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Leighton Woodhouse Headshot

Think of an Elephant

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George Lakoff is back. Or at least he's trying to be.

For those who have blocked out the memory of the 2004 presidential election and its dreadful aftermath, Lakoff is a linguistics professor at UC Berkeley who shined briefly in the media spotlight during the Bush years as the Democratic Party's unofficial scientif-ish speech coach (I wrote about him in 2005 here). He wrote and starred in a couple of well-selling books and DVDs in which he laid out a prescription for winning elections and passing progressive legislation that came down to this: say the right word combinations ("frames") that trigger the desired reptilian response mechanisms in voters, say them over and over again, and don't say the word combinations that the other side is saying, even if you're just doing it to shit on them.

Like Deepak Chopra and other mass media gurus, Lakoff offered a simplicity of perspective that's as seductive as it is absurd: Ideological coherence doesn't matter. The substance of one's policy prescriptions doesn't matter. Proximity to reality doesn't really matter. (To be fair, Lakoff threw plenty of disclaimers around that good public policy does matter, but then inevitably and hastily returned to a thesis that completely excluded all but rhetoric as a variable in the struggle for political victory.) Lakoff's theory had a goofy pop academic theory behind it about liberals owing their politics to "nurturing parents" and conservatives to "strict fathers" and human beings having "frames" hardwired into their brains, but when it came to writing the Democratic playbook, the strategy was as easy as crafting code words and pushing buttons -- Mad Men with a political agenda and an academic pedigree.

In 2005, Democrats were desperate for whatever vaguely unconventional wisdom they could get their hands on, the conventional wisdom having failed them epically for three national elections in a row. Their desperation helped sell many copies of Don't Think of an Elephant. But by 2007, after having won a landslide midterm election without crafting any memorable new word combinations, neither Democratic leaders nor anybody else were spending much time deconstructing Lakoff. And that's how it remained, mercifully, for the next five years.

Now, Lakoff is climbing back onto the stage with a new book called The Little Blue Book: The Essential Guide to Thinking and Talking Democratic. The book's release date is Tuesday ($11 on Amazon), but you don't need an advance copy to know what it's about: it's right there in the subtitle. Lakoff is going to explain to us, again, not just how to talk, but how to think, "Democratic." And if his agent is successful, he'll be explaining it on a speaking tour and on Real Time with Bill Maher, Charlie Rose, and The Rachel Maddow Show.

The Democrats have so many problems, it's hard to know where to start to offer helpful advice, but the idea that they might need a handbook to instruct them how to think indicates a depth of political despair that's hard to fathom. The notion of George Lakoff filling that void is not a pleasant thing to contemplate, especially if you read his book teaser on Alternet.

The article is barely written; it's more like iPad notes for an article he'll get around to writing once he's in front of a real keyboard:

"Where Romney talks morality (conservative style), Obama mainly talks policy. Where Romney reframes Obama, Obama does not reframe Romney."

Its conclusions are as half-baked as its almost-complete sentences. There's this, about the economy:

Since Obama started out assuming a caretaker's responsibility, it's hard for him to escape the frame now. He should have avoided it from the beginning.

If only Obama had used a different "frame" -- perhaps "Bush crisis inheritor" -- the electorate would have freed him from responsibility for the intransigent jobless rate, the lack of a single prosecution of a high-ranking bank executive, his completely unserious response to the housing crisis, or the fact that following an economic meltdown caused by Wall Street con artists, he staffed his top economic brass with Wall Street insiders.

Or this, describing Romney's "frame" of the public versus the private sphere:

"The federal establishment," he says, "has never seemed so hostile." The Public is an "establishment" -- an undemocratic institution -- which is the enemy of the people. It is implicit in this frame that the government is not the people.

If only Obama would counter Romney by equating "the government" with "the people" -- that is, equating the spirit of the everyday American voters he's courting with an institution whose approval rating bottoms out at less than 20 percent (Congress) and is increasingly regarded as a free-wheeling, unaccountable hand maiden to Wall Street tycoons -- he could keep the faith alive in Berkeley and Cambridge and Park Slope, maybe.

Has Lakoff been in hibernation since his last book tour? Did he sleep through the Tea Party's national temper tantrum and the rise of Occupy Wall Street? It is not a good year to wax sentimental about the cherished institution of our federal government, whether you're on the left, the right, or anywhere in the middle.

One could go on, but it hardly seems worth it. As it was in 2007, Lakoff's is a strategy that carries all the birthmarks of its Ivory Tower heritage: ahistorical, conjectural, laboratory-grown, and fundamentally contemptuous of the mass audience it's meant to persuade. In other words, it's a dressed-up version of the same overpriced advice offered by a thousand political hacks for hire in Washington D.C., but without the polling and focus group data to back it up.

The reality is, you don't need to buy a book by a Berkeley linguistics professor to understand the fundamental variables that will determine this year's election: either the real economy will significantly improve in the next few months or, more likely, it will not; and one of the two candidates will be able to offer a more credible narrative than the other of the reasons for our continued malaise and offer a more persuasive plan for getting us out of it. At the end of the day, it will matter not one iota that Obama continues to call the top one percent "the top one percent," or that Romney uses more effective moral buzz words than Obama. People are not lab rats, and the election is not a Skinner Box. Nor is it a parlor word game. And our political discourse is dumb enough without Lakoff counseling us to make it even dumber.