February 8, 2013

George Lakoff, a professor of cognitive science and linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley, is the author of “The Political Mind” and “The Little Blue Book: The Essential Guide to Thinking and Talking Democratic.”

Another State of the Union address by President Obama — and another chance for his critics to say that he is merely a talented speaker, that there is more to leadership than giving good speeches, that the business of governing means you must tackle our most difficult challenges, not just talk about them.

Yes, there is a difference between political speech and political action, between talking to the public and winning elections, between passing laws and enforcing them. As Obama himself put it, while our fundamental political truths “may be self-evident, they’ve never been self-executing.”

But political speech is not simply a feel-good addition to our politics; it is in fact central to political action. In many ways, speech is action. When Obama speaks forcefully, as he did in his second inaugural address, he enables action to follow. Changing the public political discourse also changes public understanding, leading to new demands for political action.

Words are not mere words. As the linguist Charles Fillmore discovered, words make sense only within certain conceptual frames — the mental structures that determine how we understand the world. When we hear political language, particular circuitry is activated in our brains. The more often we hear the words, the stronger that circuitry gets, until the frames become embedded in our thinking.

When it comes to politics, these frames are about morality, because in the end, all politics is moral. Political leaders make proposals because they think they are right. Conflicting policies, for all their political implications, usually come out of conflicting moral views.

That’s where American politics stands today. The ascent of extreme conservatism and the gridlock so apparent in Washington have everything to do with divergent moralities, as reflected in language and its framing. The conservative call for “tax relief” assumes that taxation is harmful and immoral, an affliction to be relieved. Tea party supporters framed Obama’s health-care plan in moral terms as a violation of freedom (“government takeover!”) and life (“death panels!”).

These ideas are placed into public discourse via a sophisticated conservative communications machine: think tanks, messaging experts,Grover Norquist’s weekly meetings at Americans for Tax Reform and across the country, training institutes, booking agencies, talk radio, Fox News, Rupert Murdoch’s media empire, chambers of commerce, bloggers and the rest. This network puts those words and their frames, both political and moral, into the brains of a huge number of our citizens.

The results can be remarkable. For example, although many key provisions of the Obama health-care bill had majority backing across the country, overall support for the plan was less than 50 percent. Particular provisions — such as the rule that no one can be denied insurance coverage because of preexisting medical conditions — could be dismissed as small details, meaningless in the face of the supposed threat posed by the plan as a whole.

This viewpoint was achieved through repetition of conservative moral language, ad infinitum, which strengthened conservative morality not just among the Republican faithful but also among moderates, independents and swing voters.

It is important to understand this mechanism. After all, most people are morally complex, holding both progressive and conservative moral views, depending on the issue. There is no single ideology of the moderate, just combinations of conservative and liberal opinions. In an individual brain, the activation of one worldview can inhibit the other, depending on the context — and the context is determined by public discourse, by the language we hear every day.

In 2012, extreme conservatives did not just lose the election; they lost control of the political discourse. That was clear at the parties’ conventions, where the Democrats did a better job framing their speeches to reveal recognizable truths, offering more than propaganda and spin. Just contrast the GOP’s obsession with “we built it” with Bill Clinton’s deft moral dissection of specific policy proposals. And Obama’s recent inaugural address was a masterpiece of framing deep truths.

Perhaps the deepest was this: “You and I, as citizens,” the president said, “have the obligation to shape the debates of our time — not only with the votes we cast but with the voices we lift in defense of our most ancient values and enduring ideals.”

This means Obama can take the first step, framing public discourse, but all of us as citizens must do the heavy lifting. We can also do it by using words that have vital meaning — among our families, co-workers and communities.

The more we repeat the language of equality, freedom and social responsibility, the more those ideas come to dominate the public conversation. In turn, the character of public discourse determines what the news media promote and criticize, and what the candidates for public office must pay attention to. In this way, speech is political action.

What are some other deep truths we can promote through words? That individual initiative is possible only with the infrastructure and human capital the American public has provided for all of us. That health care is inseparable from life. That education is far more than taking tests or competing in the global economy; it is what makes us free and equal. That the environment is not just outside; it is inside us, with polluted air and water and pesticides destroying our health, now and tomorrow. That women’s rights are human rights. That great disparities in wealth destroy opportunity.

From such speech, political action can flow. The State of the Union on Tuesday is an opportunity for Obama to make the link, to show how particular policies emerge from general truths, to move us from hope to responsibility.

But in the end, only we as citizens can force the president and Congress to act.

How? By speaking out.

outlook@washpost.com

Read more from Outlook:

Please, President Obama. Not another ‘national conversation.’

Friend us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.