Why are conservatives so successful in communicating their messages? What do progressives need to do to communicate their values to large populations? and our partners Canadian Dimension will be hosting renowned cognitive linguist and author of the groundbreaking Don’t Think of an Elephant, George Lakoff in Toronto this Saturday April 18 for an inspiring all-day symposium. For tickets to this exclusive event, please register here.  For a taste of Lakoff, if you are in Toronto consider coming to his evening lecture on Elections, Activism and Beyond.

Globally, we are witnessing a time dominated by trends of growing inequality: runaway wealth to the wealthy, runaway climate warming and the the runaway privatization of public resources. Progressives are fighting simply to hang on to hard-fought wins, while struggling to communicate progressive values in a political sphere largely dominated by successful conservative messages.

Ryan Meili, founding director of Upstream: Institute for A Healthy Society, sat down with George Lakoff to discuss and expand upon the ideas of political framing and progressive values and give a preview of what is to come this Saturday.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

You’re coming to Toronto later this week for and Canadian Dimension. Can you tell me a bit about what you’ll be discussing?

Not sure where to begin, because there’s a lot. The question is, in general, how conservatives, in both Canada and the U.S., have taken over governing with a minority of voters and how that has worked, what mechanism they’ve used to do it, how they frame issues in public discourse, and how they’ve come to dominate public discourse.

The second part is what constitutes a conservative and progressive worldview, which is not obvious, and it links to general moral worldviews and family values of certain kinds.

Then there’s the question of why liberals have not united on these issues. You have a phenomenon in the U.S. where Hilary Clinton [declared her candidacy for the 2016 presidential election] but a lot of progressives have been working avidly against her, saying that she’s not a progressive enough candidate and pushing Elizabeth Warren to run when she won’t, rather than trying to unite progressives and liberals and come out as a united group.

Why isn’t that happening? Why is there such a divide between progressives and liberals in the U.S.? The same thing is happening in Canada where you have the NDP and the Liberals and the Greens splitting up progressive ideas allowing Harper to govern. What can be done about that?

And then there’s a further question. One of the things I’ve been talking about is how issues get framed, which matters a great deal. Many people have mistakenly thought that framing was about language. It’s actually about thought and understanding, about understanding the relationship between social and political issues and a moral framework that people use in every day lit. It’s the moral framework that’s crucial in all of this and conservatives have done very well in figuring that out. Progressives have not. There are reasons for that, and there are ways in which it can happen. 

In addition I’m involved in helping to set up a way of organizing progressives who want to speak out on issues in the U.S. and that needs to be done in Canada as well.

You talk about the failures and divisions within parties on the left of the spectrum, liberal or progressive. With perhaps some recent exception with the Tea Party-versus-mainstream-Republican divisions, it seems like that isn’t the case for conservative parties, that they tend to put their differences aside once it’s time to actually run the campaign. Is there any reason that you think that happens less on the liberal side of things?

Yes, I think there’s a reason it happens, and it has to do with a misunderstanding of the effect of public discourse, the nature of communications and the different between thought and messaging and the role of morality in the way people vote.

There’s a further issue that is very important, which is the nature of polling. One of the things we’ve observed is that the polling by Democrats tends to make it look like most voters are in the centre. Therefore a lot of Democrats are pushed to the right to look for their voters and therefore become basically “conservative-lite” and that leads voters to vote for “conservative heavy.”

The reality is that most voters are not in the centre. There is no centre. There is no one view of politics that everybody that is not either hard right or hard left holds. You have a whole bunch of different views. There is no such thing as a moderate worldview that is unified and consistent. It doesn’t exist. Yet, the polls keep showing that it’s there and the reason has to do with the misapplication of statistics in the polling. 


We’ve seen that in Canada, where it seems social democratic parties really follow the polls, trying to meet people where they’re at. They try to fit into the Overton Window of the moment, whereas the conservatives have tried to shift that window by proposing things outside of it and having public opinion follow it. 

We’ve also seen in Canada what appears to be a strategy, perhaps led by those same flawed polls, of trying to say and do as little as possible, to try to criticize and not risk criticism by putting forth their own ideas. How important it is in your mind to speak not just to the moral worldviews but to also offer people something more tangible, 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 re-written — 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.

To obtain ticklets to hear George Lakoff in Toronto this Saturday evening April 18 click here. For information about an inspiring all-day symposium,  please register here.

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