Summary of chapter 1 of George Lakoff's Don't Think Of An Elephant!

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This is a repost, retitled for the sake of our robot brothers (read: search engines), of an original, my-own-damn-words summary of the most important political writing for anyone on the American left to read today – the first chapter of Don’t Think Of An Elephant!. It’s as relevant now as when it was first published four years ago. Buy it here. But first, read on!

  • Don't think of an elephant

    • Negating the frame evokes the frame
    • Don't use their language EVER
  • Example frame: tax relief

    • Relief implies an affliction, and a reliever who is a hero
    • Once president has a "tax relief plan", the language is in the NYT and CNN as well as fox news
    • Democrats who offer their own "tax relief" plan are shooting themselves in the foot
  • Language has to fit your world view

    • Using a frame you don't believe in is both difficult and ineffective
  • Where do conservative statements, language, and policies all come from?

    • Started from the famous contradiction, pro-life but pro-gun. What unifies these beliefs?
    • The nation-as-family metaphor is strong in pretty much all of us

      • Founding fathers
      • Daughters of the American Revolution
      • Sending our sons to war
    • Christian right gets their family metaphors from James Dobson's Dare to Discipline
    • Conservative family model is the "strict father." Progressive's is the "nurturant parent."
  • Strict father model

    • The world is dangerous and always will be. There is evil in it.
    • The world has competition; there will always be winners and losers.
    • There is an absolute right and an absolute wrong.
    • Children are born wanting to do what feels good. We're born bad, that is, and must be made good.
    • The strict father protects the family from danger, supports it through competition, and teaches the children what's right
    • Because the father knows right from wrong, the child must obey.
    • The means of getting obedience is punishment.
    • Punishment lets children develop self-discipline out of self-interest (avoiding punishment)
    • People with self-discipline are successful in competition. People who pursue their self-interest become prosperous.

      • That's the link between morality and prosperity, laissez-faire capitalism. The link is self-interest.
    • If everyone pursues their own interest, the profit of all will be maximized (Adam Smith, "invisible hand" metaphor)

      • More metaphors: "I owe you one," "I'm in your debt," "How can I ever repay you?" when you do good for someone
    • If it's moral to pursue self-interest, then "do-gooders" are immoral. They get in the way of the system's proper functioning

      • by encouraging others not to develop discipline and do for themselves.
    • Those who don't learn discipline don't do what's right and don't prosper. They can't sustain themselves and are dependent.
    • Mature children have either internalized discipline or not. The strict father does not meddle with his children once they are mature.
    • Politically speaking: social programs are immoral. Reward the good, disciplined children (you can tell them by their fat bankrolls – see above re. prosperity and morality) with tax cuts and make the cuts so huge that there is no money for social programs.
    • Conservatives believe this model. To them it is moral. They do not cackle evilly and curl their moustaches.
    • Metaphor: nations are people. "friendly nations," "rogue states," etc.
    • This gives rise to the "rational actor" model. Nations will seek their (financial) self-interest.
    • Metaphor: "developing" nations. They play the children in the strict father model of foreign policy.

      • The prosperous, therefore plainly moral, authority tells the children what to do and punishes failure. (via the IMF.)
      • Bush on the UN: "We don't need to ask for a permission slip to defend our country." The UN was a schoolroom full of children to our strict teacher.
  • Nurturant parent model

    • Both parents raise the children.
    • Children are born good and can be made better.
    • The world can be made a better place, and we must make it that way.
    • Nurturance means:

      • empathy, and
      • responsibility.
    • Raising a child is the hardest thing you can do. You have to be knowledgeable, competent, strong and hard-working.
    • If you empathize, you provide protection.

      • From crime, drugs
      • From unsafe products
      • From disease
      • From terrorist attacks
    • If you empathize, you want your child to be happy and fulfilled.
    • If you are unhappy, you don't want other people to be more fulfilled than you.

      • So it's your responsibility to be happy and fulfilled.
    • To be fulfilled, a child must

      • be free to find fulfillment. Freedom
      • have opportunity and prosperity. Can't have freedom without these.
      • be treated with fairness.
      • have open and honest communications with parents and others who matter most.
      • be part of a community. Cooperation.
      • Cooperation takes trust.
    • Progressives all share these values.
    • Conservatives got together and agreed to disagree for the good of a program that advanced what they have in common.
  • What else do conservatives do?

    • Research
    • Write books
    • Have media studios down the hall (80% of talking heads on TV are from righty institutes)
    • Have rooms in the building for college-aged interns
    • In 2002 four times as much money was spent on this long-term infrastructure on the right than on the left. The right got four times as much media time.
    • They have all sorts of different hobby horses, but they give and take. This week he got what he wanted and I didn't, but next week I'll get what I want. In the end we all get a lot of what we want.
  • Myths

    • If we tell people the facts, they'll reach the right conclusions.

      • False. People think in frames. Give them a fact that doesn't fit the frame and the fact will bounce off.
    • It's irrational to go against your self-interest, so normal people reason according to it.

      • False. People reason based on their emotional ideas of themselves and others. Their identity and their values.
      • 35% of the pop. feels they are in the top 1% of the pop. or will be soon.
      • People especially vote their identity, not their self-interest.
    • Political campaigns are marketing campaigns. The candidate is a product and the issues and positions are features thereof.

      • False. Democrats do "market research" and move to the right as a result. Repubs don't move to the left and they're doing fine. Being true to your core values "sells" a lot better.
  • Ideas and language

    • Orwellian language = stuff that means opposite of what it says

      • Clear Skies Act, Healthy Forests Initiative
      • Orwellian language is a big neon sign pointing out where the right is weak.
    • Those words (clean, healthy, safe) get used because people have been found to respond to them. Science.
    • In conservative research firms you have to put a quarter in the pizza fund every time you use the wrong language.
    • When you think you lack words, what you really lack is ideas

      • Hypocognition is the cogsci term. Tahiti used not to have the concept of grief. Not the word, not the rituals, nothing. SO they had a lot of suicides.
      • Conservatives have "tax relief," but just the words aren't enough – the frame is floating around out there. We don't have that.
    • What is taxation?

      • It's what you pay to live in a civilized country – the membership dues.
      • It's an investment in common infrastructure, and in things companies use to get rich.
    • Building these frames does not happen overnight. Start now.
  • Follow the money

    • They have a forty-year, two-billion-dollar head start on us.
    • Why? Large block grants. When you can spend whatever on whatever, you can build your infrastructure, train your future employees.

      • Large block grants follow from the strict father model – you're a grownup, we won't tell you what to do with the money.
      • Also, maintaining the moral order itself is a top priority.
      • And they know they will keep getting the money – they set up recurring donor relationships.
    • Left orgs tend not to get large block grants. They get small amounts spread over many different orgs, with stipulations on what the money will go to.

      • The goal of this is to provide direct help to the people who need it, in as many different niches as possible.
      • The top priority on the left is helping the needy.
      • How do you show you're a moral organization? Help lots and lots of individuals.
    • The right is privatizing the left by setting up their frames, to cut the social services, to keep left orgs from setting up frames by sending money direct to the needy instead. Perpetuates the right.
  • Strategic initiatives

    • Make one change and affect lots of different arenas.
    • We covered tax cuts. Conservatives also really like tort reform. Why?

      • Eliminates all the lawsuits that provide the base for future environmental law.
      • Following that out, tort reform eliminates the basis for regulating anything.
      • Also cuts the income of tort lawyers, many of whom are important Dem donors.
    • The left tends not to look for these. We look for individual patches because right now we need to.
    • One strategic initiative on the left: New Apollo Initiative

      • \$30 billion a year into alt energy
      • Same amount as the subsidies to oil and gas
      • Strategic how? Creates jobs, reduces pollution, eases global warming without a sep. initiative, foreign policy (reduces dependence on foreign oil), third world development (oil is a chief reason countries have to borrow money).
  • Slippery slope initiatives

    • "Partial birth abortions." There are almost none, but if you manage a law against them, future bans on abortion become that much easier.
    • Why an education bill for testing schools? Once a school can fail (as opposed to indiv. students failing), it can be punished. Creates a cycle of failure and eventual elimination of public schools, to be replaced by a voucher system.
    • Why the recent Medicare bill? HMOs use their size to get drug discounts, and the government can't. Then the gov has to compete with the HMOs after that head start.
  • What we can do

    • Recognize what the right has done right and what we have done wrong. It's not just media access, it's framing.
    • Remember "don't think of an elephant."
    • The truth will not set you free. You need a frame.
    • Always speak from your authentic moral perspective.
    • Understand where conservatives come from: the strict father model.
    • Look for strategic initiatives and slippery slopes. Think about consequences.
    • Voters vote their identity and their values, not their self-interest.
    • Unite and cooperate!
    • Play offense, not defense. Use your own frame.
    • Speak to the progressive base, don't move to the right.