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Lakoff: What Obama Needs to Do in Tomorrow's Debate

Like it or not, debates are about performance, not wonky policy details.

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Consider the  96 percent study by Mettler and Sides at Cornell. It showed that 96 percent of Americans make use of the help provided by their fellow citizens through the government — and most don’t even know that government is involved and that their fellow citizens are helping them. An itemized deduction on your taxes means that your fellow citizens are paying to make up for the amount of the deduction; they are helping you. Most homeowners take a home interest deduction on their mortgages. Your fellow citizens are helping you out with your home. If you take a deduction on college investments for your children, your fellow citizens are helping out your children. If you are out of a job and living on unemployment insurance, or if you are a veteran depending on veterans’ benefits, your fellow citizens are helping you. They are helping you, and you have been helping them. Your government is the intermediary, the one who helps you help or be helped. Most of the time, most people do not even see the government helping, or their fellow citizens helping. But 96 percent of you gladly accept that help — and you deserve it.  Who are the other 4 percent? Mostly those of you who are still too young to need it — but you will, and soon. Almost all Americans do.


Conservative radicals — not moderates — have a different idea of democracy: They define democracy as providing the liberty to seek your own interests without any responsibility for the interests or well being of others, and without others helping you. They consider illegitimate all the things citizens do for the citizens of our country as a whole. And under Romney-Ryan, all of that would be eliminated.

The moral difference is clear: Do we have both personal and social responsibility, or just personal responsibility? Are we in this together, or are we on our own? The conservatives say we are, and should be, on our own. Are we the United States or the Separate States — or millions of isolated individuals who don’t care about anybody else?                                       

The answer to these questions affects every issue. If Romney and Ryan win, our nation will never look the same. It should be made clear, in every discussion of every issue, that this is the moral value behind the issue: what is our national moral character? When Romney looked at Jim Lehrer, and said, smiling, that he liked him and loved Big Bird, but that he would fire them both, he revealed a deep meanness of spirit that is the very opposite of our national character.

The fate of the nation, and in many ways the world, hangs on this election.

Mr. President, this is a grand performance that means something; it is much more than a policy debate where most people won’t understand or remember the fine details of the policies. We need you to show America what real moral leadership is.


George Lakoff is the Goldman Distinguished Professor of Cognitive Science and Linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley.

George Lakoff is Goldman Distinguished Professor of Cognitive Science and Linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley.  He is co-author, with Elisabeth Wehling, of The Little Blue Book.

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