Don’t Think of an Elephant!: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate

by George Lakoff

(White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing Co., 2004.)

$10.00 paperback

By Jeffrey Scheuer

There are many approaches to democratic politics, but in the end only a few known recipes for success. One is mobilizing the base to increase voter turnout. Another is reducing the opposition’s turnout (the darker art of vote suppression; see: Florida 2000, Ohio 2004). And a third, the focus of much political energy, is trying to win the uncommitted middle to your side. Other than stealing votes, there’s not much else to the game.

For the left, this is not a happy prospect at present. We might be forgiven for wondering if the votes are really out there for a progressive America. (But then, too much reality, as Freud warned, can lead to depression.) In any event, for the left to revive it must both expand and motivate its base and fight for the middle. This requires better arguments and tactics, and possibly better candidates. It certainly does not mean better values; the values stay, or there’s no point getting out of bed.

That’s one reason why George Lakoff’s short book, “Don’t Think of an Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate,” which appeared during last year’s campaign, is important for the left. Its strength (and limitation) is its implicit focus on attracting the hypothetical “winnables” in the center. And while offering hardheaded strategic advice, it gives no quarter on values.

Lakoff doesn’t counsel opportunism but rather pragmatism: flexibility not about ends but about means, through the savvy reframing of basic issues and debates. Never mind the ill-chosen title (this is a serious tactical handbook on language and politics, not a study of cerebral quirks); “Don’t Think of an Elephant!” is a smart little book. It naturally leaves a lot of big questions open, but it raises some important ones and offers sound strategic answers.

Asking why people vote as they do, Lakoff offers the same answer as Thomas Frank in “What’s the Matter With Kansas?,” which also appeared last year (neither author cites the other):

“[V]oters vote their identity – they vote on the basis of who they are, what values they have, and who and what they admire. A certain number of voters identify themselves with their self-interest and vote accordingly. But that is the exception rather than the rule … The Republicans have discovered this, and it is a major reason why they have been winning elections – despite being in a minority. Democrats have not yet figured this out.” (39).

It isn’t just a matter of voting against one’s interests, but also of misperceiving where those interests lie. Americans often vote as if they were planning to win the lottery, and protecting their futures. Should people vote their interests? Do progressives tend to do so? Should our interests and identities conform? These, too, are interesting questions.

Lakoff’s prescription for a healthier left is all about reframing the discourse. He shows how the right, on many issues, has recast the debate in recent decades to their decided advantage, using what he describes as a “strict father” moral framework in contrast to the left’s “nurturant parent” frame. He suggests ways this politico-linguistic revolution might be reversed.

Some of these can be expressed epigrammatically: “Do not use their language. Their language picks out a frame – and it won’t be your frame.” Or again: “The goal is to activate your model in the people in the ‘middle’ [by] using frames based on your worldview.” But Lakoff also offers many specific examples related to issues, e.g., what the right calls “tort reform,” but which is actually a broad attack on public interest law.

At first, some of this can seem like political sleight-of-hand. Certainly the problems of the left cannot be solved by language alone; and Lakoff’s thesis, first outlined in 1996 in his much heftier tome, “Moral Politics,” is no panacea. It won’t make converts or demoralize the right. But as tactical advice it is sound and overdue.

Language does matter in politics, if anything does; and much of the nation’s political discourse has indeed been kidnapped by the right. While regaining lost ground will be more difficult than just reframing, that is where it must begin: expressing progressive values in the left’s language and directly challenging the conservatives’ frames.

Lakoff is right, above all, that these competing frameworks, and underlying philosophical assumptions about morality, society, and causality, are what politics is all about. (Among the better studies of the political spectrum’s dyadic underpinnings is “A Conflict of Visions” (1987) by the conservative Thomas Sowell.) Lakoff’s “strict father/nurturant parent” model sheds more light than shadow.

Beyond language, Lakoff urges strategic thinking to emulate the successes of the right, by which he means figuring out “what minimal change we can enact that will have effects across many issues.” For example, he writes, “… a massive investment in alternative energy has an enormous yield over many issue areas. This is not just about energy; it is about jobs, health, clean air and water, habitat, global warming, foreign policy, and third world development.” Any takers?

Vexing issues remain. For example: given a fairly stable political spectrum with two firm poles and a soft middle (call it the 40-20-40 model if you like), why is this moderate middle much more liable to make excursions to the right (Reagan, Gingrich, the two Bushes, the current Senate and House leadership) than to the left?

This is all the more interesting when you consider the issues and values that separate the right and the left. The left’s “nurturant parent” model embraces genuine family values: jobs, education, health care, childcare, clean air and water, public spaces, workers’ rights, human rights. Yet it hasn’t been a winning combination against the right’s “strict father” frame, which summons a muscular and often mean-spirited individualism and nationalism, along with market and moral fundamentalism. Terrorism alone can’t account for the difference.

Other important issues belong in a fuller account of the left’s predicament. They may not be integral to Lakoff’s points about political language – and to that end, “Don’t Think of an Elephant!” is admirably brief. But they are crucibles of those ideas. They are the elephants in the closet, so to speak, that I can’t help thinking of.

One of these is the right’s use of religion as a political blunt instrument, and how the left should respond. The answer cannot be a piety contest. But I’m not sure the nation is ready for the news that democratic discourse requires a common language respectful of all faiths and of secularism.

We’re not there yet – despite the primacy of religious freedom among our founding principles, as reflected in its placement in the first clause of the First Amendment, ahead of speech and assembly. Put bluntly, the right has vigorously exploited the ancient, bankrupt idea that Christianity is the source of all moral insight and authority. I’m not sure progressives can win any lasting victories while this anti-pluralist view holds sway.

The other big elephant in the closet is equality, which (outside of the “social issues” that somehow bedevil our nation more than others), is the main rubric of democratic debate; and specifically, the concept of class. Why is greater equality, even via the gentler pathways of greater class mobility, such a hard sell? And how has the right managed to virtually demonize “class warfare,” rendering a core political concept taboo, while practicing its own form of plutocratic class warfare with astonishingly hypocritical abandon? Nowhere more than here has the right framed the issues in its own very limited way.

The left won’t get very far without normalizing the idea that democratic politics is and ought to be about class. A progressive response to the right’s doublespeak might be to suggest that the American Dream is, after all, one of an expansive, absorbent middle class to which all can aspire, based on the very family values Lakoff cites.

The radical right is by no means the only problem facing the left. American culture and character are deeply hostile to structural reform, as is our democratic system itself. Its cumbersome legislative mechanics are a recipe for death by committee; the Senate, the Electoral College, the disenfranchisement of the capital city itself, all are counterweights to progress. It has even been argued that the electronic media skew debate toward simple ideas and sound bites, further privileging the right. Lakoff doesn’t confront the question of how the media help or hurt the right and the left, but he notes that journalists need to see through frames.

“Don’t Think of an Elephant” targets the political space where discourse can make a difference. Lakoff shows how language – the medium of all democratic politics – reflects lost, but still graspable, opportunities for the left. His analysis also suggests important differences between insight and traction: between the keys to understanding the political landscape and keys to altering it. Metaphors can function (or misfire) on both levels.

Lakoff’s distinction between the strict father and nurturant parent models may not be the last word philosophically about the ideological spectrum, but in practical terms the metaphor goes a long way in capturing the more rigid and hierarchical worldview of the right and the more holistic, interdependent, and egalitarian one of the left. Coupled with his advice about politico-linguistic reform, it’s a good start.  

Jeffrey Scheuer is an occasional contributor to Dissent and author of “The Sound Bite Society: How Television Helps the Right and Hurts the Left.” He is working on a study of journalistic excellence and democracy.