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Where’s the Movement?

Tuesday, January 26th, 2010

In forming his administration, President Obama abandoned the movement that had begun during his campaign for deal-making and a pragmatism that hasn’t worked. That movement is still possible and needed now. Here is look at what is required, and how a version of it is forming in California.

We begin with this week’s triple whammy.

Freedom vs. The Public Option

Which would you prefer, consumer choice or freedom? Extended coverage or freedom? Bending the cost curve or freedom?

John Boehner, House Minority Leader, speaking of health care, said recently, “This bill is the greatest threat to freedom that I have seen in the 19 years I have been here in Washington….It’s going to lead to a government takeover of our insurance] for you.”

This is exactly what Frank Luntz advised conservatives to say. They have repeated it and repeated it. Why has it worked to rally conservative populists against their interests? The most effective framing is more than mere language, more than spin or salesmanship. It has worked because conservatives really believe that the issue is freedom. It fits the conservative moral system. It fits how conservatives see the world.

The Democrats have helped the conservatives. Their pathetic attempt to make any deal to get 60 votes convinced even Massachusetts voters that government under the Democrats was corrupt and oppressive, not just inept, but immoral.

All politics is moral

All political leaders argue that they are doing the right thing, not the wrong thing, that their policies are moral, not evil.

Conservatives understand this, liberals tend not to. Conservatives know a morality tale when they see it: Greedy Wall Street bankers, who have cost people their homes, their jobs, and their savings get billion-dollar bailouts from the government, while those honest hard-working people get nothing. Corruption. Oppression. A threat to freedom.

The conservatives are winning the framing wars again — by sticking to moral principles as conservatives see them, and communicating their view of morality effectively. In the 2008 election, Barack Obama ran a campaign based on his moral principles and communicated those principles as effectively as any candidate ever has.

But the Obama administration made a 180-degree turn, trading Obama’s 2008 moral principles for the deal-making of Rahm Emanuel and Tim Geithner, assuming it would be “pragmatic” to court corporations and move to the right, in the false hope of bipartisan support. A clear unified moral vision was replaced by long laundry lists of policy options that the public could not understand, and that made ordinary folks feel they were being bamboozled. And in many cases, they were.

Even the language was a disaster. Liberals thought that conservatives would like consumer choice. That’s why they used “public option.” As Harry Reid said, “It’s public and it’s an option — a public option.” But what did a conservative hear in the words “public option?” Say “public” and he hears “government.” “Option” is a policy-wonk term, from the language of bureaucracy. Say “public option” and the conservative hears “government bureaucracy.”

The results of deal-making in the name of pragmatism have been considerably immoral, as documented thoroughly by progressives like Drew Westen, Matt Taibbi, Robert Kuttner, and many others. Advice on what to do instead has not been lacking from other progressives. Advice is all over the blogs. Guy Saperstein is an excellent example.

We progressives are long on factual analysis, critique, suggestion — and ridicule. Rachel Maddow is one of the best, and her popularity is well-deserved. What’s more fun than ridiculing Tea Party-ers, Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck, and the like, by showing the factual errors, the flaws in their logic, and the cruelty of their positions.

But we have been dealt a triple blow. A year of failed deal-making by our side, the Tea Party win in Massachusetts, and worst of all, the 5-4 Supreme Court decision to turn our democracy into a corporate plutocracy. This is serious.

Democrats still have the presidency and a majority in the House and Senate, but the momentum is on the conservative side. Their victories in the framing wars have inevitably led to a crucial electoral victory and to a Supreme Court death threat to democracy itself, framed as free speech.
Democrats have electoral power, but progressives have not created an effective movement to take advantage of that power.

“Where’s the movement?”

In the emerging Obama mythology, this is the question attributed to President Obama whenever he is asked to take the lead on a progressive issue. It is not an idle question. Leaders can only lead if there is a pre-existing movement for them to get in front of.

Moreover, there are other conditions. The idea behind a movement, and the language expressing its goals, must also pre-exist in public discourse. In other words, the movement must already have:

• a popular base;
• organizing tools;
• a generally accepted morally-based conceptual framing;
• an overall narrative, with heroes, victims, and villains;
• a readily recognizable, well-understood language;
• funding sources;
• and a national communication system set up for both leaders and ordinary citizens to use.

The base is there, waiting for something worth getting behind. The organizing tools are there. The rest is not there.

That is the present reality. Expecting Obama to be FDR was politically unrealistic. And complaining that he isn’t doesn’t move anything forward.

Howard Dean was right when he said, “YOU have the power.” What is needed is an organized activist public with a positive understanding of what our values are and how to links them to every issue. Barney Frank was only half-right when he said that the public gets active only when it is angry. That may be true for isolated issues — he was talking about regulating Wall Street. But anger is directed at isolated negatives. An effective movement must be positive, organized, and long-term, where an overall positive understanding defines the isolated negatives. And it must have all of the above.

The California Democracy Movement

We have the beginning of such a movement in California.
The central issue in California is basic democracy. California is the only state in America where the legislature is controlled by a relatively small conservative minority. Because it takes a 2/3 vote in both the Senate and Assembly to pass a budget or any tax, 1/3 plus one - 34% — in either house can control the vote by saying no to measures that would finance public needs.

Conservatives exercise that control for the simple reason that they don’t believe that government should serve public needs, that instead government should be privatized and shrunk to fit in a bathtub, as if governing would disappear with government.

But governing doesn’t disappear when government shrinks; instead corporations come to govern your life — like HMO’s, oil companies, drug companies, agribusiness, and so on, with accountability only to maximizing profit, not to public needs.

An overwhelming majority of Californians — over 60% — disagree. They believe that government should serve public needs, and they have elected sensible legislators. But they don’t quite make up 2/3. And so an extreme right-wing minority - about 37% — controls the state, its present and its future.

Luckily, there is a way out for the majority in California. The initiative process that created this situation can get us out. I have proposed The California Democracy Act as an initiative in the November 2010 election. It changes two words in the California Constitution - “two-thirds” becomes “a majority” in two places. It can be described in one simple sentence: All legislative actions on revenue and budget must be determined by a majority vote. That ballot initiative needs only a majority to pass. It would return majority rule to the legislature on everyday economic issues, bringing democracy back to California. Those interested can join the campaign by clicking on www.CaliforniansForDemocracy.com

Democracy is the central issue, and that is what our movement is about. We are setting up an infrastructure in California, with a statewide organization and a speakers’ bureau, for those who want to continue democratizing the state after the election.

Democracy is The Issue

The majority vote campaign gives us a chance to talk not only about this particular issue, but about democracy as it affects all issues. The clearest articulator of what democracy is about has been Barack Obama — the campaigner we cheered for, campaigned hard for, and voted for.

Democracy, he has observed, is based on empathy — on citizens caring about one another. That’s why we have principles like freedom and fairness, for everybody, not just for the rich and powerful. True empathy requires responsibility, not just for oneself, but also for others. And since we, as individuals and as a nation, are far from perfect, empathy demands an ethic of excellence, of making oneself better, one’s family and community better, and one’s nation better.

That view of citizenship in a democracy comes with a view of government. Government has two sacred moral missions: protection and empowerment.

Protection goes well beyond police and the military and the fire department to consumer protection, environmental protection, worker protection, health care, investor protection, social security, and other safety nets.

Empowerment is what the stimulus package was about: building and maintaining roads, bridges, public transportation, and public buildings; systems for communication, electricity, water; education, from pre-school through graduate and professional schools; scientific research and technological development; a banking system that works; a stock market that works; and a judicial system that works.

No one earns a living or lives well without protection and empowerment by the government. That is what taxes pay for. And the more you make from what the government gives you, the more you should contribute to keeping it going.

Tax Shifts

When you cut taxes that pay for public needs, you are actually shifting taxes. You are taxing others. In California tax cuts for corporations last year led to cuts in the support for public universities, which led to 32% higher tuition and a drastic cut in the number of students educated. That 32% constituted a tax on those students and their parents, and when they had to borrow the money for college, interest payments on the loan effectively double the cost of the loan. That’s a very high tax shift. But an even higher tax is shifted onto students who cannot afford the higher tuition: the tax of a lost education lasts all one’s life and its cost is not only monetary, but a cost in human potential. It is also a cost to employers, who get less educated workers, and to society, which gets less educated citizens.

The Movement

We will be talking about all of this and more. Take economic democracy. California is the world’s seventh richest economy. It is ludicrous to say that there is no money in California. If the money for public needs is there, where is it? In California, the richest one percent owns more assets than the bottom 95 per cent. The money is concentrated at the top.

Just about every issue comes down to the issue of democracy. That is why we are starting with the California Democracy Act, which would finally end the rule of the state by a small minority of ultra-conservative legislators. It would finally give the voters of the state a voice in their own future and the future of their children and grandchildren.

If you live in California (one out of eight Americans does), then join the California Democracy Movement. If you live elsewhere, form your own democracy movement and unite with us. The principles are simple, and they are Obama’s:

Democracy is about empathy — caring about your fellow citizens, which leads to the principles of freedom and fairness for all. Empathy requires both personal and social responsibility. The ethic of excellence means making the world better by making yourself better, your family better, your community better, and your nation better. Government has two moral missions: protection and empowerment for all. To carry them out, government must be by, for, and of the people.

It’s only a paragraph. The principles apply to all issues. That’s the basis of a democracy movement. That’s what separates a movement from a coalition. Coalitions are based on interests. Movements are based on principles. We need a movement that transcends interests and goes beyond coalitions.

Movements also transcend particular policies. The framing of moral principles comes first and the policies elaborate on the principles. The way to unite a movement is to form policies that carry out the principles in ways that everyone can understand.

The time is now

We have a triple disaster on our hands: the administration’s failure at deal-making in the name of pragmatism and bipartisanship; the Tea Party victory in Massachusetts fueling and propelling ultra-conservatism; and the anti-democratic 5-4 ruling of the Roberts Court. We can no longer sit on our hands and just criticize the President, or give him advice and hope he can do it alone. We have to provide the answer to his question: Where’s the movement?

This article was originally published on the Huffington Post.

Conservatives Are Waging a War on Empathy — We Can’t Let Them Win

Tuesday, June 2nd, 2009

The Sotomayor nomination has given radical conservatives new life. They have launched an attack that is nominally aimed at Judge Sotomayor. But it is really a coordinated stealth attack — on President Obama’s central vision, on progressive thought itself, and on Republicans who might stray from the conservative hard line.

There are several fronts: Empathy, feelings, racism, activist judges. Each one has a hidden dimension. And if progressives think conservative attacks are just about Sotomayor, they may wind up helping conservatives regroup.

Conservatives believe that Sotomayor will be confirmed, and so their attacks may seem irrational to Democrats, a last gasp, a grasping at straws, a sign that the party is breaking up.

Actually, something sneakier and possibly dangerous is going on.

Let’s start with the attack on empathy. Why empathy? Isn’t empathy a good thing?

Empathy is at the heart of progressive thought. It is the capacity to put oneself in the shoes of others — not just individuals, but whole categories of people: one’s countrymen, those in other countries, other living beings, especially those who are in some way oppressed, threatened, or harmed. Empathy is the capacity to care, to feel what others feel, to understand what others are facing and what their lives are like. Empathy extends well beyond feeling to understanding, and it extends beyond individuals to groups, communities, peoples, even species. Empathy is at the heart of real rationality, because it goes to the heart of our values, which are the basis of our sense of justice.

Progressives care about others as well as themselves. They have a moral obligation to act on their empathy — a social responsibility in addition to personal responsibility, a responsibility to make the world better by making themselves better. This leads to a view of a government that cares about its citizens and has a moral obligation to protect and empower them. Protection includes worker, consumer, and environmental protection as well as safety nets and health care. Empowerment includes what is in the President’s stimulus plan: infrastructure, education, communication, energy, the availability of credit from banks, a stock market that works. No one can earn anything at all in this country without protection and empowerment by the government. All progressive legislation is made on this basis.

The president wrote of empathy in The Audacity of Hope, “It is at the heart of my moral code and it is how I understand the Golden Rule — not simply as a call to sympathy or charity, but as something more demanding, a call to stand in somebody else’s shoes and see through their eyes.”

President Obama has argued that empathy is the basis of our democracy. Why do we promote freedom and fairness for everyone, not just ourselves or the rich and powerful? The answer is empathy. We care about our countrymen and have an obligation to act on that care and to set up a government for the protection and empowerment of all. That is at the heart of everything he does.

The link between empathy and democracy has been established historically by Professor Lynn Hunt of UCLA in her important book, Inventing Human Rights. Hear her speak here.

The link between empathy and progressive thought is spelled out in my book Moral Politics and in my new book The Political Mind, just out in paperback.

In describing his ideal Supreme Court justice, President Obama cited empathy as a major desideratum. Why? Because that is what our democracy is about. A justice has to take empathy into account because his or her decisions will affect the lives of others. Before making a decision you have to put yourself in the shoes of those who your decision will affect. Similarly, in judging causation, fairness requires that social causes as well as individual causes be taken into account. Empathy forces you to notice what is crucial in so many Supreme Court cases: systemic and social causes and who a decision can harm. As such, empathy correctly understood is crucial to judgment. A judge without empathy is a judge unfit for a democracy.

President Obama has described Justice Sotomayor in empathetic terms — a life story that would lead her to understand people who live through oppression and deprivation and what it does to them. In other words, a life story that would allow her to appreciate the consequences of judicial decisions and the causal effects of living in an unequal society.

Empathy in this sense is a threat to conservatism, which features individual, not social, responsibility and a strict, punitive form of “justice.” It is no surprise that empathy would be a major conservative target in the Sotomayor evaluation.

But the target is not empathy as it really exists. Instead, the conservatives are reframing empathy to make it attackable. Their “empathy” is idiosyncratic, personal feeling for an individual, presumably the defendant in a legal case. With “empathy” reframed in this way, Charles Krauthammer can say, echoing Karl Rove, “Justice is not about empathy.” The argument goes like this: Empathy is a matter personal feelings. Personal feelings should not be the basis of a judicial decision of the Supreme Court. Therefore, “justice is not about empathy.” Reframe the word “empathy” and it not only disqualifies Sotomayor; it delegitimizes Obama’s central moral principle, his approach to government, his understanding of the nature of our democracy, and progressive politics in general.

We cannot let conservatives get away with redefining empathy as irrational and idiosyncratic personal feeling. Empathy is the basis of our democracy and its true meaning must be defended.

But the attack can be sneaky. Take David Brooks’ column in the NY Times (May 29, 2009). He frames what he calls “The Empathy Issue” in terms of the use of emotions in decision-making. He is doing a conservative reframing of the issue. What is sneaky is that he starts by saying a number of true things about emotions. As Antonio Damasio pointed out in Descartes’ Error, you can’t make rational decisions without emotions. If you have a brain injury that wipes out your emotional capacity, you don’t know what to want, since like and not-like mean nothing, and you can’t tell what others will think of you. Here is Brooks:

People without emotions cannot make sensible decisions because they don’t know how much anything is worth. People without social emotions like empathy are not objective decision-makers. They are sociopaths who sometimes end up on death row.

Supreme Court justices, like all of us, are emotional intuitionists. They begin their decision-making processes with certain models in their heads. These are models of how the world works and should work, which have been idiosyncratically ingrained by genes, culture, education, parents and events. These models shape the way judges perceive the world.

Note the mixture of truth and non-truth. Yes, sensible decisions require emotions. Yes, people without empathy are sociopaths. Yes, we all make decisions based on models in our head of how the world works. That’s basic cognitive science. Mixed in with it is conservative reframing. No, empathy is a lot more than a “social emotion.” No, using models of the world in decision-making need not be a matter of emotion. It’s just how real reason works. Then the conclusion.

But because we’re emotional creatures in an idiosyncratic world, it’s prudent to have judges who are cautious, incrementalist and minimalist. It’s prudent to have judges who decide cases narrowly, who emphasize the specific context of each case, who value gradual change, small steps and modest self-restraint.

Right-leaning thinkers from Edmund Burke to Friedrich Hayek understood that emotion is prone to overshadow reason. They understood that emotion can be a wise guide in some circumstances and a dangerous deceiver in others. It’s not whether judges rely on emotion and empathy, it’s how they educate their sentiments within the discipline of manners and morals, tradition and practice.

Empathy here has been reframed as emotion that is “idiosyncratic” — personal — a danger to reason. “Sentiments,” that is, emotions, must be “disciplined” to fit “manners and morals, tradition and practice”– in short, the existing social and political order. This is perfect radical conservatism in the guise of sweet, moderate reasonableness. Where Rove and Krauthammer have the iron fists, Brooks has the velvet glove.

The attack on empathy becomes an attack on feelings, with feelings as not merely at odds with justice, but at odds with good sense. Where Brooks’ tone is sweetly reasonable, G. Gordon Liddy is outrageous:

Let’s hope that the key conferences aren’t when she’s menstruating or something, or just before she’s going to menstruate. That would really be bad. Lord knows what we would get then.

Liddy is saying what Brooks is saying: Emotion is irrational and dangerous. Only Liddy is not nicely-nicely. The attack on feelings is of a piece with the old attack on “bleeding-heart liberals. And one step away from Cheney’s attack on Obama and defense of torture.

What about Newt Gingrich calling Sotomayor a racist? It is linked directly to the personal feeling argument: because of her personal feelings for her own kind — Latinos and women — she will discriminate against white men. It is to support that view that the New Haven firemen case keeps being brought up.

The real target here goes beyond Sotomayor. In the last election, conservative populists moved toward Obama. Conservative populists are working people, mostly white men, who have conservative views of the family, of masculinity, and of the military, and who have bought into the idea of the ‘liberal elite” as looking down on them. Right now, they are hurting economically, losing their jobs and their homes. Empathy is something they need. The racist card is an attempt to revive their fears of affirmative action, fears of their jobs — and their pride — being taken by minorities and women. The racist attack has a political purpose, holding onto conservative populists. The overt form of the old conservative argument is made regularly these days: liberalism is identity politics.

Incidentally, Democrats are walking into the Gingrich trap. I heard Ed Schultz defending Sotomayor by saying over and over why she was “not a racist,” and using the word “racist” next to her name repeatedly. It was like Nixon saying, “I am not a crook.” When Democrats make that mistake, I sometimes wonder why I bothered to write Don’t Think of an Elephant!

The attack on Sotomayor as an “activist judge” completes the pattern of radical conservative reasoning: Because of her empathy, which is personal feeling, which in turn is a form of racism, she will interpret the constitution not rationally, blindly, and objectively, but to suit her emotions.

It is vital at this point to understand how conservatives get away with the “activist judge” ploy. As any cognitive linguist knows, there is no such thing as “strict construction” of the Constitution. The reason was given by, of all people, David Brooks, as we discussed above.

Supreme Court justices, like all of us, … begin their decision-making processes with certain models in their heads. These are models of how the world works and should work… These models shape the way judges perceive the world.

These models also shape they way the most “strict constructionist” of judges read the Constitution. Such models are physically part of the brain and typically operate below the level of consciousness. Conservatives are thus as much “judicial activists” as anyone else.

So how do conservative Republicans get away with the “activist judge” ploy? Democrats hand it to them. Why? Because most Democrats grew up with and still believe a view of reason that has been shown in cognitive science and neuroscience to be false. The sciences of mind have shown that real reason is largely unconscious, requires emotion, uses “models” (frames, metaphors, narratives) and so does not fit the world directly.

But Democrats tend to believe that reason is conscious, can fit the world directly, and works by logic, not frames or metaphors. They thus believe that words have fixed literal meanings that fit the world in itself, regardless of models, frames, metaphors, or narratives. If you believe this, then original meaning could make sense. Democrats don’t fight it when they should.

Democrats make another move that allows them to keep their view of reason. They adopt the view of the “living constitution,” which opens them up to charges of “judicial activism,” charges made by conservative judicial activists. The source of the problem lies in the Democrats lack of understanding of their own unconscious reasoning processes. One of many Democrats deepest beliefs contradicts the facts about the brain and the mind and allows conservative judges to be activists while claiming to be strict constructionists.

Taken together, the attacks on Sotomayor work as attacks on Obama and progressive thought. They are also attacks on “moderate” conservatives, who think with progressives on many issues. The attacks activate radical conservative ideas in the brains of those who voted for Bush and the 47% of the voters who voted for McCain.

Radical conservatives know that Sotomayor will be confirmed. They also know that their very understanding of the world is being threatened by Obama’s success. But they have a major strength. They have their message machine intact, with trained spokespeople booked on TV and radio shows all over the country. Attacking Sotomayor, even when they know she will win, allows them to rally their forces and get swing-voting conservatives thinking their way again.

How should Democrats respond?

Democrats should go on offense. They need to rally behind empathy — real empathy, not empathy reframed as emotion and personal feeling. They need to speak regularly about empathy as being the basis of our democracy. They need to point out that empathy leads one to notice real social and systemic causes of our troubles and to notice when and how judicial decisions and legislation can harm the most vulnerable of our countrymen. And finally that empathy is the reason that we have the principles of freedom and fairness — which are necessary components of justice.

Above all, Democrats should be aware that the attack on Sotomayor is not just about Sotomayor. It is an attack on the basis of our democracy and must be answered.

George Lakoff is the author of Don’t Think of an Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate‘ (Chelsea Green). He is Professor of Linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley and a Senior Fellow of the Rockridge Institute.

This article originally appeared on Alternet.