Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Don't Think of an Elephant! Know Your Values and Frame the Debate / George Lakoff -- White River Junction, Vt.: Chelsea Green, 2004

In 1996, linguist George Lakoff published Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think in which he presented his theory that American politics is driven by two models of the family: the Strict Father Model and the Nurturing Parent Model. These models serve as frames for how conservatives and liberals respectively think, not just about family life, but also politics and other spheres of life. Lakoff argues that conservatives have implicitly recognized that emphasizing the values inherent in the Strict Father Model reinforces voters' tendency to employ these values when thinking about politics. After following this strategy for four decades, conservatives have established in the electorate a way of thinking about politics that prevents voters from accepting (and sometimes even understanding) the policies advanced by liberals.

Following the election of George W. Bush in 2000, a number of liberal activists began taking Lakoff seriously, helping him travel the country to talk about "framing" issues inside a liberal value system. By 2004, Lakoff published Don't Think of an Elephant to serve as "short and informal...practical guide both for citizen activists and for anyone with a serious interest in politics." Lakeoff hoped to equip liberals with an understanding of how to change the way in which political discourse is framed and thereby create a resurgent progressive movement. His book quickly showed up on best seller lists around the country.

On the surface, the basic thesis seems interesting and perhaps reasonable. Furthermore, Lakoff's ability to connect the values he identifies in the two family models to politics and public policy issues deepens his thesis. The values residing in the two family models have strong affinity to values that can be identified in various policy positions and they seem to bring together exactly those issues that constitute the constellations of conservative and liberal views. Finally, it is quite reasonable to think that our upbringing is central to our way of thinking and that specific values about families -- learned at an early age -- will play a dominant role in our thinking. No doubt there is very much to Lakoff's thesis; however, closer examination indicates that he is likely overstating the causative role that the family model plays in determining how Americans vote.

Lakoff's thesis could be tested were we able to replace our two-party system with a multi-party democracy. Currently, our political system nearly ensures that voters will only have two choices on the ballot, particularly because which ever candidate wins a plurality usually is elected to office. Moreover, restrictive ballot access laws frequently prevent independents and third parties from appearing on the ballot at all. This makes voting for anyone but a member of one of two major parties seem fruitless. Under these circumstances, voters, motivated by very different values and ideologies, are forced to join into a heterogeneous coalition to elect the candidate they find least objectionable. If there were more candidates on the ballot and if we had proportional representation in our legislatures, then these forced coalitions would quickly break up and the real factors motivating various voters would be more apparent.

Lakoff does not test his theory with this thought experiment. Instead, he looks at the two political coalitions and constructs a theory that best connects their various ideological elements and then declares that his theory explains the driving force behind the coalitions. It is more likely that the values making up the two family models are a rhetorical intersection views -- a least common denominator that appeals to a large percentage of the disparate members of the conservative or liberal coalitions. Without the need to motivate the disparate elements of the coalitions, these values would not stand out and many of them would be disregarded, if not openly attacked, by the various partners in the coalition as they go their separate ways.

Perhaps the most significant divide within the Republican Party is, of course, between social conservatives and libertarians. The idea that their views grow out of the same set of values is almost preposterous. Within the Democratic Party, the labor elements and the environmentalist elements would hardly seem to be natural partners, except that they both oppose capitalist drive to make large profits for shareholders at the expense of all else. It is much easier to explain the motives of the elements in the two major political coalitions by appealing to more obvious interests that they do not share.

To be fair, the foregoing criticism perhaps assumes that Lakoff's thesis is more ambitious than it is. A more charitable reading of his thesis is not that the values of the two model families explain the current political coalitions, but that given the legal framework ensuring two parties, appealing to values of the model families are the most effective way of mobilizing the coalitions. Certainly Lakoff has recognized a powerful rhetorical tool used by the Republican coalition. The values described in Strict Father Model of the family clearly resonate across many segments of the political right and Lakoff explicitly is calling on liberals to employ similar countervailing tactics. The "guidebook" features of Lakoff's work show striking similarities to memos by Republican framing strategist Frank Luntz.

The material in Don't Think of an Elephant appears in a more expanded form on the Web site of Lakoff's think tank, the Rockridge Institute; however, while still maintaining the Web site, Rockridge has folded for lack of funding. This is very telling. Lakoff's argues that framing issues in a progressive way is essential to a liberal renaissance in politics and while he recognizes the advantage that rich funding sources give to conservatives, he doesn't seem to acknowledge their overwhelming importance. This, along with is failure to recognize the true motivating forces behind the conservative and liberal agendas shows that his perspective on politics is overly ideological. A more accurate analysis will explore the material and economic forces at work in American politics.

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