Reframing frames – ideology, George Lakoff and a call for your views

Wall Street Protestors Rally Against Police Brutality

An excellent example of using a slogan to reframe debate about neoliberalism and inequality from the Occupy movement


Left wing progressives hope that we can win elections by citing facts, rational debate and by offering policy programmes that serve the majority of voters’ interests. When we lose, we either conclude that we need to move farther to the right, where the voters are; where the Overton window opens, or that we need to move further to the left, to present a genuine alternative to the status quo. That dilemma has rigidly polarised the Labour party, undermining our unity and turning what was once a “broad church” appeal into an either/or basic dichotomy of alliances and reflected interests. The problem is how do we know which of these responses to the dilemmas of being a party in opposition will engage the public? And what if it is neither?

Yet, how can the left possibly lose a debate about the economy and social policy, when our current steeply hierarchical socioeconomic organisation serves the interests of so very few citizens? In fact those policies are seriously harming some social groups, especially those traditionally afforded social protections by previous Labour policies. 

Margaret Thatcher once made the absurd claim that the “problem” with socialism is that it “runs out of other people’s money to spend.” However, the New Right became experts on spending our public funds on extending the wealth of a few privileged millionaires, taking money from those who have the very least and handing it out to those who have the very most.

That really is “spending other peoples’ money.” As a consequence, the UK is now the most unequal country in the world, and that includes the US, where the Chicago boys – the founding fathers of neoliberalism – operationalised their experiment in hierarchical and authoritarian modes of neoliberal socioeconomic organisation.

Things ain’t what they ought to be

I’ve pointed out before that it’s easy to mistake the patterns and social circumstances of our era for “natural laws”. We really do need to revisit the is/ought distinction  (the naturalistic fallacy: we cannot use descriptive statements – what “is” – to make or justify prescriptive ones – what “ought” to be). So many people assume the Conservative world view of competition, mysterious “market forces” and the “invisible hand”, survival of the wealthiest, and Randian self interest is simply how things are: that these qualities are all fundamental to our “human nature”. They are not.

They are the qualities required of us – what “ought” to be the case – in order to prop up a hierarchical society, preserving a privileged elite and the material inequality and power relations of neoliberalism. Social Darwinism, which is like a comic strip version of Darwinism, was debunked last century, but here we are with policies that are directed by an ideology founded on social Darwinist principles once again. It’s become  a “common sense” assumption that we are naturally inclined to be competitive, and as a society, hierarchically ranked, on the basis of power and worth. Yet the matter of what “human nature” actually is has never been resolved over the centuries, let alone accounts of how that “nature” translates into the kind of society we have. Or ought to have, for that matter.

How can the Tories be right in their cynical miserablism, regarding our competitive social Darwinist tendencies?  If we are so fundamentally selfish and self-interested, with a generally Hobbesian temperament, moulded a little more by Burke’s profound anti-intellectualism, how, then, did we end up with a trade union and labour movement, working class enfranchisement, the welfare state, the NHS, legal aid, social housing, human rights and to generally progress to develop an altruistic, collectivist, cooperative approach for our post war settlement?  

“Human nature” is far more complex and much less static and defined than the Conservatives would have us believe. The kind of society that we live in, with its prevailing beliefs, attitudes and organisation, also contributes significantly to the kind of people we are, and importantly, to how we see ourselves and others.

Façade democracy

George Lakoff, a linguist and cognitive scientist, says that Conservatives exalt “obedience to authority,” insulate leaders from accountability, oppose checks and balances against leaders and rely on fear. All of this is true.

Lakoff says the right wins and keeps power by framing issues and “controlling minds”. This explains why Conservatives win elections. They manipulate us more effectively than the Progressives. They’ve been “preparing the seedbed of our brains with their high-level general principles” so that when the “low tax/low welfare society” idea, for example,  was planted in its various guises, repeatedly, “their framing could take root and sprout.” And “as a result, progressive messages don’t take root.”

Tories successfully reframe social issues, re-set defaults and normalise their prejudices and values. They become “common sense.” As dominant narratives do. In doing so, the Conservatives shape how the public see themselves and others.

Lakoff proposes that the left present frames instead of raw facts, in order to “train” the public to think less about neoliberal competition and self-interest and more about serving others. It’s not the platform that needs to be changed. It’s the voters. 

Lakoff says that we need to beat Conservatives at their own game. “Democracy is too important to leave the shaping of the brains of the public to authoritarians.” 

I like a lot of Lakoff’s work, but cannot get behind the idea of using techniques of persuasion to win support and (re)grow a movement. But then, the use of such techniques has been effective for the Conservatives, and that level of manipulation creates a problem for democracy. Lakoff is proposing we address the problem of a managed democracy by attempting to manage it too.

Is it possible to propose we manipulate voters and then still claim to be a democrat? 

He is right in that the rational approach doesn’t always work, but perhaps it’s more a question of how we present our alternative. I can get behind a shorthand and punchier general messages, just as long as it isn’t a strung together lexicon of glittering generalities with nothing meaningful referenced below the surface level. Integrity matters. The new world order is maintained partly by a precarious new word order. But it rests only on the very surface of our mind. It exists, not because it is rational or serves our best interests, but because it appears to be “normal.”

It’s probably true that many voters don’t pay much attention to the details and implications of policies. We have a tendency towards cognitive miserliness – the Principle of Least Effort; we frequently rely on simple and time efficient strategies when evaluating information and making decisions. But this can lead to prejudices. We formulate stereotypes, for example, which are simplistic ways of categorising others. Heuristics are mental shortcuts we often use in order to lessen the cognitive load that decision making requires. We often rely on habitual, superficial explorations and generalisations because we are caught up in our lives, and so to some degree, its a strategy of necessity and efficiency. 

However, this tendency towards cognitive miserliness is also manipulated. We often assign new information to categories that are easy to process mentally. These categories arise from prior information, including schemas, scripts and other knowledge structures, that has been stored in memory and so storage of new information does not require much cognitive energy. Cognitive miserliness means we tend not to stray far from our established beliefs when considering new information. That’s partly why repetition and slogans work so well as propaganda techniques. 

My own view is that we should try multiple approaches to messaging the public, but none of it should be simply about changing a vote for the sake of it. We also need to engage citizens in active participation in democracy. That is something the authoritarian Conservatives will never do: they have a policy agenda informed by private companies and millionaires, not ordinary citizens, and that won’t change.

Public needs have been privatised and pushed into the “market place” of competition and invisible capitalist hands. Increasingly, private companies are operating our essential public services, as the Conservatives claim that this is “efficient.” It isn’t, because it’s costing us billions to support unaccountable private businesses whose only motivation is to make profit.(See for example: Doctors bribed with 70-90k salaries to join Maximus and “endorse a political agenda regardless of how it affects patients.” )

Meanwhile, the privatisation of public need means that individuals shoulder the responsibility for them, rather than the state, who are still taking money from the public to fund those public “services.” Making individuals responsible for the consequences of political decision-making and arising socioeconomic problems like unemployment and poverty then justifies an authoritarian state intrusion in the form of “therapy.” For example, the rise of nudging, which is about the political directives to “change behaviours” because people make “the wrong choices” and so it turns democracy on its head.

This is because nudge is used without public consent, and it is solely aimed at “changing behaviours” of citizens to meet the states’ idealised and narrow neoliberal outcomes, rather than it being about actually recognising and meeting social needs and democratic inclusion.

The left tend to have a rather more optimistic, expansive and generous view of human nature. We believe in the human potential for learning, development and progress. However, that optimism is also tempered with an acknowledgement of our darker side, too. Policies which protect social groups that are prone to being exploited, scapegoated and other socially constructed vulnerabilities have largely been Labour party ones.

However, the problem is that the Conservatives hold up a darkly distorting looking-glass to the public, showing only what they want people to see of themselves. In that mirror, we are rendered ugly – always prone to being stupid, selfish, greedy, impulsive savages that need to to be ruled and controlled. Our self perceptions are shaped by significant others. There arises a subsequent social self-fulfilling prophecy. We project and scapegoat: it is always others that are savage and selfish, not us. This is facilitated by the Conservative tendency to marginalise poor people, creating folk devil stereotypes and social outgroups. 

We’re capable of changing minds. But we have good SOCIAL reasons to do so. That, for me is the key – there’s a difference between propaganda and reasoning; public interest and simply maintaining the public’s interest. The answer probably lies somewhere in a compromise – using both a rational and evidenced approach and the reductive pop politics soundbites to capture public interests AND public interest.

Tory cuts cost lives was a soundbite of mine from 2015. I wanted to reference war, and highlight the enemy in a longstanding and ongoing class conflict. It’s got integrity as a slogan because I’ve spent a few years writing about and presenting evidence of how  Conservative austerity is harming and sometimes killing people. 

But I don’t have all the answers. To come up with effective solutions requires our willingness for collaboration and cooperation.   

I’m particularly interested in what others think about this issue. If you have any thoughts on this, please leave me a comment, and I will revisit them in due course. We can do what the left always do very well: hold a democratic discussion and problem-solve collectively.



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17 thoughts on “Reframing frames – ideology, George Lakoff and a call for your views

  1. Firstly we are all good and bad, we are all generous and mean. We are are all contradictions of ourselves. Neoliberals think they have the answers as do socialists. The parodox is that they are both correct and incorrect.
    With this in mind and trying to frame a policy. I think we need to focus on the selfish gene in us all. I’am going to call it the parodoxical gene.
    For example the National lottery taps into this. You buy a ticket in the hope to win a fortune, you lose and it go’s to good curses. The National Health Service the one thing most people can agree on, why is it so popular because it’s free at point of use rich or poor, we all have investment in it.
    So combining these thoughts and selling something that will take investment but we all feel we will be rewarded for that investment. If we’re not rewarded we still feel good about ourselves for that investment. I could keep going but want to your attention😂
    So frame it – (Invest in your country you invest in yourself)
    Hope you like my input.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Interesting and well researched post.

    I feel that one thing that needs to be done, is for new ideas to be developed. Outside of the first term of Tony Blair’s time as Prime Minister, I can not think of any new ideas (bar perhaps Universal Basic Income) that have been developed by the ‘left’ (I put ‘left’ in quotation marks, as I am weary of the left/right paradigm. For instance, some of the ‘left’ talk about Keynesian economics as the way to get the country out of austerity. Yet (and I sure someone will correct me), it doesn’t deal with both how the environment and climate change will affect business nor with the issues surrounding technological unemployment.

    When talking about new ideas, I include the ways in which activists protest. For too long, the methods of protests have remained the same. Apart from Occupy (which came and went in my view), forms of protest have remained the same. Social media, has made this worse, as it has just been use as an method of advertising protests, plus any forms of activism on it (such as hashtags) is very ephemeral. Not only that but discussion on social media has not only resembled an echo chamber, but it has become very rancorous and angry, without been constructive. As a result, people are not prepared for views that are not their own and this can bite them in the backside. An example of this is the last election. People on Twitter were generally shocked at the exit polls on this night. Yet this was compounded by the fact that people just did not even consider the alternative view.

    Two more points. I feel that there is a self righteous at times amongst the left, as though their views are clearly right. I see a lot of left leaning activists called others stupid for not thinking that their views are right. As an example, a few days after the EU referendum, an ex housemate of mine (who voted to remain), said that only people who had been to university should have been able to vote, as they are educate, the rest are not and therefore as (in her mind) they don’t know what they are talking about, couldn’t have been given the vote.

    Finally, I often wonder with social media and the activism on display, are people posted and discussing this on there as that is what they truly believe or are they posting it just to be noticed and get likes


    1. If people were posting simply “to get likes and be noticed”, I think they would be more inclined to support the consensus view (or rather the dominant narrative) rather than recognising the real need for activism and going against the grain. As someone who does often go against the grain, I can assure you that the grief you get far out weights any benefit you may feel you get from trivial Facebook “likes” or a few more people knowing who you are. I’m wondering exactly who it is that won’t accept there are alternative views that merit consideration. This said, there is no obligation to accept alternative views if they aren’t evidenced and don’t stand up to critical scrutiny. Not all views are equal in terms of worth, though the right to express them is of course an equal one.

      There is a strong current of anti-intellectualism which originates from the right – from UKIP as much as the Conservatives. The public resent the implication that they are somehow shortsighted, duped or stupid. But that has also fueled a profound anti-intellectualist prejudice, too.

      To worry that people take a reductionist soundbite politics at face value and allow the media to reduce complex debate about public policy – to be presented as simplistic Tory moralising and scapegoating rhetoric is realistic. There is strong evidence that an increasingly politically disengaged public does so. They vote for policies that are not in their own interests or those of other ordinary people, for example. Tory policies objectively benefit only 1% of the population, on the whole. Why and how has that happened? Because people have largely allowed it to, some have supported such policies because they believe that it will only affect others – social groups they don’t like perhaps, such as migrants or politically defined “scroungers.” But it WILL affect them, sooner or later. Personally I prefer to call prejudice stupid. And to allow a government to manipulate prejudice is also stupid and dangerous. Perhaps those offended and angered by this view should learn to take some responsibility for democratic decision making and have a think about the sort of society we now live in, where disabled people have never experienced such a high level of hate crime, and few people care about that. We should care. .

      The fact that Tory policy is class contingent is objective observation, not an ideologically directed one. There is value in critical thinking, and in democratic participation, these are things we ought to do in order to ensure a socially liberal democracy. How do we raise these issues without offending those people that must KNOW they are intentionally ignoring the adverse conditions of society for some groups of people? These are people happy to sacrifice the wellbeing of others for their own comfort and complacency. If such people felt there was no truth in that, I’m sure they wouldn’t get angry and attack the messengers, as they do. I get accused of “scaremongering” a lot. Interesting and telling, though, that I am never accused of lying.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. Jeremy Corbyn has appealed to us because what he says is closer to what we think than any other politician. It is that sincere altruistic & empathetic style which attracts attention to him. It is refreshing.
    I am unsure that die-hard tory voters will ever give up their masonic values hence I tend to avoid wrangling with them on the grounds that I consider them psychologically deformed, possibly permanently.
    I think that the greatest source of potential Labour voters has been completely ignored by the think tanks & campaign organisers.
    They have overlooked the ever growing massive percentage of non-voters.
    This is a genre of invisible people who refuse to engage politically &, from what I know of their reasoning, it is not because they do not have any interest in political matters, far from it.
    It is because they see through the facade to the dirty underbelly of politics & they cannot put their “x” next to any party that presents a slick PR advertising campaign & then consistently fails to deliver or is obviously coerced by corporate or religious lobbyists.
    To attract the non-voters into the polling booths we need greater honesty in political discussion.
    We need to have less pussy-footing around the facts & a willingness to address the burning issues that keep a large proportion of our citizens thumbing their noses at the entire debacle.
    We must deal, head on, with the insidious influences such as the Friends of Israel, who disproportionately ensure that arms manufacturing, warmongering & persecution continue globally to support their paranoia & expansionist intentions.
    Deal with the big banks, big oil & gas, big P-harma which are robbing the entire world of it’s material clout & health.
    The British people do not need to hear any more slick sound bites or deceptive neurolinguistics as persistently employed by the conniving tories.
    We need a determined effort to truly oppose their entire political dishonest & sinister hidden agenda.
    Then we might find the previously disengaged flocking to the polling stations to support a political agenda that intends to clean up the corruption once & for all.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Just a thought. Using soundbites isn’t necessarily dishonest, if those link up to genuine policies. It’s more a kind of way to advertise policies and the impacts of those for those people who don’t engage on that deeper level of detail for whatever reason. Like the 99% slogan from the Occupy movement, which was very effective, and also founded on truth..

      Liked by 2 people

    2. As I understand it those bound to the masonic system are psychologically trapped because they can’t give up their views / loyalty to the so-called brotherhood due to the serious vows they are hoodwinked into making.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Conservatives, from my own observations, are reluctant to engage with others and with things that are different to them, and have a bit of an empathy gap. For example, I noticed a newspaper article deploring the rise in anti-social behaviour in youth in their small town. They call for more police, CCTV etc. etc. It has not occurred to them, because they aren’t thinking of young people as people, that there is nothing for young people to do (Unless they are into sports) and that a nightclub and youth specific cafe to hang out in might help. Mentoring schemes have proved effective. They don’t see that what they are arguing for is also ‘anti-social’. All they see is themselves and their needs. What breaks that open is the concept of inclusive communities, tolerance, empathy and public space. In other words, less isolation. I will write about this!

    Liked by 5 people

    1. Youth provision has been slashed since 2010. And Every Child Matters, which extended a youth work informal education curriculum was scrapped quietly by Michael Gove the day after the Tories took office in 2010.

      As someone who worked some years ago as a detached youth and community worker, I know that if provision for young people is put in place, and especially if young people have had a say in designing the provision, antisocial behaviour decreases dramatically. Inclusion and support in a community make a huge difference to young people.

      Absolutely agree with your comment about inclusive communities. Look forward to reading your post.

      Liked by 2 people

    2. I quite agree with your observations. I would add that, in many cases, the root cause of the increase in anti-social behaviour lies with the very people calling for the police, CCTV, etc. in that they have sold-off public spaces which could have been used for socially enriching activities. They have removed the funding for, or encouraged unsustainable rental costs to, projects that would actually pay more back, initially in Social Capital, but often eventually in financial terms, either by improved local employment prospects, or at the very least in reduced costs resultant from the anti-social behaviour!

      Thus their very own arguments fail even before you consider the true Social cost of the result of their policies, which are then compounded – as Sue so accurately points out – by making outcasts, scapegoats, villains of the the very people that need to be included and made to feel valued.

      Liked by 2 people

  5. Will be of interest to many people.

    Cash Not Care: the planned demolition of the UK welfare state Paperback – 14 Sep 2016
    by Mo Stewart (Author)

    Cash Not Care: the planned demolition of the UK welfare state Kindle Edition
    by Mo Stewart (Author)

    Liked by 3 people

  6. Sue, I’ve not commented on any of your posts for a while – I’ve not been online much because the current state of the state we’re has been more than I can handle – said with a hint of humour, but not joking!

    However this post is so on target, it’s something I’ve been trying to explain to people myself. I’m delighted to see you tackle it and express it so much better than I would.

    To comment on just one aspect of your post:
    There is a case to be made for the presentation when it comes to getting the facts across, I’ll come back to that in a moment. What drives me utterly mad with frustration is seeing so many “left-leaning” people still allowing the “right” to set the frame in debate. It’s almost as though, they feel they should put their side within those frames as they believe this to be correct, which is very worrying! The only other alternative that occurs is that there are very few who taken the trouble to learn about framing and how to re-frame a debate and present a completely new argument successfully.

    Which comes back to the “presentation” aspect. It doesn’t have to be sound-bites, or repetitive mantras, although getting in the occasional highly memorable, targeted quotable line or two – something that will stick in people’s minds is a good way to make people form the kind of associative links in memory that we need to achieve.

    The key is perhaps to speak with controlled passion. That can be very difficult to get just right. I think a lot of people (not yourself) fail to realise that it is actually far easier to lie convincingly than it is to be honest convincingly. This is probably because in order to sell the lie to others, you first spend time working out how to sell it to yourself?

    An honest, passionate speaker, who has a natural ability to communicate with people in a way that resonates with the majority, yet feels to each that they are in agreement individually, is very rare.

    In short we need a Nye Bevan!

    Just to touch briefly on “nudge” tactics, antidote to them seems to me to be unfortunately equally coercive, if slightly different as it comes in the form of social pressure – and takes quite a long period of sustained pressure to work. As examples of what I mean by this: Why do more and more people not just discriminate against gays / black people / women but actually feel it is right to condemn such behaviour in a social setting?

    After all it is the right and decent and indeed logical thing to do if you see everyone as be of equal worth. Yet it took a long period of sustained pressure, often peer pressure, to get to where we are today. Indeed it still requires that pressure kept up, particularly in the sort of environment fostered by the current government!

    I think the key difference is that this sort of pressure is applied by many, to persuade others to look at things differently, whereas the “nudge” type of tactic is used to unconsciously push people to acting or thinking (or even failing to think) in a way that suits those doing the “nudging”.

    Sorry to ramble on!

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Nah , survival of the selfish fittest is the flippant Nietzshe, Conservative thingy answer.
    Self , Self.!!! Society and Socialism. Whit is that? Self and only survival as Thatcher wid say.


  8. Hi Kitty,
    I’ve been thinking about the discussion point you put to us – how to apply the rational, evidenced approach along with or versus the use of sound bites etc. to create real change.

    The obvious problem with the evidenced approach is that the evidence will be resisted when encountered by individuals, organisations and bureaucracies that have vested interests in maintaining the status quo. I saw an interesting diagram of this problem when studying change in social-ecosystem management, the diagram sums up the adaptive change cycle over time as a process in a figure 8.
    When people prepare for change they come up against ‘Rigidity Traps’ (the term used to describe the resistance to innovation by those with vested interests) and although the trigger for change allows new ideas to be more acceptable (shown as a window of opportunity on the diagram) in navigating the change or transition people come up against ‘Poverty Traps’ due to an absence of new ideas to help rebuild the system.

    Here’s the diagram taken from a book titled ‘Civic Ecology’ by M Krasny and K Tidball (2015) and is adapted from Biggs et al, I have put a copy in my google docs:

    So suggested change has to survive two traps, resistance and a poverty of ideas, but if the resisters and those who are part of the system are encouraged to IMAGINE the positives of change then there may be a plethora of ideas and less resistance from vested parties. I saw a lovely quote by Bell Hooks ‘Imagination is one of the most powerful modes of resistance that oppressed and exploited folks can and do use.’ What can we all do to promote this optimism for imagination and vision even if we don’t feel as though we have the stature of could Nye Bevan?


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