How can progressives win the next election? George Lakoff has a few ideas.

| May 28, 2015
How can progressives win the next election? George Lakoff has a few ideas.

How can progressives communicate their values to large populations without reinforcing conservative messaging?

In April and our partners Canadian Dimension hosted renowned cognitive linguist and author of the groundbreaking Don't Think of an Elephant, George Lakoff, in Toronto, who expanded on the concept of political framing and how this can be used in progressive Canadian politics.

In part two of this interview, Ryan Meili, founding director of Upstream: Institute for A Healthy Society, and Lakoff dive deeper into the strategies behinds political messaging and how progressives can more successfully bring their values and worldviews to the public sphere.

Read part one of this interview here.

This interview has been edited and condensed.


In Canadian politics there seems to be a strategy of trying to say and do as little as possible, to criticize others and to avoid criticism by not putting forward any ideas of your own.

How important is it in your mind to offer people a real vision or platform, something more substantial than criticism? 

Well first of all, criticism hurts. Yourself. It's shooting yourself in the foot. I wrote a book called Don't Think of An Elephant -- there's a new version that's out now, completely rewritten -- but the idea is that if you say "don't think of an elephant," you'll think of an elephant. If you come out with someone else's ideas and someone else's language, and you negate it, arguing against it, that means that someone hearing it has to activate in their brains the other guy's ideas and language. And when that happens, those ideas and that language get strengthened in the listener's brains.

So what you're doing is helping the other guy by doing the criticism, and just doing the criticism. What you need to do is give your own ideas, support your own moral system, and be positive all the time. That is, you have to be on offence, constantly. That is something that is not done seriously in either the U.S. or Canada.

It may happen issue by issue, but not generally, so people don't see the moral basis of the issues. And often, when they take up an issue, again they'll use the other sides terms. 

Let me give you an example, which I'm sure applies in Canada as well, Ronald Reagan got elected arguing against government, Big Government specifically, but government. The Democrats have made the mistake of trying to defend government, which means you're being governed by it. It doesn't matter, if you're for small government you're a conservative, if you're for big government, you're still in favour of governing people.

Government isn't the main issue for progressives at all. The main issue has to do with democracy, in which citizens are united in the sense that they care about each other they care about citizens in general, they use the government as an instrument to provide public resources for everybody, whether they're people in ordinary private life or private enterprise.

The idea is that you provide things like roads and bridges and sewers and an electric grid and hopefully a postal service and satellite communications and all kinds of other things, and research for e.g., and all of those things are necessary if you're going to have any kind of public enterprise or public life and they're not coming from government, they're coming from the public. The private sector depends on the public. 

So it's much less about government, the organ of the state, than it is about public investment, collective investment, the things we're working for together?

Exactly, and the idea is it's like government itself. Government is what people provide, and it's something that can be voted out, it's something that can be criticized. But the alternative of corporate government, with corporations governing a huge amount of our lives, but they're for other people's profit, not for ours.

Besides that, there's no transparency. You don't know who makes the decisions in the corporation about what goes into your food, or what poisons go into the environment, or all kinds of other decisions that affect people's lives mightily. And not only that, a lot of corporations are v inefficiently run, there are a lot of wasteful corporations, and this is not discussed. one of the things that I've noticed is that there are a lot of general areas that are never discussed, that are never brought up.

Can you give us an example of ideas that could help bring the moral world views forward that would make liberal values more successful in the public arena? 

The first idea we need is the idea that the private depends on the public. Without public resources provided by other citizens, you can't have businesses, and you can't have a decent private life. Privatization is exactly the wrong thing to do in most cases unless there is some way that the private is made accountable, transparent, and also beneficial to the public.

So, it's not that we're against private enterprise or anything like that, but most private enterprise depends on the public. You're not going to have companies building roads or satellite communications for everybody, or developing the research behind it, or developing some area of general university research and so on. Private companies don't do that. It takes citizens to do that, working through the government. 

From some of what you're saying, it sounds as though we need to be a bit bolder, say more than we're saying now, and be bold in particular in using positive moral arguments. That does perhaps get us into territory that some people would call radical in a way that isn't helpful, as it gets us outside of the arguments or decisions that the public is ready for.

Is there a sweet spot between the reformist and the radical, a way to be bolder and stronger in our message without being so far outside what the public is ready for as to be completely ignored? 

What is called a radical message is one that people are not prepared to hear right now. Conservative messages are messages that people were initially not prepared to hear. The idea that taxes are bad, that government is bad, was not something that people were prepared to hear in the U.S. in 1965, or in 1967 when Nixon was running. People were not prepared to hear them, but they were repeated over and over until people got prepared to hear them, until their brains changed. Because all language is defined in terms of frames. The frames are mental structures that are physically there in your brain, and the more that those mental structures are activated in your brain, the stronger those brain circuits get.

So don't expect new language to be accepted right away. You may have to say certain things, but you want to choose what you say so that it's part of an argument, so that it makes sense. 

Take this example. Right now, conservatives talk of companies as Job Creators. No business ever gave away a job as just a nice thing to do. They don't just say, "Oh, we have a lot of jobs, we'll give you a job, period. That's what we care about." That's not the idea. If you look at this from the point of view of work, what are employees, what are workers? They are Profit Creators. The reason businesses hire people is so they can make a profit on them, and those people are the creators of that profit, and should be having a fair share of that profit. Now, that's a sensible thing, it makes sense.

Or take a pension. What is a pension? A pension is payment delayed for work already done. You've already earned, and if a state or a company says we're taking away your pensions, it means they're stealing your money. They're steeling what you've earned. Now anybody who has worked for a pension understands this perfectly well. 

Or take unions. Unions are part of guaranteeing us freedom. Freedom from corporate slavery, freedom from being a wage slave, freedom from having corporations dictate how safe your workplace is or is not, what your work hours are, what your work conditions are, what you're going to be paid, whether you'll have health care, etc. What unions do is free you from corporate servitude. They're Freedom Institutions, and they're not spoken about as such, even by the unions. 

Those are great examples, Profit Creators, Unions as Freedom Institutions, of reframing for more successful campaigns, more successful language. For the apprentice carpenter, those who are new at framing, any techniques that you would suggest to people who are trying to run a poll or action campaign, any tools they should take to their message?

Yes. They need to be trained. They need a communication network. What the conservatives did was this: first they set up training institutes. The biggest one is the Leadership Institute in Virginia, which for the last 20 years has trained, by their estimates, 159,000 conservative people. 159,000!

I had one of them in one of my courses, and she was the smartest person in my course. A young woman who said, "I was trained at the Leadership Institute last summer, it was great!" And it was great; she was very smart, and she out-argued every progressive in the class.

If you go to the Leadership Institute website you'll see that they are funded by wealthy conservatives, and that for very cheap prices or for free, they are offering trainings all the time, in all parts of the U.S. and in 15 other countries. This is going on constantly.

In addition to that they have a list of people who are willing to talk on various issues in every part of the U.S. and they have a booking agency, and they can book them on radio, TV, tell them how to call into talk radio stations, they can book them into local schools and local businesses etc. This is a serious communications network and progressives, ordinary spokespeople, need 1) training that is either free or inexpensive and 2) a communications network that they're part of.

In the computer age they need social networking, that's part of it, and they need online tools for help and training in this. This is not one of these things where you can go to a lecture by me, pick up one of my books, and go do it. It doesn't work that way. You really have to be trained. It's not easy. 

We've got the Broadbent Institute in Canada, the New Organizing Institute in the U.S., I'm wondering if you see anything emerging like that Leadership Institute on the other side of the political spectrum? 

Well, I'm setting one up right now called Reframing America. We're raising money for it right now so that we've got people to run it. It takes people to run it, it's a serious operation. That needs to be done in a lot of places. We had a think tank for a while where we did a lot of this research, but it wasn't the sort of thing where we actually trained people and set up communications networks. That's crucial.

But also, there are resistances that liberals tend to have. Why is this resisted? It's resisted because conservatives understand, since they're interested in business, they understand the importance of marketing, of marketing their ideas. The people who teach marketing in business schools study cognitive science and neuroscience and language, the fields that I study. And they understand how it works.

Progressives who go into politics study political science, law, public policy, economics, and those fields don't teach marketing and they don't teach cognitive science  or neuroscience, and they don't teach the way people really think.

So what happens is you get people who are policy-makers or who are candidates or who are political staff who have an incorrect idea about how people think. So they say if you just tell people the facts everyone will come to the right conclusion. It isn't true.

If there's no feelings associated with the facts you don't get very far. 

Exactly. It has to be something that has to do with your moral worldview and your identity as a person. 

There's a lot to know. The research I do is within cognitive linguistics, the study of the brain, the mind and language, and how it works both consciously and unconsciously. It's complicated, to be honest, and all the things that I've been saying are coming out of that research.

So we need the evidence for the policies, but we also need the evidence behind how to speak about them well. 


George Lakoff is an American cognitive linguist, best known for his thesis that lives of individuals are significantly influenced by the central metaphors they use to explain complex phenomena. Don't Think of an Elephant! Know Your Values and Frame the Debate, self-labeled as "the Essential Guide for Progressives," was published in September 2004 and features a foreword by former  Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean. An updated version was published in 2015.

Ryan Meili is a Family Physician in Saskatoon and Founder of Upstream: Institute for A Healthy Society. @ryanmeili



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