Progressives: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate

The ALL NEW Don’t Think of an Elephant:

Know Your Values and Frame the Debate

If progressives are to win in the future, we must present a clear moral vision to the country— a moral vision common to all progressives. It must be more than a laundry list of facts, policies, and programs. It must present a moral alternative, one traditionally American, one that lies behind everything Americans are proud of.–George Lakoff

George Lakoff is a Professor of Cognitive Linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley. He has authored books on Mathematics, Metaphors, Irregular Syntax, and most recently, Politics.

His political books can be categorized by “Deep Politics” (Moral Politics (1996, revised 2001), Whose Freedom (2006) and The Political Mind (2008) ) and Political Action” (Don’t Think of an Elephant (2004)Thinking Points (2006),  The Little Blue Book (2012) and The ALL NEW Don’t Think of an Elephant, a revised and updated edition of his 2004 version.)

the-all-new-dont-think-of-an-elephant_george-lakoff-e1418105189992The only book George Lakoff book  that I have read is The ALL NEW Don’t Think of an Elephant which is subtitled Know Your Values and Frame the Debate.  I highly recommend it if you are interested in understanding how the Conservatives have been so successful in getting many to vote against what we see as their best interests. Lakoff definitely believes that it is no accident that conservatives have been controlling the political debate, and that the progressives need to understand, develop and use those skills to turn the debate around. This book’s mission is to help progressives to “Know Your Values and Frame the Debate”.

Before Lakoff gets to the “How to Frame the Debate” part of the book, he describes the  cognitive science that is the basis of his theory.  He then explores the core-values of the “Conservative Base” of Republican Party, and the “Progressive Base” of the Democratic Party.  He describes both value systems in detail and focuses on their political ramifications.  One such example:

The Private depends on the public. Public resources make private life possible.

Conservatives have a different view of responsibility. Whereas progressives believe centrally in empathy (caring about their fellow citizens), both personal and social responsibility, and a commitment toward doing their best toward those ends, conservatives believe only in personal responsibility. This yields a completely different view of democracy, that democracy provides what they call “liberty”— the ability to seek one’s own interests without the responsibility of others to help them, without any responsibility to help their fellow citizens, and without interference from the government. This is a moral conviction, as deep in the conservative brain as the progressive moral vision is in the progressive brain.

(Lakoff, George (2014-09-23). The ALL NEW Don’t Think of an Elephant!: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate (p. 51). Chelsea Green Publishing. Kindle Edition.)

Progressives and Conservatives occupy the extremes of the political spectrum. We realize that most of Americans don’t see themselves as  Progressive or  Conservative; most consider themselves as moderates, some where between the extremes.  Lakoff  describes them as“bi-conceptuals”.  They lean “left’ on some issues, and “right” on others. They are spread across the political spectrum.

Lakoff explains that people “Vote their values”.

People do not necessarily vote in their self-interest. They vote their identity. They vote their values. They vote for who they identify with. They may identify with their self-interest. That can happen. It is not that people never care about their self-interest. But they vote their identity. And if their identity fits their self-interest, they will vote for that. It is important to understand this point. It is a serious mistake to assume that people are simply always voting in their self-interest.

Lakoff, George (2014-09-23). The ALL NEW Don’t Think of an Elephant!: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate (p. 17). Chelsea Green Publishing. Kindle Edition.

In order to succeed politically, the candidates (parties, political communities) need to convince enough voters that you agree with their values, their worldview. We need to ‘Frame the Debate’ to receive the “bi-conceptuals” support. There is no definite value set that defines moderates–some progressive-moderates have some conservatives values, and some conserative-moderates hold some progressive values. They will all respond to some progressive values—it is presented to them in a way they will accept.

Framing is about getting language that fits your worldview. It is not just language. The ideas are primary— and the language carries those ideas, evokes those ideas.

Lakoff, George (2014-09-23). The ALL NEW Don’t Think of an Elephant!: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate (p. 2). Chelsea Green Publishing. Kindle Edition.

The conservatives have “framed the debate” well—there are many examples in his book to illustrates this point. Look how they framed Obamacare. They didn’t talk about the fact, they talked about their values. Look how Rep. Reed is framing his attack on the Social Security Disability Insurance– dividing the disabled into the ‘catastrophically disabled’ and the “not-really disabled”. Guess which group are ‘raiding’ the funds dedicated to retirees.

Now it is time for the Progressives to frame the debate. Lakoff  pointed to  Elizabeth Warren framed the issues in her favor during her 2012 Senatorial campaign. “The conservatives don’t have to win on issue after issue after issue. There are many things a progressive can do about it. Here are eleven:

First, notice what conservatives have done right and where progressives have missed the boat. It is more than just control of the media, though that is far from trivial. What they have done right is to successfully frame the issues from their perspective. Acknowledge their successes and our failures.

Second, remember “Don’t think of an elephant.” If you keep their language and their framing and just argue against it, you lose because you are reinforcing their frame.

Third, the truth alone will not set you free. Just speaking truth to power doesn’t work. You need to frame the truths effectively from your perspective.

Fourth, you need to speak from your moral perspective at all times. Progressive policies follow from progressive values. Get clear on your values and use the language of values. Drop the language of policy wonks.

Fifth, understand where conservatives are coming from. Get their strict father morality and its consequences clear. Know what you are arguing against. Be able to explain why they believe what they believe. Try to predict what they will say.

Sixth, think strategically, across issue areas. Think in terms of large moral goals, not in terms of programs for their own sake.

Seventh, think about the consequences of proposals. Form progressive slippery slope initiatives.

Eighth, remember that voters vote their identity and their values, which need not coincide with their self-interest. 

Ninth, unite! And cooperate! Here’s how: Remember the six modes of progressive thought: (1) socioeconomic, (2) identity politics, (3) environmentalist, (4) civil libertarian, (5) spiritual, and (6) antiauthoritarian. Notice which of these modes of thought you use most often— where you fall on the spectrum and where the people you talk to fall on the spectrum. Then rise above your own mode of thought and start thinking and talking from shared progressive values.

Tenth, be proactive, not reactive. Play offense, not defense. Practice reframing, every day, on every issue. Don’t just say what you believe. Use your frames, not their frames. Use them because they fit the values you believe in.

Eleventh, speak to the progressive base in order to activate the nurturant model of biconceptual voters. Don’t move to the right. Rightward movement hurts in two ways. It alienates the progressive base and it helps conservatives by activating their model in bi-conceptual voters.

Lakoff, George (2014-09-23). The ALL NEW Don’t Think of an Elephant!: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate (pp. 28-30). Chelsea Green Publishing. Kindle Edition.

The last three parts of the book are–

Part 3–Framing for Specific Issues, which includes Freedom Issues (Health Care, Education, Poverty, Discrimination: Race, gender and Sexual Orientation), Unions and Pensions, Immigration, Wealth Gap, (The Runaway Loss of Valuable Experiences, Global Warming, Growth) and Government by Corporation.

Part 4–Framing: Looking Back A Decade

Part 5–From Theory To Action–What Conservatives Want, What Unites Progressives, and  Frequently Asked Questions.

He ends the book with “four really important guidelines”:

Show respect

Respond by reframing

Think and talk at the level of values

Say what you believe.

The book is available at the normal on-line book stores. The price on the book is $15.00, but on line can be less. The Southern Tier Library System has no copies of the 2014 version as of this week, but it has a few copies of the 2004 version.

View a 37 minute C-Span video interview with George Lakoff discussing “Don’t Think of an Elephant! (2004)”

Youtube has videos of interviews and lectures of other George Lakoff books.

About pystew

Retired Teacher, political science geek, village trustee. I lean a little left, but like a good political discussion. My blog, the New NY 23rd (http://newny23rd) is about discussing the issues facing the people of our new congressional district. Let's hear all sides of the issues, not just what the candidates want us to hear.
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14 Responses to Progressives: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate

  1. solodm says:

    Just got this book, and the author’s first – “The Little Blue Book”, Now to take the time to read them!


  2. whungerford says:

    I don’t recall Tom Reed focusing on his values, but he did succeed in framing the debate. He made it about Peter Yarrow, Martha’s place of residence, and extreme liberals. Certainly Martha tried to talk values, but too few heard and related. It isn’t clear to me how to frame the debate outside the context of current events. Take H.R.644 “Fighting Hunger Incentive Act–Tom made this about supporting the Food Bank and helping the hungry with the Food Bank’s cooperation. It seems near impossible to frame it as tax breaks for corporations in the face of that.


  3. josephurban says:

    It is difficult for Progressives to compete with conservatives in the modern political media climate. Why ? Because progressive solutions cannot be boiled down to simplistic slogans. And that is what modern political news coverage has become. Not a real debate about ideas. Rather a competition between who can repeat the most simplistic mantra. News coverage has little or no real depth. It is a battle of vacuous slogans. And nobody can slogan like the conservatives.


  4. whungerford says:

    In order to succeed politically, the candidates (parties, political communities) need to convince enough voters that you agree with their values, their worldview.

    Suppose the worldview in NY-23 is that Republicans protect us from Ithaca Liberals, NYC Democrats, and others who are not from here? How can we reframe that?


  5. josephurban says:

    Perhaps the goal should not be to convince voters that you agree with their values, etc. Perhaps it should be to educate voters in order to help them develop a more sophisticated worldview? But that cannot be achieved unless the news organizations are willing to forego the most recent “gotcha” moment and the most recent, irrelevant “polling data” and focus on encouraging real discussions of real issues.
    It used to be the job of the nightly news (remember Cronkite, Huntley, Brinkley?) to educate the public, not jockey for entertainment ratings. I am not sure how any well thought out message can penetrate the facile entertainment industry that is called “news” today.


  6. Deb Meeker says:

    Tom Reed is fighting hunger by making the IRS oversee business tax breaks. Oh no! Surely if the IRS is involved it will either be mishandled, or become a way to spy on businesses! There may even be something the government will do to have the businesses spike the old food with measles vaccine! Benghazi!

    From writing back and forth with those of strongly opposing views for awhile now, generally I’ve learned – you can’t fix brainwashed, and the more you try the more they dig in their heels.


  7. whungerford says:

    Just speaking truth to power doesn’t work. You need to frame the truths effectively from your perspective. according to Lakoff.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. whungerford says:

    Gunnar Myrdal maintained that discrimination against Negros was inconsistent with American values of justice and fair play, and therefore could not endure. Perhaps we need to find a practice today which conflicts with American values. One would think that attacking the disabled might be a good one, but maybe not if the disabled can be characterized as undeserving.


  9. Deb Meeker says:

    Seriously, if disabled people , soldiers with PTSD. and homeless elderly can be considered “undeserving” by the majority, Americans need more than reframing the argument, Americans need a new moral compass.

    One theory is, if the billionaires continue to enrich themselves only, the poverty of all others will exceed sustainability, and the economy will crash. Even this sensible theory hasn’t phased the need for greed.


  10. pystew says:

    Lakoff’s description of the Conservative philosophy is that the child must be made strong enough to survive the dangerous world. They support the military,(so do Progressives) but what about the soldiers with PTSD or other scars from their military careers? Even the strongest can contact a disabling disease or innocently be involved in an accident. Is this where the family takes over? What about the Faith Base community? I guess they might fall under his catastrophically disabled category, but that can’t be guaranteed.


  11. whungerford says:

    New NY23rd’s top five articles in 2014:
    …Safe Act
    …Unemployment extension
    …Dirty Campaign Tactics
    …Wood Stoves


  12. Deb Meeker says:

    So basically the Conservative philosophy believes of all nature claims survival of the fittest (unless you’re not born yet); social standing is strictly tribal; war is inevitable, you’re with us or against us; a caste system that is disguised as those who must work and those who don’t need to – the former being smarter, therefore should lead?

    But, for example, if the Conservative philosophy is – the child must be made strong enough to survive the dangerous world, doesn’t that come in direct conflict with not making sure children are fed, clothed and housed? Or is it full a circle firing squad back to the survival of the fittest (well -off).


  13. josephurban says:

    Why would anyone(like Myrdal) take the position that an American value is justice or fair play. There is virtually nothing in US history that supports those values. Justice, for example, has been something that people have had to fight to achieve for the last 200 plus years. We need to look at reality, not myth.


  14. whungerford says:

    When we recite the Pledge of Allegiance, as we do at the start of Tom’s meetings, we recognize the American value: Liberty and Justice for All. The fact that justice is part of the American creed doesn’t mean we practice it. The title of Myrdal’s work, An American Dilemma, refers to this contradiction.


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