In the first of his three debates with George W. Bush, 2004 presidential candidate John Kerry argued against the war in Iraq not by directly condemning it but by citing the various ways in which airport and commercial shipping security had been jeopardized due to the war's sizable price tag. In so doing, he re-framed the war issue to his advantage while avoiding discussing it in the global terrorism terms favored by President Bush. One possible reason for this tactic could have been that Kerry familiarized himself with the influential linguist George Lakoff, who argues in Don't Think of an Elephant
that much of the success the Republican Party can be attributed to a persistent ability to control the language of key issues and thus position themselves in favorable terms to voters. While Democrats may have valid arguments, Lakoff points out they are destined to lose when they and the news media accept such nomenclature as "pro-life," "tax relief," and "family values," since to argue against such inherently positive terminology necessarily casts the arguer in a negative light. Lakoff offers recommendations for how the progressive movement can regain semantic equity by repositioning their arguments, such as countering the conservative call for "Strong Defense" with a call for "A Stronger America" (curiously, one of the key slogans of the Kerry camp). Since the book was published during the height of the presidential campaign, Lakoff was unable to provide an analytical perspective on that race. He does, however, apply the notion of rhetorical framing devices to the 2003 California recall election in an insightful analysis of the Schwarzenegger victory. Don't Think of an Elephant
is a bit rambling, overexplaining some concepts while leaving others underexplored, but it provides a compelling linguistic analysis of political campaigning. --John Moe
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From Publishers Weekly
Lakoff, a cognitive scientist and linguist at Berkeley, believes he knows why conservatives have been so successful in recent years and how progressives like himself can beat them at their own game. This slim book presents a simple, accessible overview of his theory of "moral politics" and a call to action for Democrats mourning Novembers election results. Lakoffs persuasive argument focuses on two ideas: what he calls "framing," and the opposition of liberals and conservatives concepts of the family. Conservatives, he says, have easily framed tax cuts as "tax relief" because of widespread, preexisting views of taxes as burdensome, and liberals have had little success conveying the idea that taxes are a social responsibility. In Lakoffs view, conservatives adhere to a "strict father" model of family, in contrast to liberals "nurturant parent" view, and he sees this difference as the key to understanding most of the two sides clashes. His writing is clear and succinct, and he illuminates his theories through easy-to-follow examples from current politics. Although the book has been updated since the election, many of its sections were originally written long beforehand, so some comments are outdated (at one point Lakoff wonders, for example, whether George Bushs support of the gay marriage amendment will help him keep the White House). However, the process of regaining power may be a long one for Democrats, and Lakoffs insights into how to deal with conservatives and appeal to the general public are bound to light a fire under many progressives.
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