Ruth Conniff on George Lakoff

Posted by RUTH CONNIFF on March 19, 2014, on

Wisconsin Progressives Bring George Lakoff to Help Fight the Right


The organized forces of the right have been busy dismantling the Wisconsin's progressive tradition, its public employee unions, its model environmental protections, its open-meetings laws, and funding for its great university system, technical colleges, and public schools. Citizens are fighting in scattershot, grassroots campaigns against all of these assaults.

If ordinary people are going to overcome the organized forces of greed, they are going to need to work together to develop a smart, winning strategy.

With that in mind, last year a group of progressive activists decided they needed help getting organized.

"We thought the perfect person to talk to would be George Lakoff," says Scott Wittkopf, chair of the Forward Institute, a public policy think tank. Lakoff, author of the best-selling books Don’t Think of an Elephant!; The Political Mind; and Whose Freedom? is the nation's leading expert on linguistic "framing" in politics and on how the left can recapture the rhetorical high ground, by speaking in the emotionally resonant language of values.

Wittkopf's group, along with a handful of other environmental, labor, and civil rights organizations, including the Wisconsin Grassroots Network, the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, the Milwaukee Interfaith Coalition, teachers unions in Madison and Milwaukee, and United Wisconsin (the group that led the recall drive against Governor Walker) contacted Lakoff and began a series of trainings under his tutelage.


Lakoff took a keen interest in the uprising against Scott Walker, writing about how the labor and recall fights should be framed on his blog.

"I’ve followed Wisconsin politics for many, many years, beginning in my teen years when a friend of my brother’s worked with Gaylord Nelson," Lakoff said in a phone interview from his home in California. "I was really inspired by the protest movement at the statehouse. I wrote a piece about it and apparently it was printed out and posted on the statehouse wall, which won my heart."

Governor Scott Walker and the Republican legislature in Wisconsin are deploying what Lakoff calls "the conservative communication system."

"I’ve been fighting that system for fifteen years," he says. "Most people don’t even know that it exists."

Democrats, meanwhile, have failed to set up an effective communications system of their own, Lakoff says.

 "So when I was approached by Scott about what could be done in Wisconsin, I said here is what the Republicans have done, It is very smart. . . .When Republicans went to college and studied business, they took a course in marketing and found out how people really think."

Progressives need to learn from that, Lakoff says.

Working with the network of grassroots activists from around the state, Lakoff helped set up trainings in framing a progressive message.

"No matter what issue you're passionate about, his research gives us a foundation to unify everybody because it's about values--morals and values," says Wittkopf.

Pointing to all of the battles in Wisconsin, from education to voting rights to the expansion of lobbyist influence and campaign finance reform, Wittkopf says, "you have all these really core democratic issues at stake. As progressives we make this fatal mistake that each group does its own messaging . . . creating silos."

With Lakoff, the grassroots activists developed the "Wisconsin Progressive Freedom Campaign," to connect all of those issues. At two early meetings, Lakoff joined the activists on a in a video conference to talk about how they could unite around a progressive definition of freedom.

So far the activists have conducted four trainings in Western Wisconsin, the Fox Cities, Milwaukee, and Madison, building on this core notion of a definition of freedom that is not about the conservative idea of freedom, which Wittkopf describes as self-centered and serving the interests of business, but a more expansive notion of human freedom, that comes out of America's progressive roots--extending access to democracy for as many people as possible.

"We have had some little successes," says Wittkopf, who attributes "values-based messaging" to popular campaigns to pass school spending referenda in Appleton, despite a well-financed ad campaign by Americans for Prosperity, as well as organizing against sand mining and against school privatization at the state level.

Lakoff would like to see Wisconsin progressives raise enough money to set up a speakers bureau for ordinary citizens throughout the state, conduct more trainings, and solidify a single framing structure.

"You learn how to respond to conservatives, and not just to respond but to go on the offensive and get the message out in every possible way," he says. "That takes organization and will." "You never speak to conservatives using conservative language," he adds. "'The issue is jobs'—No. Freedom is an issue. Freedom from wage slavery is an example. To get that we need good paying union jobs, where you get paid fairly, and you are treated like a human being, where you get not “benefits” but health care that is part of your salary. That’s good for everybody—it’s good not to have employees that are sick, its good to have a population that is healthy . . . this is not rocket science. Everything I say is what you already know. My job is to tell you what you already know but are not saying." Wittkopf is energized by Lakoff's work in Wisconsin. "We have never had collaborative messaging before," he says. "That's where the conservatives are really beating us up." "Wisconsin is the laboratory" Wittkopf adds--for progressive politics starting a century ago, and for the rightwing takeover of civil society, which gained traction with Scott Walker's attack on public employee unions, voter I.D., the privatization of public schools, and the rest of the attacks on basic democratic freedoms. "That's why Lakoff took an interest in Wisconsin," says Wittkopf. "We are at the center of it." Plus, Wittkopf adds, "Any scientist will tell you that it is a life goal to see your work put into practice. Lakoff's work has not generally been put into practice by a lot of progressives or Democrats." That's another area where Wisconsin could lead the way, as a laboratory for resurgent progressive politics. —Ruth Conniff 


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