George Lakoff and Me

In the current issue of The Nation, in an article called “What Liberals Don’t Understand About Freedom,” George Lakoff writes:

FDR, in giving his Four Freedoms speech of 1941, suggested that Democrats’ mission was to expand human freedom. Yet today Democrats have ceded the very concepts of freedom and liberty to Republicans. It’s time to take freedom back as the central Democratic issue.

For conservatives, individual responsibility is central: democracy provides the “liberty” to pursue your own interests, without any help from others (which would make you dependent and weak) and without any responsibility for others.

This is the exact opposite of the progressive view…democracy is about citizens caring about one another and working through their government to provide public resources that allow freedom for all.

The same is true of individual private life. Physical well-being is fundamental to a free life. If you do not have access to health care and you get cancer, you are likely to be trapped not only in debt peonage by the healthcare industry, but in physical anguish or death. So-called “women’s issues” are freedom issues, too—the freedom for individuals to be able to control their own bodies, and follow their doctors’ advice. Without safety regulations for our food and water supply we are not free. Without highways or air traffic controllers or an air force that trains most of our pilots, we would not be free to travel without fear for our safety.

The freedom to control one’s life and participate in our democracy is what unites progressives. Yet, very few progressives actually say this out loud. Progressives are bad at communicating the interdependence of issues and hence the links among forms of freedom.

In the April 6, 2011 issue of The Nation, in a piece called “Reclaiming the Politics of Freedom,” I wrote:

Conservative ideas have dominated American politics for thirty years. The centerpiece of that dominance is the notion that the market equals freedom and government is the threat to freedom.

If there is to be a true realignment—not just of parties but of principles, not just of policy preferences or cognitive frames but of deep beliefs and ideas—we must confront conservatism’s political philosophy. That philosophy reflects more than a bloodless economics or narrow self-interest; it draws from and drives forward a distinctly moral vision of freedom, with deep roots in American political thought.

The secret of conservatism’s success—as any reading of Reagan’s speeches and writings will attest—has been to locate this notion of freedom in the market. Conservative political economy envisions freedom as something more than a simple “don’t tread on me”; it celebrates the everyman entrepreneur, making his own destiny, imagining a world and then creating it.

We must confront this ideology head-on: not by temporizing about the riskiness or instability of the free market or by demonstrating that it (or its Republican stewards) cannot deliver growth but by mobilizing the most potent resource of the American vernacular against it. We must develop an argument that the market is a source of constraint and government an instrument of freedom. Without a strong government hand in the economy, men and women are at the mercy of their employer, who has the power to determine not only their wages, benefits and hours but also their lives and those of their families, on and off the job.

Armed with universal healthcare, unemployment benefits, public pensions and the like, I am less vulnerable to the coercions and castigations of an employer or partner. Not only do I have the option of leaving an oppressive situation; I can confront and change it—for and by myself, for and with others. I am emboldened not to avoid risks but to take risks: to talk back and walk out, to engage in what John Stuart Mill called, in one of his lovelier phrases, “experiments in living.”

George Lakoff writes New York Times best sellers, teaches at Berkeley, is a big-time political consultant who advises presidential campaigns, and judging by his speaker’s bureau page and press profile, gets gazillions of dollars just to talk to people. And to write stuff like this.

What am I doing wrong?


  1. gkhanna1 October 17, 2014 at 10:46 pm | #

    You’re not greedy enough and haven’t sold out. I read Cory Robin’s blog. I don’t see George Lakoff sending me any emails 🙂

  2. John Maher October 17, 2014 at 11:00 pm | #

    Lakoff dumbs his message down. He also seems to possess better writing skills than evidenced in your more cerebral and interesting piece.

  3. jeremylmohler October 17, 2014 at 11:15 pm | #

    Didn’t Lakoff work directly with the Democratic Party at one point, helping them craft their messages in new metaphoric frames? Also, Lakoff rides a lot off his linguistic endeavors – it’s like the auto-respect double majors get. Chomsky gets away with a lot of reductive claims as well because of the respect he gets elsewhere, although Chomsky has so much more serious political ideas, knowledge, and practice than this guy.

    Keep your head up. In due time.
    A lot of us read your stuff and I’ve recommended your book to others.

  4. Roquentin October 17, 2014 at 11:24 pm | #

    So much of that has nothing to do with what you say but knowing the right people and being in the right place at the right time. I personally know nothing I say will ever matter like that. I resigned myself to it years ago. That’s okay. I’ve grown quite comfortable fading out into nothingness.

    I guess my question to you is does it even matter? Would that be what you want? Would you rather be some consultant on K street than a professor at CUNY?

  5. Rick Perlstein October 17, 2014 at 11:31 pm | #

    Dumbing down, and also he drafts off numbskull science-worship in the broader society which grants his shallow and banal ideas the imprimatur of “truth.”

  6. Jordan October 17, 2014 at 11:38 pm | #

    Long time reader of your work. It is fantastic and thank you Mr. Robin for all of your work. First time poster.

    If it makes you feel any better, as a long time follower of Lakoff’s work, nobody actually listens to him. I could do some armchair psychoanalyzing as to why. He makes them feel good about themselves because he is a scientist, so they can deny that there are any political economy consequences to his stuff when they pay him. He has also made it a priority of his to market himself and spends a lot of time doing it. But even getting down to the Congressional Progressive Caucus or hell anyone else really, you will find few who actually adopt his suggestions, even though he writes his stuff for them.

    Lakoff would answer that the culture of “enlightenment reason” is why he makes no headway, and why the Democratic party(he always addresses his stuff to them and in his words, “progressives”) more generally don’t listen to him and thus aren’t effective at communicating their vision. I think it is because of the collapse of Left institutions and the neoliberal counterrevolution but, well, there is no arguing taste. Lakoff likes to dance around uncomfortable truths. He argues that Democrats need a media infrastructure to counter the Right, ignoring, for money’s sake, that the rich people he expects to fund it will fork over the money at about the same time hell freezes over.

    To make a long short incredibly short. He tells them what they want to here and thus he is paid. You tell them what they really are and thus you aren’t.

  7. Joanna Bujes October 18, 2014 at 1:16 am | #

    George has been riding this pony for forty years. His wife (or ex wife) Robin, actually writes better and edgier stuff.

    But George trumpets a very scientific kind of PR, which marries populism to elitism and plays well in academia.

    You should not be envious of George. He could never have written all that wonderful stuff you wrote on the sublime.

    On the other hand framing can be powerful: witness the 1% and 99%.

  8. Joanna Bujes October 18, 2014 at 1:17 am | #

    Oh, and he’s very short.

  9. Stephen Zielinski October 18, 2014 at 1:28 am | #

    The world is not a meritocracy. The universe is not an awesome and enormous mechanism that produces just outcomes as a matter of course. Thus the capacity to elbow and push one’s way to the front of a line and success when doing so does not entitle the successful to have the goods found there. If fame and influence were adequate markers of quality work, why does Thomas Friedman have fame and influence? Why did Christopher Hitchings gain fame and influence when he became an imperialist?

  10. msobel October 18, 2014 at 11:26 am | #

    Your question at the end had an implicit assumption in it about the value of the marketplace’s judgement.

    I like your writing better than Lakoff. I found Elephantus Non Cogitas short on practical advice and the tone didactic.

    Marc Sobel 303-440-6403 My Author Page on Amazon

  11. adela October 18, 2014 at 11:57 am | #

    if it makes you feel any better I never heard of George Lakoff until reading about him on your blog. Ergo, I know of your writings but not his 🙂

  12. LFC October 18, 2014 at 3:17 pm | #

    All the post really shows is that Lakoff will continue preaching about what progressives “don’t understand” b/c that’s his shtick and what he does. He will keep doing it even if progressives do start taking his (and your) advice and relating “freedom” to economics and reframing their arguments. If progressives *did* reframe their arguments, Lakoff wd ignore it, b/c he makes his living (or so it wd appear) preaching about what progressives “don’t understand.” He won’t stop doing this as long as people continue to pay him handsomely to do it, regardless of whether what he’s saying actually matches up w conditions in the real world and in the real discourse of US politics.

  13. Warren Ingber October 18, 2014 at 4:13 pm | #

    Your only mistake was not to call your book “The Reactionary BRAIN” (maybe including the all caps). Had you done so, you’d be on every talk show on the planet, and all you’d have do is come on and say, “It’s the amygdala, I tell you! The amygdala!” They’d be asking you if you could stay past the break just to repeat this, and all you’d have to do is throw out a few ideas — the fewer the better — to give the slogan an air of substance. In no time you’d be turning down consultancies left and right. Well, left at least, though who knows?

    The problem goes beyond the appeal of dime-store scientism. Nothing strokes a person’s intellectual vanity than to be told they have something between the ears that their opponents lack.

    Full disclosure: Decades ago I was in a course of George Lakoff’s, and he stopped calling on me because I kept asking the wrong questions, like, “Where exactly are these transformations supposed to be going on?” I must have sounded brainless.

  14. empty October 18, 2014 at 4:41 pm | #

    1. What Stephen Zielenski said.
    2. I read your blogs and your books. I have read very little by Lakoff so my understanding may be biased. His writing tends to make the reader part of the in crowd – as opposed to all those other stupid nitwits whose stupidity Lakoff is attempting to cure. Your writing does not have this framing. (I think Joanna Bujes says this much better). Somebody who makes you part of the in crowd is always going to be more popular than someone who is simply trying to communicate an idea.

  15. orionATL October 18, 2014 at 6:26 pm | #

    lakoff is all about having workaday political speech focus on manipulating a voter’s emotions – not an Enlightenment approach for sure.

    the republican party’s prosperity under lakeoff’s tutelage is due to this model:

    tell voters you support what you believe to be their values; tell them you will legislate whatever social issues they desire. having kept that promise to voters, the republican politician is the free to pursue his own values which most often involve corporate money for legislating corporate- favoring laws. the republican voter gets abortion control and guns everywhere and the corporations and the rich get the money (and get to keep more and more of it).

    what democratic politicians need is not magical words; what democratic politicians need is the will to fight hard and loud for laws and programs they know will benefit all of society.

  16. jonnybutter October 18, 2014 at 9:04 pm | #

    With few exceptions, it is forbidden in America to have one’s cake and eat it too.

    I had a ridiculous online argument once (?!) with an anglo-american libertarian/conservative type, who, in the end, told me that it was right and just that teachers make very low salaries because they were being ‘compensated’ also by the meaningfulness of their work. I asked him the inevitable clarifying questions about the compensation of people who run hedge funds, and people who pick up the garbage, but he took the usual dodge these types do (didn’t answer).

    You’re a far more interesting writer than Lakoff, Corey. Therefore, you don’t get to have big time money and fame. It is Written.

    • Glenn October 18, 2014 at 10:06 pm | #

      I worked with a mechanical engineer who, through no fault of his own ( deaths, downsizing, outright firings, etc.), never had a job performance review or a pay raise during a five year period.

      I “consoled” him, saying that some people are compensated with money for summer homes and boats; but others are the envy of all because they have job satisfaction.

      He eventually began greeting and shaking up his new bosses by telling them they wouldn’t be around for long, based on past performance.

  17. Corey Robin October 19, 2014 at 12:38 am | #

    Thank you, everyone, for the kind words. Having readers like you means everything.

  18. Frank Wilhoit October 19, 2014 at 3:43 pm | #

    It is worse than you think. (I find that many things are, but one at a time.)

    It is not simply a matter of the word “freedom” having been co-opted. What has happened is that the concept of freedom has been debased and invalidated. “Freedom” today is merely a euphemism for unaccountability. As such, it is no longer a self-recommending abstraction, but a concrete modality of decay.

  19. Wayne Dickson October 19, 2014 at 5:36 pm | #

    In a cheesy movie called Love at First Bite, the Richard Benjamin character wonders out loud why Dracula gets all the hot chicks. “Do you think it’s the cape?” he asks. You wonder why Lakoff gets all the hot checks. “Do you think it’s the accent?” I ask. He’s also good at explaining complex ideas in ways lay people understand, of course. 🙂

  20. Raven on the Hill October 19, 2014 at 8:00 pm | #

    A while back, I tried to read Lakoff’s Moral Politics, and stalled out after a few chapters; it seemed to me he’d hit on a few good ideas (and others less good) and was repeating himself. I got very tired of the book very quickly. I also find his ideas about mathematics annoying; he consigns the views of many of the greats of mathematics to the garbage can, and he is nowhere near their level of knowledge of the subject. There is an intellectual arrogance in his writings that I find off-putting.

    He is, however, more direct than you. His writing is more accessible to a public which has not mostly spent decades reading and writing extensively about these subjects. He writes a lot. Sometimes the path to popularity is just being out there, and having a new book every two years or so.

    Besides, “nobody knows anything” applies to books as well as movies.

  21. Will G-R October 20, 2014 at 12:13 pm | #

    It’s worth noting that Lakoff’s contribution to cognitive science is nothing to sneeze at. As a founding figure in the field of cognitive linguistics, he was one of the first loud voices within linguistics to push against the computational theory of mind (a deeply idealist/Cartesian approach pioneered by none other than Noam Chomsky) in favor of an approach where not just language but cognition itself is understood as inescapably rooted in the material processes of the body. His work with Mark Johnson basically amounts to the thesis that that linguistic thought even at its most abstract takes place not in some metaphysical realm of symbolic manipulation, but in the fundamentally physical/physiological realm of direct perception and embodied metaphor.

    Unfortunately, after a few intriguing books co-authored with Johnson, Lakoff largely stopped writing accessible cogsci literature and basically diverted onto the track of writing quasi-instruction-manual type books for mainstream US liberal Democrats. If he were a Marxist or at least familiar with the fundamentals of Marxist thought, he might have had the philosophical tools to incorporate his prior work into a truly materialist philosophy of cognitive science, which could have also integrated seamlessly into a critique of liberalism in its broader/classical sense instead of running up against the brick wall of “Democrats good, Republicans bad”. Alas, what might have been…

  22. Labitokov October 20, 2014 at 1:24 pm | #

    Exhibit 1,789 A:

    “The announcement of the death of David Greenglass has got me thinking a lot about collaborators. Though much of twentieth-century history could not be written without some discussion of collaborators—from Vichy to Stalinism to the Dirty Wars to McCarthyism—the topic hardly gets a mention in the great texts of political theory. Eichmann in Jerusalem being the sole exception.”

    • Corey Robin October 20, 2014 at 1:38 pm | #

      Exhibit 1,789 A…of what? What does this exhibit?

      • Labitokov October 22, 2014 at 7:21 am | #

        The reason Corey is not loved like Lakoff. Lakoff ain’t writing about Dirty Wars and collaborators.

  23. Yoram Gat October 20, 2014 at 3:26 pm | #

    Of course, you do have a little readership, which is more than most writers have. Considering that (as the Lakoff case demonstrates) there is clearly no relationship between quality of writing and the size of the readership, it seems that many of those writers without even the little readership you enjoy may be writing just as insightfully as you do. It seems then that your own cup is much more than half full and that your complaints about the last few drops that are missing are somewhat unjustified.

    • Corey Robin October 20, 2014 at 7:54 pm | #

      Thanks, Dad. Any other lectures you want to give me about what I should or should not be feeling?

      • Yoram Gat October 21, 2014 at 4:44 am | #

        Well, we all have feelings – you shared yours, I shared mine.

        As for additional fatherly advice, I would also offer this one: rather than bristling at friendly criticism you can see it as an opportunity for self-reflection.

  24. Mike Huben October 21, 2014 at 1:02 pm | #

    I have little to offer except to suggest that Lakoff is ahead of you in career life cycle and that he is addressing his ideas to people with money.

    However, I’m truly inspired by your organization of support for Salaita. I don’t know if many other people could have done that. Perhaps those sorts of efforts are where you could most benefit society, even if you are not lavishly remunerated. I view Lakoff’s writings and speeches (which I have enjoyed) as being as ephemeral as a dinner because they don’t really sustain or change anything. Defending academic freedom has much longer and more important consequences.

    • VLeheny October 21, 2014 at 8:45 pm | #

      Mike Huben: Lovely. Just right.

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