The Campaign: Not Issues, But Symbolism

George Lakoff did a very interesting commentary on the way the political issues are framed by Democratic Party and Republican Party candidates and advisors, using the case of Governor Sarah Palin, the Republican vice-presidential candidate. First he makes the point that the Republicans understand much better that the U.S. political game is more about “conservative family values” and general feel-good symbolism than about “realities” and rational arguments about public policy issues. The initial Democratic Party response is to assume the rational voter and accent the “issues.” But

the Palin nomination is not basically about external realities and what Democrats call “issues,” but about the symbolic mechanisms of the political mind-the worldviews, frames, metaphors, cultural narratives, and stereotypes.

Lakoff then adds the crucial point that accenting critical symbols is the Republican strength in political campaigns:

Reagan and W won-running on character: values, communication, (apparent) authenticity, trust, and identity – not issues and policies…. Conservative family values are strict and apply via metaphorical thought to the nation: good vs. evil, authority, the use of force, toughness and discipline, individual (versus social) responsibility, and tough love. Hence, social programs are immoral because they violate discipline and individual responsibility. Guns and the military show force and discipline. Man is above nature; hence no serious environmentalism. The market is the ultimate financial authority, requiring market discipline. In foreign policy, strength is use of the force.

Palin may have some political problems but she fits the symbolism framing extremely well:

Palin is the mom in the strict father family, upholding conservative values. Palin is tough: she shoots, skins, and eats caribou. She is disciplined: raising five kids with a major career. She lives her values: she has a Downs-syndrome baby that she refused to abort. She has the image of the ideal conservative mom: pretty, perky, feminine, Bible-toting, and fitting into the ideal conservative family. And she fits the stereotype of America as small-town America.

This is a very important and interesting analysis, but Lakoff leaves out what is perhaps the most important symbolism of all for the Republicans—the racial symbolism. John McCain and Sarah Palin symbolize the highly prized whiteness, the virtuous republicans (small R.) imagery, that has been at the heart of the white racial frame since the 17th century. That is why they are so attractive to white, and some other, Americans.

That is probably the most important symbolism that is heavily shaping this election. Not only do Republicans stand for “conservative family values,” but those values in this society are distinctively white in accent and interpretation. Indeed, even the word “American” for most whites, and many others across the globe, signals “white American” even without the adjective.

And these candidates McCain and Palin are candidates, of course, of the “white party” in the U.S. Something like 93 percent of the Republican delegates in Minnesota this week are white, with 7 percent Americans of color. In contrast the Democratic Party convention had some 67 percent white delegates and 33 percent Americans of color. What a contrast! So the central symbolism here is racial, and the “conservative family values” so strongly advertised are in effect “white.”


  1. Jessie

    Beyond the content of Palin’s speech last night, the powerful symbolic importance of her and her white, heternormative, pro-natal, nuclear family spells real trouble for the Democratic ticket. The way she used “community organizer” as an invective, and the coded language of contrasting “Scranton” with “San Francisco,” resonated with huge portions of the (white) American electorate. The networks were complicit in this framing through their choice of crowd / reaction shots. The GOP had stacked the floor with many more women delegates than there actually are in the party, and the cameras focused on them and the handful of African Americans in the audience.

  2. One thing the GOP certainly can’t be accused of is not playing to their audience. The “prized whiteness” was all that we saw sitting in the audience. If those delegates are in anyway representative of the voters they represent, the party is even whiter than you cite in your post. According to numbers in a Washington Post article today, black delegates seated at the Xcel Center totalled an astoundingly paltry 36 (out of 2380). This works out to about 1.5%

  3. You put it a finger on it nicely and precisely, Joe. Yes, just like the unspoken whiteness nearly everywhere else in America, the real elephant in that room was a white one. And like the more proverbial “elephant in the room,” everyone sees it, and almost no one names it.

    Age was another glaring difference for me, not only in terms of the people there, but also the stale, Cold War ideas and methods, and the combative, vindictive, macho posturing (and what a bizarrely gendered mix that gun-totin’ Caribou Barbie is!).

  4. Joe

    Yes, Mordy, I thought the 7 percent people of color that Kohut announced looked high, compared to the TV scanning of the audience. He must include lots of non-black folks of color who do not show up somehow in the TV scanning? That is whitest crowd I can remember seeing, even at a Republican convention. The white party , indeed.

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