On Tuesday, Brexit secretary David Davis told a waiting press corps not to fear Britain being plunged into a "Mad Max-style dystopia", following an increasingly dismal and eccentric performance in his EU negotiations. Just to be clear: do NOT worry that Brexit will turn this country into something resembling Mad Max.
Whether Davis intended only to suggest, against all previous evidence, that his party would not be engaged in an "Anglo-Saxon race to the bottom", or that a whole range of other dystopias were available, this is a classic political framing disaster.
"Don't think of an elephant" was the classic advice given by the linguist George Lakoff when discussing how to frame political messages: when you’re told not to think of something, it becomes hard to think about anything else. So if I tell you to think of anything but a pink elephant, a rosy Dumbo will likely tap-dance across your brain. If I assure you that the UK after Brexit won’t be an arid hell-scape populated with improbably dressed marauders, well, the imagination is already halfway there. Hence the perhaps apocryphal but celebrated exchange between Lyndon B Johnson and an aide during a fierce election battle full of dirty tricks: "Christ, Lyndon," said the aide, "we can't just call the guy a pig-fucker. It isn't true!" "Of course it ain’t true," said LBJ, "but I want to make the son-of-a-bitch deny it."
Lakoff’s interest in the political use of imagery and framing comes from a life spent thinking about metaphors. He co-authored a widely celebrated book with Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live By, in which he argued that metaphors are fundamental to the way human beings think.
For instance, the metaphors we use for argument are closely linked to war or struggle – but what effect might it have on politics if, say, we thought of arguments as the sharing of ideas? Metaphors are especially obvious around social taboos – death is referred to with metaphors of travel or rest. Sometimes metaphors can make social phenomena seem natural rather than political – for instance, in the pervasive metaphor of poverty as a disease: "the blight of poverty". So, language is powerful. If that’s so, then political activists should be paying attention to the way they use language, and studying the effects it has. Funnily enough, a recent study, "Framing the Economy", is based on exactly that. Using fieldwork, researchers from a group of progressive think-tanks and organisations – NEON, NEF, the FrameWorks Institute and PIRC – analysed people’s responses to economic metaphors.
They found that in the wake of the financial crisis, government politicians hit on a story that really worked – that we’d maxed out the national credit card and it was time to trim back on fripperies like social justice. That story provided the rationale for austerity.
Despite being a misleading way to think about national finances, it struck a chord. This story proved resilient to both reasoned analysis of eminent economists and the sustained mobilisation of anti-cuts campaigners. The same thing could be seen in Michael Gove’s derided but effective attack on experts during the EU referendum – an expert bit of playing on a widely-shared resentment at perceived elite condescension. The report also notes that last year saw some cracks in this edifice. Jeremy Corbyn’s success in the general election and the groundswell of popular support on which he rode outlined a very different vision for British politics and the economy.
To understand how to build on that, first we need to understand what people already think about the economy. Above all, the study suggests people see the economy as a container, with some people contributing and others draining – and governed by mysterious, hard-to-understand forces, which make it unstable. It’s not hard to see how a pervasive sense of the economy as a storehouse of money makes it easy for politicians to win by suggesting a certain class of people (benefits claimants or migrants) just intend to drain it – or how much-repeated claims about its complexity might make ordinary people feel fatalistic and powerless about it.
These basic assumptions gave rise to strong senses that the economy might be rigged, or that press and politicians lie constantly – but that there was nothing that could be done about it, and in any case, greed was just a part of human nature. Despite senses that the government should do something about it, and nostalgia for a fairer past, the overwhelming sense that emerged was one of fatalism.
The researchers suggest two stories that campaigners – or anyone wanting to bring around their right-wing relatives over Sunday lunch – might use to route around this ingrained sense of powerlessness.
The first is about resisting corporate power: it says that the economy is broken and unfair, and lays the blame squarely at the feet of the few – big corporations and wealthy elites – and says their economic manipulation is the source of its problems. It uses a programming metaphor to talk about the economy – highlighting that, like a computer, the economy has been deliberately programmed one way, and we can programme it in another.
The second story focuses on individual and social needs, and talks about our political choices like railway tracks. For decades, we’ve been building tracks which take people in pursuit of profit, rather than towards our real needs – but we can choose to build them in a different direction, toward what we really want, rather than just making money for the few. The left is sometimes scared of thinking about the stories we tell. There can be a sense that designing language so that it resonates with people is just another form of political lie, or that being concerned exclusively about language can lead us to obscure real, deeper political questions.
Clever language without real answers is a vacuous power play, and poisonous to real political change. But in the hands of committed activists who want to change the world, there’s no doubt these two stories, complementary and put with passion, could be powerful weapons for change.