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Wednesday, 11 October 2006 22:44

George Lakoff: A Call for Progressive Unity

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by George Lakoff and the Rockridge Institute

I have long been advocating unity among progressives of all stripes, including those on the Democratic right. The far right's dominance of the Republican party make it urgent that those who oppose the far right, even on partially progressive grounds, unite.

Those on the Democratic right break down into a number of types:

1. Progressives who are genuinely pragmatic and adopt right-wing views for reasons of real-world pragmatism: They want things to work and they honestly think that in certain cases the right's policies may work better.
2. Progressives who are politically pragmatic:

a. They don't think the progressive policies they believe in have a chance of getting enacted, that there will have to a legislative compromise, and they are willing to compromise from the beginning.

b. They don't think that progressive views will win elections, and they move to the right for sake of winning.

3. Biconceptuals: partially progressive and partially conservative in their views.

I have also been advocating that progressives say what they believe, that they understand their values and articulate them loud and clear. And I have advocated telling the truth. In both cases, I have pointed out the crucial importance of effective framing. Framing is primarily about ideas, values, and moral worldviews, and secondarily about the language used to express those ideas. Some frames are deep - those that define overall worldviews, values, and principles. Other frames are surface - those that characterize the meanings of words and slogans. For surface frames to be absorbed and accepted, the deep frames must be in place in people brains. That's why mere sloganeering doesn't work for progressives. It works for the far right because they have done their homework - they have spent decades getting their deep frames into people's brains. Progressives face the long, hard task of getting the public, once more, to accept traditional progressive values as a basis for public discourse.

Facts are crucial, and I keep saying so. But they have to be framed properly in order to be understood, accepted, and assimilated. Just the raw data, the statistics, the polls in themselves - unframed, outside a moral context - may mean nothing. If the public you are talking to has a frame that contradicts the raw facts, the frame will stay and the facts will be ignored, to the detriment of our country. Framing for the truth is a crucial enterprise, and a failure to do so does harm.

Being real about the world is crucial. So is being real about the mind. The 17th Century view of the mind - rationalism - says that there is a disembodied universal reason shared by everyone, that there are not frames or metaphors that people reason in terms of. That view has been shown in contemporary cognitive science to be false. If it were true, then it would follow that if you just tell people the facts they will reason to the right conclusion, and people would always vote to maximize their material interests. Both of these conjectures are false. Many progressives still believe in rationalism and it hurts our cause. The alternative is reason at a higher level, to recognize the differences in frames, metaphors, worldviews, and take them into account, to understand that people really vote on the basis of values, authenticity, and trust, with positions on issues being symbolic of those qualities. Progressives should be authentic, say what they really believe, and be clear about their values. It is not only a moral imperative, it is a political one.

Despite these views, which I articulate over and over in my writings, I am being attacked by the Democratic right, by important figures, not for what I have actually said but for supposedly saying the opposite of what I have actually said. Figures like Rahm Emanuel, head of the DCCC, Bruce Reed, president of the DLC, William Galston, a DLC and Third Way theorist, and even Steve Pinker, a well-known psychology professor at Harvard. The Pinker piece appeared recently in the New Republic, an organ of the Democratic right.

Such attacks are hardly new. Other targets have included George Soros, Howard Dean, MoveOn, Markos Moulitsas of Daily Kos, and others among the netroots.

It doesn't matter that the charges are baseless. The very charges themselves get the frames into the public view and serve to undermine the progressive movement. There are real issues to be discussed, and tactical distortions don't help us work them out.

I have chosen to reply to Pinker first, since he brings up issues in cognitive science, not just issues in politics. For the reply, click here.

The progressive movement needs unity in every dimension - its intellectual leaders, its political leaders, its activists, its funders, its consultants, its grassroots, and its netroots. Progressives are engaged in too critical a struggle with the forces of Conservatism to spend their time and energy attacking each other.


George Lakoff is a Senior Fellow at the Rockridge Institute, a Professor of Linguistics, and the author of Whose Freedom?, Don’t Think of an Elephant!, and the forthcoming Thinking Points: Communicating Our American Values and Vision, A Progressive's Handbook.