Do Metaphors Matter? Part 1 – Politicians

As part of my presentation at the ILA conference, I provided a short section on whether or not the way we use metaphors affects the American political process.  For this post, I would like to ask my readers a question:  Do you think politicians deliberately use metaphors to their political advantage?  Please read the excerpt from my paper below and let me know what you think.  You can add your views to the comment section.  Thanks!


As for the question of whether or not metaphor usage has an impact on the political process, logically, there are three possible effects – they may be harmful, beneficial or have no effect at all.  Strangely enough, I found evidence for all three positions in my research.

Based on the huge quantities of metaphors in current usage, I would argue that the vast majority of metaphors are politically neutral, i.e., most metaphors are part of every day language and are thus a normal way of talking about politics.  Moreover, Mio (1997) cites research that suggests most Americans are not that interested in national news and that metaphors are only successful when targeted at those who are politically sophisticated.  Luntz (2007, p. 198) documents how woefully ignorant American voters are about the issues and claims that Americans elect leaders based on personality rather than issues.

Some uses of metaphors may be seen as beneficial. Mio (1997, p. 118) again notes how metaphors are used in politics to make complex issues understandable, and are especially effective in difficult times when the public needs to believe that the government is taking care of national crises.  For example, Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal helped lift the country out of the Great Depression.

The use of metaphors for political gain is the third logical possibility.  From my data and research, it seems clear that, in some cases, politicians use metaphors to gain support for a particular policy or government action. In the 1990s, George Lakoff argued that the U.S. government used metaphorical language to justify our involvement in the Gulf War.  For example, in a fairy tale metaphor, there are clear victims, villains and heroes. The use of this metaphor allowed the government to describe the Gulf War as a means of rescuing the victim Kuwait from the evil villain Iraq.  Some years later, Lakoff explained the political power of framing arguments.  He argued that our so-called War on Terror can lead to the public acceptance of perpetual war.  One could argue that the constant use of these metaphors may have helped garner public and Congressional support for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

More recently, Ringmar (2008, p. 57) writes that political metaphors are often “tools employed by elites to stifle critique and to keep people in their places.” Stenvoll (2008, p. 36) argues that metaphors are used to  “communicate, legitimate and/or mask political interests.”

In my own data, I also found examples of metaphors that seemed to be used for political purposes.  I found that metaphors of natural disasters are often used to describe problems of immigration.  We use phrases such as a wave of immigrants or a flood of immigration.   Such usage leads one to wonder if certain politicians use these metaphors to rally opposition against increasing civil rights for immigrants from other countries.

In speaking about the economy, I also found that we often use metaphors involving danger.  In one common conceptual metaphor, we consider the economy as a patient in a hospital with mental or physical illnesses.  We may speak of a jittery stock market, an economy in a panic, or one that needs a shot of adrenaline.  We may also say we have a crippled economy, an anemic recovery or an economy in need of a cure.

In another conceptual metaphor, we talk about the economy as an old building.  We may say that the housing market is shaky, the banking system crumbled, the economy collapsed or it needs to be shored up.  These metaphors may persuade some lawmakers or voters to vote on legislation that is a reaction to the exaggerated dangers of an economy in crisis.


References cited in this excerpt are available on my bibliography page in this blog. Please leave a comment to let me know what you think!

Next time:  Do Metaphors Matter? Part 2 – Immigrants