How to solve California’s fiscal crisis? First, don’t think of an elephant: Berkeley linguist George Lakoff aims to break legislative gridlock by reframing the budget debate statewide, and restoring majority rule in Sacramento

If they noticed it at all, readers of the Contra Costa Times must have found the brief announcement utterly commonplace. “Linguistics expert and UC Berkeley professor George Lakoff will speak at the Nov. 12 meeting of the Lamorinda Democratic Club,” it began, just another routine listing in the paper’s “Political Notes” column. Few would have blinked at its characterization of the evening’s topic: Lakoff’s ballot proposal to “eliminate the two-thirds voting requirement for a state budget or new taxes.”

George Lakoff

George Lakoff (Peg Skorpinski photo)

Yet the item’s very innocuousness — with its seemingly neutral reference to taxes — hints at the size of the challenge Lakoff faces in his fledgling quest to end gridlock in Sacramento. For Lakoff, a cognitive scientist best-known for his work on “framing” and for dissecting the political mind in such books as Moral Politics and Don’t Think of an Elephant, language is anything but neutral. And for his initiative to have a shot at becoming law, it’s crucial that voters don’t think of it as a license to boost their taxes.

“This isn’t about taxes,” he insists, slapping the desk in his small Dwinelle Hall office for emphasis. “It’s about democracy.”

In that spirit, he’s named the initiative, submitted recently to the attorney general’s office, “The California Democracy Act.” But the newspaper’s phrasing underscores a point to which Lakoff returns again and again: The way we think is governed by cognitive frames, largely unconscious metaphors burned into our brains. Thanks to three decades of Republican framing, he explains, “taxes” has come to mean politicians taking citizens’ hard-earned money to waste on government. He advises supporters to avoid the term and focus instead on democracy and “revenue.”

Change the frames of the budget debate, Lakoff argues, and you can change California history.

To that end, he’s crafted a one-sentence, 14-word proposition he aims to get on the November 2010 ballot: “All legislative actions on revenue and budget must be determined by a majority vote.” The measure would roll back the two-thirds votes needed to pass a budget and raise taxes in a state that’s inarguably an economic basket case — exceptionally high hurdles Lakoff and many others blame for draconian cuts to state-funded programs and services, including the University of California. The provisions were inserted into the state constitution by the granddaddy of all California ballot initiatives, 1978’s property-tax-reform Proposition 13.

Lakoff is undaunted by the property-tax amendment’s iconic status as the untouchable “third rail” of California politics. Nor is he deterred by polling on so-called supermajorities — another term he wants to avoid — or even resistance from Democratic leaders, some of whom are most definitely thinking about the political dangers of a statewide smackdown over, yes, taxes.

The Democrat-controlled state Legislature — indeed, the state itself — is being held hostage by a minority of Republicans, in Lakoff’s view. “I believe most people don’t know this is a minority-rule state, and if they knew that they wouldn’t like it,” he says. “And if they knew it was undemocratic and that bringing back democracy would end gridlock, they would like that.”

And though voters continue to indicate strong support for Prop. 13, Lakoff believes that doesn’t mean they embrace its two-thirds requirements, which he says its backers “sneaked in” under the cover of populist property-tax reform.

“If you’re a literalist and doing polls, or you’re in Sacramento, you think Prop. 13 means to voters that they really wanted a minority to run the state,” he explains. “They didn’t. They didn’t even know they were voting for that.” He hopes to raise $35,000 to conduct a poll based on principles of cognitive science — principles he contends the state’s established, brand-name pollsters fail to grasp.

“Prop. 13 has a frame,” he continues. “It’s little old ladies who bought their houses when they were cheap, and then the value went up, and their taxes went up, and they were threatened with losing their houses. And it’s unfair for them to have to pay the high taxes. That’s what Prop. 13 means to people.”

Polls in which voters say decisively that they want to keep the two-thirds legislative requirement for raising taxes — and even one in which they voice modest support for a hypothetical 55 percent vote to enact a budget — are “false” and “phony,” argues Lakoff.

One oft-cited poll, he says, “asked things like, ‘Would you rather have higher taxes and more services, or lower taxes and fewer services?’ And guess what people said. If you ask that question, you’ll get that answer.”

On the other hand, the question “Do you think the state Legislature should be run by a 36 percent minority?” would elicit a very different response, he predicts. “If you ask that question, people would be against it. So it really has to do with the way the question is asked.”

Even so, Lakoff regards polls not as a reason to steer clear of unpopular policy goals — as, he laments, Democrats tend to do — but as a tool to better assess how to change public opinion, as Republicans do. In that respect, “This isn’t about polls. It’s about running a campaign. Over a year, you can say these things over and over, and you can get people to think about these issues in these terms.”

Stymied in Sacramento

Long active in Democratic circles, Lakoff hit on the idea of a ballot initiative after Berkeley’s state senator, Loni Hancock, invited him to Sacramento last spring to meet with a dozen or so of her fellow Democratic legislators. They were, he recalls, “very unhappy people,” frustrated at constantly having to bend to the will of Republican minorities in both the Assembly and Senate. “I thought this was horrible,” he says.

“The reason I came up with the idea,” he goes on, “was the following. One, people learn about democracy very early. Every third-grader knows that the president of their class is the one who gets the majority of votes. Everybody learns this. So what you need to do is to tap in to that very basic idea of democracy. And that’s what this is meant to do.

“The other thing is that most people hate the fact that these initiatives are trying to play with their brains, that they’re not understandable, that they’re done in legalistic language so people don’t know what they’re voting on. This isn’t like that. It’s 14 words, and it says exactly what it means.”

And while he knows conservatives will try to frame the debate as one about taxes, Lakoff is ready. His reply: “Do you believe that a majority of people in this state want their taxes raised? If you don’t believe that, what are you worried about? Let the majority rule. Get rid of gridlock. Make it democratic. And if you believe that the majority of people do want their taxes raised, what are you worried about? That’s what America is about. It’s democracy.”

As for Lakoff himself, he believes that there’s “plenty of money in this state” — most of it controlled by the wealthiest 1 percent of the population — and that voters might well be willing to put an end to “freeloading” by the oil industry and other corporate entities that benefit, at citizens’ expense, from loopholes in state tax codes.

But that, he says, is a debate for another day. The first step — one that Californians need to take to make this “a fiscally sane and responsible state” — is to bring back majority rule.

“This is about running the state in a democratic way, period,” he says. “So you don’t have gridlock in government, and then the majority gets to decide how it wants to raise revenues and spend them. Period. Whatever that is. I don’t care. Just make it democratic.”

Efforts are now under way to gather a million signatures on ballot petitions — or “7,000 a day for 150 days” — and assemble an organization of speakers, bookers, event planners, and the myriad volunteers necessary for a successful statewide political campaign. Polling results aside, Lakoff is optimistic.

“My feeling is that the majority of voters in this state are sane, sensible, responsible people. And that they have voted sanely, sensibly, and responsibly, and they have gotten a majority of legislators who are sane, sensible, and responsible people — and that they should be running the state. That’s all this is about. That is the issue. And if we can convince voters that that is the issue, we win.”

Failure, he adds, is not an option.

“We cannot go back to the glory days of California without this,” Lakoff says. “California is the seventh-largest economy in the world. This is not a Third World country, it shouldn’t act like a Third World country. And for the University of California to survive as a public university, this has to pass.

“That’s it,” he declares. “It has to pass.”

For more on the California Democracy Act, or to help gather signatures to qualify it for the November 2010 ballot, visit the campaign’s website at CA Majority Rule.