June 2017 Column: Summer reading for political engagement and messaging
Happy end of the school year! To the seniors who graduated at the beginning of this month and the K-11 kids who just finished this week — congratulations! I write here more for the adults, be it the teacher breathing a sigh of well-earned exhaustion or the parent ready to transition into summer mode — it is a time of opening up, and with your new free time I thought some of you would like to engage more with politics. (Yes, that’s my message and I’m sticking with it: engage with the political system; it’s the foundation of our society.) For those looking to add a little political engagement to their vacation time, here are some of the books that have made the greatest impression on me, especially around political communication and organizing.
“Don’t Think of an Elephant” by George Lakoff I have mentioned before how communications is everything in politics. This book presents one (very liberal) view of how to message about issues effectively. The key takeaway is the importance of framing — how thought leaders define and influence basic assumptions and connotations by the way they talk about ideas, and how the Democratic Party has generally done a bad job of this while the Republican Party has a vast infrastructure for reinforcing its ideological message. Some of the ideas suggested in this book are seriously nonsensical (like the hypothesis that every issue position can be explained by the parties following one of two family-structure-based world views and that nothing exists in between), but the explanation of framing itself is of crucial importance for anyone who wants to effect change in the public sphere.
“Words That Work” by Frank Luntz This is the conservative equivalent to the Lakoff book; this one doesn’t have quite as good an overarching explanation of framing, but it does have far more specific examples and a wealth of advice on particular words. Again some of the statements are outdated or impractical, but it gives a highly useful picture of the nitty-gritty of political communication. Think of the Lakoff book as strategy and the Luntz book as tactics. For instance, it was from here that I got the suggestion of “imagine” as a useful word to connect with and inspire people, and therefore included it as a heading in my campaign palm cards.
“The Climate Casino” by William Nordhaus For the global-warming activists among you, this is the book that informed the price trajectory I have proposed for a carbon price in all the bills I have written. It is an excellent big-picture, fairly comprehensive analysis of the impacts of climate change on humans, other animals, and ecosystems, the risks associated with potential “tipping points,” and the economics of balancing present and future costs. It is one of the most technical ways to advocate for carbon pricing, but if you want to be fully and objectively informed about climate realities, read this.
“On Virtues” by U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse Less on the practical train-yourself-in-communicating side, this is a collection of quotes and sayings from various political figures throughout history, particularly the United States. Some of it is quite inspiring, and it’s a fun collection to read.
“Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre” by Keith Johnstone This is not a political book; it’s an acting textbook. I suggest it here because of its extensive discussion of status as a concept and how status plays out physically in daily interactions. It may be useful for those of you who are interested in direct organizing and advocacy (or in teaching about politics), with insight into what physical movements impact status, and in what circumstances one might want to adopt high or low status.
“Going Public” by Michael Gecan The best book I’ve read on political organizing. This is in the tradition of works such as Saul Alinsky’s classic “Rules for Radicals” and provides a pretty thorough discussion of how to form effective organizations, what not to do because it is inefficient or ineffective, and how to force people both within and outside your organization to take you seriously. If every activist in the country had read this, I expect our policies would be in a lot better shape.
“It’s Our World, Too!” by Phillip Hoose And finally, for the youngest activists among us, I’ve mentioned this one before. It’s a collection of stories about kids who effectively made a difference in or beyond their communities all around the world. It’s the book that started me on a political activist life.