on September 29, 2004
In Thomas Frank's bestselling "What's the Matter with Kansas?" the author asks why so many Americans vote against their own economic interests. Well, George Lakoff of the Rockridge Institute, a prominent progressive think tank, provides the answers. According to Lakoff, most Americans vote their identity and values not their economic self interest.
Conservatives, despite being a minority, are dominating because they understand this. They are winning by putting their values front and center, by controlling the national dialogue by "framing" issues (i.e. calling the estate tax "the death tax,"), through institution building, and by developing overarching strategic initiatives rather than advocating single issues and isolated programs.
Lakoff provides the groundwork for progressives to begin to counter conservatives. Conservatives call for "strong defense," progressives call for a "stronger America;" conservatives say "free market," progressives say "broad prosperity;" conservatives argue for "smaller government," progressives want "effective government;" etc. The book provides the tools for progressives to move the debate -- by addressing people's core American values -- from the divisive arguing that reinforces conservatives' positions to a civil discourse that reinforces progressives' positions.
A must read!
I sure wish I had the foresight to take George Lakoff's class when I was going to Berkeley, but at least I can revel in this illuminating book about the influence exerted by metaphors that resonate with the American public. A professor of linguistics, Lakoff is a senior fellow of the Rockridge Institute, the renowned liberal think tank that concentrates in part on helping Democratic candidates and politicians with re-framing political metaphors. He certainly has the credentials to produce this treatise on the power of words and the resulting images that stay within the mind regardless of what other objective information may be conveyed that run counter to these images. The discussion seems so basic, but Lakoff's treatment is fascinating.
In this penetrating book, he focuses on the impermeable connection people make between family and nation and how images are divided along party lines. Republicans follow the strict father model, which assumes that the world is a dangerous place and always will continue to be because there is evil out there in the world. The world is also difficult because it is competitive. There will always be winners and losers. There is an absolute right and an absolute wrong. What is needed in this kind of world is a strong, strict father who can protect the family in a dangerous world, no matter the cost.
Democrats, on the other hand, see both parents are equally responsible for raising the children. The assumption is that children are born good and can be made better. The world can be made a better place, and our job is to work on that. The parents' job is to nurture their children and to raise their children to be nurturers of others. According to Lakoff, empathy and responsibility are paramount in political liberalism. From this opposing logic, one can, for example, understand the power of Governor Schwarzenegger's "girly men" comment, which one moment was considered appallingly sexist and subsequently turned into a rallying cry at the Republican National Convention. Lakoff is especially articulate in showing how the Republicans have leveraged the fear of homeland terrorism to reinforce the strict father model and used it as a groundswell to gain support among the undecideds.
This is an essential guide for not only progressives but also any American who wants to segregate facts from messages and so-called values from actual programs. More importantly, this book explains why people vote their values and identities, often against their best interests. My only fear is that the book has come out a bit late to make a genuine impact on the November election. This is the perfect complement to John Sperling's "The Great Divide: Retro Vs. Metro America", which explores the same partisan dilemma but in terms of marketing principles, the Republicans' superiority in unifying the retro states and the Democrats' failure to do the same with the metro states. I recommend reading both to get the full picture of how the Democratic strategy has not historically embraced the strategies proposed by Lakoff and Sperling and what needs to be done to reconstitute an effective two-party system. Highly recommended.
on April 21, 2005
This was a fascinating book to read during the heat of the 2004 elections, since it crystalizes the reasons why Mr. Bush considered his victory a "mandate." His partisans framed the debate in honeyed words, they didn't waver from those sweet talking points, and they wound up with the most votes. People do like their honey! Semantics aside, those who wanted a second term came to believe that partisanship itself is its own God-annointed reward.
But as even the best spin machine is finding out, honeyed words only gum up the works when there's a country to run. Those who cried out to let freedom reign at the Republican convention are discovering it takes two sides to build a democracy in Iraq. The fate of Terri Schiavo gives the lie to a Republican Party interested in less government, not more. And ahead -- well, is Social Security really a private account or a public trust? Check the stock market daily to see how that argument will fare. To get anything accomplished will take a serious bi-partisan effort. God is in the details, not occupying a Senate seat.
The book is best when it gives the abstraction of politics a practical gloss -- the argument that the system is actually something which can work, and be changed for better or worse in the process. Words are powerful tools and political systems have used them time and again for their own ends. Mr. Bush (he's not my president, and hasn't been) is the latest manifestation of what words can do. I'm sure he and his supporters believe in their hearts that they are doing the correct things to secure America's future. But they are not the only ones who have control of that future, no matter how it's framed.
Ambrose Bierce defined the conservative politician as "a statesman enamored of existing evils." At this delicate point in America's history it may not be enough to know if the glass is half-empty or half-full, but whether a vocally partisan, one-sided political system can keep the glass itself from breaking.
on September 27, 2004
I have been following Lakoff for almost a year now after the Howard Dean campaign introduced me to his Rockridge Institute. Lakoff is one of the few who understood that the conservative party had owned the debate for the last 20 years, not because they were populist, but because they learned how to frame the issues. He also took the "progressive" term to replace the now negative word liberal. After I heard that he was coming out with an action book for the election, I immediately purchased it. However, once I started reading it, I began recognizing that these were the same articles that were on alternet.org. This wouldn't be a problem for those who wanted his articles in one location, except that there is a lot of repetition as he explains "father morality" and "nurturant family" over and over.
Part II was what I was waiting for as it went into detail on how to talk to conservatives and awake their "nurtuant" side. Unfortunately that part of the book is a measily 3 chapters long.
I still give this 4 stars because it is a great book if only because its one of the few sincere "progressive" vs. conservative theory books out there.
on October 13, 2004
I loaned one of my copies of *Don't Think of an Elephant* to a non-academic, progressive friend, and her email two days later described the book in the words I'm using as a title.
Lakoff's work with metaphor and language is some of the most important and valuable research going on in the area of cognitive science, but his other books are weighty academic tomes not for the faint of heart or short of attention span. How refreshing, that this little book serves as a great introduction to Lakoff's work and, most important, as an effective guidebook to entering the political debate as the underdog progressive.
The book is practical and inspiring. What better combination could one ask for? It can be read in one sitting. It will change the way you present your own politics and help you comprehend the apparent incoherence of conservative thinking.
Lakoff's method is simple. He asks, "How can good, intelligent people think these two apparently contradictory things?" For example: Opposition to birth control and to programs that help unwed mothers. The answers he finds are fundamental, persuasive, and they do not dismiss conservative thinking, as so many progressives do, by demonizing it.
Get this book if you are feeling baffled and helpless going into this election. It will give you strength.
on June 21, 2005
Most liberal books out there, while they may be correct about conservatives misleading the country into total failure, often fail to answer the question "Why do voters then resign themselves with these same conservatives?" While Thomas Frank's "What's the Matter with Kansas?" tells half the story, Lakoff better illustrates that it's not money alone but who they think they are better associating themselves with. Up until 25 years ago, it was easy for progressives to make the claim that just telling the truth would catapult them to victory. However, given Bush's and the GOP's unexpected victories in 2000, 2002, 2003, and 2004, it is becoming increasing apparent that no matter how loud Democrats shout the truth about the neoconservatives' dishonest and destructive policies and actions, they're not going to change anyone's minds until they learn to reframe the truth in a meaningful way that more people can accept it. Another thing I like about this book is that while Lakoff may be another liberal, he's no ordinary liberal who would normally condescend down at or pander to conservatives. He knows that conservatives and libertarians have joined forces and become unnatural allies by building a framework based on "Strict Father Morality". Moreover, he knows that conservatives will fake the "nurturant model" at times to pretend that they are reaching out to liberals. For example, the conservatives will name their bill that actually destroys forests and saves none the "Healthy Forest Bill". This book isn't just another throwaway liberal book where you can say "ok, I get it" unlike what a previous rightwinger who lied about finding it at a pawnstore would try to have you believe. Lakoff's book won't give liberals all the cures overnight but this book will help them and the rest of us open-minded individuals look a little harder at the issues and get past the politics and in the long run overcome the fascist conservative brainwashing that has long kept us in the dark. Hey, my state of Idaho may be a really red state when it comes to most elections but that hasn't kept local progressive forces from learning to reframe the issues otherwise my state would not be one of the few in the nation to join forces in disapproving the fascist Patriot Act of 2001 which never did anything to curb terrorism in the first place even though Bush and his conservative cronies in Congress exploited the 9/11 public sentiment to frame the bill to their liking back in 2001 !
on October 16, 2004
Awaken, understand, act! Short and easy-to-read yet deeply insightful and powerful, this book is truly outstanding and in a class by itself. In it, Lakoff concisely outlines the "great right wing conspiracy" -- its scope, its agenda, its strategy, its messages, its methods, its tricks. You will understand why it resonates with and is supported by the people it will ultimately impoverish, along with rest of us. You will understand its underlying mind-set, and how it prevents those affected from seeing the progressive truth and vision leading to a better future for them and all of us. Learn why "compassionate conservatism" means Social Darwinism and "you're on your own radicalism." Learn why "tort reform" is a rouse for the end of government regulations for consumer protection, worker protection, and environmental protection. Learn why massive government deficits are "good" because they ultimately lead to the end of progressive social programs that benefit the middle class, including pubic education, social security, and economic safety. Learn how our fundamental trust is being betrayed and our civil liberties lost. Then learn the progressive mind-set and its transformative power to achieve, through mutual responsibility and effective government, a stronger America, with broad prosperity and a better future for all of us. In this book, you will learn what you need to know and how to effectively act. Read this book, grasp its meaning, understand its practical messages. Then act! Lakoff gives you the know-how and the know-why. This is the real deal.
As part of the Democratic Action Network here in North Carolina, this book was recommended to us. Obviously, with John Edwards on the national ticket and not carrying the state, we are trying to focus on how to make change. Progressives understand how Republican tax cuts favor the rich and pull the rug out from under working people, but in the face of "tax relief" speech find ourselves desperately needing a new language to describe "efficient government" that maximizes our "tax investment."
Progressives are continually startled when people do not vote for what is clearly in their own self-interest. Lakoff addresses these issues in a focused and understandable manner. Clearly, people who drive around with "W" on their gunracks have a perspective to which progressives must learn to speak. Last week in western North Carolina, a preacher threw out 9 members of the congregation because they had the audacity to vote for John Kerry. One Democratic congressional candidate was asked how she could be a Christian and a Democrat. Clearly, we are involved in an ideological war, the dimensions of which progressives have greatly underestimated.
I am particularly struck by Lakoff's view about how these two groups view God. From his perspective, conservatives view a God who is wrathful and requires punishment, a very "old testament" view. Progressive Christians view a beneficent God who loves His children. But while conservative Christians are well organized, progressive Christians are only loosely aligned. Much work needs to be done because people will vote against their own self-interest if they believe it to be God's will. The Republican rich have manipulated these issues, ignoring that Jesus' gospel is that we should take care of the sick.
Lakoff's argument on idea framing is helpful, but is new thinking for progressives used to thinking issue by issue. I know I am going to need more than just this little book to really get the hang of this, but it is an interesting starting point. For those of us puzzled by the direction of our country, befuddled by public unconcern of blatant lies and misrepresentations by the president with the war in Iraq, we need to reshape our thinking. We need to redefine a "Clean Water Act" that encourages pollution as a "Dirty Rivers Act" or find conceptual ways to battle these ideas before Republicans succeed in polluting the planet. Lakoff's book is a key to this; and is therefore essential reading for progressive patriots.
on June 13, 2005
There's no question that for the past 25 years, Democrats have had a hard and harder time getting their positions straight with us voters. Sure, they may appear to speak without hesitation but are often times figety about their positions on issues. The problem as Lakoff points out is that Democrats, especially in the last 4 years, have voted lockstep with Bush on tax cuts, war in iraq, class action laws, free trade, bankruptcy laws, partial birth abortion ban even when no such thing ever existed for the most part, most of Bush's nominees, Patriot Act of 2001, ... you name it falling into conservative framing in the process. Democrats, upon campaigning for election or reelection, later end up worried about how they will be able to explain to their voters why they voted for what they were supposed to be voting against and in the process exagerate their positions leaving voters confused. In other cases, such as John Kerry's, the Democrat may say silly things like "I voted for ... before I voted against it" thereby giving conservatives the ammunition to paint Democrats as flip-floppers leaving voters the impression that this party does not take a stand and stick to it and is therefore unsuitable for national security. At other times, Democrats will fall into the trap of trying to say "Me too" if they don't look great in the polls even before actual voting takes place but in the process helping the conservatives not only defend their ideology but further turning out the conservative base while at the same time turning more of the progressive base off. For example, close to election day, Kerry said "I'll double the number of troops to send to Iraq" on the Iraq war issue or for that matter on tax issues "I'll give more tax cuts to the middle class" even when it was obvious that the middle class is already wiped out. No wonder Bush won over Kerry ! Framing the issues and ultimately the debates is no doubt important. However, the Democrats are going to have to get their actions straight. Sure, Kerry performed great during the presidential debates but even though he finally learned to frame them well, he never capitalized on it. It's possible that maybe good progressives in the Democratic Party could sit down and take the time to frame the issues themselves and frame them for their moderate counterparts and newer Democrats to learn for there to be true unity rather than always getting themselves stuck on the defensive while moderates just go along with the Republicans which Lakoff is right to point out is self-defeating. Frame first then take a stand or vice versa? It remains to be seen whether the Democrats will learn to frame or as Lakoff puts it "ignoring framing at their own peril."
on January 14, 2005
My humble suggestion. Don't dwell on your political leaning, or your standing on the "progressive" scale, or especially on the partisan reviews on this site from either "side".
The thrust of this book may be to offer a peep into how conservatives think, how to counter their arguments, etc, but the discourse seems less about politics or religion with a polarized agenda, and more an appeal to our common sense.
If Amazon's review system doesn't kill this URL, interested folks can review the first chapter in entirety at: [...]
The issues are laid out in an American context, but their marrow should ring true in most parts of our world. I keep opening this book back up and re-reading passages. Highly recommended!