In one of Lenny Bruce's classic routines an agitated Lyndon Johnson—freshly seated in the White House, and in the privacy of the Oval Office—is sweatin', swearin', and cussin' as he tries to say "Ni-Ni-Ni … Ni-groh" but instead keeps returning to a more familiar and vulgar word. Now, at the urging of the UC Berkeley cognitive linguist George Lakoff, liberal America's guru of the moment, progressive Democrats are practicing to get their own reluctant mouths around some magical new vocabulary, in the hope of surviving and eventually overcoming the age of Bush.
In his best-selling manual of progressive political advice, Don't Think of an Elephant!, Lakoff asserts that political consciousness, and therefore voter choice, is determined by deeply wired mental structures—"frames"—that reflect more-general views and values. "The frames," Lakoff writes, "are in the synapses of our brains, physically present in the form of neural circuitry." Notwithstanding this neuroscientific hooey, Lakoff suggests that reframing American politics according to liberal values—in essence rewiring our collective circuitry—is but a matter of simple wordplay. When conservatives invoke "strong defense," liberals, Lakoff says, must reframe the concept by referring to a "stronger America." Instead of "free markets," liberals should speak of "broad prosperity." Likewise, "smaller government" must be recast as "effective government," and "family values" as "mutual responsibility." Those greedy "trial lawyers" excoriated by the right should be reframed and praised as brave and selfless "public-protection attorneys." And perhaps most important, when conservatives start promoting more Bushian "tax relief," liberals should respond by defending taxes as "membership fees" or "investments" in America.
And here I thought semantic bobbing and weaving had helped cost the Democrats the vote. But what do I know? Just a few weeks after the November election House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (a veritable totem of blue-state liberalism) invited Lakoff to come in and coach the Democratic caucus in this new way of thinking. Other liberal members of Congress distributed hundreds of copies of his book to Hill staffers. Lakoff's slim volume has now had multiple printings, and its small Vermont-based publisher predicts that half a million copies will eventually be sold. "What are there?" Margo Baldwin, of Lakoff's publishing house, said to the Los Angeles Times as she estimated the market. "Fifty million unhappy Democrats out there?"
Baldwin's off-the-cuff remark betrays the real reason for Lakoff's sudden popularity. Much more than an offering of serious political strategy, Don't Think of an Elephant! is a feel-good self-help book for a stratum of despairing liberals who just can't believe how their commonsense message has been misunderstood by the eternally deceived masses. Liberal values are American values, they say, but somehow Americans just keep getting tricked—by Fox News, Sinclair Broadcasting, AM talk radio, conservative think tanks—into thinking and voting against their own interests.
So what's an earnest, honest liberal to do when nobody wants to hear the truth? Why not turn to personal therapy disguised as politics, psychobabble as electoral strategy? Lakoff, revealingly, provides nary a word on reshaping the Democratic Party itself, blunting the influence of corporate cash, eliminating the stranglehold on the party and its candidates by discredited but omni-powerful consultants, reversing its estrangement from the white working class, finding some decent candidates, or just about anything else that might require actual strategic thinking, organizing, and politicking. Never mind. What liberals most need to do, Lakoff says, is "be the change you want."
This is not to disparage as self-indulgent, latte-sipping navel-gazers and whiners the 48 percent of the electorate that voted Democratic. But Limbaugh-driven stereotypes aside, the Democratic liberal and activist crust does indeed seem ever more in denial about the depth of its defeat, about its detachment from what it claims as its "traditional base," and about its apparent willingness to pursue little more than a self-referential, self-indulgent political aesthetic. It's much easier nowadays to fancy yourself a member of a persecuted minority, bravely shielding the flickering flame of enlightenment from the increasing Christo-Republican darkness, than it is to figure out how you're actually going to win an election or, God forbid, organize a union.
Lakoff makes it simple to assume this smug, self-aggrandizing posture, arguing that "the two different views of the nation"—conservative versus progressive—reflect two basic kinds of American families. Those who vote conservative, he says, are proponents of authoritarian "strict-father families," which emphasize self-interest, greed, and competitiveness. These are families that "are against nurturance and care," favor corporal punishment, and have a propensity to follow the teachings of the Christian-right ideologue James Dobson. Progressives, meanwhile, reflect a "gender-neutral [and] nurturant parent model," which values "freedom," "opportunity," and "community building," and which protects its children against crime, drugs, "cars without seat belts," smoking, and "poisonous additives in food," while adhering to the teachings of the Dali Lama. Yes, there are many conflicted people in the middle, the so-called "biconceptuals," who are a meld of the two family types, Lakoff says. And they, like the uniconceptual daddy worshippers, must be persuaded to let their better, more liberal angels dominate.
Couldn't be simpler, then: redneck, chain-smoking, baby-slapping Christers desperately in need of some gender-free nurturing and political counseling by organic-gardening enthusiasts from Berkeley.
Not that many of Lakoff's followers can actually be expected to go out and even try to practice some of that "reframing" on mainstream America. Most are content just to cluster together and lament the deepening religio-social abyss that surrounds them. In the introduction to Lakoff's book, Don Hazen, the executive editor of AlterNet, a progressive news syndicator, outlines the "nightmare" in which liberal America currently dwells.
After the Supreme Court gave the election to George W. Bush, Republicans were in charge of virtually everything. But in our hearts we knew that their ideas were far out of the mainstream and things were totally out of whack.
Haven't we heard that before, with but a few noun substitutions? Back in the early sixties didn't the Minutemen and the anti-fluoridation wing nuts, convinced that State Department Communists were "in charge of virtually everything," know in their hearts that they were actually right?
Sampling the dinner parties, salons, book events, and fundraisers on the liberalish West Side of Los Angeles over the past few years has been its own sort of nightmare, thank you very much. It features the liberal left as the new incarnation of the John Birch Society, the black-clad beneficiaries of studio residuals and university tenure—often banking family salaries deep into six figures (or much, much more), their offspring booked into $20,000-a-year prep schools—as the last-standing defenders of enlightenment and democracy. At one liberal party last year, in a sprawling Sunset Boulevard mansion bedecked with statues and gold leaf, where Aaron Sorkin and Rob Reiner clinked glasses with Laurie and Larry David, the Chanel-clad hostess (a very wealthy industrialist) mounted her staircase and, speaking to the all-Democratic crowd, vowed to dedicate her energies to fighting George W. Bush. To thunderous applause she announced, "We are tired of being disenfranchised!"
In the weeks following the election, as these same liberals were convincing themselves that another dark conspiracy had rigged the vote, the after-dinner chatter sometimes veered toward fleeing to Canada (good-bye Sunset Boulevard, hello Yellowknife). This was mere joking. As were the Web-circulated maps depicting a red-state "Jesusland" surrounded by a new blue-hued United States of Canada, which included the secessionist West Coast and New England of the former USA. Joking, yes. But joking on the square. Few are the Democratic activists who simply accept the unavoidable fact that they lost, that George W. Bush fairly and, um, squarely beat the stuffing out of them. Instead liberal—and especially progressive—rhetoric is increasingly laced with paranoia. A month after the vote the country's flagship progressive publication, The Nation (where I am a contributing editor), compiled the post-election analyses and prescriptives of two dozen left-of-center notables. And while some of these people offered sensibly straightforward and practical advice for Democrats, others had definitely gone round the bend. Juliet Schor, of Boston College, apparently unaware that in America voting is supervised by county boards usually of a bipartisan nature, wrote darkly,
Republicans have steadily consolidated their control of the electoral process. Kerry got beaten in Ohio partly by a nefarious plan that denied Democratic precincts an adequate supply of voting machines. Nationwide, he lost votes to software breakdowns. How many is unknown at this point, as is the scope of e-fraud.
Unknown, but enough for Schor to suggest that this was how Kerry was beaten. Schor's conclusion—one more stolen election—is the key to her argument: "No amount of cultural repositioning will cure this problem." That is, no need for us to change. The blame is all external. (After nearly four decades on the political left, I can't remember a moment when liberals and fellow progressives have been so eager to offload their political woes on external forces.)
Troy Duster, an NYU sociology professor and a senior fellow at George Lakoff's Rockridge Institute (which focuses on, yes, reframing), wrote in the same Nation forum that the election results forced a choice between "two nightmares": either 60 million Americans "knowingly" ratified Bush's "right-wing ideology," or "we have just witnessed a second successive nonviolent coup d'état—a massive voter fraud that produced, among other anomalies, a gap between exit polls and paperless electronic voting tallies."
If we assume that Bush actually won, Duster continued, then we're facing something worse than fraud: that other F-word, fascism. Every industrialized nation, he claimed, has a "smoldering" right-wing base of 15 to 20 percent of the population, just "waiting to be stoked" by some fascist demagogue—maybe like George W. Bush.
It is a mistake to think of 1930s Germany, Italy and Spain as exceptional and inexplicable political aberrations that could not happen here. We easily forget that those right-wing governments had strong electoral showings and sympathizers in many Western nations.
And progressives are supposed to let this guy help Lakoff help them reframe the political debate? Liberals are to go to the American people and explain how—thanks to having a strict-daddy world view—they've been "stoked" into becoming brownshirts? Duster has merely reframed Bertolt Brecht's aphorism that when the people can't be trusted to vote properly, we should dissolve them and appoint another in their place.
It's not just in the rarefied climes of The Nation that this sense of liberal unreality surfaces. Barely three weeks after the election the trendy MoveOn.org, the motor force of the so-called "Democratic wing of the Democratic Party," rallied its adherents coast-to-coast in a round of 1,600 house meetings. The assembled liberal activists—some 18,000—polled themselves and then published their top six political priorities. The results, in order, tell you all you need to know about the current state of progressive detachment and denial. Election reform and media reform came in first and second. The war in Iraq was third, followed by the environment, the Supreme Court, and civil liberties. In short, the biggest problems liberals face are those damned voting machines and Fox News. Glaringly absent from this activist wish list is anything vaguely resembling an aggressive populist agenda. The MoveOn plan provides no answers to those sweaty plebes out there who are "stoked" by kulturkampf rhetoric as well as all-too-real fears about their jobs, wages, health insurance, and school tuition.
But that's not really MoveOn's job. Groups like MoveOn are fundamentally echo chambers for Volvo Democrats whose lives aren't much affected by whether a Democrat or a Republican is in the White House, and who think it's a politically significant act to go with an audience of like-minded souls to view a flockumentary like Fahrenheit 9/11 or Outfoxed, to set their TiVo to Jon Stewart's The Daily Show, or to pass around lefty spam containing fiery warnings of creeping fascism. A far more challenging exercise after the election would have been for MoveOn to order its troops to meet with and listen to ten people who disagreed with them—instead of talking, as usual, only to one another.
In one of last year's infinitely more thoughtful political books, What's the Matter With Kansas?, Thomas Frank wittily and skillfully deconstructed what might be dubbed the Great Con Job: the conservative canard that somehow Democrats have cornered the market on elitism, while the GOP's bleeding heart is more with the little guy than with Enron's Kenneth Lay. He also argued undeniably that any hope for a liberal renaissance must include some component of aggressive economic populism (to counter the faux cultural populism of the GOP)—a fancy way of saying that the white working class must be able once again to identify with the Democratic Party. You'll remember that when a loose-lipped Howard Dean suggested the dead obvious—that he needed to win the votes of guys who drive pickup trucks with Confederate-flag decals—he was all but lynched by his nurturing, caring, gender-free Democratic colleagues. Oh, no, we don't want those people in our party!
Not to worry: as long as the most visible Democratic rabble-rousers are, literally, showbiz clowns like Michael Moore and Al Franken, liberals have yet some road to travel back before they run into a monster-truck jamboree.
Although Frank dedicates only a few pages of his book to actually examining liberal Democrats, he's not much amused by what he sees. The decline of labor unions and other social brakes on an increasingly unjust market "goes largely unchecked by a Democratic Party anxious to demonstrate its fealty to corporate America, and unmourned by a therapeutic left that never liked those Archie Bunker types in the first place." For some reason (a marketing decision by his editors not to unnecessarily rile liberals?) Frank's harshest and most insightful characterization of progressives comes outside the confines of his book—from both before and after the election. In a February 2004 essay in the obscure Le Monde Diplomatique, Frank mercilessly attacked aloof, self-absorbed liberals.
Leftists of these tendencies aren't really interested in the catastrophic decline of the American left as a social force … If anything, this decline makes sense to them: the left is people in sympathy with the downtrodden, not the downtrodden themselves. It is a charity operation.
And in a post-election piece in The New York Times, Frank concluded that the Democrats "lost the battle of voter motivation before it started," by choosing high-profile assistance from "idealistic tycoons" over a more natural class-based alliance with common people. As a result, "they imagined themselves the 'metro' party of cool billionaires engaged in some kind of cosmic combat with the square billionaires of the 'retro' Republican Party."
Seeing oneself as a cool metro in a struggle against square retros is, unfortunately, a deeply entrenched and self-defeating reflex on the American left. In their just published Nation of Rebels, the liberal Canadian professors Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter argue that an essentially self-gratifying "idea of the counterculture" has turned into "the conceptual template for all contemporary leftist politics," and that "counterculture has almost completely replaced socialism as the basis of radical political thought" (socialism understood, that is, as class-based politics rather than cultural expression).
Just as the action agenda that came out of MoveOn's post-election meetings indicates, progressives in fact typically identify themselves as such on cultural or social (or, if you prefer, moral) grounds, eschewing any straightforward populism that cuts across cultural lines. I've heard liberals, in their post-election malaise, obsess just as much over who they don't want in their ranks, culturally speaking, as over who they'd like to recruit. After some polls suggested that Bush won in November because a large percentage of Americans voted their "moral values," I was involved in discussions with dozens of panicked progressives who openly feared that someone, somewhere in the Democratic Party, might actually try to accommodate these lunatics. (Liberals ritualistically identify "gays, guns, and God" as the basis of right-wing wedge politics, but are reluctant to ask themselves how much of their own politics is based on a similar formula, if not the same one exactly.)
And so here we are. Blue versus red. Metro versus retro. Organic nurturant parents versus hormone-eating strict daddies. Heath and Potter remind us that this bipolar world view follows a straight line back to the 1975 novel Ecotopia, in which Ernest Callenbach imagined a day in the near future when northern California, Oregon, and Washington have "broken off from the rest of the United States in order to create an ecologically sustainable society." And to the 1960s notion of hippies versus straights. And to the Norman Mailer of 1959, compiling his Lakoff-like "The Hip and the Square" list, on which marijuana and Dostoyevsky were considered much cooler than alcohol and Tolstoy. It's all part of the left's dangerous and politically dead-end tendency to strike a pose counter to American mass culture.
As more data come in from last year's election, it seems ever clearer that the vote was not decided by some grand clash of moral or personal values. There's a much simpler explanation: Americans were terrified by 9/11, and a small majority of voters concluded, rightly or wrongly, that the incumbent was clear in his thinking on this matter—and that John Kerry, at best, hadn't anything much different to offer.
America, now more than ever, needs a vibrant, viable, progressive alternative. The challenge to liberals, then, isn't to reify their differences with a mythical red America and its strict daddies but, rather, to find common ground. Perhaps they ought to start by taking their own sermons about diversity a good deal more seriously. Diversity should be much, much more than a code word for racial affirmative action. It also entails, as Potter and Heath argue, "[making] peace with mass society" and learning to live with what the philosopher John Rawls called "the fact of pluralism." Modern America is large and, yes, diverse enough that it's absolute folly to think some sort of progressive or nurturant world view can—or should—become majoritarian. Who would want that sort of conformity in any case? "We need to learn to live with disagreement—not just superficial disagreement, but deep disagreement, about the things that matter most to us," Heath and Potter conclude.
The trick of effective politics—as opposed to thinly disguised self-affirming psychotherapy and aesthetically gratifying rebel poses—is precisely to unite people with different views, values, and families around programs, candidates, and campaigns on which they can reach some consensus, however minimal. Before liberals and progressives dash out with their new vocabulary to try to convince others of the righteousness of their values, they might consider spending some time listening to others instead.