I'm not one to recommend books lightly. In fact, I don't think I've ever said, "you HAVE to get this book." But there's always a first time for everything.
I get swamped with review copies of books these days, and given the number of liberal-leaning anti-Bush books saturating the market, there's no shortage of reading material that I'll unfortunately never get to. But I nearly flipped with joy when I checked my mail today (too lazy to do it yesterday) and found a copy of George Lakoff's new book, Don't think of an elephant!, he of the Rockridge Institute. I'd been dying to read my first Lakoff book since I read this piece he wrote for the American Prospect. The fact that the obnoxious Jonathan Chiat of the New Republic dissed him only made me more anxious to read him. And rumors that the DNC have taken Lakoff on as a consultant clinched the deal.
So back to the book, I knew after reading just a handful of pages that if there's one book you read this year, it should be this one.
Lakoff's obsession is the use of language to frame political debate. And it's his findings that will help rescue the Democratic Party from itself, extracating itself from playing with the frame built by the Vast Right Wing Conspiracy (think tanks, leadership institutes, media outlets, etc). What's a frame? You know them -- "Death Tax", and "Tax Relief", and "Pro-life", and so on. Bush says, "We don't need a permission slip from the UN to defend the US", and suddenly, the Republicans have framed the runup to war in a certain way. Our mistake, as a party, has been our willingness to play within our opponents' frame, rather than building our own.
I will be writing more about the book over the coming days. I'm absolutely smitten by it. But I want to open with Lakoff's meta frame for what each of the two parties stand for. This is great stuff, as it clearly explains, in a way I had never seen before, the reason why the gulf between liberals and conservatives is as deep as it is.
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 backwards. I tool 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 [...]
The strict father model beings 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 world is a strong, strict father who can:
- Protect the family in a dangerous world,
- Support the family in the difficult world, and
- Teach his kids right from wrong.
Now to summarize how this all fits into the GOP frame, "protect the family" speaks to the GOP's militarism and hard line on crime and punishment. That one is pretty self evident. "Support the family" equates prosperity with morality -- the ability to successfully support one's charges is a virtue, and those that are unable to do so, or depend on the government to help out, are morally weak. Hence, the GOP's hostility to social programs, since they make people dependent, rather than self-sufficient.
There are many aspects of government that [conservatives] 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.
Now see how Lakoff frames political liberalism:
Both parents are equally responsible for raising the children. The assumption is that children are born good and can be made better. The world can be made a better place, and our job is to work on that. The parents' job is to nurture their children and to raise their children to be nurturers of others.
What does nurturance mean? It means two things: empathy and responsibility [...] all sorts of other values immediately follow from empathy and responsibility [...]
First, if you emphathize with your child, you will provide protection. [... From] crime and drugs, certainly. You also protect your child from cars without seat bealts, from smoking, from poisonous additives in food. So progressive politics focuses on environmenntal protection, worker protection, consumer protection, and protection from disease [and] also terrorist attacks [...]
Further, it is your moral responsibility to teach your child to teach your child to be a happy, fulfilled person who wants others to be happy and fulfilled.
In other words, while the conservative frame rewards those who succeed where others fail, the liberal frame rewards those who are outraged when others fail. This is powerful stuff. Some more of those liberal values:
If you want your child to be fulfilled in life, the child has to be free enough to do that. Therefore, freedom is a value.
You do not have very much freedom if there is no opportunity or prosperity. Therefore opportunity and prosperity are progressive values.
If you really care about your child, you want your child to be treated fairly by you and by others. Therefore fairness is a value.
If you are connecting with your child and you emphathize with that child, you have to have open, two-way communication. Honest communication. That becomes a value.
You live in a community, and that the community will affect how your child grows up. Therefore community-building, service to the community, and cooperation in a community become values.
To have cooperation, you must have trust, and to have trust you must have honesty and open two-way communication. Trust, honesty, and open communication are fundamental progressive values -- in a community as in a family.
I was blown away when I read this. It does help put things in perspective in a way I was previously unable to do so.
Suddenly, Arnold's "girly men" comment takes on new meaning, as does the WSJ's "lucky duckies" comment about those too poor to pay any taxes. Take any issue, apply it to the frames above, and it's easy to see why liberals and conservatives fall on opposite sides of many issues -- Patriot Act, tax cuts for the wealthiest, or, heck, Bush's refusal to listen to skeptics during the runup to his war (father knows best, or "because I said so"). Take any issue, apply the frame, and see what you get. It's pretty amazing how well Lakoff's frames work on just about every issue.
It's also gives proper explanation to the difference between conservative and liberal blogs -- where high-traffic conservative bloggers serve not to build community (most have no comments), but to amplify their party's agenda (doing what "father" tells them to do, like good, disciplined, obedient children). We, on the good side of the ideological fence, believe in "open, two-way communication", hence the use of comments and the building of "community" on most of the top progressive bloggers.
Like I said, I'll be writing about Lakoff all week, specifically, how he suggests we use our frame to recast the debate on a whole host of issues (including the big marriage debate).