Watching this week’s elections, many of us progressives are
likely now even more worried about the future of concerns about
values such as human rights, social, legal and economic equality
for all, cleaning up the environment and various other important
ideas regarding social justice worldwide. With many progressive
candidates failing to capture the vote on levels ranging from local
to national, it is easy to lose hope and abandon the struggle to
bring important values to the forefront of public discourse.
The question repeatedly asked by reporters and analysts
throughout the news networks in these last few days is: “Where did
the Democrats (or all left-leaning hopefuls) go wrong?” This should
be an important question we are asking ourselves: Why, with the
hard work and massive efforts that went into many of the
progressive campaigns this year, did support fail to materialize as
we would have hoped?
George Lakoff, a cognitive linguist from the University of
California at Berkeley, has some ideas of perhaps why this
election, and indeed many of the elections in recent history, has
not turned the tide for progressives; ideas that could help those
of us who believe in progressive values of all sorts join together
and curb these election trends.
In his book “Don’t Think of an Elephant,” Lakoff suggests that
progressives over the last 40 years have essentially failed to
define a clear frame for our values, something that unifies our
many causes (ranging from social justice to the environment to
defense of marginalized communities) as the conservatives have
done, and by failing to do so, have failed to develop clear
language through which to convey these important values in a
positive and galvanizing way.
“Conservatives have spent 40 years developing a conceptual
system that they can all pretty much agree on,” Lakoff asserted in
an interview on the Web site www.TomPaine.com. This conceptual
system, he argues, is framed within a conservative worldview that
sees the American government as a particular familial metaphor. For
conservatives and progressives, the government is ideally viewed as
either a family with a “Strict Father” mentality or a “Nurturant
Parent” ideal, respectively.
Within a conservative, Strict Father worldview, “What the father
says, the child does. No back talk. Communication is one way,”
Within the progressive model of a Nurturant Family, “The
assumption is that children are born good and can be made
Lakoff suggests that progressives have fallen into the trap of
using the language of a Strict Father mentality to frame issues,
and this lends credence to that particular worldview. “Framing is
about getting language that fits your worldview,” he says. “It is
not just language … the language carries those ideas, evokes
those ideas” of a particular set of values.
Consider that, when reporting exit poll data from across the
country, many stories in the press centered on the idea that the
election swung to the right because of people’s “values.” “Values,”
as referenced even by left-leaning media such as the BBC, refers to
issues such as “gun control and abortion.” Whenever someone says
“values” in the media, these images are instantly (and often
unquestioningly) invoked, thanks to the way in which conservatives
have talked repeatedly and thus framed these issues as “values.”
Why things such as human rights or equality for all or protecting
the land on which we live aren’t conjured when one says “values” is
something that we as progressives must consider and work to fix. As
Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times suggests, “Democrats peddle
issues, and Republicans sell values,” something both Kristof and
Lakoff suggest must change.
Besides just rebuilding our language, Will Hutton of the
Observer similarly notes that there are long-term, and
long-neglected, tasks of “rebuilding and sustaining” the
progressive coalitions that ran strong from Roosevelt’s New Deal to
the 1960s. To do so, Lakoff suggests, all those who hold
progressive values ranging from environmental causes to social
causes to helping downtrodden or oppressed groups must recognize
the unity of our overall values and must come together, as
conservatives have, under the umbrella of our larger Nurturant
framework. This, he and other thinkers argue, is the way in which
energy and finances might be invested into a strong, central force
that can fight on more equal terms with conservative
While the election results have likely been frustrating and
indeed saddening to most of us progressives in the community, we
must not allow this to ossify us, but rather galvanize our cause.
As G.H. Lewes once said, “The only cure for grief is action.” Now
is the time for action on the part of all progressives.
Meg Burd is a graduate student studying anthropology. Her column
runs every Friday in the Collegian.