that doesn’t mean that all of the heavy lifting has to be done by Lakoff, it just means that, once adopted, every Progressive discussing the issue should use the same vocabulary.

One of the planks of John Kerry’s platform is “Affordable Health Care for All,” and this is an admirable goal. However, I’m not sure that “Affordable Health Care for All” goes far enough to create a nearly-irrefutable frame for arguing in favor of universal and just access to quality care for all Americans.

While this phrase has not been poll tested, I’d like to propose Health Freedom as a defining Progressive phrase to represent the broad concepts of eliminating disparities in care and ensuring affordable, quality access to care for all Americans. I think this also creates a psychological barrier to opposition — how can anyone be against Health Freedom?

However, feel free to use the comments to offer your own suggestions. I can’t think of a better blog at which to discuss how to create a new language for Progressive policy makers. In a few days, I’ll take some of the suggestions and put up a poll at my site. I’m not particularly wed to my suggestion, I’d just like to see all Progressives adopt the same terms when discussing this critical issue.



Fakeo Nameo 07.26.04 at 6:32 pm

Health Freedom is a good theme.
Health Security is another option, to link with Social security and Homeland security. Maybe Medical security is a little more narrow to limit the “big government” implications of health security.


Andrew Edwards 07.26.04 at 6:49 pm

Health Freedom is really good…

What about “Defense”? That way you imply an attacker too.

“Defending America’s Health”

“Conserving Health”?

Preliminary thoughts on other issues…

Pro-Choice ==> Defending Families’ Choices
Gay Marriage ==> Responsibility and Stability for all Americans
Steeply Progressive Taxation ==> Rich and Poor, Working Together
Massive Education Spending ==> Putting Value on Our Values?


Andrew Edwards 07.26.04 at 6:52 pm

That formatted all wrong…

Pro-Choice – Defending Families’ Choices
Gay Marriage – Responsibility and Stability for all Americans
Steeply Progressive Taxation – Rich and Poor, Working Together
Massive Education Spending – Putting Value on Our Values?


DC 07.26.04 at 6:57 pm

You could almost envision an add with someone drinking Sprite: “Ahhhh…tax relief.” How about “life relief” for the death penalty?

But seriously, rather than thinking up the best counter propaganda, how about promoting honest language?


Andrew Levine 07.26.04 at 7:00 pm

See, why aren’t YOU the Edwards on the ticket? Those are all great.

And I’d propose “Freedom From Illness” instead of “Health Freedom.” Health is a nice word and all, but most people in America fear illness more than they appreciate health, so “freedom from illness” comes off with more impact and is a little less blah in my opinion.

A candidate who runs on “Health Freedom” sounds like he’s merely concerned about healthcare; a candidate promising “Freedom from Illness” sounds like a savior.


Andrew Levine 07.26.04 at 7:08 pm

Of course, “illness” doesn’t encompass things like simple check-ups or fractures, but that’s a failing of the English language, which doesn’t have a good punchy word for “state of lacking healthcare.”

Another point in favor of “Freedom from Illness” which I forgot to mention is the way it evokes Roosevelt; the point is to get people to start thinking of healthcare as a human right as essential as freedom of speech or religion.


sennoma 07.26.04 at 7:33 pm

how about promoting honest language?

1. Because it won’t work. Honest language is not simple and direct and memorable enough to be heard above the flood of GOP soundbites. Honest language requires more than snappy phrases, and I think the GOP has shown that snappy phrases are the gold standard in Getting The Message Out.

2. The suggestions above are a good deal more honest than things like “Clean Skies” — in fact, how is “Freedom From Illness” or “Responsibility and Stability for all Americans” dishonest? I’ll admit that “Rich and Poor, Working Together” for “steeply progressive taxation” is not so direct. How about “Fair and Balanced Taxation” instead?


Andrew Levine 07.26.04 at 7:47 pm

How about “Fair and Balanced Taxation” instead?

The “Fair and Balanced” catchphrase is a little over(mis)used nowadays. How about “A Fair Deal On Taxes”? “Deal” makes it sound to whoever’s listening that they personally will benefit more than the politician making the offer, i.e. the same sense as “getting a deal on a new car”. And again you get a vague inclination of the ever-popular FDR.


Curtiss Leung 07.26.04 at 7:51 pm

My $0.02 US:

Just, equitable health care.

It’s a bit long—maybe too long. But I figure that anyone attacking something that a goog number of people call “just” has an uphill battle; ditto for “equitable.” The implication is also that the current situation is unjust and inequitable, and therefore something that all-thinking people should be mad about.

“Freedom from Illness” is good, but I wonder if it’s not vulnerable to the criticism that it’s an unattainable goal; after all, we need universal access to health care (to call it by its name) precisely because we can never be free from illness.

Looking forward to the poll!


Scott Martens 07.26.04 at 7:52 pm

I seem to recall somebody from the distant past saying that economic freedom is the freedom of some to rule over others.

Yes, the Republicans – and the right in general in the English-speaking world – have managed to hijack a lot of words and use a lot of lexical misdirection to convince people to support the opposite of what they think they’re supporting. I keep thinking that this time, surely, the public must have caught on. But no. It never happens. They get suckered the same, every time.

I’m afraid my guild requires to me to try to make sure words actually correspond to referents, so I haven’t got any ideas how to fight them on this front. I hope Lakoff does. We lefties have a long history of identifying the disease and having no luck providing a cure.


fyreflye 07.26.04 at 7:59 pm

“Freedom From Illness” isn’t – er – misleading? IMO “security” is a word USAns will respond to more readily than “freedom.” “Freedom” is nice for speechmaking but USAns really prefer security. BTW, Lakoff’s book on the subject is Moral Politics, and should be studied by all.


abb1 07.26.04 at 8:01 pm

This approach has been tried before: Roosevelt’s Economic Bill of Rights. Nice phrase, but it didn’t help much, obviously – judging by where we are today.


Yamamoto 07.26.04 at 8:07 pm

Something snappy and dishonest?
No problem.
How about “Free healthcare for all!


Ross Silverman 07.26.04 at 8:14 pm


My only concern about “Health Security” is its association with the Clinton health plan, which was titled the “Health Security Act of 1993.”


Sebastian Holsclaw 07.26.04 at 8:30 pm

Ah yes, the problem with the progressive idea of health care isn’t that it is impossible to match infinite desires with finite resources, the real problem is bad rhetoric.


GMT 07.26.04 at 8:36 pm

isn’t that it is impossible to match infinite desires with finite resources, the real problem is bad rhetoric

Yes. The present regime has deftly used the latter to mask the former.

In the meantime, with massive bureaucratic waste, fraud, long waits, and denied care, aren’t you glad we don’t have socialized medicine? Imagine how bad that would be…


Thomas 07.26.04 at 8:45 pm

Curious about the use of the word “relief” in modern politics, I googled “relief “health care” costs.”

John Kerry’s campaign website was the top result.

I think John Kerry understands framing plenty well.

(A funny thing about the press release on Kerry’s website that is one of the top results: It says “Finally, Kerry said he will make our medical liability system fairer for doctors and patients alike by substantially reducing meritless claims and enhancing opportunities to resolve claims with litigation.” Even before John Kerry chose Edwards he was looking out for trial lawyers (and everyone else, to be sure) by “enhancing opportunities to resolve claims with litigation.” As if we didn’t have enough of that before…)


caleb 07.26.04 at 8:46 pm

“Affordable Health Care for All” seems to cede the ground already to the conservative “frame.” Leading with “affordability” comes from the same matrix of cultural values that can speak of “tax relief.” The really progressive part of the slogan, “for all,” ends up dangling on the end. Kerry does the same thing, in my opinion, by diluting social justice issues into a plan for “expanding the middle class.” Affordability of health care is only instrumentally valuable as one step towards making health care more equitable.

How about just “Just Healthcare”? This would help claim the high ground of social justice; it’s not that it’s simply unfortunate that millions of children cannot afford health insurance. It’s unjust. Why can’t we simply say that?

Apropos of this whole discussion, I think, is what Jim Wallis, editor of Sojourners (www.sojo.net), has been arguing for some time about the conservative monopoly on religion as a “frame.” Democrats, Wallis has argued convincingly for the last year, need to stop giving morality and religion away to the Republicans as framing devices. Valuing the profitability of pharmaceutical companies over the health of children, for instance, is a moral and a religious issue.


nihil obstet 07.26.04 at 8:51 pm

“Health Security”.

Ross, I doubt that anyone remembers the name of the Clinton plan, and it might be to the Democrats’ advantage if people are reminded that Clinton tried to address the issue ten years ago. Clinton isn’t very unpopular. The right-wing viscerally hates him, but they are still a minority.

Security addresses the problem that people without current health problems still have — the anxiety over potential medical bills. It would be good to keep it short and punchy, but it might be good to go for the real problem: “Family Health Security”.


BigMacAttack 07.26.04 at 8:55 pm

Everyone does this already.

Pro-Choice. Who is against choice?

40 million Americans without access to health care. All dying in front of the hospital. Well not really. All using the emergency room as a primary health care giver. But 40 million Americans using the emergency room as a primary care giver doesn’t quite have the same ring as 40 million Americans without access to health care.

Maybe it works maybe it doesn’t.

I doubt it.


bull 07.26.04 at 9:04 pm

I love this stuff: We’ve got such a great product and yet people aren’t buying it. Instead they’re buying that crappy product being peddled by our competitors! Why? It must be the advertising! It can’t be the product! It might also be that the customers are kind of dim. So we just need better advertising! Yeh, that’s it! Better slogans, that’s what we need!

Actually, Charlie, it’s the product.


sq1 07.26.04 at 9:28 pm

I think that I might have cause to disagree with this idea that “framing” will solve our problems.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I like the idea, and think it’s great. I think it’s a natural thing that politically active people do – they try to put the best face on a policy that they support.

I don’t think it’s the be-all, end-all because of what Ross said above. One of the first ideas for “reframing” the Health Care debate was Health Security. As we all now know, Pres. Clinton already advanced that as a “reframe.” And we know how that ended.

“Reframing” is a good idea – I’ll be the last in the world to dissuade you all – but a much more important goal is build an unassailable position. Build your argument (my latest favorite is that Public Health is the linchpin of Homeland Security), then consider how it will be countered. Anyone who thinks that the Clinton White House effectively argued against the “Big Gov’t – Harry and Louise” ads is asleep, I think. They should have hired “Harry” and “Louise” first and made their own commercials arguing against “Big Business in our medicine cabinet.”

The reason that conservative ideals catch hold in the mainstream isn’t because of effective framing. It’s because their framing attempts get played in the press over and over and over and over.

Well, we’ve reached the part where I decide I’ve been rambling.

Keep up the good work, all.


Max 07.26.04 at 9:31 pm

What is guaranteed, affordable health insurance?

I’ll take Monetary Policy for $100, Alex.


fyreflye 07.26.04 at 11:21 pm

Clinton’s health plan didn’t fail becase of faulty labeling. It failed because he had no plan when he went into office and spent too long a time formulating one too publicly. By the time his team had come up with an unwieldy structure designed to subsidize the insurance industry everyone was sick of hearing about it and Republican hordes had retaken the House. Why everyone thinks Clinton was a brilliant politician has always puzzled me.


abb1 07.26.04 at 11:27 pm

The trick is not a good slogan, actually, it’s the homogeneity of it.

Once a slogan or talking point has been approved by the Politburo, no rank&file member can be allowed to rephrase it, to use different words or change the order of them. Otherwise the party line will inevitably become distorted.

Our Republican comrades understood the importance of language about a decade ago: Language: A Key Mechanism of Control, Newt Gingrich’s 1996 GOPAC memo.

Clearly, now is time for our Democratic comrades to follow suit and successfully complete transformation of the US political system into nightmarish Orwellian dystopia.


liberal japonicus 07.27.04 at 1:13 am

Specifically, he says they must develop the ability to counter Conservatives’ ruthless efficiency and almost fanatical devotion…

No one expects a Spanish Inquisition!


blair berbert 07.27.04 at 1:48 am

Well Ross, you’re starting off on the right foot. I mean, who doesn’t want “Progress”? Now those Liberals though, flaunting traditional American values, it’s horrible!

A rose by any other name?


trotsky 07.27.04 at 1:57 am

Another example he pointed to on the show concerned the Bush Administration’s environmental policy. Bush touts “common sense regulations,” which is short hand for saying: “We don’t need to consult environmental experts (who almost universally oppose what we’re trying to do.” But it carries a compelling double message — we’re doing something straightforward, and those who oppose it are not using common sense.

As someone who lives in a rural western U.S. region that has been among those bearing the economic brunt of federal environmental regulations, I can assure you that a dose of common sense is indeed needed.

Let’s consider framing and the questions we ask. “Environmental experts” disagree with the Bush adminstration’s policies. Fine. How does one become an environmental expert and what types of people are inclined to become such? The federal government’s policies over the Clinton years especially tended to lock up federal land and prevent any human use. This has undeniable environmental benefits, particularly to wildlife.

Fine, but in the case of forests, in particular, we now have a case where California’s timber harvest has been reduced by 90 percent from its peak, but the state is using no less wood. Instead of being harvested here, that wood is clear-cut from the formely pristine Canadian boreal forests, because the Canadians have plenty of territory and, collectively, don’t give a snort about those deep dark woods.

Now, not cutting wood in California’s national forests has undeniable benefits for spotted owls and other critters, but is there really any net, global environmental benefit if the net, global timber harvest remains the same, but is shifted to the convenient locales with the most relaxed regulations? It’s possible, but I doubt it.

This redneck would have more respect for environmental experts if they thought about the whole supply chain, rather than just outsourcing U.S. environmental damage along with its jobs.


blurry 07.27.04 at 5:05 am


While I entirely agree with your point, it’s somewhat unrealistic to expect environmental experts to advocate policies that are unsupported by existing regulatory structures. Transnational environmental governance would be best for the environment, but I seriously doubt that scientific experts would be taken seriously by policymakers if, when asked ‘should we cut down California’s trees?’ they responded by saying something like ‘yes, but only because it provides a market disincentive for timber firms to move production to the more fragile canadian boreal forest.’ The policy that experts advise for is always done within the context of social structures of governance and concern. Global environmental concern is growing, it’s unfortunate governance hasn’t kept pace.

Is expecting otherwise some kind of defense of Bush’s science ‘policy?’


Trotsky 07.27.04 at 6:25 am


Sure. We can only make laws for ourselves. That being the case, would it not be wise to ask, for instance, “How can we sustainably meet our needs for wood and other building materials?” (The Reagan-era clear-cutting was not, I’ll stress, sustainable.)

Again, part of the framing depends on which experts you ask for advice. A forest ecologist will give you different answers than will a forester, who’s just a glorified tree farmer (not that there’s anything wrong with that). I’ve heard Sierra Club spokespersons dismiss the arguments of foresters simply because they are foresters who by professional necessity belive that cutting trees down is OK, and vice versa.

Again, without even venturing into the global economy, it seems fair to ask that human needs be taken into account in environmental discussions. What’s the best way to harvest the wood we need, to divert the water we need. Most environmentalists, at least on the Left Coast, don’t feel they need to even address that kind of issue. I suppose it’s understandable for them to think they’re saving the Earth and the conservatives’ blessed free market forces can work out who pays for it, but they shouldn’t be surprised when the working-class types whose mills shut down decide that they’re going to vote for the guy who advocates raping the planet.


r. clayton 07.27.04 at 7:51 pm

I’d be happier with the concept of framing
and Lackoff’s promotion of it if somebody
could bring up some examples of the
consistent use of framing that didn’t make
the framer look like reprehensible slime;
media-intensive Republicans and the
advertising industry certainly don’t meet
that criterion. Given that framing is based
on not-quite lying, incomplete truths and
hypocrisy, I expect such examples, if they
exist, would be uninspiring.


blurry 07.28.04 at 3:49 am


check out a salon article from today on forest policy, the bush administration, and small-scale loggers:



Ross Silverman 07.28.04 at 3:49 pm

The poll is now up at my site.

Thanks to everyone for their feedback!


Ted M 07.28.04 at 9:42 pm

For “gay marriage,” don’t lead with “gay,” which gives some of the audience the opportunity to reflexively object, and the “gay” modifier marks it as some special case of marriage.

The issue is “Equal Marriage” — and who can be against that?

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