Word Games

In the middle of the discussion, the candidate’s veteran media consultant pulled out a thin book–heavily underlined and annotated–and began reading passages from it as if it were the Bible. The book was George Lakoff’s Don’t Think of an Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate, a volume that quickly has made its author one of the most sought-after speakers and advisers in Democratic circles and a cult figure among the liberal left. On the book’s cover, Howard Dean touts Lakoff as “one of the most influential political thinkers of the progressive movement;” Robert Reich hails the book as “essential reading;” and Don Hazen–the founder of the left-wing Web site Alternet.org–writes in the book’s introduction that Lakoff was “like a great reserve of pinot noir that few people drank. But not anymore. George Lakoff is on the road to fame and renown.”

So who is this new messiah? And how does he propose that a party of pinot noir drinkers win back the hearts and minds of those who would rather quaff Budweiser?

Lakoff, a cognitive linguist at the University of California at Berkeley, uses linguistic analysis to diagnose Democrats’ problems. He argues that all of us have, as part of our “cognitive unconscious,” frames that shape how we see the world. These frames are profoundly powerful, influencing “the goals we seek, the plans we make, the way we act, and what counts as a good or bad outcome of our actions.” We discover our frames through our language; if we change our language, we change our frames. “Reframing,” Lakoff writes, “is social change.”

Of course, Lakoff cautions that it’s not just the language itself that matters: “[I]deas are primary–and the language carries those ideas, evokes those ideas.” So, language reflects our mindset: If we change the language, then we can change how people think. This is where liberals and progressives have gotten in trouble, Lakoff argues. They make the mistake of sifting out the facts, while ignoring the reality that debating in a conservative frame only reinforces it. To change those red states to blue, then, progressives have to change minds by first reframing the debate. If, as Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote, “[T]he limits of my language are the limits of my world,” then the limits of my language apparently are also the limits of my ability to win an election.

I am not a cognitive linguist (the limits of my expertise in the field begin and end with the Wittgenstein quote above), and I cannot critique Lakoff’s linguistic analysis. But I can say confidently that his political analysis is severely lacking. Don’t Think of an Elephant is a small volume big on assumptions and short on the historical and political context that would shed light on why Americans respond to certain language in the ways that they do. In some places, Lakoff offers superb advice to candidates, but after reading this book–which, as a collection of many previously released articles, is disjointed and repetitive–it seems that Lakoff is primarily concerned with using linguistics to make the case for his liberal-left politics. That may bring comfort to his neighbors in Berkeley, but there’s little evidence that it will win elections.

The heart of Lakoff’s argument is that the roots of political debate in America stem from competing notions of the family: the “strict father” and the “nurturant parent.” Conservatives are strict fathers who want to “protect the family in the dangerous world, support the family in the difficult world, and teach [their] children right from wrong.” They have a clear model of what it means to be a good person–one must do what’s right, pursue one’s self-interest in order to prosper, and become self-reliant. This path is not just a way to prosperity, but a way toward morality. In this, Lakoff finds the conservative justification for cutting social programs (why reward those who can’t help themselves) and to pursue a unilateral foreign policy (a strict father is a moral authority who tells others what to do).

Progressives, says Lakoff, are nurturant parents who believe in empathy and responsibility. Like good gender-neutral nurturant parents, they care for their children and thus want to protect them and make sure that they can live happy, fulfilled lives. Lakoff goes as far as to say that it’s a “moral responsibility to teach your child to be a happy, fulfilled person who wants others to be happy and fulfilled.” From this moral charge there follows a whole roster of progressive values that Lakoff lays out–freedom, opportunity, prosperity, community-building, honesty, trust–as well as six distinct types of progressives, from identity-politics activists to environmentalists to “spiritual progressives” who include “pagan members of Wicca.”

While Democrats are preoccupied trying to appease their growing constituency of pagan worshippers, Lakoff argues that they are losing the key battle in American politics: trying to convince those people who are in the middle, torn between using their strict father and nurturant parent frames. In contrast, conservatives have built an intellectual infrastructure of think tanks and strategists that does the hard work of reframing the debate in their terms. They have used “strategic initiatives,” in which change in one small area is used to exercise leverage upon several other areas– for example, pushing tort reform to starve a key group of Democratic funders. In response, progressives have tried to argue the factual case against tort reform without realizing that people vote their values and their identities, not the facts.

I agree with this last insight wholeheartedly: Democrats lose when they think that they can win elections on data points without offering an inspiring vision of the future. Indeed, Lakoff has stumbled upon the central problem facing Democrats since Bill Clinton left office, but his explanation of how he got there is unconvincing, and his advice on how to go forward is misguided. By reducing American politics to language, Lakoff ignores the context that gives meaning to those words. Language only motivates people if the ideas and policies it’s connected to resonate with a majority of Americans. It has to be consistent with the realities of American history and the American national character. Throughout his book, Lakoff ignores this context, using his theories to push for an agenda that resonates with him (and possibly his friends at the fringes of left-wing politics), but reflects neither what most Democrats–nor most Americans–believe.

Take the debate over “tax relief.” Lakoff notes that this is an archetypal example of how Republicans have framed an issue successfully: Taxes are a burden on a society, and the GOP will relieve you of this burden. It’s a simple and powerful argument. Progressives, in response, have to offer a different frame that allows people to see taxes as the necessary investments to fund our society, and repeat this frame “until they take their rightful place in our synapses.”

This is hopeful but ignorant of the long history of American politics and political thought. America is a nation born out of a tax revolt, with an anti-statist strain that extends from Shays’s Rebellion to Proposition 13. This is one important thing that distinguishes America from Canada or Western Europe, and why the United States never developed a vibrant socialist movement or certain social democratic institutions such as government-provided health care. In fact, there is a whole sub-genre in the political science literature about the roots of “American exceptionalism.” Lakoff may wish that Americans will embrace higher taxes–and at times they have for the right reasons, such as to fight a war–but to suggest that simply modifying the language will accomplish this ignores the ideas that animate our politics.

When it comes to foreign policy, Lakoff shows not only a misunderstanding of America, but also of the history of liberalism and the Democratic Party today. In a chapter written immediately after the attacks of September 11, Lakoff argues that President Bush quickly framed the attacks as a strong father would: It’s about good versus evil, and we need to wipe out this evil even if people get hurt. While an earlier chapter admonishes progressives for ignoring the importance that nurturant parents place on protecting those that they are responsible for, in this discussion he argues that progressives should offer a frame on entirely different terms: “Justice is called for, not vengeance. Understanding and restraint is what is neededwe should not take innocent lives in bringing the perpetrators to justice. Massive bombing of Afghanistan–with the killing of innocents–will show that we are no better than they.”

If this is the type of advice Democrats are listening to, they will soon go the way of the Whigs and the Know-Nothings. To draw a moral equivalency between the invasion of Afghanistan and the attacks of September 11 between the United States and al Qaeda is disgusting. Beyond that, Lakoff’s apparent view of the United States as a malevolent force in the world and the accompanying reluctance to use American power to ensure national security was as out of step with Americans’ belief about themselves when it was propounded in the 1960s and 1970s as it is now.

Lakoff’s progressive siblings in Berkeley–who, as Lakoff writes, were “proud” to have Barbara Lee as their congresswoman since she was the only member of Congress to vote against giving President Bush authorization to carry out the war on terrorism–represent neither the progressive tradition that shaped the Democratic Party of Wilson, Roosevelt, Truman, and Kennedy, nor the beliefs of a younger generation of Democrats who came of age in the era of Bill Clinton and are unobstructed by the ghosts of Vietnam. Not only is equating progressivism with pacifism a misreading of American history, it’s also a losing political strategy in states red, blue, and purple.

Then again, Lakoff–like most of the liberal left–rejects the modernization of the party and of progressivism that Clinton helped lead in the 1990s. That is why he ascribes Gray Davis’s recall from the governorship of California to his “bad mistake of accepting the Democratic Leadership Council’s metaphor of campaigning as marketing” and just parroting back to the electorate popular stances on the top three issues and hoping for support. This analysis of the DLC and the New Democratic movement is not just a cheap shot, it’s also utterly wrong. The DLC and New Democrats (myself included) consistently have argued against this pandering paint-by-numbers approach to politics, and have offered the most compelling counter-frame to the conservative one in a generation. In fact, Clinton was the master of doing exactly of what Lakoff says Democrats need to be doing now; he reframed the debates surrounding welfare, affirmative action, budget politics, Social Security–just to name a few.

No matter how much Lakoff and the left want to reject and misrepresent what Clinton and the New Democrats accomplished, its power is evident in Don’t Think of an Elephant. At the end of his book, Lakoff unwittingly embraces the New Democratic public philosophy, offering a “10-word breakdown” of what progressives believe that could have come from the lips of Al From: “Stronger America, Broad Prosperity, Better Future, Effective Government, Mutual Responsibility.” It’s a shame that Lakoff is too preoccupied with justifying his own political biases to get the facts right, since his central argument–that a poll-driven, issues-based strategy is a non-starter–is valid and strong.

Therein lies the missed opportunity of this book. Throughout his essays, Lakoff offers up tidbits of useful advice to Democrats, from thinking strategically to warning that progressives need to explain to voters the values that inform their stances, not just the programs they promote.

Democrats need to hear this. Since the end of the Clinton administration, the party has reverted back to a politics of materialism in which it promises an assortment of constituencies whatever it is they want in order to build a coalition. This may work in a congressional or even gubernatorial race, but it does not work for national offices–such as for senator and president–where larger, symbolic issues of what America stands for and what it should become are at stake. This strategy defeats itself since it ultimately undermines the overall Democratic “brand,” rendering the party label meaningless and the party’s purpose obtuse. More than that, when a new issue arises–such as terrorism–it leaves the party without the intellectual framework to craft a compelling response.

Democrats looking for answers won’t find them in the recycled New Left ideas printed, fittingly, on the chlorine-free recycled paper of Don’t Think of an Elephant. Rather, Lakoff’s book should serve as a wake-up call for Democrats to offer a vision that not only competes with the conservative one but is also positive, powerful, and appealing to Americans across the country–no matter if they are daddy’s little girls or momma’s boys.

Kenneth S. Baer, the author of Reinventing Democrats: The Politics of Liberalism from Reagan to Clinton (University Press of Kansas), is a former White House speechwriter and founder of Baer Communications.

Kenneth S. Baer, the author of Reinventing Democrats: The Politics of Liberalism from Reagan to Clinton (University Press of Kansas), is a former White House speechwriter and founder of Baer Communications.