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December 14, 2004

Review: George Lakoff's Don't Think of an Elephant

I've been thinking a lot about the issue of framing, and I finally got around to reading George Lakoff's latest, Don't Think of an Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate. I give him props for trying, but he's got a long way to go.

Don't Think of an Elephant is George Lakoff’s latest salvo in his one-man crusade to convince our side to get smarter about how we talk The main idea behind his work is that you should never use your opponent’s language for framing an argument.

Take a phrase conservatives have slipped into public discourse: “tax relief.”

For there to be relief there must be an affliction, an afflicted party, and a reliever who removes the affliction and is therefore a hero. And if people try to stop the hero, those people are villains for trying to prevent relief.
So when progressives use phrases like “tax relief” they’re given away the fight before they’ve fired their first shot.

Lakoff argues conservatives are successful because they skillfully use what Lakoff calls the “strict father” frame, which ties together a seemingly disconnected group of issues such as taxes, welfare reform, abortion, and market cheerleading. To fight them, our side needs to become equally savvy at reframing the debate, using the “nurturant parent” frame.

I really respect Lakoff's efforts to convince our side that if you just argue the facts, you’re going to get your ass kicked and that we’ve got to start focusing on how we frame our arguments. But as his latest book demonstrates, there are two serious problems with his approach.

First, although Lakoff acknowledges there are differences among conservatives in the end he lumps them together. If we’re fighting to win, this is a big mistake. Back in the 1980s the Right exploited our divisions by going after “Reagan Democrats.” We need help figuring out how to do the same with Wellstone Republicans.

Second, Lakoff’s advice about how our side should frame issues leaves a lot to be desired. In Don’t Think of an Elephant, too often he tells rather than shows -- "Always be on the offense" or "activate their nurturant models as much as possible" (yes, he's an academic). And when he does give examples, as often as not they just don't work.

Take taxes. To counter the rhetoric of "tax relief," he says, use the frame that "taxes are wise investments in the future" which reap "tax benefits." What’s got more oomph, "tax relief" or "tax benefits" & "wise investments"? It's not a close call.

If that tax metaphor doesn't do it for you, Lakoff's got another:

Taxation is like paying your dues, paying your membership fee in America. If you join a country club or a community center, you pay fees.
Taxes are like paying country club membership fees? Woo-eee, just parachute me into rural Ohio, boys, I'm ready to rumble!

What's particularly strange about Lakoff’s tax metaphors is that they don't even sound very nurturant. Membership dues, investments, benefits -- this is not the language of family, community, I am my brother/sister's keeper.

Similarly, when Lakoff proposes turning the environment into a wedge issue through a "campaign for poison-free communities," he says:

The very issue would create a frame in which regulation favors health, and being against regulation endangers health.
I know he's only describing the frame. But does he have to use a cumbersome, clunky word like "regulation" -- a word that, thanks to skillful conservative framing, brings to mind "bureaucratic," “bloated,” etc.?

To see what's missing from Lakoff's rhetoric, check out Barak Obama's speech at the Democratic Convention. At first Obama sounds like any -- extremely eloquent -- liberal:

This year, in this election, we are called to reaffirm our values and our commitments, to hold them against a hard reality and see how we are measuring up, to the legacy of our forbearers, and the promise of future generations.

And fellow Americans, Democrats, Republicans, Independents — I say to you tonight: we have more work to do. More work to do for the workers I met in Galesburg, Ill., who are losing their union jobs at the Maytag plant that’s moving to Mexico, and now are having to compete with their own children for jobs that pay seven bucks an hour. More to do for the father that I met who was losing his job and choking back the tears, wondering how he would pay $4,500 a month for the drugs his son needs without the health benefits that he counted on. More to do for the young woman in East St. Louis, and thousands more like her, who has the grades, has the drive, has the will, but doesn’t have the money to go to college.

But then Obama says:
Now don’t get me wrong. The people I meet — in small towns and big cities, in diners and office parks — they don’t expect government to solve all their problems. They know they have to work hard to get ahead — and they want to.

Go into the collar counties around Chicago, and people will tell you they don’t want their tax money wasted, by a welfare agency or by the Pentagon.

Go into any inner city neighborhood, and folks will tell you that government alone can’t teach our kids to learn — they know that parents have to teach, that children can’t achieve unless we raise their expectations and turn off the television sets and eradicate the slander that says a black youth with a book is acting white. They know those things.

People don’t expect government to solve all their problems. But they sense, deep in their bones, that with just a slight change in priorities, we can make sure that every child in America has a decent shot at life, and that the doors of opportunity remain open to all.

They know we can do better. And they want that choice.

Obama could've skipped the first three paragraphs and simply said, "people don't expect government to solve all their problems." He didn't because he wanted to say to people who are in touch with their inner strict father, I hear you. I respect you. And I know that although you think we need strict fathers, you also "sense, deep in [your] bones" that we also need nurturing parents. He blends the two together in a way that powerfully appeals both to people firmly on our side and to Wellstone Republicans.

Is it fair to compare Lakoff to Obama? Maybe not. But if Lakoff wants to help our side, instead of trying to create frames on his own he should study the people on our side who've got flow. Take apart the soaring visions of Obama and the rapid-response kidney punches of James Carville. Find out what rhetoric works for Eliot Spitzer in New York and what’s winning in Montana, where Brian Schweitzer just won the Governorship as a kick-ass populist farmer/evironmentalist/hunter. Analyze the crafted rhetoric of a PR-savvy LA community activist and the off-the-cuff thoughts of a Philadelphia woman from one of pollster Stanley Greenberg's focus groups, who said:

It seems to me that the health care industry is a bratty 2 1/2 year old who needs to be smacked hard.
[Strict father or nurturant parent? You be the judge.]
Now that would make a book to lure our shell-shocked progressive friends back into the fray.

Posted by RalphTaylor at December 14, 2004 07:35 AM