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.”