Tuesday, December 14, 2004

The most important political ideas in years -- Part One 

Just finished George Lakoff's Don't Think of an Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate. The importance of many of the ideas contained in this book can't be overstated. Kos did a good job summarizing it (he said it's the only book he's ever recommended to readers). I might post about it a few times, as I think it's so crucial to those who haven't heard about this stuff.

Lakoff -- a cognitive scientist -- puts forth two different views of the family and shows how they dictate political beliefs. His big thing is "framing," and a huge part of that is language. It is the conservative movement that has brilliantly and systematically gained control of the political dialogue over 30 years using organization and language. He says the Dems need to stop calling the conservatives stupid, and instead emulate their ingenious methods of framing the debate (minus the deceptions, of course).

Think about how many GOP-crafted phrases we use to talk about issues: Death tax. Tax relief. Partial birth abortion. Pro-life. Climate change. Wordsmith and GOP strategist Frank Luntz pens regularly updated language manuals for conservative candidates, pundits, and think tanks to use. In what was a minor flap a couple years ago, a Luntz memo was leaked. In it he basically admits that science is crushing the right's position on global warming, but comes up with talking points for how to forestall action on environmental matters -- and words to use to make it seem like they're doing something. Among those words were "healthy" (think "Healthy Forests"); and "clear" ("Clear Skies"). But "tax relief" is my favorite example. The phrase implies taxes are bad; that the person who "relieves" us of taxes is a hero; and that those who oppose it are wrong.

These phrases are crafted at the highest level and, with great discipline, used by conservatives everywhere. Then, when you hear these words enough, you start to accept them and use them yourself. The so-called liberal media swallows them whole, and reporters are soon using the loaded phrases every day. Democratic candidates even use the words, trying unsuccessfully to fight the GOP on its own turf. Lakoff points out that when a Dem who opposes Bush's dangerous tax cuts comes out against "tax relief," he might as well pack it in because he's already screwed.

Also in the book:

* Lakoff's theories effectively explain why people who regularly side with progressives on almost every issue still vote for the Republican candidate.
* He shows why liberals' usual argument that "if we just show people the facts, they'll understand" doesn't work -- because facts, if they don't fit in with your particular frame of reference -- just bounce right off.
* The Dems, instead of framing the debate, have just played on the GOP's field and moved to the right on dozens of issues, which doesn't work.

Couple of criticisms: 1) as this column points out, Lakoff's solutions aren't all that clear. But it's realizing what's going on that's the first step. 2) The book is actually several speeches and articles cobbled together, so there's some repetition and irrelevance. The first 35 pages are what's most important.

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