BERKELEY BLOG: Selling the 99% Agenda

A framing memo for Occupy Wall Street  George Lakoff, professor of  linguistics | 10/25/11 |

CLICKME: to hear Frank Luntz advise Stephen Colbert on how to frame the Colbert Super Pak.

I was asked weeks ago by some in the Occupy Wall Street movement to make suggestions for how to frame the movement. I have hesitated so far, because I
think the movement should be framing itself. It’s a general principle: Unless
you frame yourself, others will frame you — the media, your enemies, your
competitors, your well-meaning friends. I have so far hesitated to offer
suggestions. But the movement appears to maturing and entering a critical time
when small framing errors could have large negative consequences. So I thought
it might be helpful to accept the invitation and start a discussion of how the
movement might think about framing itself.

About framing: It’s normal. Everybody engages in it all the time. Frames are
just structures of thought that we use every day. All words in all languages are
defined in terms of frame-circuits in the brain. But, ultimately, framing is
about ideas, about how we see the world, which determines how we act.

In politics, frames are part of competing moral systems that are used in
political discourse and in charting political action. In short, framing is a
moral enterprise: it says what the character of a movement is. All politics is
moral. Political figures and movements always make policy recommendations
claiming they are the right things to do. No political figure ever says, do what
I say because it’s wrong! Or because it doesn’t matter! Some moral principles or
other lie behind every political policy agenda.

Two moral framing systems in politics

Conservatives have figured out their moral basis and you see it on Wall
Street: It includes: The primacy of self-interest. Individual responsibility,
but not social responsibility. Hierarchical authority based on wealth or other
forms of power. A moral hierarchy of who is “deserving,” defined by success. And
the highest principle is the primacy of this moral system itself, which goes
beyond Wall Street and the economy to other arenas: family life, social life,
religion, foreign policy, and especially government. Conservative “democracy” is
seen as a system of governance and elections that fits this model.

Though OWS concerns go well beyond financial issues, your target is right:
the application of these principles in Wall Street is central, since that is
where the money comes from for elections, for media, and for right-wing
policy-making institutions of all sorts on all issues.

The alternative view of democracy is progressive: Democracy starts with
citizens caring about one another and acting responsibly on that sense of care,
taking responsibility both for oneself and for one’s family, community, country,
people in general, and the planet. The role of government is to protect and
empower all citizens equally via The Public: public infrastructure, laws and
enforcement, health, education, scientific research, protection, public lands,
transportation, resources, art and culture, trade policies, safety nets, and on
and on. Nobody makes it one their own. If you got wealthy, you depended on The
Public, and you have a responsibility to contribute significantly to The Public
so that others can benefit in the future. Moreover, the wealthy depend on those
who work, and who deserve a fair return for their contribution to our national
life. Corporations exist to make life better for most people. Their reason for
existing is as public as it is private.

A disproportionate distribution of wealth robs most citizens of access to the
resources controlled by the wealthy. Immense wealth is a thief. It takes
resources from the rest of the population — the best places to live, the best
food, the best educations, the best health facilities, access to the best in
nature and culture, the best professionals, and on and on. Resources are
limited, and great wealth greatly limits access to resources for most

It appears to me that OWS has a progressive moral vision and view of
democracy, and that what it is protesting is the disastrous effects that have
come from operating with a conservative moral, economic, and political
worldview. I see OWS as primarily a moral movement, seeking economic and
political changes to carry out that moral movement — whatever those particular
changes might be.

A moral focus for Occupy Wall Street

I think it is a good thing that the occupation movement is not making
specific policy demands. If it did, the movement would become about those
demands. If the demands were not met, the movement would be seen as having

It seems to me that the OWS movement is moral in nature, that occupiers want
the country to change its moral focus. It is easy to find useful policies;
hundreds have been suggested. It is harder to find a moral focus and stick to
it. If the movement is to frame itself, it should be on the basis of its moral
focus, not a particular agenda or list of policy demands. If the moral focus of
America changes, new people will be elected and the policies will follow.
Without a change of moral focus, the conservative worldview that has brought us
to the present disastrous and dangerous moment will continue to prevail.

We love America. We’re here to fix It

I see OWS as a patriotic movement, based on a deep and abiding love of
country — a patriotism that it is not just about the self-interests of
individuals, but about what the country is and is to be. Do Americans care about
other citizens, or mainly just about themselves? That’s what love of America is
about. I therefore think it is important to be positive, to be clear about
loving America, seeing it in need of fixing, and not just being willing to fix
it, but being willing to take to the streets to fix it. A populist movement
starts with the people seeing that they are all in the same boat and being ready
to come together to fix the leaks.

Publicize the public

Tell the truth about The Public, that nobody makes it purely on their own
without The Public, that is, without public infrastructure, the justice system,
health, education, scientific research, protections of all sorts, public lands,
transportation, resources, art and culture, trade policies, safety nets, … That
is a truth to be told day after day. It is an idea that must take hold in public
discourse. It must go beyond what I and others have written about it and beyond
what Elizabeth Warren has said in her famous video. The Public is not opposed to
The Private. The Public is what makes The Private possible. And it is what makes
freedom possible. Wall Street exists only through public support. It has a moral
obligation to direct itself to public needs.

All OWS approaches to policy follow from such a moral focus. Here are a
handful examples.

Democracy should be about the 99%

Money directs our politics. In a democracy, that must end. We need publicly
supported elections, however that is to be arranged.

Strong wages make a strong America

Middle-class wages have not gone up significantly in 30 years, and there is
conservative pressure to lower them. But when most people get more money, they
spend it and spur the economy, making the economy and the country stronger, as
well as making their individual lives better. This truth needs to be central to
public economic discourse.

Global citizenship

America has been a moral beacon to the world. It can function as such only if
it sets an example of what a nation should be.

Do we have to spend more on the military that all other nations combined? Do
we really need hundreds of military bases abroad?


We are part of nature. Nature makes us, and all that we love, possible. Yet
we are destroying Nature through global warming and other forms of ecological
destruction, like fracking and deep-water drilling.

At a global scale, nature is systemic: its effects are neither local nor
linear. Global warming is causing the ferocity of the monster storms, tornados,
floods, blizzards, heat waves, and fires that have devastated huge areas of our
country. The hotter the atmosphere, the more evaporated water and the more
energy going into storms, tornados, and blizzards. Global warming cannot be
shown to cause any particular storm, but when a storm system forms, global
warming will ramp up the power of the storm and the amount of water it carries.
In winter, evaporated water from the overly heated Pacific will go into the
atmosphere, blow northeast over the arctic, and fall as record snows.

We depend on nature — on clean air, water, food, and a livable climate. And
we find beauty and grandeur in nature, and a sense of awe that makes life worth
living. A love of country requires a love of nature. And a fair and thriving
economy requires the preservation of nature as we have known it.


OWS is a moral and patriotic movement. It sees Democracy as flowing from
citizens caring about one another as well as themselves, and acting with both
personal and social responsibility. Democratic governance is about The Public,
and the liberty that The Public provides for a thriving Private Sphere. From
such a democracy flows fairness, which is incompatible with a hugely
disproportionate distribution of wealth. And from the sense of care implicit in
such a democracy flows a commitment to the preservation of nature.

From what I have seen of most members of OWS, your individual concerns all
flow from one moral focus.


The Tea Party solidified the power of the conservative worldview via
elections. OWS will have no long-term effect unless it too brings its moral
focus to the 2012 elections. Insist on supporting candidates that have your
overall moral views, no matter what the local issues are.

A warning

This movement could be destroyed by negativity, by calls for revenge, by
chaos, or by having nothing positive to say. Be positive about all things and
state the moral basis of all suggestions. Positive and moral in calling for debt
relief. Positive and moral in upholding laws, as they apply to finances.
Positive and moral in calling for fairness in acquiring needed revenue. Positive
and moral in calling for clean elections. To be effective, your movement must be
seen by all of the 99% as positive and moral. To get positive press, you must
stress the positive and the moral.

Remember: The Tea Party sees itself as stressing only individual
responsibility. The Occupation Movement is stressing both individual and social

I believe, and I think you believe, that most Americans care about their
fellow citizens as well as themselves. Let’s find out! Shout your moral and
patriotic views out loud, regularly. Put them on your signs. Repeat them to the
media. Tweet them. And tell everyone you know to do the same. You have to use
your own language with your own framing and you have to repeat it over and over
for the ideas to sink in.

Occupy elections: voter registration drives, town hall meetings, talk radio
airtime, party organizations, nomination campaigns, election campaigns, and
voting booths.

Above all: Frame yourselves before others frame you.

Cross-posted from George
Lakoff’s blog
on the Huffington Post.

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