George Lakoff, author of Don’t Think of an Elephant and Moral Politics, has become a very influential linguist and cognitive scientist. He is currently the Senior Fellow at the Rockridge Institute. His work and ideas are inspiring significant funding decisions that impact institution and movement building and these decisions will in turn impact all of us.

In the liberal world Lakoff has become the protecting father. His book, Don’t Think of an Elephant, is heralded as the premiere guide for Liberals who want to take back the country (talk about a loaded frame). I, for one, got a lot out of reading Lakoff. There is a lot of good stuff in there to chew on as an organizer. For example, he provides a clear explanation for how frames reinforce ideas and what facts and language will come through our respective filters or frames. And his insights into right wing frames and ideas were quite helpful to help clarify my own analysis of the right wing. That said, as I was reading Don’t Think of an Elephant I kept on feeling as though there was something really large missing from his analysis. It was like an elephant in the room and I couldn’t stop thinking about it.

First, his analysis of the right is wrong. It isn’t that the right doesn’t outspend the liberal left on research and think tanks. That seems true. But the right also invests a lot of money and lots of human capital on grassroots movement infrastructure which includes things like day to day organizing through community and religious groups, issue campaign strategy development and organizing that involves local people in meaningful ways, and a host of other investments that have built the right wing movement. Many of these approaches the right learned from the left in the 50s, 60s and 70s. These critical right wing investments are frequently omitted in liberal analysis.

Second, his understanding of the left is also very narrow. Lakoff does not provide his readers with an understanding of movement infrastructure, outside of research and think tank institutions. His analysis does not include the movements that have come before us that have changed our politics dramatically, or how these movements form and operate.

The grassroots I experience is dynamic, highly skilled at research and framing and getting better at building coalitions and taking creative action. It is also underfunded in almost all areas both relative to the needs and relative to the right wing. Movement infrastructure in the form of paid organizing staff is almost non-existent and there is dwindling funding for professional service providers and advocates, and increased funding for election campaigns and consultants, lobbyists, paid advertising, research institutions and think tanks. The long term power building organizing that would build strong movements for lasting social and political change is not considered in his book in large part because Lakoff’s guiding theory of change revolves around framing not building democracy and democratic institutions. The danger is that Lakoff is inspiring institution-building based on a particular analysis - one that is now shared by many people who are making funding decisions - but the analysis has not been adequately scrutinized. Therefore we are not developing a holistic approach to building the kind of power needed to effectively take on the right wing in this country.

If we continue to support his diagnosis and his prescribed remedy we will allow the elephant in room to get much larger.

Click here for an interesting article on the Lakoff phenomenon.