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don’t think of an elephant!

George Lakoff’s near classic primer on framing, Don’t Think of an Elephant! Know your Values and Frame the Debate: The Essential Guide for Progressives (2004), is a great little book for learning how to talk and think in the political world. He outlines the worldviews of both conservatives and progressives in a simply, easy to digest way that helps you keep it in mind and communicate the differences more clearly. In fact, it’s a little too simple—notwithstanding Lakoff’s minimal attempt to nuance the ideas—and probably that’s appropriate in today’s short attention span world.

That doesn’t mean Lakoff is simple. On the contrary, he is a cognitive scientist and linguist and his approach reflects that training. He looks at how people think and make decisions and vote and then at the language people use to influence each other. He tries to find the underlying themes and logic that unite what might otherwise seem like contradictory positions and behaviors. The results are powerful for understanding our society’s politics.

Because he is primarily trying to identify the themes that unite each of two opposing sides, his analysis elides many of the differences that sometimes cut across his dualistic approach. I’m thinking especially of identity issues—race, class, gender, sexuality, and others. Lakoff very briefly discusses these issues as one of the six main strains of progressive ideology, but he is self-consciously trying to bridge those differences and his treatment is probably unsatisfying to many who identify with those strains. That is, I think many people might see the intelligence of his thinking and still feel he’s missing some important issues.

Nevertheless, the book is valuable as a handbook of technique and skills—essential background for the activist, thinker, and aspiring politico.

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