Politics and Social Justice Archive


Romney, Ryan and the Devil’s Budget: Will America Keep Its Soul?

Wednesday, August 29th, 2012

America was born with a great soul, a moral view of Democracy in which citizens care about their fellow citizens and join together to take responsibility not just for themselves but for each other, for America as a union, a joint enterprise. The government’s job was to carry out that moral vision and to do so it created what we call The Public, the provision of basic protection and empowerment for all.

From the beginning of America, the Public provided roads and bridges, public schools, hospitals, a national bank, a patent office, police, a justice system, public buildings and records, and more. Since then the Public has expanded as public needs have expanded — sewers, clean water, public transportation, public health and disease control, scientific research, the internet, GPS, an energy grid, parks, and much, much more.

The Public provides freedom, the freedom to use what the Public provides to live a decent life and to start businesses. Without the public, there would be no American way of life, no freedom to live a decent life, to run or work in businesses, or work as a public servant. The Public carries out the work of America’s soul.

Budgets are moral documents. National, state, and local budgets are commitments about where and how to carry out the work of America’s soul, or to abandon it. A national budget that abandons the Public and the freedoms it gives us is selling America’s very soul. Such a budget is the Devil’s Budget. It uses numbers for an evil purpose: to rob us of our basic everyday freedom.

Who would propose a Devil’s budget, and why?

First, why? A significant number of Americans do not share America’s founding moral vision. They have a different one. Democracy in America provides the liberty to seek one’s own interests and well-being, without being responsible for the interests or well-being of anyone else. It’s a morality of personal, but not social, responsibility. The only freedom you should have is what you can provide for yourself, not what the Public provides for you to start out. America’s soul, the provisions that represent citizens’ moral commitment to each other, would be no more. Those who have this different moral sense will want a Devil’s Budget. Let’s call them extreme conservatives, who see the conservative moral vision as their highest priority.

Second, who would propose a Devil’s Budget? Paul Ryan. Who wants to put it in effect? Mitt Romney.

The Devil is seductive. He is handsome, strong, charming, sincere, engages you in gentlemanly and respectful debate. He says he is on your side, that you are in a crisis. He offers to solve your crisis and makes it sound good. You too can be in the top 1 percent, part of the group with 40 percent of the wealth. He offers you freedom, freedom from dependency on The Public, freedom to care only for yourself, liberty from your fellow citizens caring for you, providing a starting point, freedom from you paying for anyone else.

The Romney-Ryan Budget is a Devil’s budget. It guts The Public, America’s soul — The American Way of Life that we provide for each other.

A standard American budget has a way to deal with economic problems. First, extremely wealthy Americans whose wealth has depended on The Public’s provisions should pay a fair share to restore and maintain the Public. Second, the Public should invest in the American economy by putting people to work rebuilding our infrastructure, educating our young, doing research for innovation, providing better forms of energy — in short, restoring as many as possible of the freedoms that people need to live and make a living.

The money is there. America is richer than she has ever been. But much of America’s wealth has been transferred from those whose labor secured it to wealthy investors and corporate managers. A sufficient portion of that wealth needs to be used by The Public for investments in our future, not drained from The Public when it is needed most. A standard budget would restore and maintain America’s soul. But that is not what the Devil’s Budget would do.

What Evil — with a capital “E” — would a Devil’s Budget do? So far Democrats have been pointing to its cruelty: its horrific effects on individuals — death, illness, suffering, greater poverty, and loss of opportunity, productive lives, and money. All true and more. But there is a larger and worse overall Evil, one that deserves the capital “E.”

America’s soul resides in our relation to one another, the way citizens have from the beginning joined together to form a government whose mission is to protect and empower everyone equally, and to use that government for the sake of The Public, the system that provides the basic means for our freedom to live decent lives and pursue happiness of all kinds, whether it comes from wealth or making music, or becoming a doctor, a scientist, a businessman, an athlete, a teacher, or whatever you find fulfilling. The Public is what unites us in a common enterprise, and the destruction of The Public is a destruction of the bonds that hold us together.

The destruction of those bonds creates Evil with a big E because it institutionalizes the you’re-on-your-own view of democracy, democracy as providing the “liberty” to pursue your own interests with no responsibility for the interests or well-being of others. It enshrines greed, selfishness, and dog-eat-dog competition as the governing principle of American life. The intentional severing of our human bonds is the big Evil.

Whatever callously divides communities into sets of disconnected individuals and tries to hide or erase our interdependent humanity, that is what human cultural, religious, literary and folktale traditions have long labelled Evil. We think the Devil’s Budget has earned its name.

Those who advocate for such a budget may not be individually evil. That is an independent issue. Demonizing others is its own kind of evil, and we do not apply the name to Romney, Ryan or others. Perhaps many who advocate a Devil’s Budget know not what they do.

The big Evil is even bigger than you might think, because it is hard or virtually impossible to reverse once it has gone on for a while.

Let’s take “a while” to be until 2050. Derek Thompson, in TheAtlantic.com on March 21, 2012, surveyed The Congressional Budget Office’s projection of the Ryan budget estimates to 2050. Defense spending would be kept relatively constant, while what the government has left would be “0.75 percent of GDP - about 100 billion for everything besides defense that the government does.” That’s what is devoted to education and vocational training now. Suppose that was kept.

“It would leave nothing for infrastructure. Nothing for unemployment insurance. Nothing for food stamps. Nothing for border patrol. Nothing for the FDA, FAA, or FBI. Nothing for research and development. Nothing, even, to pay people to work in government! Do you think it’s important to support our veterans with health care, education, and retirement security? Sorry. Veterans programs currently cost more than 1% of our GDP. There would be no room.”

The Congressional Budget office estimates that Ryan’s “long-term budget, if you project forward defense spending, would cut 91 percent from these and all other non-defense programs. Ninety-one percent.” That’s 91 percent of The Public gone: Medical and scientific research. Pell grants. The EPA. The NIH. NPR. The small business administration. Unemployment insurance. Regulation of corporations. Money to help state and local governments. Highway repair. Air traffic controllers. And all government employees doing everything The Public does.

This work is done by institutions that have been built up over a long time, with people who have learned to do their jobs over a long time. You don’t just get the institutions back after you destroy them. They are gone. If they are replaced, they will be privatized — run for corporate profit, not for public benefit. You will pay through the nose for what you need, if you can get it at all.

The destruction of The Public is not reversible. It would be the death of the very idea of America. Here’s what it would mean.

Even more, a lot more, of the nation’s wealth than the current 40 percent going to the top 1 percent. Poverty up. Opportunity gone. No way for the poor and middle class to get a college education, and maybe not even a decent K - 12 education, and certainly not public pre-schools. As unemployment rises, competition for jobs gets greater, and so wages get even lower and pensions and health benefits disappear. As the public control of the airwaves disappears with the FCC, the corporate control of news rises, and objectivity of reporting gets much lower. Freedom of the press becomes meaningless. When the military controls almost all of the budget, it gets immensely strong in society, threatening civilian control of the military. When the EPA and FDA disappear, say goodbye to clean air, clean water, and safe food. Wilderness in the National Parks will not exist: it will be destroyed in the race to get at our natural resources — wood, minerals, oil and gas.

Along the way, there will be all the cruelty that Democrats are now warning against — the elderly, children, and the poor going without medical care, and so suffering and dying. The unemployed losing their homes. Our young people unable to get the education what would give the freedom to “pursue happiness” — and thus being forced into lives the keep them from being fulfilled. And much more.

In the outrage over Rep. Todd Akin’s “legitimate rape” statement, the role of the Devil’s Budget is getting drowned out. Rep. Akin, together with Rep. Paul Ryan, has supported kinds of budgetary legislation that would eliminate funding not only for abortion, but also for family planning, birth control, sex education, including in that legislation a provision that would define a fertilized egg as a legal person, and thus define abortion as murder. In some circumstances, even miscarriages might be viewed as crimes. It is an attempt to use budgets to exert male control over women’s bodily freedom, in some cases over her very life, and over a family’s freedom to decide on how many, if any, children to have.

The budget is not just an economic document. It does not just reflect an economic theory about deficits or jobs or building the economy. It is a moral document and it can be so Evil as to kill the heart of America.

America would no longer be America. Humpty Dumpty cannot be put back together again, because all the pieces will either be destroyed or owned by corporations with most of the wealth generated going to wealthy investors and corporate managers.

That is Evil with a capital E. That is what the Devil’s Budget is about.

The biggest lie is that there is, or should be, no Public. The biggest lie is that Democracy is about personal freedom alone, about the “liberty” to seek your own interests with no responsibility for the interests or well-being of your fellow citizens. The biggest lie is a moral lie. If believed and carried to the conclusion defined by a Devil’s Budget, it means Evil with a capital E and the loss of the American soul.

The idea of American Individualism is a moral lie. There can be no Individualism without The Public. Individualism can only begin where The Public leaves off. Individualism begins after the roads are built, after individualists have had an education, after medical research has cured their diseases, after the individualists have received from The Public land grants, grazing, water, and mineral leases, oil and agriculture subsidies, after they have received crucial patents.

Are individualists willful liars? We doubt it. To lie, you have to know that you are lying and intending to deceive. We take most individualists at their word, that they really do believe that they did everything without help from The Public. They believe it so strongly that they can’t even see the hand of The Public in their success. And there is a reason for this blindness that follows from the way brains work.

You think with your brain; all thoughts are physical, a matter of the activation of brain circuits called “frames.” Everything you understand uses frame-circuits that structure how you think. Without the right frame-circuits, there are facts you just will not be able to make sense of. The frames come in hierarchies, with moral frames at the top. With an extreme conservative morality, you will have an Individualism frame governing your political and economic frames. The fact that real individual achievements depend on what The Public provides to give them their start and help them along will not be comprehensible to extreme conservatives. Why? Because they do not have the American moral frame that requires both personal and social responsibility; the conservative moral frame has only personal responsibility, and the closest thing to social responsibility is imposing personal responsibility alone maximally in every area of life. This requires eliminating as much as possible of The Public. The mechanism for this is the Devil’s Budget.

Paul Ryan is a personable individualist and extreme conservative. And he is smart — seen as an intellectual by his conservative colleagues because has mastered budget policy enough to construct a Devil’s Budget with all the right numbers. Not the right numbers to eliminate the deficit, as Paul Krugman has observed. But the right numbers to eliminate The Public, which is the real conservative goal.

Mitt Romney knows about Devil’s Budgets from Bain Capital, whose goal was to make as much money as possible for investors and major management by squeezing human values out of businesses: treating employees as resources for profit, maximizing profits by outsourcing, minimizing skill levels, eliminating unions, ending pensions, seeking tax loopholes, moving profits to tax havens, eliminating factories and firing employees, moving jobs abroad, devastating communities — whatever was necessary to maximize profits for Romney and other managers and investors. Liberty for Romney has meant applying Devil’s Budgets in corporate life. The Romney-Ryan ticket is ideal for destroying the American ideal of The Public and the freedom that it provides for all of us.

In what was perhaps the first statement of the morality that lit the Soul of America, John Winthrop told his fellow passengers on the New World-bound Arbella in 1630:

…that every man might have need of others, and from hence they might be all knit more nearly together in the bonds of brotherly affection. From hence it appears plainly that no man is made more honorable than another or more wealthy etc., out of any particular and singular respect to himself…
This is the morality that informs the Declaration and the Constitution. It is the morality that led to emancipation, to universal suffrage, to the New Deal and the Great Society, and Franklin Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms — freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, freedom from fear — with the recognition that we are all in this democratic experiment together. It is what, from the beginning, has informed the formation of The Public. It is that sense of morality that we must maintain.

Originally published by The Huffington Post.

elephant George Lakoff is the author of Don’t Think of an Elephant.

The Public: Obama’s and Romney’s Opposed Visions for a Free America

Wednesday, August 8th, 2012

America is divided about its future. Should it keep and expand the system that brought past opportunity, prosperity and freedom? Or should it dismantle that system?

President Obama recently reminded us that private life, private enterprise, and personal freedom depend on what the public provides.

“The Internet didn’t get invented on its own. Government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off the Internet. (…) when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together. There are some things, just like fighting fires, we don’t do on our own. (…) So we say to ourselves, ever since the founding of this country (…) there are some things we do better together. That’s how we funded the GI Bill. That’s how we created the middle class. That’s how we built the Golden Gate Bridge or the Hoover Dam. That’s how we invented the Internet. That’s how we sent a man to the moon. We rise or fall together as one nation and as one people (…) I still believe in that idea. You’re not on your own, we’re in this together. (…) If you were successful, (…) somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. ”

Obama is acknowledging an important truth about American private life and enterprise: It builds on the public. From the beginning, the American public jointly created the means for knowledge, health, commerce, and recreation: Schools and libraries, hospitals, public roads, bridges, clean water and sewers; a federal banking system, a system of interstate commerce, public buildings and records, a court system mostly for commercial disputes, an army and a navy, police and firemen, public playgrounds and parks. The American public has always provided such things to promote private business and individual freedom.

More recently, the public has added funding for food safety and public health, university research, telecommunications, urban development, and subsidies for corporate profit in corporate-run industries like energy, agribusiness, and military contracting. There are thousands of ways, large and small, in which the public, all of us acting together, provides the essentials for individual freedom and opportunity and thriving businesses.

That is what President Obama meant when he recently said, “If you’ve got a business - you did not build that,” where “that” refers to the totality of what the public provides that empowered you, making available the conditions required for personal success.

The President states a simple truth here. Business owners across America do not build their own roads and bridges, sewers and water systems; they do not single-handedly maintain the health of their employees; they do not finance their own court system; and they did not build their own Internet to market and sell their products. The public provides these things, together. The government manages our shared financial resources to make these things happen. That’s the government’s job.

Obama could have communicated this fact better. When he says, “If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life,” he does not stress the fact that the public is a commonly organized and maintained system that is built and maintained by all of us together, in a shared effort to protect and empower Americans to live freely, and to thrive in their private and professional lives.

Conservatives are up in arms about Obama’s statement, and for good reason. In the conservative worldview, the public’s role for personal success is largely hidden or ignored. Instead, conservatives have a different vision of what America should be: everyone ought to look out for him- or herself - for example, buy your own protection for your life via privatized health care, and buy your own empowerment to succeed via privatized education.

But the health and education of Americans is not an individual concern at all. First, the individual cannot acquire it without communal efforts. Second, we depend on the health and education of our fellow citizens, as well as our own health and education.

Individual health is a prime example of public protection. It is maintained not only via health care (for those who can afford to buy their health), it further depends on a range of preventative needs that are secured via public provisions - disease control, environmental protection, food control, the sewer system, and clean drinking water, to name some. Every American depends on these provisions. Being healthy starts with being protected from disease, poisonous products, and pollution. The public - our commonly financed protection system - keeps you safe and healthy via these means of preventing disease. Furthermore, it is de facto not the case that only your own health concerns you. If you are a business owner, you want your employees to fall sick as little as possible. And if they do get ill, it is in your interest that they get effective treatment - because they are profit creators in your business, you need them to be healthy, and if you care about them, you want them to be healthy.

Education, on the other hand, is a prime example of public empowerment. If you want to start a business or expand a business you already run, you will need to have access to educated employees. You do not pay for their education by yourself. You contributed to it via paying your fair share in taxes, together with your fellow citizens. You depend on educated doctors, lawyers, and engineers. Finally, the public provision of information - from access to the Internet to libraries and records to educational training - empowers you as an individual to thrive and succeed.

The notion of fair taxation is based on three ideals: First, taxes are a way to reimburse the community for what it has provided beforehand. This is about reciprocity. Second, taxes are a way to maintain freedom in America, by financing the system that allows the individual to flourish. Third, taxes have a moral function. Democracy is based on caring about one’s fellow citizens, which requires maintaining high standards for humane treatment of our fellow Americans. This is about moral excellence. Some of our fellow citizens face more hardship than others, and it is simply right for all of us who constitute the public to guarantee humane treatment for all.

Extreme conservatives have a different morality. For them, democracy provides the liberty to pursue one’s own self-interest and well-being without much responsibility for the interests or well-being of others. For them, individual responsibility is paramount.

As a result, they neglect the crucial role of the public for our freedom, private enterprise, and decent private lives.

Mitt Romney and other conservatives did not understand what the President was saying about the public. Or, if they did, they made it their mission to misportray Obama’s ideals. First of all, they singled out the President’s statement, “If you’ve got a business - you did not build that,” claiming that the “that” in the statement refers to the business, not the public provisions. This is simply dirty politics.

But aside from this, it is interesting to see the conservative response. Here is Mitt Romney: “Do we believe in an America that is great because of government, or do we believe in an America that’s great because of free people allowed to pursue their dreams and build their future.”

Romney makes a distinction between government and the people. This is a common conservative argument, and it has to do with the fact that conservatives want as little protection and empowerment through commonly financed and organized provisions as possible. What Romney’s statement neglects is the fact that maintaining public provisions is not a matter of the government versus the people. The public came about because “free people” decided to come together and organize a public system that allows them to “pursue their dreams and build their future.”

Romney’s idea of freedom is based on the notion that American citizens must sink or swim on their own and that they are free if they have as little social responsibility as possible. If all citizens are equally uncommitted to each other’s well-being, protection, and empowerment, freedom is maximized.

From a progressive point of view, Romney has it backwards. The call for “small government” really translates into neglectful government. The continuous downscaling of tax contributions from those that gain the most capital in our economy disables the government to the point where it can no longer carry out its moral mission — the protection and empowerment of everyone equally.

What the conservatives are missing, and what Obama and progressives and Democrats across the country should communicate clearly, is this: Maintaining a robust public provides the conditions for a decent life and for individual success. This is about giving citizens the freedom to succeed. And the contributions of individuals to the public are a way to show commitment to both their own continuous success and to the American nation as a whole.

This is a central issue, not a minor one. It underlies the political division in our country. Obama and the Democrats want to continue the public provisions upon which freedom and material success has been built in our nation. Romney and conservative Republicans want to dismantle the public, and would thereby end the freedoms, the opportunities, and the conditions for success that the public provides.

That is why the conservatives have distorted the President’s remarks on the subject and have attacked him so viciously on the basis of that distortion. They do not acknowledge the importance of the public for private life and private enterprise. They do not acknowledge the fact that public provisions are a result of Americans organizing together to maximize personal and national success and maintain moral excellence.

The future of our nation is at stake. We must openly and regularly talk about the function of the public. And we must repeat the fact that the public constitutes the people working together to better their lives. The public is, and has always been, requisite for our freedom, our success, and our humanity as a nation. Every candidate for office and every patriotic American should be saying this out loud, over and over. The role of the public is the central issue in this election. It is the issue that will determine our future.

We dare not be intimidated by conservative misrepresentations. Our message is clear. It is obvious if you think about it. But it has to be repeated clearly and effectively. The president and all who believe in the promise of America need to go on the offensive on this issue. We cannot afford to be defensive about what is required for our freedom, our prosperity, and our sense of humanity.

Originally published by The Huffington Post.

elephant George Lakoff is the author of Don’t Think of an Elephant.

The Sacredness of Life and Liberty

Wednesday, July 25th, 2012

The New York Times, on June 5, 2012, reported that so-called “morning-after pills” work by preventing women’s eggs from being fertilized, and not by preventing fertilized eggs from being implanted in the womb. The latest scientific findings show that “the pills delay ovulation, the release of eggs from ovaries that occurs before eggs are fertilized, and some pills also thicken cervical mucus so sperm have trouble swimming.”

In short, morning-after pills do not operate on fertilized eggs at all. Why should this matter? Because many conservative Republicans, as well as the official Catholic Church, believe the metaphor that Fertilized Eggs Are People, and that preventing such egg-people from being implanted in the womb constitutes “abortion,” and hence, in their view, baby-killing. The Times article correctly reports that “it turns out that the politically charged debate over morning-after pills and abortion, a divisive issue in this election year, is probably rooted in outdated or incorrect scientific guesses about how the pills work.”

That’s the truth. Does the truth matter?

It has now been six weeks since that report was made public. But there has been no call from conservative Republicans and the Catholic Church supporting the use of “morning-after pills” to prevent the murder of babies on the grounds that you can’t murder babies who don’t exist.

The point is clear. The truth doesn’t matter.

The point was made over a decade ago in my (George Lakoff’s) book Moral Politics, which observed that conservatives against abortion were not in favor of guaranteed prenatal or postnatal care for mothers and children. Such care is crucial in determining the health and survivability of the babies. In short, conservatives against such policies do not care about the well-being of the babies at all.

The issue really has been control — who controls reproduction, men or women? Hence, the prevalence of parental and spousal notification laws governing abortions. The abortion issue is really about male control in family life — and in society in general. It also involves the notion that women who engage in immoral behavior, such as sex with partners they do not seek to have children with, ought to bear the consequences of their actions as a “just punishment.” To establish that control, both conservative Republicans and the Catholic Church propose taking a metaphor literally, that A Fertilized Egg Is A Person. Taking the metaphor literally allows for the claim that preventing abortions constitutes saving lives.

That this is a metaphor is clear. Imagine that you want to buy a horse. You pay for a horse, and what is delivered to you is a fertilized horse egg. You would probably feel cheated. You can’t ride or race a fertilized horse egg. It isn’t a horse. Even in Texas. You need a mare and a lot of development. A single cell isn’t a horse, a cluster of undifferentiated cells (technically, a “blastocyst”) isn’t a horse, a cluster of differentiated cells isn’t a horse, a horse embryo isn’t a horse, and a horse fetus isn’t a horse. You would feel cheated if you were sold any of them.

Why mention Texas? Because the Republican Party of Texas recently came out with its 2012 platform. The party proposes a ban on all means to prevent the development of a person, from single-cell to cell cluster, from cell cluster to embryo, from embryo to fetus, from fetus to person. It bans the prevention of development, whether abortion or the morning-after pill, calling for a Human Life Amendment to the Constitution and protection of cells and cell clusters under the Fourteenth Amendment. This means no freedom for families, couples, and rape victims to decide whether or not they need to allow the development of fertilized cells — or even the fertilization of unfertilized cells. They want to enshrine in the Constitution the metaphor that Cells Are People, in this case, Americans, which they see as protecting human life, and American life.

There is much that is wrong with this. First, cells and cell clusters (or “blastocysts”) are not people.

Second, the GOP’s policy does not protect American life at all. For example, arguing that this bill guarantees that “all innocent human life must be respected and safeguarded from fertilization to natural death” is nonsense. Real safeguarding of human life would involve measures that the Republican-dominated Texas legislature opposes: universal health care, a renewal of the Violence Against Women Act, protection against starvation, and a ban on poisonous food and environmental pollution in the name of corporate profit.

Specifically, it does not mean improved pre- and postnatal care, which could in fact save children’s lives. The U.S. has a skyrocketing infant mortality rate, to great part due to lacking pre- and postnatal care. According to the 2011 United Nations World Population Prospects report, we rank number 34 in infant mortality. As a comparison, Japan (rank 3 on the list) has less than half as many infant deaths. By next year, the U.S. is expected to be 49 (according to the CIA World Factbook).

When couples want to have a child, the issue of development becomes paramount. Fertilization is not automatic. Sometimes artificial insemination techniques are needed. Even in normal cases, development is, or should be, monitored closely, with regular tests. Would-be mothers need to be very careful, since what happens in prenatal development matters. No alcohol. No drugs. Watch out for poisons like pesticides in foods. Eat carefully. Each stage of development is crucial. A child is not automatic. A child is a lot more than an egg, a blastocyst, an embryo, or a fetus. Development takes intention, effort, physical protection, and good health care.

The Texas GOP evokes the Cells Are Americans metaphor by referring to cells as unborn children. Based on this metaphor, human attributes are mapped onto cell clusters: people have feelings, people have constitutional rights, people can be crime victims, people can experience physical pain, and so on.

The Texas GOP then extends the metaphor to constitutional rights, requesting “total Constitutional rights for the unborn child.” It extends it to victimhood in urging the State to “consider the unborn child as an equal victim in any crime, including domestic violence.” This means that a young woman who is raped by her father or uncle will be kept from stopping cell development in her body. The same Crime Victim Frame is used by the Texas GOP to prevent surrogate pregnancies, calling the commonplace practice “human embryo trafficking” and asking for a ban on it.

The notion of a crime victim, of course, implies the ability to experience mental or physical pain, afflicted by a villain. The GOP introduces this notion by supporting legislation that requires doctors to “provide pain relief” for cells and cell clusters during abortion.

Here’s what progressives need to do: Never use the Cells Are People metaphor, even in arguing against conservative policy. Never use the term baby or unborn child to refer to a blastocyst, embryo, or fetus.

Stop using the term abortion. It has misleading properties. When we speak of “aborting a mission,” the mission was intentional and planned, and the original idea was to bring it to an end state. What happens with an unwelcome pregnancy is nothing like this. The pregnancy was not intentional, not planned, and there was never any intention of bringing it to an end state. Rather, what is desired is development prevention, keeping any development from happening. That development can be prevented at many stages, from unfertilized cells (via morning-after pills), to blastocyst to embryo, from embryo to fetus, from fetus to a non-fully-formed-human, to an unviable human (one that can’t live outside the womb). The earlier the development prevention, the better for the woman.

Never use the expression partial birth abortion. It’s a conservative political tool, not a medical reality. Here’s the Texas GOP in its 2012 platform: “We oppose partial birth abortion.” The term was invented by a hired, conservative language professional. The image is grisly, and that was the point. But no such thing exists. The medical condition it is supposed to represent is one where a potential child cannot survive, either because it has no brain, or because of some other equally awful condition. And usually, the mother’s life is at risk. This has nothing to do with either giving birth or with more common reasons for preventing development.

Whenever possible, avoid the term morning-after pill. It evokes a prototypical frame of immoral behavior, bad decision-making, the inability to “just say no” at a party or during a date. It excludes the fact that the treatment can help rape victims prevent development, be used in cases where other birth control methods failed, and so on.

Never evoke the Consumer Frame. It has been introduced to the debate by the term Pro-Choice, and is now used everywhere. For example, in the GOP’s 2012 platform, where a decision for development prevention is labeled as a woman ordering an abortion, as if she were shopping. The frame hides the fact that such decisions are never made easily and are commonly made by men and women, and often their families, together.

The reason not to use the above language is that it can both hide reality and does not adequately communicate the moral values that underlie progressive policy. The right to limit development is a matter of liberty and family freedom.

First of all, all of the issues above concern men as well as women. Remember, 100 percent of all pregnancies are caused by men, and a child implies lifelong involvement for the man as well as the woman.

Describing pregnancies and development prevention as women’s issues hides that fact. Additionally, in violence against women such as rape, the man is the issue. We need to get over the idea that these are women’s issues.

For many women the issue of preventing a pregnancy is a matter of liberty, of the freedom to live your life as you want. You can think of it as a pro-liberty issue. It is also a matter of having the family that makes sense to you, and so it is a pro-family issue, a matter of Family Freedom, the freedom to plan your own family.

Women seeking freedom have always, and will always, seek to control development of life within their bodies. Where there have been laws against this, there have always been back-alley abortions, which are dangerous and have led to the maiming and death of women.

Furthermore, protecting human life is a real issue in the United States. Protecting human life is one of the moral mandates of government. The lives and health of infants, children, and mothers — as well as all other Americans — should be protected through accessible and improved health care, pre- and postnatal care, a ban on poisonous food and environmental pollution, a renewal of the Violence Against Women Act, and so on. Even in Texas.

elephant George Lakoff is the author of Don’t Think of an Elephant.

Appreciating Undocumented Americans

Friday, July 13th, 2012

Last week on Independence Day, President Obama greeted new US citizens at the White House, taking the opportunity to speak once more about the need for comprehensive immigration reform, “We have to remain a nation of immigrants. And that’s why (…) we’re lifting the shadow of deportation from deserving young people who were brought to this country as children. It’s why we still need a DREAM Act to keep talented young people who want to contribute to our society and serve our country.”

Immigration is an important issue for Obama, and it will be discussed throughout this election campaign. The question is how it will be discussed.

Just about two weeks ago, on June 22, Obama gave his speech on immigration at the 2012 NALEO conference in Florida. In some parts, Obama clearly and beautifully stated his moral understanding of the issue: undocumented immigrants are in many ways already citizens - they contribute to the American society and economy through hard work, they love the country they live in, they are patriots, they share their lives with other Americans every day, they take on individual and social responsibility. The president offered more than just freedom; he offered appreciation.

Words are not just words. They are acts, meaningful acts, and acts with a moral dimension. The young people freed by President Obama have earned appreciation. They are more than Americans without documents. They are fine Americans already and, through the lives they have been living as Americans, have earned the documentation that other Americans have gotten just by being born, without earning them. It is a moral narrative that tells a truth and needs to be repeated.

It is also a narrative of success — the President’s success in accomplishing the right thing, despite Republican opposition, opposition that is to large part based on prejudice.

Nonetheless, the speech could have been improved, and as it is repeated across the country, it needs to be made better in important places.

The president, in the same speech and in other places, uses language that hides and even contradicts his moral view: the Criminal Frame and the Citizenship Is A Destination metaphor.

First, Obama repeatedly uses the phrase illegal immigrants. It evokes a conceptual frame in which undocumented Americans are understood first and foremost as criminals.

The President evokes this frame in his Florida speech, stating that current immigration policy “denies innocent young people the chance to earn an education or serve in the uniform of the country they love.” Being innocent is the opposite of being guilty. The word cannot be understood outside of the Criminal Frame.

Later in the speech, Obama says about the DREAM act “It’s not amnesty,” again evoking the Criminal Frame. And worse, the President infers that immigrants who are to be granted legal status in fact are criminals. Amnesty, by definition, is given to people proven guilty of crimes. The president’s frame turns children of undocumented immigrants into criminals. It does so because the President negates the idea that the DREAM act means amnesty. Every time you negate an idea, that very idea is evoked and strengthened in people’s minds.

Worse, the Criminal Frame does not just assume one act that happens to be a crime — in many cases a technical crime. A criminal is someone who willfully and typically commits real crimes that constitute harm.

Words matter. They mean things. Conservatives have probably quite carefully chosen their words — illegal, alien, amnesty — to fit the Criminal Frame. Using those words, even to negate them, keeps the Criminal Frame. Drop the words. Substitute others that tell an important truth.

The Criminal Frame hides the fact that most undocumented immigrants are fellow inhabitants who contribute to our society and economy, love the country they live in, and share the hopes, dreams, and fears of their fellow Americans. De facto, they already are citizens in many ways but one. They are undocumented Americans.

Second, the fact that undocumented immigrants already act as citizens in most everyday ways is hidden by the president’s call for a “path to citizenship.” The Path Frame implies the metaphor that Citizenship Is A Destination. The metaphor poses a serious problem: As long as you have not reached your destination — legal status — you are not a citizen. You and citizenship are two separate entities. You can arrive at citizenship. But there is nothing inherent in you or what you do — your contributions to the nation’s society and economy, your devotion to American ideals, and so forth — that makes you a citizen. In the Path To Citizenship metaphor, being a citizen is nothing more than getting legal status. All other aspects of citizenship — being and acting like an American — are hidden.

It is at the end of his Florida speech that Obama clearly states his moral understanding of the issue. With regard to the DREAM act he says, “I’ve met these young people all across the country. They’re studying in our schools. They’re playing with our children, pledging allegiance to our flag, hoping to serve our country. They are Americans in their hearts, in their minds. They are Americans through and through — in every single way but on paper. And all they want is to go to college and give back to the country they love.” This is Obama’s moral narrative, and it is a powerful one. It shines a light on a deep and often hidden truth. The president’s action is one of emancipation and of appreciation for what is best not only for the young people set free, but for our nation.

The president should expand on this. Democrats and progressives should repeat it over and over. They should celebrate the President’s success and humanity. And they should stay away from the words that have framed bigotry, and that not only hide, but contradict, this truth.

This is more important than ever now that the Supreme Court has decided to require immigration checks for those arrested. Not all law enforcement officers, for example many of those working in Arizona for people such as Joe Arpaio, are nice people. Some find reasons to make arrests. For undocumented Americans, this can bring back a climate of fear. Arpaio is looking for ways to overcome the emancipation. The freedom the President has offered can still be challenged in many places in our country if he loses the November election.

That is why it is important to repeat President Obama’s words of appreciation over and over. They impose a frame of truth and freedom, and spreading the Appreciation Frame will be crucial to overcoming lingering bigotry.

elephant George Lakoff is the author of Don’t Think of an Elephant.

How Occupy Wall Street’s Moral Vision Can Beat the Disastrous Conservative Worldview

Thursday, November 3rd, 2011
OWS has a progressive moral vision. They’re protesting the disastrous effects that have come from operating with a conservative moral, economic, and political worldview.
I was asked weeks ago by some in the Occupy Wall Street movement to make suggestions for how to frame the movement. I have hesitated so far, because I think the movement should be framing itself. It’s a general principle: Unless you frame yourself, others will frame you — the media, your enemies, your competitors, your well-meaning friends. I have so far hesitated to offer suggestions. But the movement appears to maturing and entering a critical time when small framing errors could have large negative consequences. So I thought it might be helpful to accept the invitation and start a discussion of how the movement might think about framing itself.

About framing: It’s normal. Everybody engages in it all the time. Frames are just structures of thought that we use every day. All words in all languages are defined in terms of frame-circuits in the brain. But, ultimately, framing is about ideas, about how we see the world, which determines how we act.

In politics, frames are part of competing moral systems that are used in political discourse and in charting political action. In short, framing is a moral enterprise: it says what the character of a movement is.  All politics is moral. Political figures and movements always make policy recommendations claiming they are the right things to do. No political figure ever says, do what I say because it’s wrong! Or because it doesn’t matter!  Some moral principles or other lie behind every political policy agenda.

Two Moral Framing Systems in Politics

Conservatives have figured out their moral basis and you see it on Wall Street: It includes: The primacy of self-interest. Individual responsibility,  but not social responsibility. Hierarchical authority based on wealth or other forms of power. A moral hierarchy of who is “deserving,” defined by success. And the highest principle is the primacy of this moral system itself, which goes beyond Wall Street and the economy to other arenas: family life, social life, religion, foreign policy, and especially government. Conservative “democracy” is seen as a system of governance and elections that fits this model.

Though OWS concerns go well beyond financial issues,  your target is right:  the application of these principles in Wall Street is central, since that is where the money comes from for elections, for media, and for right-wing policy-making institutions of all sorts on all issues.

The alternative view of democracy is progressive: Democracy starts with citizens caring about one another and acting responsibly on that sense of care, taking responsibility both for oneself and for one’s family, community, country, people in general, and the planet. The role of government is to protect and empower all citizens equally via The Public: public infrastructure, laws and enforcement, health, education, scientific research, protection, public lands, transportation, resources, art and culture, trade policies, safety nets, and on and on. Nobody makes it one their own. If you got wealthy, you depended on The Public, and you have a responsibility to contribute significantly to The Public so that others can benefit in the future. Moreover, the wealthy depend on those who work, and who deserve a fair return for their contribution to our national life. Corporations exist to make life better for most people. Their reason for existing is as public as it is private.

A disproportionate distribution of wealth robs most citizens of access to the resources controlled by the wealthy. Immense wealth is a thief. It takes resources from the rest of the population — the best places to live, the best food, the best educations, the best health facilities, access to the best in nature and culture, the best professionals, and on and on. Resources are limited, and great wealth greatly limits access to resources for most people.

Read the entire article over at AlterNet, where it was originally published.

elephant George Lakoff is the author of Don’t Think of an Elephant.

How Obama Got it Right

Tuesday, September 20th, 2011

Morality drives policy. Too often, progressives have tried it the other way around, then looked on in dismay as conservatives led with their moral view and won one policy fight after another, even when polling showed most Americans disagreed with conservative policies!

On Thursday night, President Obama didn’t make this mistake. Instead, he spoke to our better angels, confidently, forcefully and inclusively. He seized the moral authority with his grammar and demeanor: “Pass this jobs bill” is an imperative sentence; it attributes authority to the speaker. The repetition is a reminder of moral authority.

The speech was remarkable in many ways. It was plainspoken, Trumanesque. It focused on the progressive moral worldview that has from the beginning been the life force of American democracy. In virtually every sentence, it was a call for cooperative joint action for the benefit of all.

Let’s look at the way Obama articulated the progressive moral worldview that recognizes both personal and social responsibility. He said:

Yes, we are rugged individualists. Yes, we are strong and self-reliant. And it has been the drive and initiative of our workers and entrepreneurs that has made this economy the engine and envy of the world.But there has always been another thread running throughout our history — a belief that there are some things we can only do together, as a nation…

Ask yourselves — where would we be right now if the people who sat here before us decided not to build our highways, not to build our bridges, our dams, our airports? What would this country be like if we had chosen not to spend money on public high schools, or research universities, or community colleges? Millions of returning heroes, including my grandfather, had the opportunity to go to school because of the GI Bill. Where would we be if they hadn’t had that chance?

No single individual built America on their own. We built it together. We have been, and always will be, one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all; a nation with responsibilities to ourselves and with responsibilities to one another. Members of Congress, it is time for us to meet our responsibilities.

Here’s what we said in a Huffington Post piece back in July:

Democracy, in the American tradition, has been defined by a simple morality: We Americans care about our fellow citizens, we act on that care and build trust, and we do our best not just for ourselves, our families, and our friends and neighbors, but for our country, for each other, for people we have never seen and never will see.
American Democracy has, over our history, called upon citizens to share an equal responsibility to work together to secure a safe and prosperous future for their families and nation. This is the central work of our democracy and it is a public enterprise. This, the American Dream, is the dream of a functioning democracy.

That is the progressive moral view Obama used to such great effect Thursday night. However important particular policy prescriptions may be, they do not automatically evoke this moral view. No listener moves from Obama’s talk of extending the social security tax holiday to the heartfelt understanding that we are responsible for one another.

Obama showed us he understood that policy flows from morality. That is why he articulated the morality behind his recommendations at the climactic moment of his speech. From this morality, he said, all else follows.

There are other things to note in the speech. One of those was his choice to say, “You should pass this jobs plan right away.” The unusual imperative formulation is “right away.” Typically, a politician would structure the imperative around the words “now” or “immediately.” Such language, however, wouldn’t fit the morality Obama hoped to embody Wednesday night.

“Do it now,” is strict parent or authoritarian language. It is, “Do what I say.” There’s no less urgency in “right away,” but there is a sense of “join us on this righteous path.” The reason is that “away” is a spatial word that traces a path from where we are in a forward direction, a path of action toward the achievement of an accepted goal. It is inclusive and welcoming, while also indicating the urgency of the request. By using “right away,” Obama skillfully communicated that we all in this together.

The president also explicitly rejected the conservative moral view of personal responsibility without social responsibility: the idea that no one should have to pay for anyone else, that paying for a government that helps fellow citizens who require help is immoral.

But what we can’t do — what I won’t do — is let this economic crisis be used as an excuse to wipe out the basic protections that Americans have counted on for decades. I reject the idea that we need to ask people to choose between their jobs and their safety. I reject the argument that says for the economy to grow, we have to roll back protections that ban hidden fees by credit card companies, or rules that keep our kids from being exposed to mercury, or laws that prevent the health insurance industry from shortchanging patients. I reject the idea that we have to strip away collective bargaining rights to compete in a global economy. We shouldn’t be in a race to the bottom, where we try to offer the cheapest labor and the worst pollution standards. America should be in a race to the top. And I believe we can win that race.In fact, this larger notion that the only thing we can do to restore prosperity is just dismantle government, refund everyone’s money, let everyone write their own rules, and tell everyone they’re on their own — that’s not who we are. That’s not the story of America.

If you look at policies alone, policies that have been proposed by both Democrats and Republicans, you miss the main event. The very idea of working together for the good of fellow citizens in need of help is a progressive idea; it is the idea behind the view of democracy that has sustained America from its beginning.

Conservatives are not going to like cooperating on Obama’s jobs plan. The very idea contradicts much of what they believe.

Meanwhile, the president put them in a bind. If they co-operate in helping their fellow citizens, they violate their code of personal responsibility without social responsibility. If they don’t co-operate, they look callous and irresponsible.

elephant George Lakoff is the author of Don’t Think of an Elephant.

Lakoff: How to Rescue the American Dream from the GOP’s Nightmare

Tuesday, August 2nd, 2011

The Republicans are redefining “democracy”–but it’s time to remember what the real dream of democracy meant.

American democracy has, over our history, called upon citizens to share an equal responsibility to work together to secure a safe and prosperous future for their families and nation. This is the central work of our democracy and it is a public enterprise. This, the American Dream, is the dream of a functioning democracy.

Public refers to people, acting together to provide what we all depend on: roads and bridges, public buildings and parks, a system of education, a strong economic system, a system of law and order with a fair and effective judiciary, dams, sewers, and a power grid, agencies to monitor disease, weather, food safety, clean air and water, and on and on. That is what we, as a people who care about each other, have given to each other.

Only a free people can take up the necessary tasks, and only a people who trust and care for one another can get the job done. The American Dream is built upon mutual care and trust.

Our tradition has not just been to share the tasks, but to share the tools as well. We come together to provide a quality education for our children. We come together to protect each other’s health and safety. We come together to build a strong, open and honest financial system. We come together to protect the institutions of democracy to guarantee that all who share in these responsibilities have an equal voice in deciding how they will be met.

What this means is that there is no such thing as a “self-made” man or woman or business. No one makes it on their own. No matter how much wealth you amass, you depend on all the things the public has provided — roads, water, law enforcement, fire and disease protection, food safety, government research, and all the rest. The only question is whether you have paid your fair share for what we all have given you.

We are now faced with a nontraditional, radical view of “democracy” coming from the Republican party. It says democracy means that nobody should care about anybody else, that democracy means only personal responsibility, not responsibility for anyone else, and it means no trust. If America accepts this radical view of democracy, then all that we have given each other in the past under traditional democracy will be lost: all that we have called public. Public roads and bridges: gone. Public schools: gone. Publicly funded police and firemen: gone. Safe food, air, and water: gone. Public health: gone. Everything that made America America, the crucial things that you and your family and your friends have taken for granted: gone.

The democracy of care, shared responsibility and trust is the democracy of the American Dream. The democracy of no care, no shared responsibility, and no trust has produced the American Nightmare that so many of our citizens are living through.

Nightmare it is, but there is no denying credit to Republicans for their skills at framing. The recent Republican “Contract from America,” for instance, begins with a statement of their moral principles. The recommendations are special cases of those principles. It is a strategic initiative. Instead of a laundry list, each recommendation is a special case of a general strategy — to defund our American government.

Furthermore, they understand that about 20 percent of the electorate consists of people who are conservative in some ways and progressive in others. These are biconceptuals, sometimes referred to loosely by political professionals as “independents” or “swing voters.” Republicans know their job is to activate the conservative part of the brains of the biconceptuals, and they do that by sticking strictly to conservative moral principles and a clear conservative strategy. They never make the mistake of ignoring biconceptuals….

Read the entire post over at Alternet.

elephant George Lakoff is the author of Don’t Think of an Elephant.

Obama Returns to His Moral Vision: Democrats Read Carefully!

Monday, April 18th, 2011

Last week, on April 13, 2011, President Obama gave all Democrats and all progressives a remarkable gift. Most of them barely noticed. They looked at the president’s speech as if it were only about budgetary details. But the speech went well beyond the budget. It went to the heart of progressive thought and the nature of American democracy, and it gave all progressives a model of how to think and talk about every issue.

It was a landmark speech. It should be watched and read carefully and repeatedly by every progressive who cares about our country — whether Democratic office-holder, staffer, writer, or campaign worker — and every progressive blogger, activist and concerned citizen. The speech is a work of art.

The policy topic happened to be the budget, but he called it “The Country We Believe In” for a reason. The real topic was how the progressive moral system defines the democratic ideals America was founded on, and how those ideals apply to specific issues. Obama’s moral vision, which he applied to the budget, is more general: it applies to every issue. And it can be applied everywhere by everyone who shares that moral vision of American democracy.

Discussion in the media has centered on economics — on the president’s budget policy compared with the Republican budget put forth by Paul Ryan. But, as Robert Reich immediately pointed out, “Ten or twelve-year budgets are baloney. It’s hard enough to forecast budgets a year or two into the future.” The real economic issues are economic recovery and the distribution of wealth. As I have observed, the Republican focus on the deficit is really a strategy for weakening government and turning the country conservative in every respect. The real issue is existential: what is America at heart and what is America to be.

In 2008, candidate Obama laid out these moral principles as well as anyone ever has, and roused the nation in support. As president, as he focused on pragmatics and policy, he let moral leadership lapse, leaving the field of morality to radical conservatives, who exploited their opposite moral views effectively enough to take over the House and many state offices. For example, they effectively attacked the president’s health care plan on two ideas taken from the right-wing version of morality: freedom (”government takeover”) and life (”death panels”). The attacks were successful even though Americans preferred the president’s health care policies (no preconditions, universal affordable coverage). The lesson: morality at the general level beats out policy at the particular level. The reason: voters identify themselves as moral beings not policy wonks.

All politics is moral. Political leaders put forth proposals on the assumption that their proposals are the right things to do, not the wrong things to do. But progressives and radical conservatives have very different ideas of right and wrong.

With his April 13, 2011 speech, the president is back with the basic, straightforward idea of right and wrong that he correctly attributes to the founding of the country — as UCLA historian Lynn Hunt has observed in her important book Inventing Human Rights.

The basic idea is this: Democracy is based on empathy, that is, on citizens caring about each other and acting on that care, taking responsibility not just for themselves but for their families, communities, and their nation. The role of government is to carry out this principle in two ways: protection and empowerment.

Obama quotes Lincoln: “to do together what we cannot do as well for ourselves.” That is what he calls patriotism. He spotlights “the American belief… that each one of us deserves some basic measure of security… that no matter how responsibly we live our lives, hard time or bad luck, crippling illness or a layoff, may strike any one of us.” He cites the religious version of this moral vision: “There but for the grace of God go I.” The greatness of America comes from carrying out such moral commitments as Medicare, Social Security, and Medicaid.

Analogous moral arguments can, and should, be given constantly for all progressive policies at all levels of government on all issues: the environment, education, health, family planning, organizing rights, voting rights, immigration, and so on. It is only by repetition of the across-the-board moral principles that the voting public gets to hear how all these idea fit together as realizations of the same basic democratic principles.

Systems Thinking

President Obama, in the same speech, laid the groundwork for another crucial national discussion: systems thinking, which has shown up in public discourse mainly in the form of “systemic risk” of the sort that led to the global economic meltdown. The president brought up systems thinking implicitly, at the center of his budget proposal. He observed repeatedly that budget deficits and “spending” do not occur in isolation. The choice of what to cut and what to keep is a matter of factors external to the budget per se.

Long-term prosperity, economic recovery, and job creation, he argued, depend up maintaining “investments” — investments in infrastructure (roads, bridges, long-distance rail), education, scientific research, renewable energy, and so on. The maintenance of American values, he argued, is outside of the budget in itself, but is at the heart of the argument about what to cut. The fact that the rich have gotten rich because of the government — direct corporate subsidies, access to publicly-owned resources, access to government research, favorable trade agreements, roads and other means of transportation, education that provides educated workers, tax loopholes, and innumerable government resources taken advantage of by the rich, but paid for by all of us. What is called a “tax break” for the rich is actually a redistribution of wealth from the poor and middle class whose incomes have gone down to those who have considerably more money than they need, money they have made because of tax investments by the rest of America.

The president provided a beautiful example of systems thinking. Under the Republican budget plan, the president would get a $200,000 a year tax break, which would be paid for by cutting programs for seniors, with the result that 33 seniors would be paying $6,000 more a year for health care to pay for his tax break. To see this, you have to look outside of the federal budget to the economic system at large, in which you can see what budget cuts will be balanced by increased in costs to others. A cut here in the budget is balanced by an increase outside the federal budget for real human beings.

What is a “system?”

Systems have the following properties:

  • Homeostasis: Stable systems are self-correcting or are correctable; they have indicators that have to stay within a certain range for the system to be stable. In an economy, there are indicators like unemployment, GDP, and so on. In global ecology, the temperature of the earth is a major indicator.
  • Feedback: Feedback can be controllable or uncontrollable. In our economy, the Federal Reserve uses indicators as feedback in an attempt to control certain aspects of the economy, using interest rates and the money supply. In the global environment, the global icecaps are an uncontrollable feedback mechanism. They reflect sunlight and heat, which has a cooling effect. As the earth gets warmer, they melt and get smaller, which lowers their ability to reflect and to cool, which makes the earth get warmer, which melts them more, which heats the earth more, and on and on.
  • Non-local and network effects: Global warming in the Pacific increases ocean evaporation. Winds blow the additional water vapor toward the northeast, pushing cold arctic air down over the East coast of the US, and the excess water vapor falls as a huge snowstorm. Warming in the Pacific can produce huge snowstorms on the East Coast of the US via such non-local effects.
  • Nonlinear effects: A small cause can produce a large effect. A few percentage points lowered in the tax rates of the wealthiest percent or two of Americans can produce a trillion dollars of debt over the whole country over a decade.

When a system has causal effects, as in the above cases, we speak of “systemic causation.” “Systemic risks” are the risks created when there is systemic causation. Systemic causation contrasts with direct causation, as when, say, someone lifts something, or throws something, or shoots someone.

Linguists have discovered that every language studied has direct causation in its grammar, but no language has systemic causation in its grammar. Systemic causation is a harder concept and has to be learned either through socialization or education.

Progressives tend to think more readily in terms of systems than conservatives. We see this in the answers to a question like, “What causes crime?” Progressives tend to give answers like economic hardship, or lack of education, or crime-ridden neighborhoods. Conservatives tend more to give an answer like “bad people — lock ‘em up, punish ‘em.” This is a consequence of a lifetime of thinking in terms of social connection (for progressives) and individual responsibility (for conservatives). Thus conservatives did not see the president’s plan, which relied on systemic causation, as a plan at all for directly addressing the deficit.

Differences in systemic thinking between progressives and conservatives can be seen in issues like global warming and financial reform. Conservatives have not recognized human causes of global warming, partly because they are systemic, not direct. When a huge snowstorm occurred in Washington DC recently, many conservatives saw it as disproving the existence of global warming — “How could warming cause snow?” Similarly, conservatives, thinking in terms of individual responsibility and direct causation, blamed homeowners for foreclosures on their homes, while progressives looked to systemic explanations, seeking reform in the financial system.

A Golden Opportunity

It is rare that a presidential speech provides such opportunities for Democrats, whether in office or not. The president has made overt the moral system that lies behind every progressive position on every issue. He has done it with near perfection. He went on offense, not defense. He didn’t use conservative language tied to conservative ideas. He correctly tied his moral vision to the American moral vision and the very idea of American democracy — and patriotism. He used systems thinking throughout. He tied every part of his budget proposal to the American moral vision. And he showed clearly how the Republican budget rejected those American moral ideals in every case. It was not merely high political art. It is a model to be studied and followed.

There is one big problem with the speech that he apparently felt he could not avoid: He stayed within Republican issue-framing, keeping to the Republican’s definition of the issue as the deficit and the budget — even while the main features of the talk were his moral vision and systems thinking. The media and the politicos have mostly not been able to get beyond issue-thinking, that the speech was about the deficit and the budget, missing the larger themes. And the president, since the speech, hasn’t pressed the political public on those major themes. He needs help. He needs progressives to start talking publicly about that moral vision and about the importance of systems in our lives and in our politics.

Finally, Democrats need to understand why expressing their moral views is so vital. The crucial voters in recent elections have been misleadingly called “independents,” “moderates,” and “the center.” In reality, they are what I will call the “duals” — people who are conservative on some issues and progressive on others, in all kinds of combinations. They have both moral systems in the neural networks of their brains, but applied to different issues. When one moral network is activated, the other is inhibited — shut down. The more one moral network is active, the stronger it gets and the weaker the other gets. In 2008, the Obama campaign activated and strengthened the network for the progressive moral system — and won over the duals. In 2010, the Democrats stopped talking morality and kept on talking policy, ceding morality to the conservatives, especially the Tea Party radical conservatives. In doing this, they ceded the election. Policy without an understandable moral basis loses.

Democrats need to both activate their base and activate the progressive moral vision dormant in the duals among the voters. They can only do this with an overt appeal to the progressive moral vision inherent in our democracy. It’s time for the Democrats to shout their patriotism out loud.

Details and Vision

Many progressives are skeptical about the president’s ability — or even his desire — to live up to his moral vision. For example, the Progressive Caucus in the House has produced its own People’s Budget, put forth as an alternative to both the president’s and the Republicans’. But the People’s Budget is an instance of the same moral vision articulated by the president. In short, progressives should look at this speech separating out the necessary budget details from the moral vision they all need to be expressing on every issue.

In addition, all progressives need to start thinking and talking in terms of systems. The nature of systems is central to understanding what is going wrong in ecosystems, financial systems, social systems, educational systems and even in particular systemic enterprises like deep-water drilling, frakking, nuclear energy, food production, and so on.

I would like finally to thank President Obama for bringing these issues to the fore.

Read the original article on The Huffington Post.

elephant George Lakoff is the author of Don’t Think of an Elephant.

The Real Issues: A Wisconsin Update

Monday, February 28th, 2011

The Wisconsin protests are about much more than budgets and unions. As I observed in “What Conservatives Really Want,” the conservative story about budget deficits is a ruse to turn the country conservative in every area. Karl Rove and Shep Smith have made it clear on Fox: If the Wisconsin plan to kill the public employees’ unions succeeds, then there will be little union money in the future to support democratic candidates. Conservatives will be effectively unopposed in raising campaign funding in most elections, including the presidential elections. This will mean a thoroughly conservative America in every issue area.

The media, with few exceptions, is failing to get at the deeper issues.

Let’s start with the case of the Lincoln legislators. As is well known about Lincoln, and as the Political Wire reports,

On December 5, 1840, Democrats “proposed an early adjournment, knowing this would bring a speedy end to the State Bank. The Whigs tried to counter by leaving the capitol building before the vote, but the doors were locked. That’s when Lincoln made his move. He headed for the second story, opened a window and jumped to the ground!”

Lincoln would be, and we all should be, proud that the Wisconsin state senators have courageously crossed the state line to Illinois to avoid a quorum in Wisconsin that would have a disastrous effect, not only on Wisconsin, but on America for the indefinite future.

Quorum rules are an inherent part of democracy. They are in the Wisconsin Constitution for a reason. When an extreme move by a legislative majority would be a disaster, patriotic legislators can, like Lincoln, refuse to allow the disaster is the have the power to stop it. That is their democratic duty, not only to their constituents, but to the nation.

That is why I think these legislators should be called the “Lincoln Legislators” as a term of honor. They understand that their courage is being called upon, not just in the name of collective bargaining rights, but in the name of protecting democracy from a total conservative takeover. The Lincoln story, and the greater good story, should be in the media every day. And Democrats nationwide should be hailing the courage, and vital importance, of those legislators.

Yet the media keeps reporting on them as “fleeing” and refusing to do their jobs. Where there is positive reporting, as on MSNBC’s The Ed Show, it is only about defending unions and collective bargaining rights for working people.

The media — and the Democrats — also need to do a much better job on a sneaky conservative media strategy. The clearest example occurred in the NY Times. David Brooks, in his Feb. 21, 2011 column wrote: “Private sector unions push against the interests of shareholders and management; public sector unions push against the interests of taxpayers.” I turned on CNN that day and heard Anderson Cooper introduce the Wisconsin protest story as a battle between taxpayers and unions. These are massive distortions, but they are what conservatives want the public to believe.

The real issue is whether conservatives will get what they really want: the ability to turn the country conservative on every issue, legally and permanently. Eliminating the public sector unions could achieve that. Collective bargaining rights are the immediate issue, but they are symbolic of the real issue at stake. That is the story the media should be telling — and that Democrats everywhere in America should be shouting out loud.

What is standing in the way of having the real story told? It is the frame of collective bargaining itself, which only points to the parties that are doing the bargaining and what they are bargaining over.

The real point of collective bargaining is the idea of fairness inherent in democracy. Without unions, large corporations have an unfair advantage in hiring individual workers: Workers have to take what is offered, a fair wage for work done or not. Unions help to even the playing field, enabling workers to have a fair chance against wealthy, powerful large organizations — whether corporations or governments.

But public employees’ unions, in bargaining with governments, are raising deeper issues in which wealthy corporations and individuals play a huge role. The public employees’ unions are aware that the top one percent of Americans have more financial assets than the bottom 95 percent — a staggering disproportion of wealth. The wealthy have, to a large extent, amassed that wealth through indirect contributions to them by governments — governments build roads corporations use, fund schools that train their workers, subsidize their energy costs, do research they capitalize on, subsidize their access to resources, promote trade for them, and on and on.

Meanwhile, over the past three decades, while corporations and their investors have grown immensely richer on the public largesse, middle class workers have had no substantive wage increases, leaving them poorer and poorer. Those immensely wealthy corporations and individuals have, through political contributions, have managed to rig our politics so that they pay back only an inadequate amount into the system that has enabled them to become wealthy.

The real targets of the public employees’ unions are the wealthy free riders who, in a fair political economy, would be giving back more to the nation, and to the states and communities they function in.

That is the obvious half of what the Wisconsin protests are about. The other half concerns the rights of ordinary people in a democracy — rights conservatives want to deny, whether gay rights, women’s rights, immigrant rights, retirement rights, or the right to the best health a nation can provide to all its citizens. Unions, through their political contributions, support the basic freedoms, protections, and resources we all require to have a decent life and live in a civilized society. If those unions are destroyed, American life will become unrecognizable in a remarkably short time.

Democracy as we know it is at stake in the Wisconsin protests, not just budgets and unions.

Progressives are organizing rallies to “Save The American Dream.” They are understating the case.

If Democrats are not talking out loud about these deeper issues, then they are, by their reticence and silence, helping conservatives destroy unions, defund the Democratic party, and take over the country.

Read the original article on The Huffington Post.

elephant George Lakoff is the author of Don’t Think of an Elephant.

The “New Centrism” and Its Discontents

Tuesday, January 25th, 2011

There is no ideology of the “center.” What is called a “centrist” or a “moderate” is actually very different — a bi-conceptual, someone who is conservative on some issues and progressive on others, in many, many possible combinations. Why does this matter? From the perspective of how the brain works, the distinction is crucial.

Because we think with our brains, all thought is physical. Our moral and political worldviews are realized as brain circuits with strong synapses. If you have two conflicting worldviews, you have two brain circuits that are mutually inhibitory, so that when one is activated, it is strengthened and the other is shut off and weakened. When a worldview applies to a given issue, there is a neural binding circuit linking the worldview circuit to that issue circuit in such a way that the issue is understood in terms of that worldview. The right language will activate that that issue as understood via that worldview. Using that language strengthens that worldview.

When a Democrat “moves to the center,” he is adopting a conservative position — or the language of a conservative position. Even if only the language is adopted and not the policy, there is an important effect. Using conservative language activates the conservative view, not only of the given issue, but the conservative worldview in general, which in turn strengthens the conservative worldview in the brains of those listening. That leads to more people thinking conservative thoughts, and hence supporting conservative positions on issues and conservative candidates. Material policy matters. Language use, over and over, affects how citizens understand policy choices, which puts pressure on legislators and ultimately affects what policies are chosen. Language wars are policy wars.

And so to the State of the Union Address. The President will be using business language to indicate that he is pro-business. He will speak of the need for “competitiveness” as if America were a corporation, and will stress “investments” in education, research, infrastructure, and new energy. Paul Krugman, in the NY Times, writes:

The favorable interpretation, as I said, is that it’s just packaging for an economic strategy centered on public investment, investment that’s actually about creating jobs now while promoting longer-term growth. The unfavorable interpretation is that Mr. Obama and his advisers really believe that the economy is ailing because they’ve been too tough on business, and that what America needs now is corporate tax cuts and across-the-board deregulation.
My guess is that we’re mainly talking about packaging here. And if the president does propose a serious increase in spending on infrastructure and education, I’ll be pleased.

For Krugman, language can be just “packaging” and the packaging doesn’t matter if the right policies are followed.

But conservatives know better. They know that they had better get their language front and center. As Eric Cantor said, “We want America to be competitive, but then he talks about investing …When we hear ‘invest’ from anyone in Washington, to me that means more spending. … The investment needs to occur in the private sector.” Mitch McConnell had the same reaction, “Any time they want to spend, they call it investment.”

Conservatives have made the word “spending” their own. It has come to mean wasteful or profligate spending, as if the government just takes money out of your pocket and wastes is on people who don’t deserve it. “Spending” as used by conservatives, really mean the use of money to help people. Since conservatives believe in individual, not social, responsibility, they think it is immoral to use one person’s tax money on helping someone who should be helping himself. The word “spending” has been used that way so often, that for many people, it always evokes that conservative frame, and hence strengthens that frame and worldview that makes sense of it. When Democrats use the world “spending” assuming falsely that it is a neutral economic term, they are helping conservatives.

Conservatives are trained not to use the language of liberals. Liberals are not so trained. Liberals have to learn not to stick to their own language, and not move rightward in language use. Never use the word “entitlement” — social security and medicare are earned. Taking money from them is stealing. Pensions are delayed payments for work already done. They are part of contracted pay for work. Not paying pensions is taking wages from those who have earned them. Nature isn’t free for the taking. Nature is what nurtures us, and is of ultimate value — human value as well as economic value. Pollution and deforestation are destroying nature. Privatization is not eliminating government — it is introducing government of our lives by corporations, for their profit, not ours. The mission of government is to protect and empower all citizens, because no one makes it on their own. And the more you get from government, the more you owe morally. Government is about “necessities” — health, education, housing, protection, jobs with living wages, and so on — not about “programs.” Economic success lies in human well-being, not in stock prices, or corporate and bank profits.

These are truths. We need to use language that expresses those truths.

Obama’s new centrism must be viewed from the perspective of biconceptualism. In his Tucson speech, Obama started off with the conservative view of the shooting. It was a crazy lone gunman, unpredictable, there should be no blame — as if brain-changing language did not exist. It sounded like Sarah Palin. But at the end, he became the progressive of his election campaign, bringing back the word “empathy” and describing American democracy as essentially based on empathy, social responsibility, striving for excellence, and public service. This is the progressive moral worldview, believed implicitly by all progressives, but hardly ever explicitly discussed. The end of the Tucson address has helped bring back support from his progressive base. Will “empathy” return in the State of the Union Address?

Obama’s message in his warm-up video to his supporters said that the economy can be rebuilt only if we put aside our differences, work together, find common ground, and so on. It’s the E Pluribus Unum message — no red states or blue states, just red, white, and blue states message. It’s a message that resonates with a majority of Americans. And so his poll numbers have risen.

How realistic is it?

Robert Kuttner is unconvinced.

He is now Mr. Reasonable Centrist — except that in substance there is no reasonable center to be had.
A well funded and tightly organized right wing has been pulling American politics to the right for three decades now. And with a few instructive exceptions, Democrats who respond by calling for a new centrism are just acting as the right’s enablers.
What exactly is the beneficial substance of this centrism? Just how far right do we have to go for Republicans to cut any kind of deal? Isn’t the mirage of a Third Way a series of moving targets — where every compromise begets a further compromise?

Kuttner has good reason to feel this way. The conservative moral worldview has a highest principle: to preserve, defend, and advance that worldview itself. Radical conservatives have taken over the Republican party. Their goal is to make the country — and the world — as conservative as they are. They want to impose strict father morality everywhere. In economics it means laissez-fair capitalism, with the rich seen as the most disciplined, moral and deserving of people, and the poor as undisciplined and unworthy of safety nets. In religion, their God as the punitive strict father God, sending you to heaven or hell depending how well you adhere to conservative moral principles — individual not social responsibility, strict authority, punitive law, the use of overwhelming force in defending conservative moral principles, and so on. Big government is fine when used to those ends, but not when used to social ends. Only “spending” on measures to help people should be cut, not the use of money to fund what conservative morality approves of. The concern for the deficit is a ruse. They regularly support ideas that would raise, not lower the deficit. Science is to be believed if new weapons systems are based on it, but not if it shows that human pollutants are causing global warming and disastrous climate change.

The Obama strategy seems to be to drive a wedge between the responsible business community and the radical conservatives. Most Americans, whether Republican or Democrat, are in business and most people in business want the country — not just themselves — to thrive. Sensible business people rely on the best economics they can find, not just on ideological economics. And even the biconceptuals who identify themselves with the conservative part of their brains show empathy — their progressive sides — in many parts of their lives.

The bi-conceptuals include those who call themselves “moderates” and “independents” — a very significant part of the electorate, probably fifteen to twenty percent, more than enough to swing any election.

What should progressives make of the “new centrism?”

First, they have to recognize the reality of bi-conceptualism. Adopting conservative language helps conservatism. Adopting conservative programs makes the world more conservative and so helps drive empathy from the world, and that is disastrous.

Second, progressives should recognize that the business of America is business — that there are successful businesses and businesspeople with progressive values, and they should be praised and courted — and separated from radical conservatives.

Third, progressives have to organize around a single morality, centered on empathy, both personal and social responsibility, and excellence — being the best person you can be, not just for your own sake, but for the sake of you family, community, and nation. All politics is moral; it is about the right things to do. Get your morality straight, learn to talk about it, then work on policy. It is patriotic to be progressive.

Fourth, progressives must understand the critical need for a communication system that rivals the conservative system: An overall understanding of conservatism, effective framing of progressive beliefs and real facts, training centers on understanding and articulating progressive thought, systems of spokespeople on call, booking agencies to book speakers on radio and TV, and in local venues like schools, churches, and clubs.

Fifth, it is progressive to be firm, articulate, and gentle. You can stand up for what you believe, while being gentlemanly and ladylike.

Sixth, progressives have to get over the idea that conservatives are either stupid, or mean, or greedy — or all three. Conservatives are mostly people who have a different moral system from progressives.

A new centrism that makes sense ought to be one that unifies progressives under a single moral system centered on empathy; that recognizes, and shows respect for, the progressive side of biconceptuals; that respects the intelligence of conservatives; that allies with progressive businesspeople as well as with unions; that builds a communication system that brings it in touch with most Americans; that calls upon the love of nature; that is gentle and firm; and that refuses to move to the right, either in language or action.

If you start adopting conservative language and/or positions, you become conservative-lite, or worse.

Read the original article on The Huffington Post.

elephant George Lakoff is the author of Don’t Think of an Elephant.