Nov 042004
Authors: Meg Burd

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 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,”

Lakoff says.

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.

 Posted by at 6:00 pm

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.