In the classic Marx Brothers movie Animal Crackers, Groucho Marx quips:
One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got into my pajamas I'll never know.
George Lakoff has a similar problem -- he can't quite figure out how metaphorical elephants ever get into power. The case we have gradually been building to explain this has three basic tenets. First, Lakoff's metaphorical schema of ideology comports poorly with actual liberal and conservative argumentation, rendering his analysis of both sides' programs -- and their appeal -- suspect. Second, he has considerable difficulty in acknowledging or reasoning about interpretations of ground truths which differ from his own. Third, despite correctly diagnosing the importance of appeals to emotional and intuitive instincts -- the point of constructing metaphorical frames for arguing -- Lakoff fails to recognize the importance of a wide range of related linguistic phenomena and attitudes, like irony and humor. Despite these flaws, Lakoff has produced a book, Don't Think of an Elephant!, which purports to explain how liberals can correct their rhetorical deficiencies in order to obtain electoral success. All page references below are from DTE unless otherwise noted.
Lakoff opens the book with an unintentionally humorous anecdote that goes far towards explaining how poorly he understands the actual divisions among the voting groups out there (p. 6). He recounts the story of giving a talk at a linguistics conference (unnamed) shortly after inventing the strict father/nuturant parent model, and being approached by two linguists (also unnamed) who he identifies as members of the Christian Coalition (which implies both membership in a Protestant denomination and the Republican Party). They say he's almost right, but:
Goyim: Have you read Dobson?
G: James Dobson.
G: You're kidding. He's on three thousand radio stations.
L: Well, I don't think he's on NPR. I haven't heard of him.
G: Well, you live in Berkeley.
L: Where would I...does he write stuff?
OK, I couldn't help myself. Lakoff doesn't identify them as "goyim", a Jewish colloquialism used to refer to non-Jews (originally the Hebrew plural form of "nation", which technically included the Jews). But he might as well have for the stereotyping this reveals (aside from the wise-guy assignment of names, this dialogue is reprinted verbatim from p. 6). For one thing, one need be neither Christian nor conservative to have heard of James Dobson; at least in Southern California, one need only listen to KNX 1070, an all-traffic-and-weather station, for one of the syndicated tidbits they run between all the traffic and weather reports ([a-ha! So it's NOT all traffic and weather! -- ed.]). If Lakoff lives in such an insular world so as to only listen to NPR, then he fits into certain conservative stereotypes beautifully. Of course, if his friends really made that wisecrack about Berkeley, then they fit into a number of liberal stereotypes equally well. One can almost hear them saying "Berserkley" instead. Of course, it's doubtful that this is a literal transcription of what actually happened, and is probably meant to humorously illustrate the gulf between Lakoff and his opposites. They're both goyim to each other, so different that they could never hope to understand how the other half thinks.
This is largely territory we've covered before, but the story gives needed color to the fundamental failings of Don't Think of an Elephant!. The book is written out of a deep sense of frustration and anger, and combined with the insular nature of Lakoff's thought, it proves to be little more than a temper tantrum. We'll start with the frame that demonstrates this most clearly, Lakoff's tendentious version of the history of philanthropic foundations, according to which
demonic rich conservatives have been funding a massive conspiracy to come up with a pernicious set of frames to outgun liberals armed with truth but no organization (pp. 15-6, 26-7). Lakoff's pervasive cynicism about actual policy ideas being debated on their merits almost forces him into such a position -- when he discusses Bill Clinton's successes, he claims that Clinton's rhetoric (i.e., "The era of big government is over") was just talk while "he did what he wanted to do", which presumably was not shrink government (p. 21). Lakoff isn't consistent on whether or not it's true that the rhetoric and actions actually line up, or if it matters -- in Moral Politics, he praises Al Gore for actually leading such initiatives.
The foundation issue isn't something Lakoff thinks of as a talking point for reaching voters, but it is something he thinks is important for motivating the troops -- the precinct captains, the phone bank workers, etc. But its status as truth is at least debatable; Lakoff cites organizations like Olin, Bradley, and Scaife, two of which aren't even in the top 100, while the third (Olin) is busy shutting itself down, a fact Lakoff surely had access to by the time his later book was published. Meanwhile, liberal foundations actually rank higher up the list -- as even The Nation acknowledges (in an admittedly somewhat dated article), the Ford and MacArthur foundations are largely liberal at this time, even if they profess political neutrality. Part of this is merely a convenient backstory for an essential career goal of Lakoff's -- raise money for the Rockridge Institute! -- but another part reflects Lakoff's general view that the "sheeple" (a word he does not actually use for this purpose) could not possibly buy into conservative arguments, and so deviously concocted frames must account for their success. Conservatives went through a similar period of anger and cynical disbelief after the 1996 election, and continued to do so after the Clinton impeachment failed. Anger may play well to the true-believing core, but doesn't really resonate with the swing voters who simply don't share the assumptions or views of either side's partisans. George W. Bush was able to capitalize on this, famously saying "I have no stake in the bitter arguments of the last few years. I want to change the tone of Washington to one of civility and respect." in his acceptance speech at the 2000 Republican convention. He succeeded by acknowledging the anger and yet refusing to let it define his campaign, a strategy which Lakoff would do well to imitate in devising his own approach to political rhetoric.
Lakoff explicitly repudiates this thinking, though. He writes:
Speak to the progressive base in order to activate the nurturant model of "swing voters." Don't move to the right. Rightward movement hurts in two ways. It alienates the progressive base and it helps conservatives by activating their model in swing voters. (p. 34)
This passage is just one example of why George Lakoff shouldn't quit his day job to become a political consultant. It does not accord well with Lakoff's admiring commentary on Bill Clinton's adoption of conservative rhetoric for political ends (the celebrated strategy of "triangulation"), nor with demographic facts -- self-identified progressives are hardly a majority of Democrats, never mind the larger public. Nor does it indicate much tolerance for political compromise and deal-making. It does, however, reflect Lakoff's anger and frustration with the center-left politicians that dominate his party (assuming he is a Democrat; for all SC knows, he may be a registered Green), who do try to at least rhetorically offer fig leaves to voters beyond their base.
Mostly, Don't Think of an Elephant! is concerned with framing issues to the larger public, though, and not the base, and the anger and cynicism show through in discussion after discussion. Here are a few:
On the issue of the California governor recall, Lakoff identifies a number of frames that supposedly represent newspaper coverage: Voter Revolt, The Great Noncommunicator, Those Kooky Californians, The People Beat the Politicians, Just a Celebrity, and Up by His Bootstraps (p. 35). I have noted those which are intended to represent pro-Schwarzenegger spin in bold type. Lakoff claims that the pro-Arnold frames hide a "national Republican effort over several years to make Davis look bad by hurting the California economy" (p. 37), that "Republicans have been playing politics with the state finances for years in an attempt to beat Davis" (p. 38), and that Davis blew it because he failed "to communicate strong progressive values" (p. 43). Lakoff has an alternate frame to explain all this, the "Right Wing Power Grab" (p. 44), a rhetorical theme which blames Karl Rove (ibid.), and asserts that the recall involved "using either illegal or immoral means to attain power" (ibid.). Lakoff acknowledges that the Democrats have abandoned this talking point because Gray Davis did a poor job with it, even though he [Lakoff] feels it is the most explanatory, and then he excoriates Republicans for keeping it alive as a taunt.
The reductio ad Rove is a hard sell to both conservatives and centrists because like Hillary Clinton or Newt Gingrich, invocations of demons on the opposing side are only likely to appeal to those who actually regard them as such. Lakoff's arguments that the recall is merely the successful outcome of a campaign by national Republicans to destroy California in order to save it (by electing a Republican) are similarly unlikely to appeal to those who do not frame their understandings of politics according to conspiracy theories. Lakoff cannot reconcile these arguments with the need for national-level Republican leadership to keep California successful in order to keep the economy from tanking, which is in turn necessary to ensure George Bush's reelection. One is hard-pressed to find evidence that Lakoff has either considered the logical inconsistency here or is bothered by it. It is also confusing to watch Lakoff endorse the "power grab" strategy and then get angry at being reminded of it within the space of two pages (pp. 44-5). Finally, while one might argue that Lakoff's analysis that Davis failed to adequately tack left is at least plausible, given that he did not do so and lost, it is hard to square this with the conventional wisdom that Davis won power and maintained it by being to the right of the Democrats in the Legislature, but left of the Republicans. It is highly unlikely that Davis, who frequently touted his Catholicism, Vietnam service, and advocacy of the death penalty, would have ever agreed that his success depended on narrowing his appeal to a subset of roughly 45% of the state's voters.
On the issue of gay marriage, Lakoff argues -- correctly, I think -- that the very term marriage evokes a frame of sexual behavior, and that "most Americans do not favor gay sex" (p. 47). For this reason, proponents attempt to neutralize the term with "same-sex", which presumably is free of the negative connotations associated with "gay". Lakoff diagnoses this as a losing proposition -- but then offers a series of talking points which devolve into self-contradiction.
For example, Lakoff dismisses the notion of civil unions as a "pragmatic liberal" concern about "benefits -- inheritance, health care, adoption, and so forth" (p. 48). But then he suggests that the response to questions about gay marriage begins with "I believe in equal rights, period." (p. 50). Lakoff also argues that the rights in question are not only material, but "social and cultural" (p. 49), and that the state "should not be in the business of telling people who to marry" (ibid.). Again, the weakness of the introspective method shows itself here -- does Lakoff think that people who accept the state's right to prohibit brother-sister marriages or marriages between first cousins will find that last point persuasive? This is a surprisingly simple rebuttal to such a talking point, and it is hard to believe that Lakoff has not considered it. While he finds the notion of "civil unions" to be unsatisfying, in favor of full-blown marriage -- he specifically cites "public commitment based on love...all the rituals, joys, heartaches, family experiences -- and a sense of normality" (p. 49) -- he nowhere explains how this rhetorical elevation of couplehood is to be squared with the longtime liberal view that there is nothing at all shameful in being a single parent, or otherwise part of a "nontraditional" family. Lakoff would of course argue back that he is simply being consistent with an expansion of the universe of family options, presumably the belief underlying such defenses of single parenthood. But this is unlikely to convince anyone who needs to be persuaded that gay marriage is in fact consonant with traditional marriage, and who needs to hear the "sanctity first" (p. 50) version of events that Lakoff also claims to espouse. These rhetorical views -- that gay marriage is simultaneously an "embrace-and-extend" version of traditional marriage and also the flowering of "nontraditional" family options -- do not derive from any obvious common frame, and Lakoff does not attempt to reconcile them.
Finally, in discussing the war on terror, Lakoff argues that the "Bush lied" mantra is a rhetorical loser, because "[L]inguists study such matters. The most startling finding is that in considering whether a statement is a lie, the least important consideration for most people is whether it is true!" (p. 76, emphasis in original). Lakoff proposes instead to reframe the issue in terms of "betrayal of trust" (p. 77). The argument runs like so: the Iraq war has been justified on Clausewitzian grounds (i.e., war is the pursuit of politics by other means, p. 73), and this includes a certain measure of self-interest (ibid.), but the justification of the war has been on grounds other than self-interest, such as liberating Iraq. Because self-interest is immoral, but the war has been sold on moral/selfless grounds, the American people have been betrayed. Accepting this argument requires the acceptance of a number of conspiracy theories regarding Halliburton and Israel, which the reader may find on page 77. Since my purpose is to argue that Lakoff's writing is wrong on linguistic grounds rather than political ones, I will not discuss the merits of those positions. I do, however, choose the phrase "conspiracy theories" to frame his discussion in a particular way -- like the "right wing power grab" frame that Lakoff prefers for discussing California politics, it requires a reading of the available facts consonant with Lakoff's political beliefs. As with the discussion of California, your host contends that the bandying about of theories of venality, corruption and treason are not the best choices of rhetoric to influence swing voters, regardless of one's views of the underlying merits.
Don't Think of an Elephant! is directed explicitly towards progressives, and makes no pretenses of hiding Lakoff's goals of moving the broader left specifically in the progressive direction. This is entirely consonant with a long tradition of pamphleteering in American politics, and while SC will (perhaps unsurprisingly) acknowledge that he does not share Lakoff's political goals, it has not been his purpose in this review to debate the merits of those positions. As a rhetorical program for convincing those who do not already agree with Lakoff's positions, however, the book is characterized by anger, self-contradiction, and the faulty assumptions about liberal and conservative beliefs that make Moral Politics a deeply flawed work. It's hard to see how swing voters -- who presumably have already heard both the conservative and liberal messages, and found them both wanting -- will be convinced by this cocktail of progressivism and anger. Nevertheless, George Lakoff has demonstrated some keen insights into the importance of moral reasoning and emotional appeals in political rhetoric. Both his sympathizers and opponents should hope that someday his anger cools, and he delivers the definitive analysis of political rhetoric that Moral Politics could have been.