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The NY Times uncovers conservative attacks, then prints one; both are on the front page

George Lakoff, professor emeritus of linguistics | November 25, 2013

On Thursday (Nov. 21), the New York Times front page reported on the conservative attacks against the President Obama and the Affordable Care Act. On Sunday, the Times front page contained a conservative attack on President Obama and the Affordable Care Act mixed in with news stories. Here is an analysis of both.

For decades, Republican conservatives have constructed and carried out extensive, well-planned, long-term communication campaigns to change public discourse and the way the public thinks. It has been done very effectively and, for the most part, not secretly. The NY Times finally began reporting on this effort on Thursday, November 21, 2013 in a fine piece by Jonathan Weisman and Sheryl Gay Stolberg.

The Times reported on the House Republicans’ memo on how to attack the Affordable Care Act through a “multilayered sequence assault,” gathering stories “through social media letters from constituents, or meeting back home” and a new GOP website. The Times also reported on the “closed door” strategy sessions, going back to last year.

It’s a start, and it’s about time. What the Times missed was the far deeper and systematic efforts by conservatives extending back four decades and the nature of the underlying general ideology covering dozens of issues that have been served by these efforts. The Times also missed the reason why the attack on the ACA is more than just anti-Obama politics, but rather part of an attempt to change the idea of what America is about.  The Times missed the think tanks, the framing professionals, the training institutes, the booking agencies, the Wednesday morning meetings on both national and state levels, and the role of ALEC in the states — all set out in the Lewis Powell memo more than four decades ago and carried out since then as part of seamless system directed at changing the brains of Americans.

I do mean changing brains. Because all thought is physical, carried out by neural circuitry, every change in how we understand anything is a brain change, and conservatives are effectively using the techniques that marketers have developed for changing brains, and they’ve been using them for decades, at least since the notorious Lewis Powell Memo in 1971.

Full disclosure: I began writing about conservative framing in my 1996 book Moral Politics, and about the conservative brain changing machine in my 2004 book Don’t Think of an Elephant!, p. 15 (click to see the discussion here). For the Powell memo, just google “Lewis Powell memo.”

At least, the Times did get an important part of it right on Thursday, and we should be grateful.

Then, on Sunday, Nov. 24, 2013, the Times published on its front page what looked like a news story, but was a conservative column called  “White House Memo” by John Harwood, who is CNBC’s Chief Washington Correspondent, and who previously worked as the Wall Street Journal’s political editor and chief political correspondent. It’s one thing to publish a blatant conservative attack on President Obama in a column on the op-ed page or in the Sunday Review, and another to publish it on the front page, mixed in with the news stories.

The Harwood column is illuminating in its attack mode, which is quite artful and an excellent example of conservative attacks. To appreciate it, we should begin by discussing some basic cognitive linguistics. As the great linguist Charles Fillmore discovered in 1975, all words are cognitively defined relative to conceptual “frames” — structures we all use to think all the time. Frames don’t float in the air; they are neural circuits in our brains.  Frames in politics are not neutral; they reflect an underlying value system. That means that language in politics is not neutral. Political words do not just pick out something in the world. They reflect value-based frames. If you successfully frame public discourse, you win the debate.

A common neuroscience estimate is that about 98 percent of thought is unconscious and automatic, carried out by the neural system. Daniel Kahneman has since brought frame-based unconscious thought into the public arena in what he has called “System 1 thinking.” Since frames carry value-based inferences with them, successfully framing public discourse means getting the public to adopt your values, and hence winning over the public by unconscious brain change, not by open discussion of the values inherent in the frames and the values that undergird the frames.

I have always suggested to progressives to know their values and state their real values clearly, using frames they really believe. Values trump mere facts presented without the values that make them meaningful.  Honest values-based framing is the opposite of spin — the deceptive use of language to avoid embarrassment.

The reason that those of us in the cognitive and brain sciences write so passionately about framing issues is that unconscious thought and framing are not generally understood — especially in progressive circles. Most progressives who went to college studied what is called Enlightenment reason, a theory of reason coming from Descartes around 1650 — and which was historically important in 1650. The Cartesian theory of how reason works has since been largely disproved in the cognitive and brain sciences.

The Cartesian theory assumes that all thought is conscious, that it is literal (that is, it fits the world directly and uses no frame-based or metaphorical thought), that reason uses a form of mathematical logic (not frame-based logic or metaphorical logic), and that words are neutral and fit the world directly. Many liberal economists have been trained in this mode of thought and assume that the language used in economic theory is neutral and just fits the world as it is. They are usually not trained in frame semantics, cognitive linguistics, and related fields. The same is often true of liberal journalists as well.  Both often miss the fact that conservatives have successfully reframed economic terms to fit their values, and that the economic terms in public discourse no longer mean what they do in economics classes.

Part of what the Cartesian theory of reason misses is the real brain mechanism that allows the conservative communication theory to be effective. By framing language to fit conservative values and by getting their framing of the language to dominate public debate, conservatives change the public’s brains by the following mechanism. When a frame circuit is activated in the brain, its synapses are strengthened.

This means that the probability of future activation is raised and probability of the frame becoming permanent in the brain is raised. Whenever a word defined by that frame is used, the frame is activated and strengthened. When conservatives successfully reframe a word in public discourse, that word activates conservative frames and with those frames, the conservative value system on which the frames are based. When progressives naively use conservatively reframed words, they help the conservative cause by strengthening the conservative value system in the brains of the public.

Liberals, in adhering to the old Cartesian theory of reason, will not be aware of their own unconscious values, will take then for granted, and will think that all they have to do is state the facts and the public will be convinced rationally. The facts are crucial, but they need to framed in moral terms to make moral sense and a moral impact.

To those who have a liberal Cartesian theory of reason, the attempt to warn the public and other liberals about the way language really works and to warn liberals not to use conservative framing will be seen as hiding the facts and misleading the public. That is what the Times columnist and CNBC Chief Washington correspondent, John Harwood used in his manipulative NY Times column.

The word at issue is “redistribution.”  The subject matter is the flow of wealth in the society and what it should be. This is a fundamentally moral issue, and the major political framings reflect two different moral views of democracy itself.

The liberal view of democracy goes back to the founding of the nation, as historian Lynn Hunt of UCLA has shown in her book Inventing Human Rights. American democracy was based on the idea that citizens care about other citizens and work responsibly (with both personal and social responsibility) through their government to provide public resources for all.

From the beginning, that meant roads and bridges, public education, hospitals, a patent office, a national bank, a justice system, controlling the flow of interstate commerce, and so on. Nowadays it includes much more — the development of the internet, satellite communications, the power grid, food safety monitoring, government research, and so on. Without those public resources, citizens cannot live reasonable lives, businesses cannot run, and a market economy would be impossible. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness require all this and health care. Unless you can get health care, your life is in jeopardy, as well as your freedom: if you have cancer and no health care, you are not free; if you break you leg and have no access to health care, you are not free, and so on. And if you are injured or sick and cannot maintain health, your life, liberty and happiness are all in jeopardy.

Under this view of democracy, the flow of wealth should guarantee the affordability of health care as a basic moral principle of democracy. If wealth has flowed in violation of this principle, that flow of wealth has been immoral, unpatriotic, and needs reform. So when liberals point out that productivity has risen greatly while salaries have not, they are talking about fairness in the flow of wealth: If you work for a living, you should earn a fair salary, that is, you should earn a living wage, which should be enough to guarantee adequate health care.

Pensions are delayed payments of wages for work already done, and taking away pensions is theft. Employment is the purchase of labor by an employer with a negotiated price for the labor. Since corporations have more power in those negotiations than employees, unions are necessary to help make negotiations fair for the price of labor.  When it is observed that most of the wealth in the past decade has flowed to the one percent, that means that fairness and the most fundamental of American principles have been violated and salaries and public resources have been inadequate and unfairly low.

The Affordable Care Act, from this perspective, is a move toward reform — toward a moral flow of wealth in line with the founding principles of the nation. I believe that President Obama, and most liberals, understand the intentions of Affordable Care Act in that way.

Conservatives have a very different view of democracy. They believe that democracy gives them the “liberty” to pursue their own interests without the government standing in their way or helping them. Their moral principle is individual responsibility, not social responsibility. If you haven’t developed the discipline to make it on your own, then you should fail — and if you can’t afford health care, so be it. Health care is seen as a “product” and citizens should not be paying for other citizens’ products.  Rudy Giuliani, as a good conservative, likened health care to flat- screen TVs.

Conservatives say that no one should be paying for anyone else (except their children and family members). Using public resources is seen as making you weak, taking away incentives for you to work for yourself. And they see it as making hard-working moral citizens pay for immoral slackers. This is the conservative frame for redistribution: it is taking away money that you hard-working Americans have earned and deserve, and “redistributing” it to those who haven’t earned it and don’t deserve it. For conservatives, this happens whenever there are public resources paid for by taxpayers. Therefore they believe that all public resources should be banned — and the affordable Care Act is a major special case and just the start.

That’s why John Boehner said, in explaining why the House has scheduled only 113 days to meet out of 365, said “We need to repeal old laws. Not pass new ones.” That is why the House conservatives saw it as moral to shut down the government and to let the sequester happen. They are ways to cut public resources.

Under this view of democracy, money previously made was made properly and using tax money for public resources is “redistribution.” “Using my money to pay for someone else” is inherently unfair in the conservative tradition. Conservatives over the past four decades have framed the word “redistribution” that way. Use of the word activates the conservative framing in general, not just the framing of the Affordable Care Act, but of the nature of democracy itself.

Because most liberals, including liberal economists, still believe in and use the inadequate Cartesian theory of reason, they do not comprehend that the word “redistribution” has been redefined in terms of a conservative frame, and to use the word is to help conservatives in their moral crusade to undermine progressive values and the traditional view of liberal democracy.

At this point we turn to the NY Times story, “Don’t Dare Call The Health Law ‘Redistribution’”on the front page, and inside “The economic policy that dare not speak its name.” John Harwood writes the following:

“These days the word is particularly toxic at the White House, where it has been hidden away to make the Affordable Care Act more palatable to the public and less a target for Republicans, who have long accused the Democrats of seeking “socialized medicine.” But the redistribution of wealth has always been a central feature of the law and lies at the heart of the insurance market disruptions driving  political attacks this fall.”

Note that he uses the word “redistribution” without quotation marks, as if it were simply a fact and as if the Republican attacks were just true and the White house was trying to hide the truth. He later calls the Affordable Care Act a “semantic sidestep” on this issue.

Harwood goes on to cite the president’s misstatement that if you like your insurance you can keep it. I suspect that the president assumed that no one would like inadequate insurance if they could get much better, and adequate, insurance for the same price, which they might have been able to if the website had not failed. The president knew that no company was forced to cancel inadequate insurance, and incorrectly assumed that they wouldn’t. Yes, the president made those incorrect assumptions. But here is how Harwood comments:

Hiding in plain sight behind that pledge — visible to health policy experts but not the general public — was the redistribution required to extend health coverage to those who had been either locked out or priced out of the market.

Now some of that redistribution has come clearly into view.

The law, for example, banned rate discrimination against women, which insurance companies called “gender rating” to account for their higher health costs. But that raised the relative burden borne by men. The law also limited how much insurers can charge older Americans, who use more health care over all. But that raised the relative burden on younger people.

And the law required insurers to offer coverage to Americans with pre-existing conditions, which eased costs for less healthy people but raised prices for others who had been charged lower rates because of their good health.

“The A.C.A. is very much about redistribution, whether or not its advocates acknowledge that this is the case,” wrote Reihan Salam on the website of the conservative National Review.

Here again, the “redistribution” word is used in a conservative frame without quotation marks as if the frame were simply true, and the citation is from a major conservative publication, where the word is used with a conservative frame.

The issue is what democracy is about and what health care in a democracy is about. For liberals, democracy is defined by equality, and by the “self-evident” “inalienable rights of life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness,” where health is inherent to those values. Under such a conception of democracy, health should never be denied because one belongs to a demographic group that fate had given more ailments and injuries.

Conservatives are helped when “redistribution”, which they have successfully reframed their way, is used by certain liberal economists, who naïvely believe that the word is neutral because economists use it as a technical term.

Harwood begins framing his piece by discussing the case of Rebecca M. Blank.

Ms. Blank is a noted academic economist, having been one of three members of President Clinton’s Council of Economic Advisers. From 2009 to 2013 she served as Deputy Secretary of Commerce in the Obama Administration, and has since left for the grand opportunity to become chancellor of the University of Wisconsin.

In 2011, she was considered for Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers while serving in the Commerce Department. Harwood reports that she was passed over for the post because of something she had written in 1992:

“A commitment to economic justice necessarily implies a commitment to a redistribution of economic resources, so that the poor and the dispossessed are more fully included in the economic system.”

Harwood quotes William Daley, Obama’s chief of staff at the time, as saying, “Redistribution is a loaded word that conjures up all sorts of unfairness in people’s minds.” The Republicans wield it “as a hammer” against Democrats, he said, adding, “It’s a word that in the political world, you just don’t use.” Daley is right that it is a loaded word, in just the sense noted above, namely, that it has been framed by conservatives to fit their ideology and using it activates their frame and their ideology in people’s brains, thus helping conservatives. In 2011, Obama was up for re-election and Daley judged that having Republicans dig up that quote would help them launch an unfair attack against the president.

Harwood reports the affair as if Obama had something to hide, rather than not wanting a conservatively framed concept to be falsely attributed to him. Harwood is clever. First, he quotes another liberal economist, Jonathan Gruber, who uses the word naively as a neutral technical economic term.  Then at the end of the article, he reports an Obama slip at a talk in Elyria, Ohio 18 months earlier. The slip involved Obama’s use of a negative. In Don’t Think of an Elephant!, I pointed out that negating a word, activates the meaning of the word. If I tell you not to think of an elephant, you will think of an elephant. Here is the Obama slip that Harwood cites, “Understand this is not a redistribution argument … This is not about taking from rich people to give to poor people.”  That was the slip, and Harwood searched back 18 months to Elyria, Ohio to find it. But then the president caught himself and said positively what he meant.  “This is about us together making investments in our country so everybody’s got a fair shot.”

Here’s the take-away from these two pieces in the Times this week.

First, there was a tiny glimpse of the huge conservative Republican communication system, with no account of its history, its extent, or how it works to change people’s brains. I hope the Times will go on to do more and better in the future.

Second, the Times printed on its front page a classic example of how the conservative system works, naively presenting it at face value without any serious framing analysis. The Times missed the conservative reframing of the word “redistribution,” missed the difference in the views of morality and democracy that lie behind the framing difference, missed the use of the conservatively reframed word as neutral by liberal economists, missed what it means for a word to be “loaded,” and succumbed like other journalists trained on Cartesian reason in helping conservatism keep its hold on public discourse.

Harwood is a smart political operative. His technique is a classic example of the Republican message machine reported on in Thursday’s Times, and is well worth serious study. The Republican brain change mechanism is not only worth a front-page discussion of its own, but deserves itself to brought into public discourse and reported on regularly.

George Lakoff is Goldman Distinguished Professor of Cognitive Science and Linguistics at UC Berkeley. His website is

Comment to “The NY Times uncovers conservative attacks, then prints one; both are on the front page

  1. Dr. Lakoff,

    Your blog post is very comprehensive. However, through the entire piece you accuse conservatives of trying to “frame” the word “redistribution,” yet your entire post makes you guilty of the same process.

    For example, you constantly talk about the “liberals” and their attachment to the “Cartesean Theory,” connecting “liberals” to the enlightenment. Unfortunately, there is little connection between modern “liberals” and the enlightenment. Liberalism arose in the 18th century and is connected to the development of the free market economy; it is marked by property rights and limited government. During the 20th century, the progressives called defenders of liberalism “conservatives,” which is a name true liberals later adopted. In short, your modern liberals are not liberal at all- they have evolved from the progressive movement, which was a negative reaction to Western liberalism, as was Communism and Fascism.

    Conservative critics of the ACA (let’s call them Classical Liberals) are using the term redistribution correctly. A woman pays more for health insurance because she lives longer and consumes more healthcare services, naturally her premiums are higher. The law forces men to subsidize the care of women. What word would you use? I would call it Tyranny or maybe we should just label it under the “war on men.” But again, you never cover progressive framing. (errr..or should I say “liberal framing”?)

    In fact, your entire article is about trying to frame HEALTH INSURNACE as HEALTHCARE. You do realize there is a difference between the two? Politicians speak about them as the same and have confused the American public into thinking of them as the same. But they are not. The ACA essentially bans health insurance. How many people will lose their health insurance policies? The answers is everyone- 100%. John Harwood is pointing out how the premiums are not reflective of an individuals risk of getting sick: it fits the text book definition of redistribution and does not fit the textbook definition of insurance. This is not framing Professor: this is a basic understanding of the English language.

    Can you write a piece on how the new “individual market” requires coercion by participants and does not fit the definition of a free market? Can you write a piece about how progressives (who you frame as “liberals”) have redefined the word “exchanges”? And as mentioned above, please write an article about how “healthcare” has been reframed as “health insurance.”

    The reason why the ACA is in trouble in the first place is because the left/progressives/”liberals” lied constantly about the law. It was too large for people to read and people didn’t pay attention. Now they realize that it is all about REDISTRIBUTING the cost of health care. If you are old, you are a winner. If you are sick, you are a winner. If you are female, you may be party a winner (if they are young and healthy female they still lose!).

    This is all a game about picking who the winners and losers are in terms of paying for healthcare. The winners and losers are not picked by voluntary consent and mutual agreement as done in a free market: the ACA accomplishes the feat by brute force.

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