Click links below for reviews of Don't Think of An Elephant
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....
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.
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Recent book offers hopeful advice to ailing Democrats
By Marshall Helmberger
February 18, 2005
Two differing models of child-rearing—the strict father versus the nurturing parent— pretty well sum up the differences between the country's two major political parties according to the author of a recent book that offers a possible road map for a Democratic resurgence in the U.S.
So excited was state Sen. Becky Lourey (DFL-Kerrick) after reading the book, titled: Don't Think of an Elephant, that she bought a copy for every DFL member of the Minnesota Senate.
Written by George Lakoff, a professor of linguistics at UC-Berkeley, the breezy paperback ($7.50 on amazon.com) offers the best explanation I've seen to date for the remarkable success of Republican candidates in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks.
The terrorist attacks have so helped Republicans because they reinforced the underlying framework of the new Republican belief in strict father morality, which holds that the world is a dangerous place and that it is up to a strict male authority figure to protect us from evil.
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Challenging the Christian right in rural America
People's Weekly World
By Paul Nelson
February 17, 2005
Polls from the recent presidential election showed that many working-class voters support Bush's Christian right "values agenda." Why?
From 1994 until 2002, I worked as a pastor at various Lutheran congregations in rural Iowa, and so have observed this trend firsthand. It's debatable exactly how much the Christian right movement helped Bush's re-election. But it has been extremely effective in its longer-term effort to convince working-class voters (many of whom attend church on a regular basis) that their enemy is a liberal/left agenda working to undermine moral values.
As the Christian right tells the story, an elite class of liberals and other "leftists" have banned God from public classrooms, taken take away their guns, "forced" gay marriage on their communities, and let women "kill" human life through abortion. Some commentators have dubbed this view — especially as expressed in some parts of rural, working-class America — "God, guns and gays."
A recent book by George Lakoff (Don't Think Of An Elephant! Know Your Values and Frame the Debate) offers insights for combating the Christian right's domination of the values debate in America. The Christian right has developed a religious ideology that Lakoff aptly names "strict Father morality." Under its influence, many working-class families (especially in rural America) have come to see their difficulties as having a moral, not economic, basis. "Strict Father morality" paints the world as governed in a top-down fashion by religious/moral values through which God rules heaven and earth, while Dad rules the home. To mess with this view of life, Christian rightists would say, risks bringing American society to the ruin of moral bankruptcy.
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by Thom Hartmann
November 4, 2004
During the 1988 presidential campaign, Republican partisans began employing an unusually skillful use of language and advertising technique. The Willie Horton ads, for example, used an old NeuroLinguistic Programming (NLP) technique of "Anchoring via Submodalities," linking Dukakis, at an unconscious level in the viewer's mind, to Willie Horton by the use of color versus black-and-white footage, and background sound. After a few exposures to these psy-ops ads, people would "feel" Willie Horton when they "saw" Dukakis.
It was no accident. Toward the end of that campaign, I was presenting at an NLP conference in New York, and a colleague mentioned to me how the GOP had hired one of our mutual acquaintances to advise them on the tools of persuasion. "He's gone over to the dark side," my friend said sadly.
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A New, Better Democratic Strategy
St. Petersburg Times
by Robyne E Blumner
November 28, 2004
What are the Democrats to do now? After losing the presidency again and allowing Republicans to solidify their control of Congress, the Democrats are in reconnoiter mode. They are anxiously trying to figure out a winning strategy before they go the way of the Whigs.
If Democrats are looking for their own version of Karl Rove, they just might find him in Berkeley linguist George Lakoff. While New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof is wondering aloud whether Democrats should embrace guns, and a handful of party leaders are suggesting Democrats allow for some "flexibility" on abortion rights, Lakoff is saying the opposite.
In his bestselling book, Don't Think of an Elephant!: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate, Lakoff says that tilting to the right is precisely the wrong strategy for progressives. He says such a move would alienate the base and reinforce the conservative world view for swing voters. Instead, he suggests that Democrats start promoting their own values by properly framing the debate.
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by Scott D. O'Reilly
November 22, 2004
Democrats are now a minority party in America. If Karl Rove and George Bush have their way, liberals will soon be an endangered species. The election of 2004 was not decided by fraudulent voting machines, but by a fundamental political realignment that threatens to steer the country in a starkly conservative direction for a generation or more.
The cognitive scientist George Lakoff discerned this possibility more than a decade ago in Moral Politics (1994), a book updated in 2002, which helps explains the impeachment of President Clinton, and the Florida election debacle, in the context of a rightward revolt against secular government.
Conservatives have spent the last forty years, Lakoff argues, developing an infrastructure designed to put the Left in a stranglehold. Well-funded think tanks, media outlets like Fox New, an extensive talk-radio network, and state of the art direct mail campaigns have succeeded in framing the issues to the advantage of conservatives, in effect controlling the terms of political debate, while mobilizing a vast army of voters on the behalf of a conservative agenda.
The issue of "framing" is a critical component of Lakoff's latest book, Don't Think of an Elephant! Know Your Values and Frame the Debate. What is framing? As a cognitive scientist, Lakoff studies how particular concepts activate a constellation of ancillary ideas and emotions that make up an audience's worldview. For example, the concept of "tax-relief" carries with it a rich array of associations that include the lifting of an unfair burden, standing up for the little guy against big government, and the notion that hard work is rewarded when citizens keep more of the money they earn.
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John Kerry Was Framed
by Christopher Dreher
November 20, 2004
"People don't understand what the division in the country is all about," says Berkeley, Calif., linguist George Lakoff. "Liberals think conservatives are stupid, but that's not true. They are just operating within a different frame."
Prof. Lakoff is a cognitive scientist who specializes in how conceptual systems are expressed in language. He's also the new political guru for Democrats mystified by this month's U.S. election results.
He first published Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think in 1996, to little apparent notice. In 2000, he reached out to consult with Al Gore's presidential campaign, but was, in his words, "thoroughly ignored."
Moral Politics kept quietly gathering an audience, and in 2003 a revised edition reached the Top 10 of Amazon.com's bestseller list.
This year, a central figure in John Kerry's camp asked for Prof. Lakoff's feedback, but the results weren't much better. "A certain amount of what I said was taken seriously and incorporated," Prof. Lakoff says. "Most was not."
Since Nov. 2, however, Prof. Lakoff has had runaway success with a new, slim tract, Don't Think of an Elephant! Know Your Values and Frame the Debate. It tries to explain how "frames" -- mental constructs that guide the way each person perceives reality -- are crucial to the Republican grip on power.
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by Rob Kall
November 19, 2004
The Republicans have spent 30+ years framing the issues. They've invested hundreds of millions if not billions of dollars in think tanks that devise strategies for pitching policies, for wrapping policies in words and language. They literally have a play book on how to frame the issues—the words and phrases to use and not use.
George Lakoff shines light on the way that language is used by the republicans and right wingers and then goes further, explaining the ways people think-- the images and language they use in their heads. He explores the moral/political value systems that drive liberals and conservatives. Then he explains how to take back the language, the words and the dialogue.
If you haven't read his work—either this book or his longer, more academic one, Moral Politics, then you will probably routinely fall into the trap of using language and words that the right wing has loaded with framing, spin and meaning that already has you at a disadvantage by just uttering those words.
Once you've read the book, you'll understand the buzzwords and phrases that the right wing routinely uses in their speeches and talking points. I can't imagine attempting to understand today's politics without digesting a serious dose of Lakoff
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Why the Democrats Need to Stop Thinking About Elephants
The New York Times
by Adam Cohen
November 15, 2004
If George Lakoff had his way, the Kerry campaign would have run a commercial attacking the "baby tax." Dr. Lakoff, a Berkeley linguistics professor and Kerry campaign adviser, wanted to divide the interest on the national debt by the number of Americans born each year. The result, $85,000 per newborn, say, would have been handed to a baby in the form of a bill, and the baby would have started to cry. That, Dr. Lakoff says, "frames" the issue "in a way people can understand."
"Framing" is a hot topic among political junkies and in the blogo-sphere right now, thanks to Dr. Lakoff. In Don't Think of an Elephant!: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate, his surprise best seller, Dr. Lakoff argues that Republicans have been winning elections because they have been better than Democrats at framing issues - from taxes, to abortion, to national security - in ways that resonate with core American values.
Dr. Lakoff has been stepping out of the classroom lately to lecture everyone from the Senate Democratic caucus to "living wage" advocates on how to use linguistics to craft a more effective message. "Framing" alone won't give the Democrats the White House, or the Senate and House. But Dr. Lakoff's theories offer the Democrats a road map for going forward.
The title "Don't Think of an Elephant!" comes from a classic experiment Dr. Lakoff conducts in Cognitive Science 101. He tells his students not to think of an elephant, and he has yet to find one who has managed it. Thinking about elephants is the frame, and negating it simply reinforces it. This was the problem, he says, with President Richard Nixon's famous declaration, "I am not a crook."
Trying not to think of elephants, Dr. Lakoff suggests, sums up the Democrats' plight. Since Republicans have framed the key issues, Democrats cannot avoid being on the losing side. Take taxes. Republicans have succeeded in framing the issue as "tax relief," a metaphor that presents an affliction, and that predetermines who are the heroes - tax opponents - and villains. Taxes are, of course, necessary even for programs Republicans back, like the military, and simple economics dictates that we cannot keep cutting taxes and maintaining spending forever. But the Democrats are hard-pressed to make these points once the frame is "tax relief."
It is not by accident that "tax relief" presents taxes in moral terms, as a calamity in search of a cure. Values, Dr. Lakoff argues, are the key to framing campaign issues. Democrats have an unfortunate tendency, he says, to see campaigns as product launches, believing that if they roll out a candidate with the best features, or positions on issues, voters will support him. Republicans understand that people vote their identity, not their self-interest - that they seek out candidates whose values appear to match their own.
After the election, pundits made much of the influence of a few "moral" issues, like gay marriage and abortion, on the outcome. But Dr. Lakoff argues that values play an important role in almost every campaign issue. The Republicans' success has been driven in large part, he argues, by their ability to frame less morally charged subjects in terms of core values. He is impressed by a line from President Bush's last State of the Union address: that we do not need a "permission slip" to defend America. It reframed multilateralism, once a widely accepted foreign policy principle, as weakness and national infantilization.
As Dr. Lakoff sees it, Democrats need to start framing issues in terms of their own values, which, he insists, are no less popular with the American people than the Republicans' values. This project will, however, take more than spin and sloganeering. On many subjects, he argues, the Democrats suffer from what he calls "hypocognition" - more simply, a lack of ideas. Republicans have been working for the past 40 years, since the defeat of Barry Goldwater, in well-financed think tanks, on developing conservative ideas that voters will rally around. The Democrats, he says, need to start catching up.
One frame Dr. Lakoff likes, which he believes could become a progressive wedge issue, is "poison-free communities." The Republicans' war on government regulation has left industry increasingly free to spew toxins into the air and water, despite the harm it is doing to the public. Keeping people healthy is a core progressive value, but it is one that many swing voters and Republicans share. Few people want their children poisoned by mercury in the name of a theory about the appropriate size of government.
Framing can also deflect the other side's charges. Dr. Lakoff argues that the Democrats should fight the Republican campaign for "tort reform" by recasting it. Rather than debate over frivolous lawsuits, he says, they should talk about protecting people from law-breaking corporations and negligent doctors. When Republicans talk about greedy trial lawyers, he says, Democrats should talk about - and he really needs a better phrase here- "public protection attorneys."
For all of his good insights, Dr. Lakoff can get a little too caught up in his own frame. His intense focus on language leaves too little room for other attributes of a successful campaign, like a charismatic candidate or a strong field operation. Just as professional campaign managers have given too little thought to his frames and hypocognition, he has a tendency to undervalue what they do. The least compelling part of his book is a commercial he suggests Democrats use on taxes. His script begins, "Taxation is paying your dues, paying your membership fee in America." That quickly reframes the issue to: "Where did I put the remote?"
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George Lakoff's Don't Think of an Elephant
By John N. Cooper
Octoberr 25, 2004
How many times have you heard progressives profess utter bewilderment at the propensity of Bush supporters openly and willingly to vote against their own best interests?
George Lakoff, professor of cognitive science and linguistics at UC Berkeley, offers insights and explanations into both this question and the self-defeating response of the progressive community in his August 2004 book, Don't Think of an Elephant [Chelsea Green Publishing, ISBN 1-931498-71-7].
According to Lakoff, rather than vote in their own interests, most voters act consistent with their image whom or what they wish they were or would like to be. Rather than view this diverse nation in something like its full complexity, most respond to national events and issues according to the role they see for themselves in one of two extreme models of the nuclear family: either that dominated by a stern, authoritarian father (although it is clear there are domineering matriachs sufficient for the most demanding taste ); or that led in a more-or-less gender neutral, cooperative, nurturing mode. In the worldview of the authoritarian model, we are all born bad and can be corrected only by stern discipline, ruthless competition and self-denial.
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The Best Book This Cycle
By Markos Moulitsas
Sep 20th, 2004
I'm not one to recommend books lightly. In fact, I don't think I've ever said, "you HAVE to get this book." But there's always a first time for everything.
I get swamped with review copies of books these days, and given the number of liberal-leaning anti-Bush books saturating the market, there's no shortage of reading material that I'll unfortunately never get to. But I nearly flipped with joy when I checked my mail today (too lazy to do it yesterday) and found a copy of George Lakoff's new book, Don't think of an elephant!, he of the Rockridge Institute. I'd been dying to read my first Lakoff book since I read this piece he wrote for the American Prospect. The fact that the obnoxious Jonathan Chiat of the New Republic dissed him only made me more anxious to read him. And rumors that the DNC have taken Lakoff on as a consultant clinched the deal.
So back to the book, I knew after reading just a handful of pages that if there's one book you read this year, it should be this one. Lakoff's obsession is the use of language to frame political debate. And it's his findings that will help rescue the Democratic Party from itself, extracating itself from playing with the frame built by the Vast Right Wing Conspiracy (think tanks, leadership institutes, media outlets, etc). What's a frame? You know them -- "Death Tax", and "Tax Relief", and "Pro-life", and so on. Bush says, "We don't need a permission slip from the UN to defend the US", and suddenly, the Republicans have framed the runup to war in a certain way. Our mistake, as a party, has been our willingness to play within our opponents' frame, rather than building our own.
I will be writing more about the book over the coming days. I'm absolutely smitten by it.
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Lakoff, a cognitive scientist and linguist at Berkeley, believes he knows why conservatives have been so successful in recent years and how progressives like himself can beat them at their own game. This slim book presents a simple, accessible overview of his theory of "moral politics" and a call to action for Democrats mourning November's election results. Lakoff's persuasive argument focuses on two ideas: what he calls "framing," and the opposition of liberals' and conservatives' concepts of the family. Conservatives, he says, have easily framed tax cuts as "tax relief" because of widespread, preexisting views of taxes as burdensome, and liberals have had little success conveying the idea that taxes are a social responsibility. In Lakoff's view, conservatives adhere to a "strict father" model of family, in contrast to liberals' "nurturant parent" view, and he sees this difference as the key to understanding most of the two sides' clashes. His writing is clear and succinct, and he illuminates his theories through easy-to-follow examples from current politics. Although the book has been updated since the election, many of its sections were originally written long beforehand, so some comments are outdated (at one point Lakoff wonders, for example, whether George Bush's support of the gay marriage amendment will help him keep the White House). However, the process of regaining power may be a long one for Democrats, and Lakoff's insights into how to deal with conservatives and appeal to the general public are bound to light a fire under many progressives.
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