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Issue No. 82 (January 15, 2006) -- Mark Satin, Editor

The Democrats’ “New Bible” will
raise us-against-them to an art form

George Lakoff’s book Don’t Think of an Elephant! appeared at the same time as my book Radical Middle (early 2004). Both are short and sweet, both are based on years of research, and both are addressed to political activists who hope to change the world for the better.

And both have one key argument in common. Both argue that laundry lists of programs -- untethered to values and vision -- cannot get us to a better future.

But there the similarities end. While I argue that activists need to drop their certainties and listen to and learn from everyone, and create a fresh new point of view & agenda thereby, Lakoff argues that progressives need to create a language framework -- a “frame” -- that will expose conservatives as “immoral” and win moderates over to the progressive point of view & agenda.

Not surprisingly, progressive foundations have pumped hundreds of thousands of dollars into Lakoff and his message. High-profile operatives like Howard Dean, Arianna Huffington, and Joan Blades (of MoveOn.org) are vociferously on board. All I got for my efforts is an award plaque from my peers at the American Political Science Association, and support for this website from hundreds of independent thinkers and activists.

“Frame” your message!

Lakoff is a linguist at UC-Berkeley, and his theories (which are not shared by most linguists; see Matt Bai, “Framing Wars,” New York Times Magazine, 17 July 2005) have convinced him that we all have “frames” that shape the way we see the world. And the frames are shaped by language.

Change the language and you change the frame through which we see. So if your conservative opponent speaks of “tax relief,” don’t come up with a better version of tax relief -- you'll just be reinforcing their conservative frame.  Instead, argue that taxes are the price we pay for living in a decent society. If your opponent speaks of an elephant, don’t think of an elephant when you answer him or her!

Lakoff says there are only two frames. One derives from what he calls the “strict father” family, the other from what he calls the “nurturant parent” family. The first is Republican / conservative (surprise!), the second is Democrat / progressive, and about 35-40% of us are currently hooked to each frame.

A minority of Americans -- 20-30% -- is in between, confused, torn, and up for grabs.

According to Lakoff, for progressives to start winning national elections again, they need to cement their base and win over that 20-30%. And the way for them to do that is to sharpen their language so it has little or nothing to do with conservatives' language.

Don’t speak of “trial lawyers,” speak of “public protection attorneys.” Don’t speak of a “strong defense,” speak of a “stronger America” which exudes “every dimension of strength” including even our health care system. And so on, ad infinitum.

Occasionally Lakoff says Democrats need better ideas, too; but he always says it in passing. None of the ideas Lakoff puts forth in the last third of the book challenges or even tweaks the conventional progressive wisdom, particularly as it is expressed in places like Berkeley CA and Boulder CO.

If you want to gain political power by re-jiggling the progressive ideas you grew up with in the Sixties, then this book is for you. But if you’re not convinced that one “side” has a corner on the truth -- or that there are only two sides! -- then this book and its enthusiastic reception is bad, bad news.  It promises to raise us-against-them to an art form.

Hokey “frames”

It is less than persuasive, though.

Lakoff’s two frames (strict father and nurturant parent) cannot possibly be the only two. Probably most of us come from families that barely resemble either of those. So there must be a spectrum of frames.

Moreover, Lakoff’s frames are hardly scientifically drawn. The counterpart of the strict father model is not nurturant parent. It’s what you could call the “anything goes” model, from which millions of youth are suffering today.

The nurturant parent model (and how’s about plural -- nurturant parents) is the golden mean, with appropriate discipline and freedom both built in. Some dare call it the radical middle model.

If our politics ultimately derive from our models of the family, and if there are only two operative models of the family, then it might make sense to approach American politics as a battle royal between conservatives and progressives.

But those are two pretty big ifs to hang our political future on!  Not to mention pretty abstract, and pretty unprovable.

Bi-polar America?

Lakoff refers to “the other side” repeatedly. But repeating it a hundred times -- while a standard re-framing technique, or trick -- cannot, without more, convince any sentient reader that we live in a bi-polar America.

Sociologists tend to believe that this country is far less polarized than it  appears to be in the media. For example, in One Nation, After All (1998), a highly acclaimed survey of the ideas and feelings of ordinary Americans, liberal sociologist Alan Wolfe found “little support for the notion that middle-class Americans are engaged in bitter cultural conflict with each other. [They are] above all moderate in their outlook on the world.”

Wolfe goes on to add, “Intellectuals, attracted more often to principles than to pragmatism, generally split apart the cultural and moral opposites that ordinary people are trying to reconcile.”

But such findings do not register with Professor Lakoff. One of his principal goals is to convince activists to use language to induce people to see themselves as falling exclusively on one side of our supposedly vast cultural-political divide -- the blue side, not the red side.

He instructs activists, “Your job is to capture territory of the mind.” Your job is not to encourage people to defend "the complexity of the truth," as radical middle author Mark Gerzon puts it (in A House Divided, 1996).  Your job is to take thoughtful, genuinely conflicted people and make them as one-eyed as possible.

Here is the ultimate message Lakoff wants his re-framing language to convey: Conservatives Sly, Mean, Bad (in fact, “immoral”). Progressives Smart, Caring, Good. And nobody else counts.

But that is a ridiculous message. At some elementary schools, even playground games involve more complex reasoning.  In real life, progressives have as much to learn from conservatives as vice-versa, and they both need to learn from libertarians, Greens, principled moderates, and many others.

Moreover, after five decades as a political activist, I can reliably report that progressives are no better and no worse in the smartness / caring / goodness departments than are other human beings.

Our job as activists should be to help people become as thoughtful, nuanced, sensitive, and many-sided as possible . . . even if that means their policy preferences may diverge from ours.

Democracy flourishes when people think clearly and deeply about issues, not when they’re subtly or not-so-subtly made to choose between blue teams and red teams, Good Guys and Bad Guys.

Where we’re really at

Fortunately, most Americans are not like Lakoff’s ideal, polarized citizen.

Although Lakoff claims that America is already largely bi-polar -- specifically, that 70-80% of us are “cognitively” left or right -- he presents no hard evidence for that claim; and the weight of the evidence is against him. Most surveys suggest that a plurality or majority of us is neither left nor right.

For example, in December 2000 a Gallup poll found that more Americans (42%) identified themselves as independents than as Democrats or Republicans. A Penn, Schoen poll that same year found that 66% of American voters “favor solutions that come from the political center,” rather than the political right (13%) or left (8%).

And that is not, by and large, spineless centrism. It is thoughtful centrism, creative centrism. In One Nation, After All, referred to above, Alan Wolfe reports that most of us are far more imaginative, far more tolerant, and far more nuanced in our thinking than most academic intellectuals realize.

Thank God for that.

Moving to the right?

Lakoff’s great fear is that, in order to appeal to more people, the Democratic Party -- or progressives in general -- will “move to the right.”

So he spends a good part of his book encouraging activists to discredit centrists and conservatives, often in the most puerile ways. For example, when a person (sorry, an “opponent”) speaks up for smaller government, Lakoff wants activists to “Point out that conservatives don’t really want smaller government.” What they really want is to shaft the poor.

That will be news to many conservatives, who’ve spent years supporting innovative policies that could provide the poor with both the money and the social guidance that they need (see, e.g., Paul Starobin, “The Daddy State,” National Journal, March 28, 1998, and our own article “Left, Right, and Evangelicals Hammer Out Holistic Anti-Poverty Agenda”).

What is the moral difference between accusing conservatives of being anti-poor and accusing progressives of being anti-defense?  This whole approach to political mobilization (I refuse to call it dialogue) is a tiresome charade that demonstrably sickens the kinds of Americans portrayed in Alan Wolfe's book, and arguably depresses voter turnout among everyone but true believers.

If progressive activists want to connect with the vast majority of the American people, it is probably not a great career move for them to use carefully crafted language to subtly assert, “We’re right, conservatives are wrong (and immoral), and the rest of you are out to lunch.”

It may be strategically wiser -- not to mention substantively more accurate -- for progressives to concede that enormously difficult problems have arisen both domestically and globally, and that the solutions to those problems will require the best efforts and special perspectives of us all.

To begin to forge those solutions, we don't need a language of the left or right.  We need to develop a common language that can fairly represent the beliefs of all participants in the American political dialogue.

That is the kind of politics we need now. It is not “moving to the right,” it is becoming at once more creative and more pragmatic. It is moving to the radical middle.


For an earlier and more scholarly book by Lakoff on some of the same themes, see Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think (U. Chicago Press, rev. 2002, orig. 1996).

For critiques of Lakoff from some other points of view, see Kenneth Baer, Word Games,” Washington Monthly, January-February 2005 (neoliberal); Marc Cooper, Thinking of Jackasses,” Atlantic Monthly, April 2005 (radical left); Jonah Goldberg, ‘Merlot Democrats’ to the Rescue,” Townhall.com, October 19, 2005 (conservative); Art Myatt, Thinking About the Elephant,” Are You Green? Website, December 24, 2004 (Green); and Noam Scheiber, Wooden Frame,” The New Republic, May 23, 2005 (liberal).

Lakoff has created an organization to promote his reframing approach called The Rockridge Institute. Organizations pursuing my dialogic, “radical middle” approach include The Centrist Coalition, The Democracy in America Project, The New America Foundation, and Search for Common Ground (full disclosure: I am on the Advisory Boards of the first two, and my book was endorsed by the presidents of the latter two).


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