Why Lakoff’s Thesis Fails
The Little Blue Book concludes with a series of short chapters, each on a separate policy or issue, with a list of recommendations on how progressives, liberals and Democrats should speak when discussing those issues, in every case “reframing” them to a left-wing perspective and refocusing the entire discussion through a different filter, so that any residual conservative metaphor is wiped away completely. Thus, for example, when discussing the positives and negatives of socialism vs. capitalism (oops, there’s my conservative metaphor leaking through again) on pages 74-5, Lakoff recommends saying,
“This debate is about liberty from corporate government and corporate meddling in our lives,”
“The laissez-faire market limits your personal liberty.”
Each retort is an attempt to reclaim the word “liberty” from those nasty conservatives. In the Lakoff framing, the bigger and more powerful the federal government becomes, the more freedom we have.
It’s very difficult to assess whether or not this is an effective way for progressives to engage in debate. There are too many other outside variables impinging on every election to ascertain whether proper “messaging” is changing voters’ minds one way or another. Furthermore, as Lakoff repeatedly notes to his great dismay, only some Democrats follow his advice, while many others unwittingly “repeat conservative frames,” thereby undermining the whole indoctrination process.
Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the Chair of the Democratic National Committee, is an exemplary Lakoffite, relentlessly hammering home her own framing of each issue, and utterly ignoring the Republican frame, except on rare occasion to mock it. How effective is this? A quick survey of conservative sites shows that she is regarded as the Queen of Buffoons, a figure meriting gleeful derision and eliciting relief that the Democrats have selected the worst possible spokesperson. She certainly hasn’t changed a single conservative mind, I can assure you. But has she converted “undecided” voters to the liberal cause?
I posit that the answer is “No,” and I’ll explain why. As I noted earlier in this review, Lakoff has an authoritative “scientist” persona in addition to his partisan “activist” persona, but in order to lend gravitas to his arguments he must conflate the two and pretend to be an impartial scientist while in reality enunciating transparently partisan talking points. Yet people like Debbie Wasserman Schultz don’t have that option, so that when she speaks, every single listener already knows that she is a partisan spewing partisan spin. She doesn’t have an “authority hat” to put on which might give her statements the veneer of impartial truth.
And the same holds true for every other progressive or Democrat who doesn’t hold a professorship at U.C. Berkeley. When any partisan of any political stripe speaks, we all know that they’re trying to twist the conversation to their advantage, and the listener instantly and unconsciously takes that into account when assessing the validity of the statement. Lakoff not only thinks he is immune to this perception due to his overused “scientist” persona, but he forgets that almost no one else even has a scientist persona to fall back on like he does. He not only misperceives himself, he projects that misperception onto his colleagues. And that’s why The Little Blue Book, and the theory on which it rests, fails.
The Book’s Actual Purpose
The Little Blue Book is being marketed as an “Indispensable Handbook for Democrats” to help them communicate their values more clearly. But I think that the marketing is itself a ploy. The Little Blue Book was not written to help liberals communicate; instead, it was designed as a feel-good mantra, a comforting rectangular teddy bear reassuring the left-wing audience that they are good people. The book’s real underlying message is this: We liberals are morally superior to our nasty and small-minded opponents; if everyone could just see what was in our hearts, we’d be more popular than those mean old conservatives.
That is the conceptual frame Lakoff embeds in The Little Blue Book: We’re better than you. Progressives can position it carefully on their coffee tables and feel righteous.
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