Monday, November 29, 2004


Because I am a vocal proponent of George Lakoff's Don't Think of an Elephant, several people have directed me to Political Animal Kevin Drum's negative critique of the book at his Washington Monthly blog.

While I regularly read -- and usually agree with -- Drum, his comments regarding the book, e.g. "[Lakoff] fails to provide very much compelling advice for liberals," disappoint me due to their lack of perspective. Lakoff's book is not a complete solution and I don't think it claims to be. The book is just a tool and so are the ideas contained therein.

Drum seemed to think that the book would/should contain a comprehensive list of magic words and phrases with which the Democrats could bewitch the U.S. populace. I guess: 1) I didn't expect that much for 10 bucks, and 2) I'd like to think that most Americans aren't vulnerable to a set of magic words.

For example, Drum says that framing taxes as "wise investments in the future" and a "membership fee in America" "aren't really as snappy as 'tax relief'." Well, not delivered like that. Drum is just exchanging an uninspiring list of programs for a uninspiring list of catch phrases.

A certain amount of the work that Democrats need to do is sales. "Tax relief" didn't mean anything the first time it was said, but GOPers said it time and again and associated it with related themes, i.e. big government and waste.

Drum also says that the "ten word philosophy for liberals", i.e. Stronger America, Broad Prosperity, Better Future, Effective Government and Mutual Responsibility, aren't "as zingy" as the GOP philosophy and that the list almost put him to sleep.

But when Barack Obama built his keynote address around the same themes they were pretty damn "zingy." They lit a freaking fire under Americans beyond traditional Democrats. And "street smart framers like Newt Gingrich and Frank Luntz" weren't laughing, they were shaking in their boots.

But Drum doesn't seem to want to make the effort of applying the contents of the book to anything outside it. He wants the book to have "The Answer." Well, The Answer is "Work" and the book is a useful tool in that work.

The job ahead of Democrats is to communicate the values of the Democratic party in an appealing way. Lakoff recognizes that we can only accomplish that by changing the language we use.

While describing the broad appeal of Sen. Obama to In These Times, Rep. Jan Schakowsky put her finger on the type of language Democrats need to use:
He has found the language to connect with everyone, to inspire people, to take on the cynicism of the political arena, and speak of unity and hope. To express that we don't have to always be pitted against each other, racially, economically, geographically, in terms of our sexual orientation. You asked "Why don't Democrats go harder after Republicans?" and as things are I think we have needed to and may still need to. But ultimately I think the answer is to elect candidates and leaders like Barack Obama, who are going to lead us away from that, make us feel proud and good about ourselves. The people who supported Barack Obama felt a sense of pride in his primary victory and now feel good about themselves, not just good about Barack, but good about themselves to be supporting him.
Lakoff's ideas are tools that Democrats can use to take back the language, the context of the discussion and make Americans feel good about supporting Democrats. But because Lakoff's book is one of the first such tools, many of its critics, including Kevin Drum, seem to think it purports to be the only tool.

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