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George Lakoff on Communication: "Liberals Do Everything Wrong"

Progressives have got it wrong — and if they don't start to get it right, the conservatives will maintain the upperhand.
 
 
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Photo Credit: By Pop!Tech (Flickr: Pop!Tech 2008 - George Lakoff) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

 
 
 
 

"The progressive mindset is screwing up the world. The progressive mindset is guaranteeing no progress on global warming. The progressive mindset is saying, 'Yes, fracking is fine.' The progressive mindset is saying, 'Yes, genetically modified organisms are OK', when, in fact, they're horrible, and the progressive mindset doesn't know how to describe how horrible they are. There's a difference between progressive morality, which is great, and the progressive mindset, which is half OK and half awful."

George Lakoff, professor of cognitive science at the University of California, Berkeley, has been working on moral frames for 50 years. In  Communicating Our American Values and Vision, he gives this precis: "Framing is not primarily about politics or political messaging or communication. It is far more fundamental than that: frames are the mental structures that allow human beings to understand reality – and sometimes to create what we take to be reality. But frames do have an enormous bearing on politics … they structure our ideas and concepts, they shape the way we reason … For the most part, our use of frames is unconscious and automatic."

Lakoff is affable and generous. In public meetings he greets every question with: "That is an extremely good question." But he cannot keep the frustration out of his voice: the left, he argues, is losing the political argument – every year, it cedes more ground to the right, under the mistaken impression that this will bring everything closer to the centre. In fact, there is no centre: the more progressives capitulate, the more boldly the conservatives express their vision, and the further to the right the mainstream moves. The reason is that conservatives speak from an authentic moral position, and appeal to voters' values. Liberals try to argue against them using evidence; they are embarrassed by emotionality. They think that if you can just demonstrate to voters how their self-interest is served by a socially egalitarian position, that will work, and everyone will vote for them and the debate will be over. In fact, Lakoff asserts, voters don't vote for bald self-interest; self-interest fails to ignite, it inspires nothing – progressives, of all people, ought to understand this.

When he talks about the collapse of the left, he clearly doesn't mean that those parties have disintegrated: they could be in government, as the Democrats are in the US. But their vision of progressive politics is compromised and weak. So in the UK there have been racist "Go home" vans and there is an immigration bill going through parliament, unopposed, that mandates doctors, the DVLA, banks and landlords to interrogate the immigration status of us all; Hungary has vigilante groups attacking Roma, and its government recently tried to criminalise homelessness; the leaders of the Golden Dawn in Greece have only just been arrested, having been flirting with fascism since the collapse of the eurozone. We see, time and again, people in need being dehumanised, in a way that seems like a throwback to 60 or 70 years ago. Nobody could say the left was winning.

Lakoff predicted all this in Moral Politics, first published in 1996. In it, he warned that "if liberals do not concern themselves very seriously and very quickly with the unity of their own  philosophy and with morality and the family, they will not merely continue to lose elections but will as well bear responsibility for the success of conservatives in turning back the clock of progress in America." Since then, the left has cleaved moderately well to established principles around the politics of the individual – women are equal, racism is wrong, homophobia is wrong. But everything else: a fair day's work for a fair day's pay, the essential dignity of all humans, even if they're foreign people or young people, education as a public good, the natural world as a treasure rather than an instrument of our convenience, the existence of motives besides profit, the pointlessness and poison of privatisation, the profundity, worth and purpose of pooling resources … this stuff is an embarrassment to centre-left parties, even when they're in government, let alone when they're in opposition. When unions reference these ideas, they are dismissed as dinosaurs.

 
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