Discourse and Democracy

Discourse and Democracy

George Lakoff’s Don’t Think of an Elephant!

Don’t Think of an Elephant!
Know Your Values and
Frame the Debate
by George Lakoff
Chelsea Green Publishing Co., 2004
144 pp $10 paper

There are many approaches to democratic politics, but in the end only a few known recipes for success. One is to mobilize the base to increase voter turnout. Another is to reduce the opposition’s turnout (the darker art of vote suppression: see, Florida 2000, Ohio 2004). And a third, the focus of much political energy, is to try to win over the uncommitted middle. Other than stealing votes, there’s not much else to the game.

For the left, this is not a happy prospect. We might be forgiven for wondering if the votes are really out there for a progressive America. (But then, too much reality, as Freud warned, can lead to depression.) In any event, if the left is to revive, it must both expand and motivate its base and fight for the middle. These approaches require better arguments and tactics and, possibly, better candidates. They certainly do not mean that we need better values. The values stay, or there’s no point getting out of bed.

That’s one reason why George Lakoff’s short book Don’t Think of an Elephant! Know Your Values and Frame the Debate, which appeared during the 2004 campaign, is important for the left. Its strength (and limitation) is its implicit focus on attracting the hypothetical “winnables” in the center. And while offering hardheaded strategic advice, it gives no quarter on values.

Lakoff counsels pragmatism, not opportunism; flexibility not about ends, but about means, through the savvy reframing of basic issues and debates. Despite its ill-chosen title, Don’t Think of an Elephant! is a smart little book. It leaves open a lot of big questions, but it raises some important ones and offers sound strategic answers.

Asking why people vote as they do, Lakoff offers the same answer as Thomas Frank in What’s the Matter With Kansas?, which also appeared last year (neither author cites the other):
[V]oters vote their identity—they vote on the basis of who they are, what values they have, and who and what they admire. A certain number of voters identify themselves with their self-interest and vote accordingly. But that is the exception rather than the rule . . . . The Republicans have discovered this, and it is a major reason why they have been winning elections—despite being in a minority. Democrats have not yet figured this out.

It isn’t just a matter of voting against one’s interests, but also of misperceiving where those interests lie. Americans often vote as if they were planning to win the lottery, and protecting their futures. Should people vote their interests? Do progressives tend to do so? Should our interests and identities conform? These, too, are interesting questions.

Lakoff’s prescription for a healthier left is to...