An amazing concession has been made by the left recently. Some prominent liberals have said that conservatives are more effective at using language to communicate political ideas. Indeed, the party of President Bush, aka Mr. Strategery, is thought by these liberals — among them some prominent linguists — to be so rhetorically clever that voters have been blinded to the radical content of conservatives' talking points. The stupid party, it turns out, is, like, wicked smart.
George Lakoff, a cognitive scientist at University of California at Berkeley, is perhaps the leading analyst of how the right has out-punched the left in the verbal sparring. His 2004 book, "Don't Think of an Elephant," became a mustread for Democratic Party operatives by showing how conservatives supposedly captured the political debate by framing issues in terms of a conservative agenda. Critics from the right and center have dismissed the Lakoff school of thought as mere excuse-making for why the right always wins and the left doesn't have to bother rethinking its role. The left received "Don't Think of an Elephant" differently. Markos Moulitsas Zuniga, the man behind the influential liberal blog Daily Kos, said Mr. Lakoff's "findings will help rescue the Democratic party from itself."
"Whose Freedom? The Battle Over America's Most Important Idea" (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 277 pages, $23) finds Mr. Lakoff augmenting his ideas about message-framing with an examination of what he believes is the great untapped concept of the progressive left: freedom. He argues that while the right has cast freedom in its most negative sense — the individual's freedom from government meddling — the word has a progressive, pro-government past that has been overlooked. Mr. Lakoff harks to FDR's promises of freedom from want and freedom from fear and quotes his "Second Bill of Rights": "Necessitous men are not free men."
Mr. Lakoff's conception of freedom encircles everything from the freedom to avoid starvation to the freedom to be you and me. Happiness and personal fulfillment are key elements. "It is immoral to harm, enslave, or deny the fulfillment of others through the exercise of your freedom." But you, the progressive reader of this book, wouldn't want to do that, because you are empathetic. "Empathy says that because you want to be free,you,as an empathetic person, will want others to be free as well." What was known during the Enlightenment as the natural sympathy of man has been spruced up in the last few decades as empathy, to which Mr. Lakoff adds some findings of cognitive science, including an explanation of how we might sometimes appear to be able to read other people's minds and predict what they are about to say or do.
Human nature as Mr. Lakoff describes it comes with a happy face and is made up of straightforward desires and passions perfectly suited to a nice progressive governing system. But he quickly leaves philosophy behind and turns his attention to the kind of bickering over news events for which blogs were invented. Oddly for a professor, Mr. Lakoff seems not to know when he needs to offer an accounting of some of the facts he presents. President Bush, he says, chose to go to war in Iraq "long before 9/11." This is apparently so well understood, and its implications so clear, that Mr. Lakoff offers not a single word in its defense.Nor does Mr.Lakoff mention a source for the claim that there are 25,000 pregnancies caused by rape in America each year — a number hotly contested by opponents of legalized abortion and, in any case, surely a difficult condition to quantify. Add to the problem of glibness the sin of sloppiness. Mr. Lakoff overstates America's infant mortality rate, almost doubling it. He mentions the "millions of middleclass workers whose wages have not gone up for thirty years while costs have risen steadily."The reader searches in vain for some additional information to help him get a handle on all these middle-class workers stuck with 1970's salaries.
Such passing comments do not form the basis for Mr. Lakoff's case for progressive freedom. For this, he turns to cognitive science and its finding that humans think in metaphors. The metaphors governing liberals' and conservatives' thinking about politics, he claims, are family-based. Liberals' thinking traces the perspective of a caring, nurturing mother, while conservatives' thinking follows the pattern set by a stern, patriarchal father. At times this proposal leads to neat, if not terribly profound, arguments: Conservatives believe the world is run by daddies, so they think in terms of direct causation (remove Saddam Hussein, and Iraq will immediately be better off); Liberals think of the world in terms of cultures and environments and systemic causation (environmentalism, "It takes a village …").
The father v. mother metaphor is a dodge from clear thinking in its own right. Instead of arguing against the fundamental underpinnings of modern conservatism, Mr. Lakoff puts the ideas he sees as representative of conservatism (helped along by some casual selection bias) to work in the supposedly scientific template he sets out, reducing conservatism's representatives to chatty Cathy dolls who use only the logic and arguments of someone who shares Mr. Lakoff's views.
One of the more popular tricks of political debate is to reduce people and ideas to a class, which makes them easier to dismiss. A few conservative authors earn a handsome living off books that do just that. They begin by asserting that a certain group, liberals, believe x without taking into account that while it is always true some liberals believe x, some don't, and some others still do but with significant caveats,and so on. Classification of this sort also allows the liberal-smasher to blame every liberal for whatever any liberal might say.
Mr. Lakoff has buried some interesting insights in his angry assault on what he thinks the right believes. But by his own example, he suggests that the above-mentioned trick of demolitionby-classification is exactly the kind of triumph of rhetoric he wishes liberals could achieve. He should have higher hopes for his own side.
Mr. Skinner is an assistant managing editor at the Weekly Standard magazine and the editor of Doublethink magazine.