The Little Blue Book: The Essential Guide to Thinking and Talking Democratic, by George Lakoff and Elisabeth Wehling (Free Press, $11)
George Lakoff, Professor of Cognitive Science and Linguistics at U.C. Berkeley — and highly regarded Democratic tactician — has just released his playbook for the 2012 election. Titled The Little Blue Book: The Essential Guide to Thinking and Talking Democratic, it purports to be the ultimate insiders’ guide to liberal messaging and left-wing ideology.
Before you even open the book, its sly self-referential gamesmanship leaps off the cover: the very title itself is a wink-wink-nudge-nudge ironic-but-not-really reference to Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book, the kind of hidden-meaning secret message that progressives like to call a “dog whistle,” although they insist that only conservatives resort to such underhanded gambits.
Lakoff is also the brightest star in an impressive constellation of East Bay Liberati, most of whom (including Robert Reich and many others) happily lined up to blurb his new book. A small sampling from the press release:
Because everybody knows that the best way to convince undecided and conservative voters is to dazzle them with compliments you got from Van Jones and George Soros.
But Lakoff is not just any intellectual celebrity: he is deemed one of the most important contemporary philosophers of progressive thought. You know how whenever Democrats lose an election, they invariably blame their “poor messaging” and never ever the content of their policies? Lakoff came up with that. Liberals find it very reassuring: We don’t need to rethink our ideas — we just need to express ourselves more clearly.
As a linguist, Lakoff focuses on the notions of “cognitive frames” and “conceptual metaphors,” which refer to the overarching filters through which each person perceives the world. This academic field in and of itself is politically neutral. But on the other hand, Lakoff is also a hardcore leftist, so he decided long ago to overtly combine his academic interest with his personal politics, to use the study of cognitive frames to promote leftist ideology. This is what makes him such a hero to liberals. The Little Blue Book is Lakoff’s attempt to transform his high-minded theories into nuts-and-bolts instructions for how all Democrats — from the White House to the drum circle and everything in between — should speak to conservatives, undecideds and the media.
The “Strict Father” Theory
Lakoff has been coasting for decades on his “brilliant” “insight” that conservatives are psychological infants who crave a “strict father” social system to emulate the sadistic and loveless upbringing they experienced at the hands of their own strict conservative fathers. Liberals, conversely, strive to create a “nurturing mother” society as a cultural expression of the way they were lovingly raised by their altruistic and forgiving leftist moms.
He spells this out explicitly on page 17 of The Little Blue Book; in this passage, Lakoff explains to us the difference between progressive families and conservative families — and this difference is crucial to contemporary politics, because our moral values as adults are a direct result of how we were raised:
According to this analysis, conservatives are conservatives because their minds and morals have been twisted by cruel parenting, and they seek to reconstruct this pathological family unit on a grand society-wide scale; whereas progressives naturally were raised by wonderful, caring co-parents to become wonderful, caring adults who seek to replicate this loving family environment for all mankind.
Of course, Lakoff doesn’t actually believe this is true. He just enjoys the chortling sense of smug superiority he gets from belittling conservatives as curious anthropological specimens that he can analyze as if they were unevolved Neanderthals. He shares this joyous mockery and sneering dismissal with his fellow academic liberals in a sort of unending Group Smug that conservatives are presumably too thick-skulled to notice.
And yet his new Little Blue Book is supposed to be an instruction manual on how to convert wavering conservatives and undecideds to the liberal worldview — even though insults and mockery are an integral component of that worldview. To summarize Lakoff’s presentation in one sentence, he essentially says, “Hey, you ignorant yet diabolical rubes, shut the hell up and submit to an incessant barrage of our vacuous euphemistic leftist slogans, because you’re too stupid and evil for an honest debate.”
The eternally vexatious problem which drives Lakoff to distraction and which inspired him to write (along with one of his researchers) The Little Blue Book is that despite their psychological pathologies and awful moral structure, conservatives somehow still manage to occasionally win elections. Lakoff has come to the conclusion that this is due not to the superiority of conservative philosophy, but to superiority in conservative messaging.
I’ve designed a little chart to clearly illustrate what I call Lakoff’s Paradox: Why is it that conservatives still manage to sometimes win public opinion and elections despite being so vastly inferior? Behold:
Everything is going liberals’ way until that last step, where they fumble the ball at the goal line: messaging. Conservatives on the other hand are a miserable lot, but somehow manage to uncork a convincing moral frame to hide their distasteful politics. The Little Blue Book really would have benefitted from having such an illustration; but better late than never.
Scientist or Partisan?
Lakoff does something throughout the book which he must think is very clever, but which is completely transparent to the reader, making for a truly cringe-worthy experience. Lakoff has two public personas: First, he is a scientist; and second, he is a partisan political advocate. He understands that when he speaks as a partisan, we the readers necessarily take what he says with a grain of salt; but when he speaks as a scientist, we are expected to accept his statements as objective truth. Throughout the book, he constantly switches back and forth between the two personas: He’ll speak for a paragraph or two as a liberal activist advising Democratic candidates and pundits, then he’ll take off that hat and put on the linguist hat to say something “official”; then switch back to his liberal hat, and so on. I guess the temptation was too great to resist abusing this dual role, because he makes a habit — a career, actually — of putting on his scientist hat and then making partisan statements, which he passes off as impartial facts. I can only imagine that he thinks he’s getting away with it, but the gambit is so glaringly obvious that it makes you almost embarrassed for the guy.
For example, right in the introduction he puts on his scientist hat and gives us a neutral and dispassionate summary of the liberal and conservative political visions, which he will refer back to repeatedly throughout the book. But the language he chooses to use reveals all: the definition of liberalism contains words like “caring,” “decent,” “moral” and “fair,” while the definition of conservatism contains phrases like “self-interest,” “no commitment,” “corporate interests,” and “sink or swim.”
Every page, every paragraph, every sentence in the entire book could be unpacked in a similar way, an unending pastiche of partisan linguistic bias masquerading as scientific or impartial verities.
Lakoff is also the reason why liberals and conservatives never seem to be able to communicate with each other. This frustrating problem is no accident, nor a natural result of differing ideologies simply not seeing eye to eye. Rather, it’s a conscious behavior explicitly recommended by Lakoff over the years, and one which he hammers home repeatedly in The Little Blue Book. Page 43 contains the book’s core message:
“Never use your opponent’s language….Never repeat ideas that you don’t believe in, even if you are arguing against them.”
So central is this notion to Lakoff’s thesis that his publicist sent out a list of “The 10 Most Important Things Democrats Should Know” with each review copy, and guess what comes in at #1:
“Don’t repeat conservative language or ideas, even when arguing against them.”
And many politicians, pundits and talking heads have taken Lakoff’s recommendation to heart. This is why conservatives and liberals can’t seem to have the simplest conversation: liberals intentionally refuse to address or even acknowledge what conservatives say. Since (as Lakoff notes) conservatives invariably frame their own statements within their own conservative “moral frames,” every time a conservative speaks, his liberal opponent will seemingly ignore what was said and instead come back with a reply literally out of left field.
Thus, he is the progenitor of and primary advocate for the main reason why liberalism fails to win the public debate: Because it never directly confronts, disproves or negates conservative notions — it simply ignores them.
A prime example of Lakoff’s ruinous recommendations can be seen in the debate over abortion, which never seems to get resolved despite a trillion words being expended on it every day. The “conservative frame,” to use Lakoff’s language, is that a fetus is a human being who has not yet been born; thus to “abort” the fetus is to kill it, which means a human being has been killed, which is tantamount to murder. In response to this frame, Lakoff recommends — a recommendation that liberals dutifully follow — that those on the left completely ignore the conservative argument, and instead “reframe” the issue with metaphors like “freedom of choice” and “women’s independence” and “reproductive rights.” All those positive words — “freedom,” “independence,” “rights” — recast the entire debate in a different light, allowing liberals to “win” the debate by not acknowledging that the opposing side has even made a statement.
And this is Lakoff’s fundamental flaw, which unfortunately exactly coincides with his fundamental thesis (in other words, his thesis doesn’t have an error — it is an error). By intentionally refusing to challenge, disprove, understand or even acknowledge the existence of the other side’s argument, you allow that argument to grow in strength and win converts.
This would not be true if the other side’s argument were inherently weak or fallacious, which I assume is at the root of Lakoff’s blunder; he must assume that conservatives don’t have valid arguments or positions, but rather nothing more than sneakily effective ways of misrepresenting erroneous or ridiculous beliefs. In Lakoff’s universe, you can extinguish such beliefs by ignoring them completely, thus depriving them of oxygen.
This strategy of Lakoff would work if two things were true: First, that the conservative position really and truly did not have a valid point behind it; and second, that the conservative position did not have enough of a platform to reach the general public. In order to prop up his thesis, Lakoff must pretend (and insist that all his readers also pretend) that the conservative position is beneath contempt, even beneath ridicule. That solves the first potential problem. But the second one is vexatious to the liberal; Lakoff and his ilk simply cannot stand the very fact that conservative ideas are even allowed to be enunciated in public. Giving conservatives a soapbox is dangerous, even if (as Lakoff presumes) conservative arguments are nothing but a pack of lies and psychological disorders; if lies and lunacies are repeated often enough and cleverly enough, then they can successfully win the hearts and minds of the general public.
Thus the need for The Little Blue Book. While one branch of the progressive movement (led by Media Matters, which Lakoff explicitly praises on page 40) does everything it can to silence all conservative opinion, the Lakoff branch simultaneously tries a different but complementary approach: to drown out conservatives with a nonstop continuous cacophony of liberal messaging “every hour of every day of every year,” as he puts it.
And this brings us back to our example: abortion. According to Lakoff, liberals should in no way challenge the claim that abortion is murder; in fact, they shouldn’t even acknowledge that such a claim is being made. (True to form, Lakoff himself never mentions this position in his discussion of abortion.) But here’s the problem for Lakoff: It’s a really really convincing argument. And it’s also a concept that every woman on some gut-instinct level knows is at a minimum somewhat true, if not entirely true. Of course a fetus is human or a near-human; the only valid question (one which Lakoff forbids even asking) is when does it acquire individual human rights? Conception; birth; or somewhere in the middle?
So the Lakoffites can yap about “freedom of choice” and “women’s independence” and “reproductive rights” all day long, yet the listener will think: But you aren’t addressing the fundamental question. Is it murder? “Stop thinking in those terms,” cries Lakoff. But the public can’t stop, because the idea of abortion as murder has already been stated, and the idea of fetus as human existed even long before the modern political debates. Even if there were no Republican party, no conservative movement, a great many people would still have moral compunctions about abortion, because the controversy is rooted in biological realities, and was not fabricated out of thin air by reactionary rabble-rousers.
And this same insuperable problem bedevils every aspect of Lakoff’s thesis: Most of the countervailing “conservative” arguments he seeks to suppress are rooted in inescapable economic, biological or physical reality that can’t be euphemized out of existence, no matter how hard you try. This brings us to the fundamental difference between “progressivism” and “conservatism”: Progressives and their various ideological brethren have a deep belief that human nature and human culture are “constructed,” that there is no biological determinism, that mankind is a blank slate, and that human nature and human culture can be molded at will whichever way we want, if we just put our minds to it and manipulate the language cleverly enough; by contrast, conservatives and their various ideological brethren believe (correctly) that human nature is “innate,” not fabricated, not random, and arises from genetic realities that willpower cannot dissolve, no matter how hard we try. Furthermore, much of the misery we’ve experienced in the last century comes from futile attempts to create utopian societies by denying the immutability of human nature and attempting to change it by force.
While Lakoff’s foolish insistence that liberals never repeat conservative frames means that conservative notions never get directly rebutted, this insistence backfires in other ways as well. Why? Because conservatives take the diametrically opposite strategy: They seize on every utterance that liberals make, and repeat their “frames” as loudly as possible to demonstrate how deceptive they are. So while liberals studiously avoid analyzing anything conservatives say, conservatives meanwhile are avidly dissecting every single thing liberals say. The end result is that conservatives, to their own satisfaction as least, successfully challenge and de-fang every liberal notion; but liberals never challenge or de-fang conservative notions, instead seeking to snuff them out with a lethal dose of Silent Treatment.
But it gets worse, because it is the very euphemisms and other ludicrous “conceptual metaphors” recommended by Lakoff which give conservatives so much grist for their mill. Every time a liberal talking head gets up and uncorks another howler in the Lakoff style, conservative fiskers and deconstructionists latch on and tear it to pieces, trumpeting it as further evidence of liberals’ cluelessness or mendacity. So not only does Lakoff recommend holding fire against conservative frames, the ammunition he saves only ends up being used against the liberals themselves.
And this man is considered their master strategist?
Strict Father vs. Nanny State
Lakoff’s comical “strict father” hypothesis is based on a long-vanished stereotype of how conservatives think. He doesn’t seem to be aware that conservative ideology has undergone deep transformations in recent decades.
To show just how out of touch Lakoff is, when analyzing core conservative values on pages 50-1 of The Little Blue Book he still cites of all people James Dobson (an evangelical Christian whose political influence peaked thirty years ago in the early ’80s) as a leading conservative philosopher; even worse, to prove his “strict father conservatism” thesis, Lakoff quotes a book that Dobson wrote back in 1970 about disciplining children, as if it was relevant to the 2012 election. Rather, it’s more likely that Lakoff almost certainly knows that Dobson is now at most a minor gadfly, but he’s useful to hold up as an example of extreme social conservatism, since there are no similar current examples informing the 2012 campaign. My guess is that Lakoff first formed his theory about “strict fathers” back in the early ’80s, and his thesis remains frozen at the historical moment when Dobson and the Moral Majority lorded over America as puritanical tyrants. Or something.
But the conservatives are way, way ahead of Lakoff, who doesn’t seem to fully grasp that an entirely new paradigm has emerged.
There’s a new frame in town: The nanny state. In a masterful maneuver of political aikido, conservatives have taken Lakoff’s antediluvian “strict father conservatism” frame and completely reversed it. Conservatism now stands for freedom from authority, while is it progressivism that seeks to implement the new scolding parent metaphor, now known as the “nanny state.” It’s liberals who want to tell you what to do and what is allowed, not conservatives.
And this frame is widely accepted by the general public not simply because of superior conservative messaging, but because there is evidence backing it up. It is mostly liberal politicians, not conservative politicians, who pass laws and regulations telling citizens what they can and cannot do, what they must and must not buy, what they are and are not allowed to say.
Who seeks to impose the “strict parent” paradigm now? Liberals. And everyone knows it. Yet still there’s George Lakoff off by his lonesome still pounding his fists about “strict father conservatives.” All the rhetoric in the world can’t hide the fact that conservatism now stands for unintrusive small government, and that progressivism stands for intrusive big government. The “nanny state” frame is so powerful and self-evidently true that it can’t be ignored away, and can’t be euphemized away.
Yes, there has long been tension within the Republican Party between social conservatives, the “strict fathers” of Lakoff’s frame, and fiscal conservatives. Long long ago, social conservatives briefly seized the spotlight and for a while got all the attention, but that seems like ancient history now. The small government/libertarian/fiscal conservative/laissez-faire/Tea Party wing of conservatism is ascendent, and this rise to power and prominence dealt a death blow to Lakoff’s “strict father” thesis. There’s been a magnetic reversal of the poles, but Lakoff’s compass is still pointing south.
A Euphemism for “Euphemism”
When Lakoff talks about liberals needing to come up with better “moral frames” and “conceptual metaphors,” what he’s really talking about is euphemism. Lakoff is the King of Euphemism.
Take for example one of the best euphemisms of the last 50 years: “Affirmative Action.” Wow. Two positive, vigorous words inseparably paired. If you had never heard the phrase before, you’d be convinced that whatever Affirmative Action is, it’s simply got to be something good.
It’s so catchy and effective that even opponents of “Affirmative Action” endlessly repeat the phrase themselves as they are arguing against it and pointing out that it’s neither “affirmative” nor “action,” but rather is government-imposed racism, unfair and unconstitutional. When even your opponents repeat your phrase — now that‘s an effective euphemism.
But Lakoff wouldn’t call it a euphemism: He’d deem the phrase “Affirmative Action” merely a “conceptual metaphor” which succinctly conveys an embedded moral message. And he thinks that if this metaphor is repeated loudly and often enough, that it will over time sway public opinion.
And it’s right around here in my exploration of the Lakoff universe that I start to get confused and increasingly disturbed.
As a layperson, an outsider, I have always assumed that a new label doesn’t change the intrinsic nature of what is being labeled. Thus, I could take a can of beans, peel off its label and replace it with a label that says “Cherries,” but that doesn’t mean the contents of the can suddenly transform into cherries; it remains beans, regardless of what the label says.
But Lakoff seems to be saying, throughout The Little Blue Book, that when you slap a new label — or euphemism, or “conceptual metaphor” or “moral frame” or whatever you want to call it — on an idea, that this somehow transforms the idea itself and people’s opinions about it. “I don’t like new taxes,” says Average Joe. “These aren’t taxes — they’re a Deficit Reduction Bonanza!” Lakoff might say. “A Deficit Reduction Bonanza? Why didn’t you say so earlier? Sounds great! Where do I sign up?”
Sorry, George, but it doesn’t work that way. Instead of embracing the Deficit Reduction Bonanza, Average Joe will get twice as mad as he was to begin with, first that his taxes are being raised, and then even moreso that politicians are trying to deceive him with doublespeak.
Lakoff apparently believes that if we spoonfeed a mislabeled can of beans to the American public, they’ll say, “Mmmmm, yummy cherries!”
What scares me is that Lakoff seems to actually think that the euphemisms he creates to mask the true nature of political concepts are actually accurate descriptors. Thus Lakoff would never ever say that the term “Affirmative Action” is a euphemism to hide the practice of government-enforced racism, but rather would insist that the policy truly and authentically is affirmative action.
In other words, throughout The Little Blue Book, he never drops the mask, even when in a huddle with his own team. He has no “off” switch; he’s never out of character. Flipping the pages felt like trying to interview the actor Leonard Nimoy about his long career, yet the only thing he says to you is “Live long and prosper,” even though he’s supposed to be speaking as himself, not as a character he plays.
Lakoff endlessly argues that liberals need to come up with better “narratives” and “frames,” but then simultaneously acts like those new narratives and frames are factually true, that the new way of describing something somehow changed its nature.
At first I thought that he seems to have drunk his own Kool-Aid; but I reassure myself with the secret hope that he only pretends to drink the Kool-Aid as a motivational tool.
Man Behind the Curtain?
For years I have wondered to myself: Is there anyone at the controls of leftist ideology? Sure, there are millions of Democratic voters and run-of-the-mill vaguely liberal Americans, but those people are the recipients of the message-control and the talking points. And then there are the pundits and the talking heads, but many of those people seem like automatons, repeating the instructions given to them on teleprompters and JournoLists. Behind them all must be the true masters, the deep thinkers, the philosophers. Lakoff is supposed to be one of those people behind the scenes, directing strategy. In fact, if you believe his own self-promotion, he is the guy behind the curtain, issuing magisterial instructions on how to engage in political warfare. So I had high expectations for The Little Blue Book.
But then I read it, and its hollowness left me flummoxed. It’s not just that there’s no there there; it’s that he elevates therelessness to liberalism’s pre-eminent virtue. Sloganeering had replaced introspection.
I finished the book with the rather unnerving conclusion that no one remains at the wheel of the Good Ship Liberalism, that it rides the political currents, adrift.
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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