Review of Start Making Sense, Don't Think of an Elephant!, and What's the Matter With Kansas?
From The Bloomsbury Review
It is unfortunately the case that progressives are spending very little time governing these days, The upside is that they are using their free time to analyze what went wrong in 2004, how it happened, and what can be done to improve their fortunes. That has resulted in compelling books with much to offer.
A progressive, by my definition, is someone who values people above all else. Values that flow from this mind-set include equality, justice, freedom, civic participation, and community. A progressive would support access to health care for all people, a living wage, and equal opportunities for all, among other policies. A progressive is outside of partisan parameters. In other words, a progressive could be a Democrat, Republican, unaffiliated, or connected to a third party.
The 2004 elections, considered by many to be the most important in a generation or more, were decidedly awful for progressive Americans. To be sure, there were bright spots. In Colorado, for example, progressive Democrats won control of both the State House and Senate. Kennedy was in the White House the last time Democrats ran both chambers of the Colorado legislature—so this was big news. Beyond the frame of partisan politics, progressives scored victories in the Centennial State with the passage of a comprehensive mass-transit package, renewable energy standards, and an increase in the tobacco tax. For a conservative-leaning state, progressives' victories in Colorado were substantive and eye-catching.
Of course, any victories in Colorado were overshadowed at the national level by President Bush's reelection. Democrats and their allies spent hundreds of millions of dollars and mobilized as never before. Despite what seemed to be Herculean efforts, the president not only won the electoral college vote, he actually won the popular vote as well, a marked change from 2000. How did this happen? Money poured in to support John Kerry (or at least oppose the president); people were outraged by the war and gave freely of their time. There was fervor, within the Left, about beating Bush. But it didn't happen.
Two books—one written prior to the 2004 election but since updated—examine the state of progressive politics in America. They are provocative and necessary works. The more widely known volume, George Lakoff's Don't Think of an Elephant!, admits that progressives have been out-organize by conservatives over the course of the last 40 years. Lakoff has developed a cult-like following in the last years or so, as he travels the country to present his theory on why and how progressives need to so a better job of "framing" the debate. Early in his book, Lakoff explains that every word evokes a frame, which might be an image or another kind of individual knowledge. He cites several vernacular examples, including the term "tax relief."¯
For there to be relief there has to be an affliction. . . . When the word tax is added to relief, the result is a metaphor: Taxation is an affliction.
While his book talks extensively about framing and what progressives must do differently, Lakoff also makes it clear that conservatives did not win the framing fight by accident. "Reframing is not just about words and language. Reframing is about ideas." Beginning with the nomination of Barry Goldwater in 1964 and following his spectacular defeat at the hands of LBJ, , conservatives have invested enormous sums of money and staggering people-hours to develop their vision, values, and policies. Lakoff argues that progressives have not kept pace. He is surely right. Regardless of how you feel about it, you cannot contend that conservatives don't have a vision for the country. Lower taxes, smaller government, individual freedoms, the war on terror—these are conservative values that frame political discourse in the U.S. today. What is the progressive vision of the U.S.? Can you rattle it off as quickly as "lower taxes" and "less government"? I suspect not.
The good news is that there are many dynamic thinkers interviewed in Start Making Sense, edited by Don Hazen and Lakshmi Chaudhry of AlterNet (the progressive political web magazine), who agree with Lakoff and want to help progressives fill this void. Interviewees include Adam Werbach, Amy Goodman, Jim Wallis, Arianna Huffington, and even George Lakoff. Full disclosure: My boss, Chellie Pingree, Common Cause's president, is also one of the interviewees. The book pulls you from interview to interview. It is woven together with insightful commentaries from Hazen and Chaudhry. It begins by looking back at the 2004 election and the right wing, before turning to strategies about how to move forward. It ends with action steps and specific organizing ideas for progressives.
Among the many fine interviews, pay special attention to the one with Adam Werbach. The former child prodigy of the Sierra Club—he was president of the group at 23—does not pull any punches. He is bold, creative, and smart. If progressives are going to really work at defining their vision and values, Werbach is a good place to start.
If these books whet your appetite for mapping a progressive revival, by all means pick up Thomas Frank's wonderful book, What's the Matter With Kansas? Frank traces the political evolution (some would say devolution) from Kansas' roots as a free-soil, anti-slavery, progressive, populist state to a state dominated by the far right wing of American politics. Kansas was the birthplace of the right wing's crusade to bring the teaching of creationism into the classroom. They were undoubtedly dancing in the streets of Wichita when President Bush recently suggested that the teaching of intelligent design should be on equal footing with the teaching of evolution.
In Don't Think of an Elephant!, Lakoff argues persuasively that people are not motivated by their economic self-interest when voting, but rather by their identity and values. Frank details how and why that is undoubtedly true in today's Kansas. What's the Matter With Kansas? complements the other two books and tells a good story to boot. All of these works are fun to read and are enormously important. Progressives have dithered too long. George Lakoff says it best in his interview in Start Making Sense:
People on the left need to understand that they can't live their lives free of politics. Politics infuses everything, from our religion to how we raise our kids to what we think of our neighbors and what they should or should not be allowed to do. Life is politics, and we need to be organized and coordinate around a vision of what we think American life should be.
Read these books. Help to build the vision of a progressive America.
Pete Maysmith is a public-interest advocate. He is the executive director of Colorado Common Cause. Pete, his wife Nancy, and their daughters Sydney and Zoe live in Denver, CO.