By George Lakoff
Chelsea Green. 168 pp. Paperback, $15
Progressives, as a rule, do not look back with nostalgia at 2004 — a dismal, disempowering year, a time of swiftboating and flip-flopping and generally being left sputtering in the face of the Bush-Cheney barrage. One exception to that rule is Barack Obama, whose keynote address at that year’s Democratic National Convention launched him toward the office he now holds.
There is at least one other exception: George Lakoff, distinguished professor of cognitive science and linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley. For Lakoff, those were heady days. The election and its aftermath brought sold-out speaking gigs; invitations to dinner with Democratic strategists, Hollywood liberals and former president Bill Clinton; the label “guru”; and, at one memorable gathering of Senate Democrats, hugs.
In the wake of John Kerry’s defeat, Democrats turned to Lakoff to teach them how to communicate, how to get and stay on message, how — in Lakoff’s semi-scientific parlance — to “frame.” The professor’s calling card — the one that earned him a seat at Democratic tables that year — was a handbook titled “Don’t Think of an Elephant!” In it, Lakoff set out, for a lay audience, his theory that physical structures within the brain, activated by the use of coded and morally loaded language, determine our responses to political stimuli. Put differently, “framing” is what Republicans were doing when they said, repeatedly, that John Kerry looked French. As your “cognitive unconscious” was well aware, this was not a compliment.
Ten years on, Lakoff is still a proponent of framing. He puts it to work in the title of his new book, “The All New Don’t Think of an Elephant!” As readers of the previous edition will discover, this one is not all new; it is, in point of fact, only slightly new, but Lakoff has always held that progressives put too much stock in facts. He begins the book with a quick victory lap: In 2004, he tells us, “hardly anyone had heard of or thought about . . . how social and political issues were framed.” Today, “millions of people” have. “That,” Lakoff notes, “is a lot for one small book to have accomplished.”
Nor is that all. The Elephant playbook, its author contends, helped Obama to win the White House and Senate Democrats to expand their majority in 2008. Hope, as we know, was the mantra that year, and Lakoff’s hope was that “the superior framing would continue.” Well, “it didn’t.” Within months of Obama’s inauguration, Lakoff believes, the Democratic Party slid back into its mumbling, losing ways and the GOP “regained framing superiority in public discourse” at the national level. Now, having snatched back the ground they lost in 2008, the Republicans are “setting their framing sights on the cities as well as the states.” Republican metaphors know where you live.
But Lakoff is back — and ready to administer another shot in the arm. Just in time, it would appear. The 10th anniversary of “Don’t Think of an Elephant!” finds Democrats on the defensive. Their message this fall is tentative and indistinct. Their standard-bearer, Obama, gets diminishing returns from his use of the bully pulpit. Yet Democrats will find little to aid them in editions of “Elephant,” old or new. “Thinking differently requires speaking differently,” Lakoff proclaims, but he does neither of these; his own frame of reference looks unerringly backward and leftward. His linguistic remedies, of dubious value a decade ago, appear today dated, dispensable and almost willfully naive.
Lakoff’s currency in the George W. Bush era came from the gloss of science he applied to his advice. As Nancy Pelosi, the House Democratic leader, told the journalist Matt Bai in 2005: “You have a Berkeley professor saying, ‘This is how the mind works; this is how people perceive language.’ . . . It gives me much more leverage with my members.” The new “Elephant,” like all Lakoff’s political writings, throws around terms like “reflexivity” and “hypocognition” like a grad student at the world’s worst cocktail party, but a lot of this science is no more than speculative. Steven Pinker, the Harvard professor and popular author, has argued that Lakoff’s “use of cognitive neuroscience goes way beyond any consensus within that field” and that his “way with brain science is even more” of a reach.
That dispute, for the most part, is best left to the professionals. But those whose business is politics have just as much reason to question Lakoff’s analysis. His assessment of the political landscape — left, right and center — appears, in many respects, at odds with reality. A progressive himself, Lakoff despairs at the company he keeps. Democrats are, in this account, blinkered and hapless, out of ideas and overreliant on reason. “The All New Don’t Think of an Elephant!” portrays a party of heirs to Michael Dukakis who offer “a laundry list of facts, policies, and programs” but look at their shoes when the talk turns to values. It is unclear how Obama, Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, Elizabeth Warren or other leading Democrats fit this caricature, but progressives, in Lakoff’s world, exist mainly as fodder for a fearsome, right-wing “messaging system.”
The idea of a linguistic missile gap is a tenet of the Lakoff creed. Conservatives, he insists, are masters of manipulation. “They are winning,” he states flatly. Why are they winning? “Because they are smart. They understand how people think and how people talk.” They also have “training institutes” and “media studios” and clever ways “to bring their people together.” This notion of conservative supremacy was a commonplace in 2004, when Democratic tongues were tied in knots, but Lakoff holds to it no less today. So convinced is Lakoff that where the rest of us see fissures between the tea party and the mainstream, he posits a great “welding-together.” He wonders if “the divisions among conservatives make them stronger, not weaker.” This prospect will greatly please House Speaker John Boehner.
But the Lakoff cosmology is at its most confused, or contrived, when it comes to the political center. To begin with, he doesn’t believe in it. “There is no ‘middle,’ ” he declares. There is, instead, a category that is left and right at the same time — a group of people who “have both kinds of moral circuitry in their brain,” whose “contradictory neural circuits” click on and off, an alternating current of opinion, depending on the issue. These are the “biconceptuals.” Lakoff is silent on whether they were born that way, but they can be converted, he tells progressives — if you “activate their nurturant models” before a conservative woos their stricter side.
Is the right really winning the framing war? Lakoff never questions this, but the rest of us should. If the GOP takes back the Senate, is it because Republican candidates are making — as Lakoff would have it — stronger, smarter, more disciplined appeals? Or are Republicans saying as little as possible and stumbling toward victory because economic gains are uneven, the world is coming apart and discontentment with Obama is high? Language, in this climate, seems largely beside the point.
President Clinton, in reviewing drafts that White House speechwriters had prepared for him, would sometimes wave his hand dismissively and, quoting Hamlet, say, “Words, words, words.” Of course he had nothing against words per se; Clinton was, and remains, incredibly good at using them — to sway an audience, introduce an idea, advance a solution. What he disdained were words decoupled from reality or concrete action — empty and inflated rhetoric. (“Rhetoric,” too, was an epithet.)
And this, in the end, is what’s wrong with Lakoff’s approach: its indifference to actual experience. “Frames trump facts,” he blandly asserts. If so, Obama ought to be enjoying more than 40 percent support (as one recent poll finds) for his handling of the economy. Just as Lakoff prescribes, Obama speaks of morality no less than of policy and repeats his message “over and over.” But the reason Americans are questioning Obama’s leadership is not that he’s failing to trigger their “nurturant parent” frame or that Republicans have switched on voters’ inner “strict father.” The president is struggling politically because people are struggling economically — to find a job, or hold on to the ones they’ve got, or earn a paycheck that supports a family. That is their lived experience, and certain facts speak louder than words — even carefully chosen ones.
THE ALL NEW DON’T THINK OF AN ELEPHANT!
Know Your Values and Frame the Debate
By George Lakoff
Chelsea Green. 168 pp. Paperback, $15