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Thursday, November 4, 2004

Liberalism reframed.

My friend Jake, a Unitarian Universalist minister in Tennessee, posted the following essay in the comments. It deserves a place here on the front page:

I've never blogged before, but what started as a pastoral letter to my congregation has turned into what can only be called a rant. To spare them, I'm putting it here instead, and will start over with something gentler for them in the morning..... So, here goes...

I find great hope in what we hear from the election. Of course, my candidate didn’t win. And Bush’s radical agenda and strengthened political power strike me as dangerous. Here, in Tennessee, as the old blues song goes, “I feel like a stranger in my own home town.”

But here’s where I find hope: one in five voters cited “moral values” as the decisive factor in his/her vote. These voters were, yes, overwhelmingly, cultural conservatives. But still, they understood themselves to be acting morally. Where there’s an active conscience, there is hope. But liberals are a long way from being heard by these moral actors.

Conservatives often complain that liberals are contemptuous of them. From what I’ve seen, they’re right. In the liberal circles I’ve known, I mostly hear bafflement about conservatives—“why would they vote against their economic self-interest?”—followed by scorn. Too often, liberals consider conservatives “selfish” on taxes, “backwards” on religion, and “stupid” or “blind” on the facts. Is this contempt worthy of half of our fellow Americans? Skipping from bafflement to scorn strikes me as intellectually lazy and politically ineffective.

What if liberals followed bafflement with honest curiosity? What if we really wondered how a conservative understood his vote, or her values? Painful as it is, maybe this election will summon the humility needed to seek understanding.

This year, the best thinker to help me understand conservatives has been George Lakoff, a linguist at UC-Berkeley. To wade through his heavy stuff, read "Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think." For an easier read, get "Don’t Think of an Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate." His thinking is also on the web, at the George Soros-funded Rockridge Institute.

For here, I’d like to sum up his thought, and then say where I see the opportunity for religious liberals.

Lakoff says that liberals and conservatives differ in two ways: how they address issues, and the family-model from which they find meaning.

First, how they address issues. Liberals use facts and policies; conservatives use “frames.” Frames are metaphorical ways of thinking about complex matters. For example, our vast, diverse nation is sometimes spoken of in terms of “family.” While not literally a “family,” the concept makes intuitive sense, and captures much of the complexity of our relationships to each other. Speaking in terms of frames works. Conservatives know this; liberals don’t.

For instance: taxes. Liberals can harp on about how the Bush tax cuts drive up the deficit, they can repeat that the “top 1% got tax cuts,” etc., till they’re blue in the face. But conservatives frame the issue in one phrase—“tax relief”—and win it in a cake-walk. Why? Because, says Lakoff, embedded in the phrase “tax relief,” is the immediate suggestion that there is an affliction needing relief. What is the affliction? Taxes. Once people start using the phrase “tax relief,” it becomes very difficult to argue why you would want to increase this affliction.

How could liberals metaphorically frame the issue of taxes? Well, says Lakoff, they could talk about taxes as investments, drawing social and economic dividends. Or, in terms of patriotism—everyone paying his or her fair-share dues.

The point is this: “frames” trump “facts,” “metaphor” beats “argument,” and “vision” beats “plan.” Concrete language is the expression of good thinking; abstract thinking loses listeners and voters. No pretense of objectivity here, or rational cost-benefit analysis; this is values-based, meaning-based politics. Straight to the heart.

Lakoff’s second point is that liberals and conservatives are both organized around the metaphor of family, but understand the ideal family differently. Lakoff calls the conservatives’ family model the “Strict Father.” The liberals’ model is the “Nurturant Parent.”

The “Strict Father” values obedience, moral order, discipline, self-reliance, punishment as a form of “tough love,” clear sense of “right” and “wrong,” and many other things that would strike you as intuitively "conservative."

The “Nurturant Parent” values empathy and responsibility, fulfillment, community, cooperation, and many things that seem familiarly "liberal."

In one debate, the asides between Bush and Kerry about their daughters illustrate the two models. Chuckling, Bush said something like, “Well, you have to put a leash on them,” and Kerry replied, “I’ve learned not to do that with mine.” Different parenting styles, different guiding values, different idealized family model.

Lakoff says that, while conservatives have been honing their message in well-funded think-tanks for three decades now, liberals are all over the map, without guiding metaphors or themes. It’s not that so many more U.S. citizens have the “strict father” mentality; it’s that the issues have been clearly and effectively framed from the conservative standpoint. Liberals need to articulate their values, says Lakoff. Incidentally, in his post-mortem today, Slate Magazines’ William Saletan encourages the Democrats to do this, as well.

So, we need to do two things. First, rather than heaping scorn upon conservatives who “just don’t understand,” as liberals, we need to understand that they mean it when they say they are voting their values. Understanding them, and taking them at their word, means living out our own value of empathy. It also means getting to know our neighbors, not holing up in some liberals-only enclave.

Secondly, we need to learn how to articulate our own values in metaphors, and then learn how to reframe the debate. Using conservative terminology and frames—"tax relief," "partial-birth abortion," etc—we’ve already lost it.

I don’t yet know the compelling metaphors that will give voice to our values the best. But the work is before us. This is where I find hope in the election. If it is true that people are thinking and acting morally—all of us, not just those who voted like us—then there is hope for persuasion, and change.

In the next four years, no doubt there will be cause to protest, to take to the streets. But perhaps a more important role for the liberal church will be to do the intellectual and soulful work of articulating and sharing our values. To do this effectively will mean using frames and metaphors. Being poets whose words move people’s hearts. Sad as it is to say, Bush and the Republicans have been such stirring poets. This is the lesson of the political landscape.

Luckily, the same work needs to be done in the religious sphere, too. It may be connected to Bill Sinkford’s “language of reverence,” and is definitely connected to the current Commission on Appraisal’s “Theological Unity Amidst our Diversity.”

Translating concepts into metaphors is the work of moving the liberal church into the post-liberal age. When and if we can do this, we will have found a voice that will resound through our cities—even in Tennessee!—and throughout the whole country.

This election is dispiriting, but it was one of our very own ancestors, Theodore Parker, who said that the moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.

Friends, he was right.

Copyright © 2004 by Philocrites | Posted 4 November 2004 at 8:16 AM

Previous: A covenant goes two ways.
Next: Against all-or-nothing arguments about 'moral values.'





November 4, 2004 09:32 AM | Permalink for this comment

I absolutely think that Lakoff is on to something pretty powerful here. Here is my question, however. How do I not respond with a little condescension to conservatives who believe proven falsehoods about 9-11? How do I extend to them the right to disagree and listen with respect when the very facts are wrong?


November 4, 2004 11:14 AM | Permalink for this comment

Streak asks, "How can we not respond with condescension to people who ignore the facts about 9/11?" Easy: no matter our frustration with them, it's not in our self-interest to be condescending. We want to persuade them to see things our way.

If these folks won't listen to the facts, agreed upon by a bi-partisan commission, what will they listen to? Answer: a good story.

We may equate the word "myth" with "lie," but it's not necessarily so. A myth, or story, is a way to organize thought and dynamic experience coherently. Factually, Bush's version of 9/11 is a lie, but *mythically* it is true. It is true because it organizes and reflects people's experience back to them coherently.

The recent New York Times magazine article, in which Bush operatives mocked those in the "reality-based" world, speaks to this strategy of mythologizing. Conservatives think it's funny that we rely on facts, when they know that story is so much more compelling.

The events of 9/11 were world-shattering--they disrupted America's self-understanding as safe within our borders. The conservatives shaped how our country understood the attacks, though. The world, say the conservatives, is inherently dangerous, we are under constant threat, and the best defense is offense. In this story, Bush plays the role of "strict father"; even Abu Ghraib and the revocation of civil liberties can be understood, in this story-line, as part of the necessary "tough love" that Bush needs to dole out. The conservatives reinforce this story-line with the phrase, "War on Terror."

Because the Democracts don't have an overarching counter-myth for this issue, they're left offering up arguments within the conservatives' frame. For example, the Democrats could have reframed this issue as "Our Common March Toward Renewed Security," evoking the need for a nurturant parent, lifting up the values of security, cooperation, and the reality of a world that's, in general, still pretty safe. Instead, Kerry himself often used the phrase "war on terror," summoning the need for a "Strict Father," which played right into the hands of Karl Rove.

Using myth, rather than facts, may seem to abandon our liberal religious commitment to reason. It doesn't. But we need to think of "reason" differently. In a post-liberal age, we can't make "objective" appeals, as facts claim to do. In a post-liberal/post-modern age, our use of reason must be in terms of paradox, systems, and relationship. We need powerful symbols, a good story. It may not be "rational" in the Enlightenment sense, but it is certainly logical. Arguing facts is like trying to argue Newton in an age of Einstein.

Conservatives are very good storytellers. Arnold Schwazeneggar's movies reinforce the "Strict Father" values; so does Mel Gibson's "Passion of the Christ."

For the liberals' effort to make myth, Michael Moore has made a good start, telling a story of corruption and deception in Fahrenheit 9/11. Unfortunately, his story mostly attacks Bush's version of things, rather than creating a powerful, affirmative story about America in the last few years. For example, the final image in the movie is Bush trying to spit out some platitude about "fool me once, shame on me." In this final scene, Moore's point is: "Bush is an idiot." It's a wasted opportunity. That scene doesn't leave people with hope, or with a positive framework within which to understand themselves.

What story could liberals tell about the last few years? I think the positive story is one of renewed political participation, ordianry citizens renewing the covenant of democracy. While I didn't vote for him, Howard Dean was the hero of such a story-line. In such a story, each of us can see ourselves, each of us has a place.

Believe me, I'm wringing my hands about Bush being in office for the next four years. But I don't think the re-framing efforts need to wait until the next election. They can start, say, with the upcoming fight for a Supreme Court nominee. Democracy is ongoing. That is a story that we need to tell.


November 4, 2004 01:59 PM | Permalink for this comment

Great post and comments! The hardest thing for me is to get over my emotional reaction to the election, so I can move on and act and speak in ways that don't alienate those who think and vote differently. I agree wholeheartedly that we have to find a way to maintain dialog and increase listening, rather than bashing one another over the head with our ideologies, which never seemed to stop during the recent campaign.

As a writer, I believe in the power of story. Spiritual teachers from many faiths have used story, from the parables of Jesus and the koans of Zen masters to Native American elders recounting the origins of man through myth and oral history. Fiction writers have learned a lot from Joseph Campbell's The Hero's Journey about the power story can have.

But it does take patience and deeper thought. It requires being curious, listening, and understanding the other side, so we know how to get them to listen in return. It requires giving them something they're willing to listen to. I'm working now on calming down so I can think more clearly and communicate without resentment.


November 4, 2004 03:52 PM | Permalink for this comment

Yes, great post and great comments. We've got a lot to think about. One of the best experiences I had during the campaign -- just in the last few days of it, really -- was to call prospective voters to see if they were getting out to the polls. The conversations were mostly not of the persuasive variety: Some voters lists I got were made up of convinced Kerry supporters; when people weren't convinced, mostly they didn't want to talk about it. A few of the non-Kerry-ites did offer things up, though, and even using the poor medium of the telemarketing-style get-out-the-vote call they said some things I'll remember; this small sample tended to confirm the idea that some middle of the country voters just felt they were being talked down to and just didn't like it. I didn't change any minds -- in fact, in some ways, I agreed with some of what they were saying. The most effective thing I thought I could do in the moment was to accept what I was hearing and to really listen to what they were saying. I figured that having contact with at least one Democrat (and liberal) who treated what they were saying with some respect would be worth a lot more than any logical arguments I could bring up.

(Another) Jake:

November 6, 2004 11:06 AM | Permalink for this comment

I'm coming to this conversation late, but was pleased to see a similar discussion going on here to what I've been talking about recently.

Have you seen this interview with George Lakoff? I find it a good introduction to his work.

The Rockridge Institute is another good resource.

Carol Kuhlman:

November 7, 2004 03:48 PM | Permalink for this comment

Losing faith in America!

The days following the election has been very dark and a sense of evilness lurking all around! I do know that God will see us through these days ahead and protect us from the evil. I am praying for the Lord to bring out the true colors of truth and of the lies that has been the focus for this election that we had to swallow again. My heart aches for justice, but justice is no longer a trust, our Country is falling apart before our eyes! No longer can we trust voting machines of all kinds. The only faith I have is in God who doesn't live in the White House nor is God on that man's side! We should pray for all to be on God's side!

I am deeply bewildered by my State of Oklahoma! The voting percentage for democracts were very low than the percentage shown during the primarys. I just don't get it? I feel we live in a very crooked nation that hopes to take over by republicans only! My faith is in God only and I'm praying daily for help and hope that this nation will someday find it's way back home.


November 9, 2004 05:15 PM | Permalink for this comment

Mechaieh posts a personal response to Jake's essay and themes at Measured Extravagance.

Jeff Wilson:

November 15, 2004 10:00 AM | Permalink for this comment

OK, I've been giving a little thought to the whole "reframing" issue, particularly to the idea that we need to "re-brand" our issues to give them more moral force. This follows the Republican efforts to turn discussions of abortion into "pro-life," tax cuts into "tax relief," global warming into "climate change," etc.

Here's what I have so far. From now on we are no longer to use the terms on the left. We now only use the terms on the right:

Abortion rights = Women's health rights
Anti-abortion = Anti-Constitution
Gay marriage = Marriage rights
Environmental conversation = Environmental responsibility
Anti-tort reform/legal reform = Consumer rights
Welfare = Social Gospel
Global warming/climate change = Coastal flooding
Universal health care = Life-affirming
Stem-cell research = Revolutionary health technology
Social Security = Respect for elders

Here's how an exchange in the new world of liberal politics might sound:

"It is crucial during this mid-term election that we refocus the political debate on moral values. The president and his cronies in the Congress have aggressively pushed an agenda that hurts Americans and violates their deeply cherished feelings of right and wrong. We must ensure that Congress once again stands up for the values that have made America strong, that have made it the light of the world to which everyone looks. It's time we stopped allowing narrow-minded politicians to threaten women's health rights with their anti-Constitutional views. With millions of Americans facing the growing danger of coastal flooding, it's time to get rid of greed and focus on environmental responsibility. We need a Congress that protects consumers' rights, instead of one that re-writes laws in order to disenfranchise them. Our politicans must affirm the mighty Social Gospel and make sure that our citizens have a life-affirming choice in times of sickness and travail. As our population ages, we need to remain committed to developing revolutionary health technologies and respecting our elders. And it is time to stop the cynical and divisive attempt to violate marriage rights in the land of the free. My friends, we have a chance to put America back on a stronger, healthier track that will restore our commitment to translating our beliefs into righteous action. Let us turn from sickness, oppression, and the pursuit of greed back to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The Republicans have proven they cannot see ahead, nor even understand the times at present. Let us once more look to the future so that our values, which are our greatest gift to the world, can transform our country into a true land of peace, prosperity, and integrity."


November 24, 2004 10:36 PM | Permalink for this comment

Kevin Drum reviews Lakoff's book and fears liberals will take it too seriously.

Alan Avans:

December 28, 2004 03:59 PM | Permalink for this comment

Oh boy. You think Zell Miller was mad at the Democrats, just wait till this angry Kansan gets through with y'all.

With all due respect, I have to disclose the fact that I responded to Jeff Wilson's "exchange" with derisive laughter spiked with a salty pinch of righteous anger swirling around in a bowl of unbuttered popcorn. It has taken several minutes to calm myself, clean the popcorn off my desk, and regain the composure needed to respond to where this particular blog thread went. Nevertheless....

Spare me the misleading, downright dishonest word play. If that was 'framing' then please spare me and every other red-blooded USAmerican voter your lame attempt to wrap our minds around your wrarped agenda.

The proper response to one's "pro-life" position is not to contrive a constitutional argument against a serious moral position, the proper frame might instead be to embrace and extend the meaning of pro-life. Fortunately we don't have to expend much imagine in order to do this, the Seamless Garment concept of what it means to be pro-life protects the unborn, nurtures the living and refuses to inflict death even of prisoners. Now that's being pro-life!

Spare me your clap-trap about the Social Gospel. You wouldn't know a social gospeler if someone jumped up and whacked you with a first edition copy of Christianity and the Social Crisis. Hey, Tommy Douglas and countless others involved in the founding Canada's Cooperative Commonwealth Federation and the New Demcocratic Party all knew a thing or two about the social gospel and they were pro-life. Oh, and please spare me that anomalous equation "social gospel=welfare state." Wrong answer. Social gospel=cooperative commonwealth, approximately. It isn't so much about redistributing wealth as it is creating wealth differently. It isn't about restributing wealth so much as it is about claiming our cultural inheritance.

Sorry, "ownership society" trumps "welfare state" any morning, noon and night and that's why Democrats are gonna frame and frame and frame until Bush succeeds in stealing Social Security.

Tell me Jeff, where is the Democratic plan for creating ownership that actually means anything to the American worker? Last time I checked workers' pension funds were still being used to hollow out perfectly good companies with mountains of debt that could only be paid by downsizing and shipping factories to the Peoples' Respublic of the Inner and Outter Stalagmitistans. D*mn it all to H*ll, it's our money being used to gip us and our children of their inheritance as Americans.

Frame that!

Joseph Santos-Lyons:

March 13, 2005 04:03 PM | Permalink for this comment

Dear Rev Jake
Hey there old friend, how are you? Glad to see this post finally, award-winning too! There is something to be said about the developmental process in the message from conservatives. I find it fascinating and highly relevant that decades of think tanks have helped to vet and promote the conservative agenda in DC and across the country (perhaps the world). Ultimately we need to believe that being liberal does not mean being relativists. We do stand for something. In reading the piece about politics-in-the-church by Tom Schade, I feel strongly that we need to always be centered in our worship, our religious education, and that out of the trueness to this religious and spiritual practice will come the obvious, commonly held "frames" or beliefs that we can politically advocate for.
Yer ole friend Joseph, in his last year at HDS!

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