U.S. President Joe Biden has yet to win support for from Republican lawmakers in Congress for his ambitious policy agenda. Yet Biden and his administration—notably his transportation secretary, Pete Buttigieg—are nevertheless casting their governance as bipartisan, citing polls that show how receptive Republican voters across America are to their ideas. Advisors and allies of the president say he’s effectively redefining the idea of bipartisanship. Why does this rhetorical shift matter?

According to George Lakoff—a professor emeritus of cognitive science and linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley, who has advised prominent Democrats on what he calls “values-based framing” in political rhetoric—Biden’s reframing of bipartisanship isn’t just shrewd political tactics. It represents a considered political strategy emerging from the distinctive context of the pandemic—and more deeply, a substantive, and potentially transformative, re-conception of democratic politics in America.


Graham Vyse: What is Biden trying to do in redefining bipartisanship?

George Lakoff: It’s a very clever idea to do two things at once: First, to say that Republicans in Congress aren’t reflective of Republican voters—that Republicans in Congress are doing what big corporations, big donors, and other powerful people want rather than what Republican voters want. He’s saying as well that there’s more bipartisanship among citizens—citizen bipartisanship, as opposed to Washington bipartisanship. He’s trying to split Republican voters from Republican power players.

Vyse: What are the stakes of this move for Biden?

Lakoff: The stakes are huge. If Republicans in Congress don’t respond, as they probably won’t, [Democrats] can then run against [Republicans] saying they’re defying their own voters.

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