By now, just about everyone who follows politics, especially online, has heard George Lakoff’s “frames” proposed as an antidote to everything that ails US liberals. For those few who haven’t heard and are too lazy to do a simple web search, frames are basically a linguistic concept (Lakoff is a linguist) referring to the terms we use to describe things. Pick good terms, the theory goes, and you all but dictate the outcome of the debate. The best example is using “death tax” to describe the estate tax. Once you get people thinking of it as a tax on death instead of on inheritance, on a sad moment instead of on a windfall, you’re most of the way to convincing people that it’s bad.

As a liberal, I suppose I’m supposed to buy into the theory that choosing the right “frames” will increase acceptance of liberal beliefs and allow Democrats to win the next election. Yeah, well, actually…I think that’s a bunch of crap. It’s not that I don’t believe in the power of language. I am a writer, after all, both here and elsewhere. I know all of the sneaky ways that people manipulate terms, definitions, and axioms to get their way in a debate. However, I still believe that concepts matter more than presentation. Lakoffism is like worrying about the paint while the roof falls in. The anti-liberals have not gained ground by coming up with better phrases or metaphors; they have done so by coming up with solid, hard-edged logical constructs that they can use to support their agenda. Consider that estate-tax example. The “death tax” phrasing might have some immediate effect, but such misrepresentation can be dealt with quickly and effectively. What’s much harder to address is the arguments that are based in an absolutist view of property rights that can trace its roots from Rand and Friedman back to the early Enlightenment (or even before). Because the anti-liberals have made the investment in compiling this large body of basic theory, they always have plenty of quotes and counterarguments ready at hand. Untouched by the grime that accompanies actual application in the real world, furthermore, their ideas always seem shinier and newer than liberals’. This puts liberals, who are too often bogged down in actual details to spend much time on theory and whose every failure can be held up to ridicule while the libertarians’ failures remain only potential and are thus easily ignored, at a distinct disadvantage.

The only perceptual problem with liberalism is that most liberals have forgotten – or never knew – the “grand theory” behind all of the specific programs they believe in. Basic ideas of a commons and a social contract receive scant attention except from opponents. More modern lessons from game theory, chaos/complexity theory, or social-network theory are not widely appreciated. With the unifying philosophical framework falling apart, liberals are left defending specific policies with specific and well-studied flaws. They’re like soldiers who have allowed themselves to become isolated, pinned down, and outflanked over and over again. Instead of Lakoff’s tactical thinking, what we really need is a strategy that encompasses the entire ideological battlefield instead of just a few positions within it. To do that, we need to remember and expand upon the philosophical themes that differentiate liberalism from alternatives.