Summering from Behind

Some time ago, some media sources characterized the U.S. Administration’s military involvement in Libya and Syria as ‘leading from behind.’ I heard this phrase and thought: ”interesting, they’re taking a nuanced and shared approach to a conflict where our national security interests may be threatened but not clear.” Having been honored to spend a good chunk of my career around national security policy analysts and leaders, I consider nuance to be a useful tool in a president’s utility belt.

Far more heard the phrase and thought: Since when does America fight from the back of the pack? Leading from behind makes no sense! The mental image was a platoon where the leader is marching behind his troops, or placing a steering wheel in the rear of the car. The metaphor was jarring and we stopped listening to one another. Not only did the phrase fail to trigger upsetting mental images for me, I failed completely to appreciate how many people would respond to the strategy. Having immersed myself in the implications of complexity in policy analysis for several years now, I no longer hear things the same way as before.

I am Beltway.

This is a town that lives on the shared metaphor – We declare war on drugs, war on poverty, and consider the energy crisis the ‘moral equivalent of war. For a President to fight an actual war in a way that sounds ‘unAmerican’ violated a shared metaphor for many of us.

What’s the role of metaphor in our understanding? Lakoff & Johnson claim that understanding ‘takes place in terms of entire domains of experience and not in terms of isolated concepts.’ We cannot separate our understanding from context, and our context is extraordinarily personal. You can try to influence how someone understands your message, but you cannot enforce the metaphor they use to understand it. Nevertheless, you should be at least aware how your words may trigger a metaphor broadly shared everywhere in the nation – except for inside BeltwayTown.

I’ve been away from blogging for most of 2011’s summer. A summer that found Beltway Town struggling to place their policy objectives into metaphors that would stir the voter – or at least the voters who are called by pollsters. We heard of hostage-taking, credit card limits, and blank checks. Marketing and politics seek to establish shared metaphors in order to persuade. Some decry the language and wonder why we cannot just agree on data used for our self-governance experiment – including yours truly – but this leaves the metaphor-fit exercise to the individual voter. It is inevitable that as our politics become increasingly divisive (a regular campaign season event), the effort to enforce and influence a shared metaphor will increase as well.

The effort to navigate through personal metaphor is a personal one, and requires intention. The effort to avoid triggering unintended and unflattering metaphor requires understanding on all sides. More to the point, understanding requires continued conversations with those who do not share your viewpoint. Challenge your metaphors by conversing with those with whom you disagree – lest your personal context obscure truth.


Lakoff, G., & Johnson, M. (1980). Metaphors We Live By. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press.

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Andrew Krzmarzick

I was just having a conversation with someone at breakfast this morning about this issue. My friend was remarking that he sees a lot of people in his MPP program being deeply entrenched in their political views – quite viscerally – and there seems to be no way that you can have a thoughtful conversation on the issues. One side demonizes the other outright.

So the questions become:

How do we educate our students from a young age to approach politics differently?

How do we re-educate ourselves?