Dark Christianity
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May 2008
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Book Review - Moral Politics / Don't Think of an Elephant!


This is the book review I kept griping at myself to write. It's actually a report on two books, but they are by the same author and very closely related, so I'm giving them both together.

In 1996, George Lakoff wrote a book called Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think, endeavoring to explore US politics through the lens of cognitive psychology. In 2002, he wrote a second edition, to clarify a few points, and use the tools he offers in the book to analyze key political events since 1996, like the Clinton impeachment and the 2000 presidential election race. These books endeavor to be even-handed and detailed views of the political climate.

In 2004, he apparently got completely fed up with how few people on his side of the political aisle were following his suggestions, and wrote Don't Think of an Elephant! Know Your Values and Frame the Debate, which throws any pretense of objectivity aside and gives step-by-step instructions on what Progressives need to know about how Conservative minds and morals work, and how to reframe debates and avoid falling into Conservative traps. It appears that many people have discovered this book, and like me, gone back to read his earlier work.

George Lakoff is a Linguistics professor at the University of California, Berkeley, with a background in Cognitive Psychology. He brings all of his academic and personal experience to bear in these books in a way I find quite effective. He is also a Senior Fellow at the Rockridge Institute, one of the few Progressive Think Tanks out there.

The underlying premise of both books is simple. There are two "central" political ideologies in this country, with myriad "radial" variations. For convenience sake, he uses the terms "Conservative" and "Liberal" (or sometimes "Progressive") to identify the two central ideologies, though he acknowledges that neither term is all that appropriate anymore. The core metaphor that unifies these political ideologies is which metaphor of family structure they use to guide their politics, the "Strict Father" model, or the "Nurturant Parent" model. These models are fundamentally coherent moral systems, which can and do infuse many different aspects of life.

In addition, he identifies that a portion of the population will always apply the Strict Father model, and a portion will always apply the Nurturant Parent model, these portions are roughly equal (he claims each make up roughly 40% of the population, which sounds right but I want to know how he came by that number). The rest of the population can go either way. The Conservatives have been so politically successful lately, because they have been able to frame the debate in such a way to encourage the Strict Father view of politics in this swing 20%, and if the Liberals want to fight back, they need to learn how to encourage the Nurturant Parent view, and they can do it through understanding of their own moral system, and using that understanding to reframe the issues terms.

In Moral Politics, Lakoff goes into copious detail at how the two models work, how they correspond to political views, what variations there are on these models. He also goes into how framing is used to tie the issues around us into our moral system based on our parenting model. Also, especially in the Second Edition, he examines recent political conflicts in terms of these models, to help the reader understand how they have been used in real life, and can be used to great effect.

In Don't Think of an Elephant, Lakoff gives a basic overview of the two models, and gives many examples on how framing has been used, and can be used to tie these models into real world issues. Some copies also include a DVD, though mine did not so I can't review the DVD here.

He doesn't spend a significant time directly addressing Dominionism, but he touches on it from time to time. However, it is clear on reading these books that the Dominionists solidly match his Strict Father moral system, with a focus on the religious and social aspects. These books are immediately applicable to both understanding the Dominionist mindset, and confronting it in your daily life and political endeavors.

His books also provide the most coherent explanations I've seen so far as to why we see the seemingly bizarre alliances out there today, like the Dominionists, the Neoconservatives, and the Fiscal Conservatives of the old guard of the Republican Party. Even though much of their rhetoric is different demonstrably view politics through the same moral framework, and therefore their cooperation comes naturally. Conflicts between these groups are just matters of focus and degree, not of base ideology.

I highly recommend both of these books. If you are short on time and just want quick help in fighting the Dominionists, just go with Don't Think of an Elephant. If, however, you want to spend some time truly understanding the nuances of the political arena, start with Moral Politics. If you are short on cash, both books should be available at your local library, assuming the Dominionists haven't gutted the place already.

The ideas he presents in these books also infuse the articles at the Strategic Framing Project of the Rockridge Institute. This site is a useful resource both if you want to explore the ideas before getting a book, or if you want to continue exploring the issues after reading.

Again, I highly recommend you all make use of these resources:
Moral Politics
Don't Think of an Elephant!

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