As a linguist and thinker, Lakoff has written a number of influential books and journal articles in which he argues that people understand the world through metaphors. He has been dubbed the "Father of Framing" by the New York Times Magazine.
Political activism such as that exhibited by filing the language for a California ballot proposition is not new to Lakoff. He founded the Rockridge Institute in 2003 to advocate for his favored progressive views. The strategy of the Rockridge Institute was primarily to discover ways to re-frame and articulate progressive views in ways that Lakoff believed would make these views more palatable and acceptable to moderate voters. The Rockridge Institute closed up shop in early 2008.
Lakoff expresses many of his political views through a column at the Huffington Post.
Don't Think of a Tax
Lakoff refers to the End the Two-Thirds Requirement Amendment as the "California Democracy Act." In Lakoff's eyes, the change he wants isn't about making it easier for the California State Legislature to impose higher taxes on Californians. Rather, Lakoff wants voters to regard the change as having to do with "revenue" and democracy. According to Lakoff, "This isn't about taxes. It's about democracy."
Lakoff wants journalists and advocates to use words like "democracy" and "revenue" instead of words like "tax hikes" and "higher taxes," because he believes that the way voters think is significantly influenced by "cognitive frames."
Lakoff believes that if he frames his proposed amendment as being about democracy, rather than about making it easier for the Democratic-controlled state legislature to impose higher taxes, his amendment will resonate with California's voters: "I believe most people don't know this is a minority-rule state, and if they knew that they wouldn't like it. And if they knew it was undemocratic and that bringing back democracy would end gridlock, they would like that."
According to Lakoff, a poll he commissioned to measure sentiment in favor of his proposal to repeal the 2/3rds requirement for raising taxes found that 73% were in favor when the language was, ""All legislative actions on revenue and budget must be determined by a majority vote."
Lakoff believes this is because the ballot title uses the phrases "taxes" and "increase" three times and that the drop in poll numbers depending on how the measure is described lends support to his thesis that if voters see his proposal as a proposal that will make it easier to raise taxes, they will oppose it.
Lakoff has been active in Democratic circles in California for years. He came up with the idea for his proposed amendment when Loni Hancock, a California State Senator, invited him to meet with her and a dozen other Democratic legislators who were frustrated at "constantly having to bend to the will of Republican minorities in both the Assembly and Senate." Lakoff, learning of their plight, "...thought this was horrible."
Ballot initiative activism
Lakoff filed proposed ballot language with election officials for the End the Two-Thirds Requirement Amendment "...At the last minute, I decided that if no one else was going to do it, I would. Later, he says, "...I found out that there was a tremendous amount to do (to qualify)."
He also said, "You can talk about framing all you want; if there’s not a communication system, it doesn’t work. Democrats haven’t built a communication system. Republicans have."
Indications emerged in March 2010 that Lakoff's petition drive was faltering. Chandra Friese, a real estate agent in San Francisco who is helping with the effort, said, "George is a full-time professor. He's an idealist and an intellectual - but he's not a political animal. So getting the campaign structure ready to go took some time."
In April, the initial version of the proposed amendment was withdrawn, and another version filed, with an eye toward qualifying for the 2012 ballot.
- 2009: The Political Mind: A Cognitive Scientist's Guide to Your Brain and Its Politics. Penguin Reprint (June 2009)
- 2004: Don't Think of an Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate; The Essential Guide for Progressives. Chelsea Green.
- 2002: Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think. University of Chicago Press.
- 2000: Where Mathematics Comes From: How the Embodied Mind Brings Mathematics into Being. Basic Books.
- 1987: Women, Fire and Dangerous Things. University of Chicago Press.
- New York Times, "George Lakoff Tries to Reframe Sacramento’s Conversation," January 4, 2010
- University of California-Berkeley, "How to solve California's fiscal crisis? First, don't think of an elephant," November 12, 2009
- ABC, "Professor conducts poll on ballot measure language," April 29, 2010
- Sacramento Bee, "It's not easy to get an initiative on California's ballot," December 28, 2009 (dead link)
- San Francisco Chronicle, "Linguist's budget remedy faced political reality," March 3, 2010
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