Don't Think of an Elephant!: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate: The Essential Guide for Progressives

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Don't Think of an Elephant! is the definitive handbook for understanding what happened in the 2004 election and communicating effectively about key issues facing America today. Author George Lakoff has become a key advisor to the Democratic party, helping them develop their message and frame the political debate.

In this book Lakoff explains how conservatives think, and how to counter their arguments. He outlines in detail the traditional American values that progressives hold, ...

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Don't Think of an Elephant! is the definitive handbook for understanding what happened in the 2004 election and communicating effectively about key issues facing America today. Author George Lakoff has become a key advisor to the Democratic party, helping them develop their message and frame the political debate.

In this book Lakoff explains how conservatives think, and how to counter their arguments. He outlines in detail the traditional American values that progressives hold, but are often unable to articulate. Lakoff also breaks down the ways in which conservatives have framed the issues, and provides examples of how progressives can reframe the debate.

Lakoff's years of research and work with environmental and political leaders have been distilled into this essential guide, which shows progressives how to think in terms of values instead of programs, and why people vote their values and identities, often against their best interests.

Don't Think of An Elephant! is the antidote to the last forty years of conservative strategizing and the right wing's stranglehold on political dialogue in the United States.

Read it, take action—and help take America back.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"Fascinating insights into why progressives lose good causes and how they can start winning again. You will never listen to a political speech the same way after reading this book."--Tina Brown, Host of CNBC's Topic A with Tina Brown

Publishers Weekly-
Lakoff, a cognitive scientist and linguist at Berkeley, believes he knows why conservatives have been so successful in recent years and how progressives like himself can beat them at their own game. This slim book presents a simple, accessible overview of his theory of "moral politics" and a call to action for Democrats mourning November’s election results. Lakoff’s persuasive argument focuses on two ideas: what he calls "framing," and the opposition of liberals’ and conservatives’ concepts of the family. Conservatives, he says, have easily framed tax cuts as "tax relief" because of widespread, preexisting views of taxes as burdensome, and liberals have had little success conveying the idea that taxes are a social responsibility. In Lakoff’s view, conservatives adhere to a "strict father" model of family, in contrast to liberals’ "nurturant parent" view, and he sees this difference as the key to understanding most of the two sides’ clashes. His writing is clear and succinct, and he illuminates his theories through easy-to-follow examples from current politics. Although the book has been updated since the election, many of its sections were originally written long beforehand, so some comments are outdated (at one point Lakoff wonders, for example, whether George Bush’s support of the gay marriage amendment will help him keep the White House). However, the process of regaining power may be a long one for Democrats, and Lakoff’s insights into how to deal with conservatives and appeal to the general public are bound to light a fire under many progressives.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781931498715
  • Publisher: Chelsea Green Publishing
  • Publication date: 9/10/2004
  • Pages: 144
  • Sales rank: 364,632
  • Product dimensions: 5.37 (w) x 8.37 (h) x 0.40 (d)

Meet the Author

George Lakoff is the country’s leading expert on the framing of political discourse and one of the world’s most renowned linguists and cognitive scientists. He is the author of numerous books on politics–including Don’t Think of an Elephant!, The Political Mind, Moral Politics, Thinking Points, The Little Blue Book (with Elisabeth Wehling), and Whose Freedom?–as well as numerous books on language and the mind.

Lakoff has consulted with the leaders of hundreds of advocacy groups on framing issues, lectured to large audiences across the country, run dozens of workshops for activists, spoken regularly on radio talk shows and TV shows, addressed the policy retreats and the caucuses for both the Senate and the House Democrats, consulted with progressive pollsters and advertising agencies, and been interviewed at length in the public media, and he continues to do extensive research on the framing of public discourse.

Currently Distinguished Professor of Cognitive Science and Linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley, Lakoff is a founder of the fields of cognitive science and cognitive linguistics, has previously taught at Harvard and the University of Michigan, and was a fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford. For more than two decades, he was codirector of the Neural Theory of Language Project at the International Computer Science Institute at Berkeley. He also spent more than a decade as senior fellow at the Rockridge Institute, a nonpartisan think tank, and has served on the international advisory board of Prime Minister Zapatero of Spain, on the science board of the Santa Fe Institute, as president of the International Cognitive Linguistics Association, and on the governing board of the Cognitive Science Society. He has lectured at major universities in dozens of countries around the world. His current technical research is on the theory of how the neural circuitry of the brain gives rise to thought and language.

His blogs appear regularly on his website,, and at The Huffington Post, Truthout, Alternet, Common Dreams, and Daily Kos.

Howard Dean—physician and former chairman of the Democratic National Committee (DNC)—served six terms as Governor of Vermont before running for the Democratic Party's presidential nomination in the 2004 election. Dean also founded Democracy for America (DFA), the grassroots organization that organizes community activists, trains campaign staff, and endorses progressive candidates. While he was Vermont's governor, the state expanded its universal healthcare program to cover nearly every child under age 18—and also lowered its public debt, balanced its budget, and reduced taxes.

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Read an Excerpt

Framing 101: How to Take Back Public Discourse
— january 21, 2004 —
On this date I spoke extemporaneously to a group of about two hundred progressive citizen-activists in Sausalito, California.

When I teach the study of framing at Berkeley, in Cognitive Science 101, the first thing I do is I give my students an exercise. The exercise is: Don’t think of an elephant! Whatever you do, do not think of an elephant. I’ve never found a student who is able to do this. Every word, like elephant, evokes a frame, which can be an image or other kinds of knowledge: Elephants are large, have floppy ears and a trunk, are associated with circuses, and so on. The word is defined relative to that frame. When we negate a frame, we evoke the frame.

Richard Nixon found that out the hard way. While under pressure to resign during the Watergate scandal, Nixon addressed the nation on TV. He stood before the nation and said, “I am not a crook.” And everybody thought about him as a crook.

This gives us a basic principle of framing, for when you are arguing against the other side: Do not use their language. Their language picks out a frame—and it won’t be the frame you want.

Let me give you an example. On the day that George W. Bush arrived in the White House, the phrase tax relief started coming out of the White House. It still is: It was used a number of times in this year’s State of the Union address, and is showing up more and more in preelection speeches four years later.

Think of the framing for relief. For there to be relief there must be an affliction, an afflicted party, and a reliever who removes the affliction and is therefore a hero. And if people try to stop the hero, those people are villains for trying to prevent relief.

When the word tax is added to relief, the result is a metaphor: Taxation is an affliction. And the person who takes it away is a hero, and anyone who tries to stop him is a bad guy. This is a frame. It is made up of ideas, like affliction and hero. The language that evokes the frame comes out of the White House, and it goes into press releases, goes to every radio station, every TV station, every newspaper. And soon the New York Times is using tax relief. And it is not only on Fox; it is on CNN, it is on NBC, it is on every station because it is “the president’s tax-relief plan.” And soon the Democrats are using tax relief—and shooting themselves in the foot.

It is remarkable. I was asked by the Democratic senators to visit their caucus just before the president’s tax plan was to come up in the Senate. They had their version of the tax plan, and it was their version of tax relief. They were accepting the conservative frame. The conservatives had set a trap: The words draw you into their worldview.

That is what framing is about. Framing is about getting language that fits your worldview. It is not just language. The ideas are primary— and the language carries those ideas, evokes those ideas.

There was another good example in the State of the Union address in January. This one was a remarkable metaphor to find in a State of the Union address. Bush said, “We do not need a permission slip to defend America.” What is going on with a permission slip? He could have just said, “We won’t ask permission.” But talking about a permission slip is different. Think about when you last needed a permission slip. Think about who has to ask for a permission slip. Think about who is being asked. Think about the relationship between them.

Those are the kinds of questions you need to ask if you are to understand contemporary political discourse. While you are contemplating them, I want to raise other questions for you.

My work on politics began when I asked myself just such a question. It was back in the fall of 1994. I was watching election speeches and reading the Republicans’ “Contract with America.” The question I asked myself was this: What do the conservatives’ positions on issues have to do with each other? If you are a conservative, what does your position on abortion have to do with your position on taxation? What does that have to do with your position on the environment? Or foreign policy? How do these positions fit together? What does being against gun control have to do with being for tort reform? What makes sense of the linkage? I could not figure it out. I said to myself, These are strange people. Their collection of positions makes no sense. But then an embarrassing thought occurred to me. I have exactly the opposite position on every issue. What do my positions have to do with one another? And I could not figure that out either.

That was extremely embarrassing for someone who does cognitive science and linguistics.

Eventually the answer came. And it came from a very unexpected place. It came from the study of family values. I had asked myself why conservatives were talking so much about family values. And why did certain values count as “family values” while others did not? Why would anyone in a presidential campaign, in congressional campaigns, and so on, when the future of the world was being threatened by nuclear proliferation and global warming, constantly talk about family values?

At this point I remembered a paper that one of my students had written some years back that showed that we all have a metaphor for the nation as a family. We have Founding Fathers. The Daughters of the American Revolution. We “send our sons” to war. This is a natural metaphor because we usually understand large social groups, like nations, in terms of small ones, like families or communities.

Given the existence of the metaphor linking the nation to the family, I asked the next question: If there are two different understandings of the nation, do they come from two different understandings of family?

I worked backward. I took the various positions on the conservative side and on the progressive side and I said, “Let’s put them through the metaphor from the opposite direction and see what comes out.” I put in the two different views of the nation, and out popped two different models of the family: a strict father family and a nurturant parent family. You know which is which.

Now, when I first did this—and I’ll tell you about the details in a minute—I was asked to give a talk at a linguistics convention. I decided I would talk about this discovery. In the audience were two members of the Christian Coalition who were linguists and good friends of mine. Excellent linguists. And very, very good people. Very nice people. People I liked a lot. They took me aside at the party afterward and said, “Well, this strict father model of the family, it’s close, but not quite right. We’ll help you get the details right. However, you should know all this. Have you read Dobson?”

I said, “Who?”

They said, “James Dobson.”

I said, “Who?”

They said, “You’re kidding. He’s on three thousand radio stations.”

I said, “Well, I don’t think he’s on NPR. I haven’t heard of him.”

They said, “Well, you live in Berkeley.”

“Where would I . . . does he write stuff?”

“Oh,” they said, “oh yes. He has sold millions of books. His classic is Dare to Discipline.

My friends were right. I followed their directions to my local Christian bookstore, and there I found it all laid out: the strict father model in all its details. Dobson not only has a 100-to-200- million-dollar-a-year operation, but he also has his own ZIP code, so many people are writing to order his books and pamphlets. He is teaching people how to use the strict father model to raise their kids, and he understands its connection to rightwing politics.

The strict father model begins with a set of assumptions:

The world is a dangerous place, and it always will be, because there is evil out there in the world. The world is also difficult because it is competitive. There will always be winners and losers. There is an absolute right and an absolute wrong. Children are born bad, in the sense that they just want to do what feels good, not what is right. Therefore, they have to be made good.

What is needed in this kind of a world is a strong, strict father who can:

  • Protect the family in the dangerous world,
  • Support the family in the difficult world, and
  • Teach his children right from wrong.
What is required of the child is obedience, because the strict father is a moral authority who knows right from wrong. It is further assumed that the only way to teach kids obedience—that is, right from wrong— is through punishment, painful punishment, when they do wrong. This includes hitting them, and some authors on conservative child rearing recommend sticks, belts, and wooden paddles on the bare bottom. Some authors suggest this start at birth, but Dobson is more liberal. “There is no excuse for spanking babies younger than fifteen or eighteen months of age” (Dobson, The New Dare to Discipline, 65).

The rationale behind physical punishment is this: When children do something wrong, if they are physically disciplined they learn not to do it again. That means that they will develop internal discipline to keep themselves from doing wrong, so that in the future they will be obedient and act morally. Without such punishment, the world will go to hell. There will be no morality.

Such internal discipline has a secondary effect. It is what is required for success in the difficult, competitive world. That is, if people are disciplined and pursue their self-interest in this land of opportunity, they will become prosperous and self-reliant. Thus, the strict father model links morality with prosperity. The same discipline you need to be moral is what allows you to prosper. The link is the pursuit of self-interest. Given opportunity and discipline, pursuing your self-interest should enable you to prosper.

Now, Dobson is very clear about the connection between the strict father worldview and free market capitalism. The link is the morality of self-interest, which is a version of Adam Smith’s view of capitalism. Adam Smith said that if everyone pursues their own profit, then the profit of all will be maximized by the invisible hand—that is, by nature—just naturally. Go about pursuing your own profit, and you are helping everyone.

This is linked to a general metaphor that views well-being as wealth. For example, if I do you a favor, you say, “I owe you one” or “I’m in your debt.” Doing something good for someone is metaphorically like giving him money. He “owes” you something. And he says, “How can I ever repay you?”

Applying this metaphor to Adam Smith’s “law of nature,” if everyone pursues her own self-interest, then by the invisible hand, by nature, the self-interest of all will be maximized. That is, it is moral to pursue your self-interest, and there is a name for those people who do not do it. The name is do-gooder. A do-gooder is someone who is trying to help someone else rather than herself and is getting in the way of those who are pursuing their self-interest. Do-gooders screw up the system.

In this model there is also a definition of what it means to become a good person. A good person—a moral person—is someone who is disciplined enough to be obedient, to learn what is right, do what is right and not do what is wrong, and to pursue her self-interest to prosper and become self-reliant. A good child grows up to be like that. A bad child is one who does not learn discipline, does not function morally, does not do what is right, and therefore is not disciplined enough to become prosperous. She cannot take care of herself and thus becomes dependent.

When the good children are mature, they either have learned discipline and can prosper, or have failed to learn it. From this point on the strict father is not to meddle in their lives. This translates politically into no government meddling.

Consider what all this means for social programs. It is immoral to give people things they have not earned, because then they will not develop discipline and will become both dependent and immoral. This theory says that social programs are immoral because they make people dependent. Promoting social programs is immoral. And what does this say about budgets? Well, if there are a lot of progressives in Congress who think that there should be social programs, and if you believe that social programs are immoral, how do you stop these immoral people?

It is quite simple. What you have to do is reward the good people—the ones whose prosperity reveals their discipline and hence their capacity for morality—with a tax cut, and make it big enough so that there is not enough money left for social programs. By this logic, the deficit is a good thing. As Grover Norquist says, it “starves the beast.”

Where liberals and fiscal conservatives take Bush’s huge deficit as bad, right-wing radicals following strict father morality see it as good. In the State of the Union address in January 2004, the president said that he thinks they can cut the deficit in half by cutting out “wasteful spending”—that is, spending for “bad” social programs. Are conservatives against all government? No. They are not against the military, they are not against homeland defense, they are not against the current Department of Justice, nor against the courts, nor the Departments of Treasury and Commerce. There are many aspects of government that they like very much. They are not against government subsidies for industry. Subsidies for corporations, which reward the good people—the investors in those corporations—are great. No problem there.

But they are against nurturance and care. They are against social programs that take care of people. That is what they see as wrong. That is what they are trying to eliminate on moral grounds. That is why they are not merely a bunch of crazies or mean and greedy—or stupid—people, as many liberals believe. What is even scarier is that conservatives believe it. They believe it is moral. And they have supporters around the country. People who have strict father morality and who apply it to politics are going to believe that this is the right way to govern.

Think for a minute about what this says about foreign policy. Suppose you are a moral authority. As a moral authority, how do you deal with your children? Do you ask them what they should do or what you should do? No. You tell them. What the father says, the child does. No back talk. Communication is one-way. It is the same with the White House. That is, the president does not ask; the president tells. If you are a moral authority you know what is right, you have power, and you use it. You would be immoral yourself if you abandoned your moral authority.

Map this onto foreign policy, and it says that you cannot give up sovereignty. The United States, being the best and most powerful country in the world—a moral authority—knows the right thing to do. We should not be asking anybody else.

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Table of Contents

1. Theory and application
2. Framing 101 : how to take back public discourse
3. Enter the terminator!
4. What's in a word? plenty, if it's marriage
5. Metaphors of terror
6. Metaphors that kill
7. Betrayal of trust : beyond lying
8. From theory to action
9. What the right wants
10. What unites progressives
11. FAQ
12. How to respond to conservatives

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If only the Democrats had read George Lakoff a few years ago, we might not be in the position we find ourselves in today: out of power in the White House, out of power in Congress, and out of power in the Courts.

Lakoff has written down, in language liberals can understand, what Ralph Reed, Newt Gingrich, and Frank Luntz intuitively realized a long time ago. Language matters.

By defining a concept such as tax relief, the right wing of the Republican party not only set the terms of the debate, they seized the high ground. By defining tax cuts as tax relief, the right also defined those who were against tax cuts as essentially bad people.

If you are confused by this, you desperately need to read this book. Lakoff’s insights will not only send a chill of recognition through you. More importantly, he shows us the way out of the morass. Americans who want to be first to set the agenda need to be quick, and must understand the use of language. Agenda setters also need to be unapologetic and unafraid.

George Lakoff will be one of the most influential political thinkers of the progressive movement when the history of this century is written. It is up to those who want change to make good use of his unique insights.

—Howard Dean

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Customer Reviews

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 20, 2006

    Truth Alone does not Suffice

    George Lakoff presents some interesting ideas from his background as a cognitive linguist about what American progressives should do to win elections. His theory is that human thoughts and behavior are constrained by cognitive frames formed by physiologic patterns in the brain. Language is the main way (perhaps to Lakoff, the only way) we modify and interact with the frame. I am intensly interested in this idea and would have benefited from more in-depth explanation including footnotes and citations. The idea reminds me of 18th century philosopher Emanuel Kant with a focus on the limitations of knowledge. I wonder if there are cultural differences in cognition that could have been discussed in light of the red state-blue state electoral division in America. Lakoff explicitly reduces differences between progressives and conservatives to the desire among them for either a 'nurturing parent' or 'stern father' model of a prototype parent-child metaphore characterizing the government to citizen relationship. He gives a number of intriguing examples drawn from recent presidential addresses and policy statements. Progressives desire, according to Lakoff, a nurturing, caring, indulgent parental model of government whereas conservatives want the tough, sink or swim model for government. The book would be a much more interesting if the ideas were presented in reference to historical and cultural factors. I think Lakoff is a reductionist who has given a frankly simplistic explanation with a possibly undeserved pretense of originality. His claim is that progressives do not pay attention to the use of the appropriate language needed to frame political debate in terms that are agreeable to the majority of Americans. In contrast, he says that conservatives consistently use language to skew ideas in their favor and so succeed politically. He has a list of 11 recommendations for how progressives can re-frame political discourse and persuade the majority. Among those recommendations, is his claim that truth alone will not suffice. Although he doesn't intend it quite this way, it leaves the unavoidable impression that progressives must say something other than 'the truth' to win politically. The examples of 'truth' in his book are all arguable and are from a decidedly extreme leftist, counter-conservative orientation. On the other hand, Lakoff's book is, by its own premise, not a book about any particular liberal or progressive ideology. In his book, progressive 'truth' is just truth--not a question for debate. The book is really about how we win arguments--which does not seem to be the same thing as discovering truth.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted August 5, 2012

    Essential reading for political junkies

    Democrats need a new narrative, and I know I'm not the only one who thinks so. George Lakoff appears to have been slightly ahead of his time in trying to get the Democratic Party to focus on this important task. I wish that were not so. But whenever Democrats wake up, this book and other works by Lakoff will be pivotal resources.

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  • Posted March 30, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    Why Beliefs Are More Important Than Stats

    Shows how progressives can communicate on issues that affect everyone by appealing to voter's belief systems instead of inundating them with often confusing, usually forgettable statistics. Very enlightening.

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  • Posted December 12, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    Political psych-ops

    Although, this book is a good read for anyone who seeks an introduction to linguistics and how it affects how we think. The particine political dogma contained within cannot be ignored.

    Professor Lakoff possesses a brilliant mind, but chooses to use his knowledege for his own ideological self-interest, and the self-interest of cultural elites who share his world view.

    I found his use of framing citizens as children, Conservatives as "strict Fathers", and Democrats as "nurturing parents", to be highly presumptuous and condescending.

    Note how carefully he objectively frames the strict "Father" while being carefull not to objectively frame the nurturing "parent" as the nurturing "Mother". Could this be due to the conventional metaphorical framing that most people have in regards to the over-nurturing nature and passiveness of their Mother's?

    If you are looking for ideological dogma to reinforce your beliefs, or looking to arm yourself against political psych-ops, then this book is for you.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 3, 2009

    There is a reason why this only has a few reviews

    because any logical person can punch huge holes in the self-hating American that the secular progressives are. The S-P's onder why people like Bill O'Reilly and Mark Levin sell more books and are listened to more. It is not that they are always right it's that their arguments are based on facts and reason where the S-P's live in a world that is unrealistic a phony utopia and that is why they are always defeated.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 20, 2009

    Excellent reading for the progressive who needs good ammunition

    This is the second book that I've read by George Lakoff, and I must say that his work has really opened my eyes. I've always been aware of what I called the conservative "propaganda engine," but I couldn't fully characterize it during conversations. "Don't Think of an Elephant" provides excellent ideas on how to reframe arguments to make them balanced and provides detailed nuggets to backup my points once they have been reframed. I am so grateful for this work and recommends it to all of my fellow political junkies. I want to create an army of well-prepared progressive commentators.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 22, 2007

    Good read

    I highly recommend this book. Once you read it you finally get 'it'. It helps make sense of so many issues. You will learn that the way something is framed is almost all that matters. Quick and easy read too!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 2, 2006

    A reviewer

    This book was so leans more than the Tower of Pisa. Although Lakoff is a good writer, he seems to have stumbled through this book leaving major holes in his facts, conviniently leaving out parts that would damage the SP cause.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 18, 2006

    A Must Read for the 21st Century Progressive

    'Don't Think of an Elephant' gives you exactly what the subtitle promises. It is the essential handbook for communicating the progressive message effectively. This book is fascinating, insightful, and well written.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 8, 2005

    So simple, so obvious

    So right in front of us that we couldn't see the forest for the trees. This is a must read for all Democrats and'll finally 'get it'.

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  • Posted January 22, 2009

    How to effectively contest conservative political dialogue

    Lakoff uses his background as a cognitive linguist with the U. of California to give guidance on how to counter conservatives' very effective shaping of the national dialogue on politics, cultural issues, environmental questions, and most other topics of national concern. The foundation of Lakoff's guidance is distinguishing conservatives as adhering to a 'strict father' mode, whereas progressives can be seen as adhering to a 'nurturant parent' mode. This timely political/social activist handbook outlines a program of communication, public relations, and activism not only for progressives, but for any individuals and groups opposing the agenda, direction, and values of the conservatives who are currently dominating politics and political dialogue so as to undermine serious consideration of any other points of view.

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    Posted October 12, 2010

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    Posted September 1, 2009

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    Posted December 5, 2008

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    Posted July 18, 2012

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