George Lakoff offers some framing tips to the Democrats re health care reform

August 20, 2009 | By | 4 Replies More

Linguist George Lakoff is asking how a man who did such a marvelous job campaigning for President has stumbled so often on the issue of health care.   Lakoff thus wrote an article offering some a list of language/framing advice to the Democrats. Here’s the foundational concept:

The list of what needs reform makes sense under one conceptual umbrella. It is a public alternative that unifies the long list of needed reforms: coverage for the uninsured, cost control, no preconditions, no denial of care, keeping care when you change jobs or get sick, equal treatment for women, exorbitant deductibles, no lifetime caps, and on and on. It’s a long list. But one idea, properly articulated, takes care of the list: An American Plan guarantees affordable care for all Americans. Simple. But not for policy wonks.

The policymakers focus on the list, not the unifying idea. So, Obama’s and Axelrod’s statements last Sunday were just the lists without the unifying institution. And without a powerful institution, the insurance companies will just whittle away at enforcement of any such list, and a future Republican administration will just get rid of the regulators, reassigning them or eliminating their jobs.

According to Lakoff, Obama needs to break out of his wonkish way of talking about health care.  He is mistakenly operating on the principle of “policy speak”:

If you just tell people the policy facts, they will reason to the right conclusion and support the policy wholeheartedly.

Lakoff argues that “policy speak” is a big mistake.  Mere facts don’t win arguments.  Rather, the facts need to make sense to people, resonate with them and inspire them to act.  Here’s Lakoff’s version of what should be Obama’s basic message:

Insurance company plans have failed to care for our people. They profit from denying care. Americans care about one another. An American plan is both the moral and practical alternative to provide care for our people.

The insurance companies are doing their worst, spreading lies in an attempt to maintain their profits and keep Americans from getting the care they so desperately need. You, our citizens, must be the heroes. Stand up, and speak up, for an American plan.

Lakoff has lots of specifics.    For instance, remind Americans that health care is a patriotic duty.   Highlight the phrase “doctor-patient care.”   Deny that the insurance companies care; rather, they clearly communicate that insurance companies make money by depriving us of care.  Hammer the phrase “insurance company bureaucrats.”  Tell Americans that their health care premiums are “private taxes” levied by insurers.   Remind Americans that health insurers “govern our lives.”  Talk about the “failure” of insurance companies.   The “villainizing of real insurance company villains should have begun from the beginning.

George Lakoff is asking how a man who did such a marvelous job campaigning for President has stumbled so often on the issue of health care. Lakoff thus wrote an article offering some a list of language/framing advice to the Democrats. Here’s the foundational concept:

The list of what needs reform makes sense under one conceptual umbrella. It is a public alternative that unifies the long list of needed reforms: coverage for the uninsured, cost control, no preconditions, no denial of care, keeping care when you change jobs or get sick, equal treatment for women, exorbitant deductibles, no lifetime caps, and on and on. It’s a long list. But one idea, properly articulated, takes care of the list: An American Plan guarantees affordable care for all Americans. Simple. But not for policy wonks.

The policymakers focus on the list, not the unifying idea. So, Obama’s and Axelrod’s statements last Sunday were just the lists without the unifying institution. And without a powerful institution, the insurance companies will just whittle away at enforcement of any such list, and a future Republican administration will just get rid of the regulators, reassigning them or eliminating their jobs.

According to Lakoff, Obama needs to break out of his wonkish way of talking about health care. He is mistakenly operating on the principle of “policy speak”:

If you just tell people the policy facts, they will reason to the right conclusion and support the policy wholeheartedly.

Lakoff argues that “policy speak” is a big mistake. Mere facts don’t win arguments. Rather, the facts need to make sense to people, resonate with them and inspire them to act. Here’s Lakoff’s version of what should be Obama’s basic message:

Insurance company plans have failed to care for our people. They profit from denying care. Americans care about one another. An American plan is both the moral and practical alternative to provide care for our people.

The insurance companies are doing their worst, spreading lies in an attempt to maintain their profits and keep Americans from getting the care they so desperately need. You, our citizens, must be the heroes. Stand up, and speak up, for an American plan.

Lakoff has lots of specifics. For instance, remind Americans that health care is a patriotic duty. Highlight the phrase “doctor-patient care.” Deny that the insurance companies care; rather, they clearly communicate that insurance companies make money by depriving us of care. Hammer the phrase “insurance company bureaucrats.” Tell Americans that their health care premiums are “private taxes” levied by insurers. Remind Americans that health insurers “govern our lives.” Talk about the “failure” of insurance companies. The “villainizing of real insurance company villains should have begun from the beginning.

I recommend reading Lakoff’s entire article, which is detailed, and thoughtful.”

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Category: Communication, Community, Health, Language, Medicine, Politics, Psychology Cognition

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (4)

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  1. Jay Fraz says:

    Lakoff is one of my favorite educators on speech and debate and I'm really glad to see this article, thanks for posting it. I've always been kind of sad that his think tank didn't work out.

  2. BJ says:

    Erich-

    I've always enjoyed Lakoff's analysis of the framing that goes on in national politics, especially concerning the relative success the right has had in framing issues in terms that resonate with a large part of the American public. This interview with him offers a broader view of how framing serves to affect the terms of the debate on a variety of issues.

  3. grumpypilgrim says:

    I've been a supporter of universal government-run care ever since the day my private insurance company tried to deny coverage for a claim that fell squarely within the explicit language of their policy. As if that's not bad enough, here's the kicker: the amount they were trying to deny was only $70, and they spent more than an hour arguing with me on the phone, with two of their employees on a conference call. In other words, the company spent more money (in labor costs) arguing with me than the entire amount that was in dispute. And they still wound up paying the disputed amount.

    Is it any wonder their admin costs are out of control?

    I shudder to think what they would have tried to do to me had I had a much larger claim and been less capable of arguing my claim. Say, if I'd had a big, complicated claim that would have been less clearly covered by their (deliberately vaguely written) policy.

  4. Jay Fraz says:

    Well grumpypilgrim, you could go to another insurer, with a pre-existing condition, and watch them deny care too;).

    Yeah, that government run thing is looking better and better now a days, we keep hearing the insurance companies yell, 'THE GOVERNMENT SCREWS UP EVERYTHING!', they just don't seem to hear the 'NOT AS BAD AS YOU!' that we are all quite certain of at this point.

    Perhaps the funniest is the 'GOVERNMENT WILL RATION CARE' scream, they always miss that we are currently PROFIT RATIONED.

    I'm screaming too much 2day.

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