Books April 2005

Thinking of Jackasses

The grand delusions of the Democratic Party

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?

Presented by

Marc Cooper is a contributing editor of The Nation, a columnist for LA Weekly, and a senior fellow at the Institute for Justice and Journalism at the USC Annenberg School for Communication. His most recent book is The Last Honest Place in America: Paradise and Perdition in the New Las Vegas.

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