george_lakoff's picture
Fellow at The Rockridge Institute; Author, The Little Blue Book
Lakoff's Law

Lakoff's First Law

Frames trump facts.

All of our concepts are organized into conceptual structures called "frames" (which may include images and metaphors) and all words are defined relative to those frames. Conventional frames are pretty much fixed in the neural structures of our brains. In order for a fact to be comprehended, it must fit the relevant frames. If the facts contradict the frames, the frames, being fixed in the brain, will be kept and the facts ignored.

We see this in politics every day. Consider the expression "tax relief" which the White House introduced into common use on the day of George W. Bush's inauguration. A "relief" frame has an affliction, an afflicted party, a reliever who removes the affliction and is thereby a hero, and in the frame anyone who tries to stop the reliever from administering the relief is a bad guy, a villain. "Tax relief" imposes the additional metaphor that Taxation Is an Affliction, with the entailments that the president is a hero for attempting to remove this affliction and the Democrats are bad guys for opposing him. This frame trumps many facts: Most people wind up paying more in local taxes, payments for services cut, and debt servicing as a result of the Bush's tax cuts.

There is of course another way to think about taxes: Taxes are what you pay to live in America—to have democracy, opportunity, government services, and the vast infrastructure build by previous taxpayers—the highways, the internet, the schools, scientific research, the court system, etc. Taxes are membership fees used to maintain and expand services and the infrastructure. But however true this may be, it is not yet an established frame inscribed in the synapses of our brains.

This has an important consequence. Political liberals have inherited an assumption from the Enlightenment, that The facts will set us free, that if the public is just given the facts, they will, being rational beings, reach the right conclusion. It is simply false. It violates Lakoff's Law.

Lakoff's Second Law

Voters vote their identities, not their self-interest.

Because of the way they frame the world, voters vote in a way that best accords with their identities and not in accord with their self-interest. That is why it is of no use for Democrats to keep pointing out that Bush's tax cuts go to the top 1 percent, not to most voters. If they identify with Bush because they share his culture and his world view, they will vote against their self-interest.

We saw this in California in the recall election, when, for example, union members overwhelming favored Gray Davis' policies as being better for them, yet voted for Schwarzenegger.