By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
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By David Futch
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By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
"I don’t have time for George Lakoff," says Herb Chao Gunther, executive director of the Public Media Center in San Francisco, the nonprofit media-relations company that helped Greenpeace save whales in the 1980s and has represented Planned Parenthood and NARAL in public-service announcements through two decades of onslaught. "If he really wants to be helpful, he should go canvass houses instead of trying to convince people there’s a magic key to people’s hearts and minds. Because there isn’t."
If you’re a progressive who’s scoured the media or attended activist debriefings after November’s election in search of ways to shift political power to the left, chances are good you’ve heard of George Lakoff and his ideas on framing. Simply put, framing means that how you phrase an idea shapes the response to it. His most cited negative example is "tax relief." "For there to be relief," Lakoff told NPR back in the fall, "there has to be an affliction and an afflicted party who’s harmed by it, a reliever who takes the affliction away, who’s a hero, and if anybody tries to stop them, they’re a bad guy."
A year ago, Lakoff, who has been a linguistics professor at the University of California, Berkeley, since 1972, spoke and wrote in relative obscurity. Most people on the left, let alone mainstream America, had not heard of him. His books, including Moral Politics: What Conservatives Know That Liberals Don’t(1996), were selling at the rate of other respectable academic books, right along with the book Lakoff wrote with Rafael NuĂ±ez, Where Mathematics Comes From: How the Embodied Mind Brings Mathematics Into Being, which held firm for three months in 2001 on New Scientist’s best-seller list but didn’t register much elsewhere. Part of Lakoff’s problem was timing: Moral Politics, meant to address Newt Gingrich’s "Contract With America," landed smack in the middle of the Clinton revolution (the book was reissued in 2002 with the new tag line How Liberals and Conservatives Think). And Lakoff, who now has a think tank behind him called the Rockridge Institute, had yet to learn how to reduce his rich brew of cognitive linguistics down to an easily digestible form. Despite his clear, often lightly funny prose, Moral Politicswas not a book to devour on the redeye.
On the other hand, Don’t Think of an Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate, with its foreword by Governor Howard Dean, verges on the tone of an instructional manual, the kind that might teach single women how to manage their money and snag a spouse. Among its guidelines for battling conservatives: "Never act like a victim" and "Stay away from set-ups." It’s written in the comforting language of what Lakoff would call the "nurturant parent" — his metaphor for the liberal politician (as opposed to the conservative’s "strict parent" model). It’s framing made easy for the frustrated and righteous.
And unlike Moral Politicsand Where Mathematics Comes From, Elephantbecame an instant best-seller, soaring to No. 8 on Amazon.com a week after its release. Inspired by an e-mail from MoveOn.com, readers downloaded 12,000 copies of the book’s first chapter from the Web site of its publisher, Chelsea Green. By November, the man who last May asked a group assembled at the Berkeley Congregational Church to pardon his nervousness — "I’m used to a little seminar room," he told the unexpectedly large crowd — turned up on Now With Bill Moyers, Good Morning America, CNN and even Fox News. His book and his ideas have since replaced rigged voting machines as the topic of discussion at progressive house parties, which recently convened across the country to watch the new DVD How Democrats and Progressives Can Win: Solutions From George Lakoff.
"Progressives are constantly put in positions where they are expected to respond to conservative arguments," writes Lakoff. "But because conservatives have commandeered so much of the language, progressives are often put on the defensive with little or nothing to say in response."
"We understand the world in terms of frames, in terms of conceptual structures," he explains, "and if the facts don’t fit the frame, the facts . . . bounce off. Think of all those people who still believe that Saddam Hussein was part of al Qaeda." He exhorts liberals to talk about their values, back up their arguments with personal stories, use rhetorical questions and words like accountability, responsibility and common sense. "Once your frame is accepted into the discourse," he writes, "everything you say is just common sense. Why? Because that’s what common sense is: reasoning within a commonplace, accepted frame." Never let yourself be put on the defensive, and "never answer a question framed from your opponent’s point of view." If someone asks how you feel about the "Healthy Forests Initiative," re-frame: "You mean ‘No Tree Left Behind’?" The other side wants to stereotype you as a wimp, he cautions. Don’t let them.
For progressives, liberals, lefties — whatever you choose to call us — this is all useful advice. But Elephantmight just as well be titled Don’t Think of Frank Luntz, because it’s impossible to read it and not think of the pollster and de facto Republican Party linguist, who advised conservatives in a string of public memos. In one called "The Environment: A Cleaner, Safer, Healthier America," circulated just before the 2002 congressional race, Luntz warned conservatives they were vulnerable on the environment unless they learned to frame the argument. "Facts only become relevant when the public is receptive and willing to listen to them," he wrote by way of explaining why environmentalists had, in the spring of 2001, so successfully convinced America that the Bush administration was tainting their drinking water with arsenic. "You must explain how it is possible to pursue a commonsenseor sensibleenvironmental policy," he said. He encouraged Republicans to talk about their values, back up their arguments with personal stories, use rhetorical questions and words like accountability and responsibility.