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Don't Think of an Elephant!: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate--The Essential Guide for Progressives Paperback – September 15, 2004
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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
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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Top customer reviews
Both of these concepts are well worth reading. The implication are both deep and wide. But this book was intended as a quick-start primer for people trying to discuss the election and maybe a foot in the door for Lakoff's research to reach campaign staff. It was not especially successful at either.
If you read it for what it is, a collection of material on the same subject and inherently repetitive, it's not bad at all. It makes excellent bathroom reading. It is light on jargon and completely ignores definitions, detailed explanations, or anything else "textbooky"--a welcome change from Lakoff's better-known books.
If you want to really understand the material, though, in a way that you can apply in your personal or professional life, you need to read Moral Politics, his detailed lay explanation of the principles. It's also pretty readable and it tried to avoid covert bias (by moving all the biased material he could recognize to one chapter towards the end, called "Why I am a Progressive"), while Don't Think of an Elephant is openly biased throughout.
I bought 10 copies of this for my friends, mostly my friends who disagree with me on politics. I wanted us to have a framework and language to understand one another and it has been invaluable. But Moral Politics is the real thing.
While Lakoff uses specific examples in a specific context of the struggle between liberals and conservatives, his argumentation strategies can be applied anywhere, which makes this book a worthwhile read even for those who aren't terribly politically inclined. For those who are politically inclined, however, this book is an essential read which will provide serious insights into the nature of the current partisan dialog.
I used to think facts were enough to sway people's opinion against radical conservatism but if you know how to frame a debate based on a person's values you will win every time. Lakoff gives valuable insight into how the conservative political machine operates and thinks along these lines. If you really want to understand why people will vote against their own best interests I highly recommend reading "Don't Think of an Elephant" it's a bit rambling sometimes but worth sticking with. I'm recommending this book to my politically minded friends who want to ensure we never see the same kind of extreme religious fanatic politicians gain power here in Australia.