Framing the Message

When Karl Rove called the Democrats wimps in the face of 9/11 and the Democrats replied, "we're not wimps," linguist George Lakoff scored it as a victory for the GOP machine. It was as if Democrats took the bait and Rove reeled them in, changing the discourse from the ongoing disaster in Iraq to support for Bush after 9/11.

Lakoff, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley, viewed Rove's remarks in the context of public opinion turning against the war, with roughly 60% of the population now coming to the belief that the war was a mistake and that the US should bring its troops home. Democrats had started attacking the conduct of the war, some Republican congressmen had started expressing their doubts and British government memos had come forward showing that the Bush administration fudged intelligence to promote the invasion of Iraq. But Bush's ratings for his anti-terror campaign remain high, so Rove sought to remind voters that the war in Iraq was supposed to be part of the war on terror.

When Democrats defended themselves from Rove's attack, they wound up expressing support for Bush's going to war, with implicit support for the conduct of the war.

At a June 25 event for the Austin progressive organization Moving Forward, Lakoff, who wrote the bestseller Don't Think of an Elephant: Know Your Values, Frame the Debate, said Democrats must be proactive, not reactive. They should criticize Bush for politicizing the terror attacks, twisting intelligence to support the invasion of Iraq that diverted resources against the real war on terror and using the war on terror to pass unrelated domestic legislation. He also said Democrats should paint conservatives as political fundamentalists that not only have pursued anti-Christian policies but have divided the country with a radical economic program and abandoned our tradition of using the commonwealth to advance the common good.

Progressives should spell out their philosophy, which promotes a strong military but also job security, pension security, health security, he said. They should criticize fundamentalists for abandoning the goal of real security on foreign and domestic fronts. And progressives must promote science and truth against the onslaught of religious and political fundamentalists.

Progressives can learn a lesson from Rove, not in how to distort and exploit tragedy but in how to voice clear values, Lakoff said. But you also need to know where conservatives are coming from. As a linguist Lakoff examined the metaphors used by conservatives and progressives and found that they have two different understandings of the nation. He found that conservatives identify with the "strict father" while progressives identify with the nurturing parent.

In the conservative mind, you need a strict father to stand up against the evil in the world and protect the family. "You need a strict father because there's competition in the world. There will always be winners and there will always be losers and somebody's got to win those competitions and it's got to be Daddy." Kids must be taught right from wrong, with punishment painful enough to make them do right in the future.

Conservatives such as James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family, link morality and prosperity and promote free-market capitalism as prescribed in the 18th century by Adam Smith. People who get in the way of the market, in Dobson's view, are "do gooders." Social programs are immoral because they give people things they haven't earned and make people dependent and take away their discipline and their capacity to be moral beings.

Progressives, on the other hand, view society and government as a nurturing parent, which promotes empathy and responsibility (as opposed to a permissive parent). "Out of that comes all progressive political values. You care about kids so you protect them and you have social security in all areas of life, such as consumer protection, environmental protection, worker protection, Social Security, health care. What else? If you care about your children you want them to be treated fairly. Fairness and equality are progressive values."

Lakoff also found that everybody has a little of the strong parent as well as nurturing parent in them. "So for example, you could be nurturing in every part of your life but you can go to see an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie and understand it. You don't walk out of there saying 'What was that about.'"

He cited blue-collar workers who were economic populists but were drawn to the Republican Party by Ronald Reagan. Or hunters and fishermen who want to protect the environment -- if only to preserve habitat for ducks or trout.

Progressives need to appeal to the nurturing side as conservatives exploit the strong-parent side, Lakoff said.

The Rockridge Institute (rockridgeinstitute.org), which Lakoff co-founded, did a study that found that people still believe in the use of the commonwealth for common good so that all of us can pursue our individual goals, an idea that goes back to the Pilgrims and has nothing to do with Moscow communists. People use roads, the Internet, drugs that are developed with government support, banks that are regulated by the federal government and courts to enforce contracts. "Nobody makes it on their own in this country," he said. "No businessman has ever succeeded on his own."

Progressives no longer can let the right wing define values, such as making opposition to abortion "pro-life" while cutting health care for poor people that results in the highest infant mortality rate in the industrialized world.

Republicans screwed up in the Terri Schiavo case, which showed people care about personal freedom, he said. They don't want right wingers such as Tom DeLay telling them what personal decisions to make. "When they go against people's nature they lose. ... We're about dealing with people's real problems and their real identities and what they're about."

We just have to figure out how to explain it to them in terms they can relate to. We all know there is no reason for working people to vote for a GOP that consistently promotes the interests of the wealthy, corporate class. But Dems need to re-learn how to, as the late Sen. Ralph Yarborough said, "put the jam on the lower shelf where the little man can reach it."

Rove Must Go

Speaking of Karl Rove, he should have been frog-marched out of the White House a long time ago, and not just for disclosing the identity of an undercover CIA operative to score a political point. His attorney now acknowledges that Rove revealed to reporters that the wife of former ambassador and Bush critic Joe Wilson -- Valerie Plame -- was a CIA agent. That disclosure ended Plame's work in tracking weapons of mass destruction. It may have endangered the lives of her overseas contacts.

For two years the White House has denied that Rove was involved in the leak and said anyone who had leaked the name would be fired. Now spokesman Scott McClellan won't discuss who the president might fire or under what circumstances. But if Rove is indicted, expect Bush to pardon him.

Rove probably will keep his job, because the Bush family does not believe in accountability for its close associates -- particularly those who are in a position to know family secrets. Many Bush administration officials responsible for security lapses before the 9/11 attacks got promotions or medals upon their honorable retirements, while those who advised against invading Iraq were shown the door.

But if Dubya needs a firewall, he might follow the example of his dad who, after his election defeat in 1992, pardoned six Iran-Contra defendants, including former Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, to shut down the probe of the coverup that could have led to Bush Sr. and Reagan -- JMC

Home Page

Copyright © 2005 The Progressive Populist