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It's Not Enough to Criticize Obama: Citizens Need to Take Action

President Obama abandoned the movement that started under his campaign. Here is look at what is required, and how a version of it is forming in California.
 
 
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In forming his administration, President Obama abandoned the movement that had begun during his campaign for deal-making and a pragmatism that hasn't worked. That movement is still possible and needed now. Here is look at what is required, and how a version of it is forming in California.
We begin with this week's triple whammy.


Freedom vs. The Public Option
Which would you prefer, consumer choice or freedom? Extended coverage or freedom? Bending the cost curve or freedom?

John Boehner, House Minority Leader, speaking of health care, said recently, "This bill is the greatest threat to freedom that I have seen in the 19 years I have been here in Washington. . . It's going to lead to a government takeover of our health care system, with tens of thousands of new bureaucrats right down the street, making these decisions [choose your doctor, buy your own health insurance] for you."

This is exactly what Frank Luntz advised conservatives to say. They have repeated it and repeated it. Why has it worked to rally conservative populists against their interests? The most effective framing is more than mere language, more than spin or salesmanship. It has worked because conservatives really believe that the issue is freedom. It fits the conservative moral system. It fits how conservatives see the world.

The Democrats have helped the conservatives. Their pathetic attempt to make any deal to get 60 votes convinced even Massachusetts voters that government under the Democrats was corrupt and oppressive, not just inept, but immoral.

All politics is moral

All political leaders argue that they are doing the right thing, not the wrong thing, that their policies are moral, not evil.

Conservatives understand this, liberals tend not to. Conservatives know a morality tale when they see it: Greedy Wall Street bankers, who have cost people their homes, their jobs, and their savings get billion-dollar bailouts from the government, while those honest hard-working people get nothing. Corruption. Oppression. A threat to freedom.

The conservatives are winning the framing wars again - by sticking to moral principles as conservatives see them, and communicating their view of morality effectively. In the 2008 election, Barack Obama ran a campaign based on his moral principles and communicated those principles as effectively as any candidate ever has.

But the Obama administration made a 180-degree turn, trading Obama's 2008 moral principles for the deal-making of Rahm Emanuel and Tim Geithner, assuming it would be 'pragmatic' to court corporations and move to the right, in the false hope of bipartisan support. A clear unified moral vision was replaced by long laundry lists of policy options that the public could not understand, and that made ordinary folks feel they were being bamboozled. And in many cases, they were.

Even the language was a disaster. Liberals thought that conservatives would like consumer choice. That's why they used "public option." As Harry Reid said, "It's public and it's an option - a public option." But what did a conservative hear in the words "public option?" Say "public" and he hears "government." "Option" is a policy-wonk term, from the language of bureaucracy. Say "public option" and the conservative hears "government bureaucracy."

The results of deal-making in the name of pragmatism have been considerably immoral, as documented thoroughly by progressives like Drew Westen, Matt Taibbi, Robert Kuttner, and many others. Advice on what to do instead has not been lacking from other progressives. Advice is all over the blogs. Guy Saperstein is an excellent example.

We progressives are long on factual analysis, critique, suggestion - and ridicule. Rachel Maddow is one of the best, and her popularity is well-deserved. What's more fun than ridiculing Tea Party-ers, Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck, and the like, by showing the factual errors, the flaws in their logic, and the cruelty of their positions.

But we have been dealt a triple blow. A year of failed deal-making by our side, the Tea Party win in Massachusetts, and worst of all, the 5-4 Supreme Court decision to turn our democracy into a corporate plutocracy. This is serious.

Democrats still have the presidency and a majority in the House and Senate, but the momentum is on the conservative side. Their victories in the framing wars have inevitably led to a crucial electoral victory and to a Supreme Court death threat to democracy itself, framed as free speech.

Democrats have electoral power, but progressives have not created an effective movement to take advantage of that power.

"Where's the movement?"

In the emerging Obama mythology, this is the question attributed to President Obama whenever he is asked to take the lead on a progressive issue. It is not an idle question. Leaders can only lead if there is a pre-existing movement for them to get in front of.

Moreover, there are other conditions. The idea behind a movement, and the language expressing its goals, must also pre-exist in public discourse. In other words, the movement must already have:

  • a popular base;

  • organizing tools;

  • a generally accepted morally-based conceptual framing;

  • an overall narrative, with heroes, victims, and villains;

  • a readily recognizable, well-understood language;

  • funding sources;

  • and a national communication system set up for both leaders and ordinary citizens to use.

The base is there, waiting for something worth getting behind. The organizing tools are there. The rest is not there.

That is the present reality. Expecting Obama to be FDR was politically unrealistic. And complaining that he isn't doesn't move anything forward.

Howard Dean was right when he said, "YOU have the power." What is needed is an organized activist public with a positive understanding of what our values are and how to links them to every issue. Barney Frank was only half-right when he said that the public gets active only when it is angry. That may be true for isolated issues - he was talking about regulating Wall Street. But anger is directed at isolated negatives. An effective movement must be positive, organized, and long-term, where an overall positive understanding defines the isolated negatives. And it must have all of the above.

The California Democracy Movement

We have the beginning of such a movement in California.

The central issue in California is basic democracy. California is the only state in America where the legislature is controlled by a relatively small conservative minority. Because it takes a 2/3 vote in both the Senate and Assembly to pass a budget or any tax, 1/3 plus one - 34% - in either house can control the vote by saying no to measures that would finance public needs.

Conservatives exercise that control for the simple reason that they don't believe that government should serve public needs, that instead government should be privatized and shrunk to fit in a bathtub, as if governing would disappear with government.

But governing doesn't disappear when government shrinks; instead corporations come to govern your life - like HMO's, oil companies, drug companies, agribusiness, and so on, with accountability only to maximizing profit, not to public needs.

An overwhelming majority of Californians - over 60% - disagree. They believe that government should serve public needs, and they have elected sensible legislators. But they don't quite make up 2/3. And so an extreme right-wing minority - about 37% - controls the state, its present and its future.

Luckily, there is a way out for the majority in California. The initiative process that created this situation can get us out. I have proposed The California Democracy Act as an initiative in the November 2010 election. It changes two words in the California Constitution - "two-thirds" becomes "a majority" in two places. It can be described in one simple sentence: All legislative actions on revenue and budget must be determined by a majority vote. That ballot initiative needs only a majority to pass. It would return majority rule to the legislature on everyday economic issues, bringing democracy back to California. Those interested can join the campaign by clicking on www.CaliforniansForDemocracy.com

Democracy is the central issue, and that is what our movement is about. We are setting up an infrastructure in California, with a statewide organization and a speakers' bureau, for those who want to continue democratizing the state after the election.

Democracy is The Issue

The majority vote campaign gives us a chance to talk not only about this particular issue, but about democracy as it affects all issues. The clearest articulator of what democracy is about has been Barack Obama - the campaigner we cheered for, campaigned hard for, and voted for.

Democracy, he has observed, is based on empathy - on citizens caring about one another. That's why we have principles like freedom and fairness, for everybody, not just for the rich and powerful. True empathy requires responsibility, not just for oneself, but also for others. And since we, as individuals and as a nation, are far from perfect, empathy demands an ethic of excellence, of making oneself better, one's family and community better, and one's nation better.

That view of citizenship in a democracy comes with a view of government. Government has two sacred moral missions: protection and empowerment.

Protection goes well beyond police and the military and the fire department to consumer protection, environmental protection, worker protection, health care, investor protection, social security, and other safety nets.

Empowerment is what the stimulus package was about: building and maintaining roads, bridges, public transportation, and public buildings; systems for communication, electricity, water; education, from pre-school through graduate and professional schools; scientific research and technological development; a banking system that works; a stock market that works; and a judicial system that works.

No one earns a living or lives well without protection and empowerment by the government. That is what taxes pay for. And the more you make from what the government gives you, the more you should contribute to keeping it going

Tax Shifts

When you cut taxes that pay for public needs, you are actually shifting taxes. You are taxing others. In California tax cuts for corporations last year led to cuts in the support for public universities, which led to 32% higher tuition and a drastic cut in the number of students educated. That 32% constituted a tax on those students and their parents, and when they had to borrow the money for college, interest payments on the loan effectively double the cost of the loan. That's a very high tax shift. But an even higher tax is shifted onto students who cannot afford the higher tuition: the tax of a lost education lasts all one's life and its cost is not only monetary, but a cost in human potential. It is also a cost to employers, who get less educated workers, and to society, which gets less educated citizens.

The Movement

We will be talking about all of this and more. Take economic democracy. California is the world's seventh richest economy. It is ludicrous to say that there is no money in California. If the money for public needs is there, where is it? In California, the richest one percent owns more assets than the bottom 95 per cent. The money is concentrated at the top.

Just about every issue comes down to the issue of democracy. That is why we are starting with the California Democracy Act, which would finally end the rule of the state by a small minority of ultra-conservative legislators. It would finally give the voters of the state a voice in their own future and the future of their children and grandchildren.

If you live in California (one out of eight Americans does), then join the California Democracy Movement. If you live elsewhere, form your own democracy movement and unite with us. The principles are simple, and they are Obama's:

Democracy is about empathy - caring about your fellow citizens, which leads to the principles of freedom and fairness for all. Empathy requires both personal and social responsibility. The ethic of excellence means making the world better by making yourself better, your family better, your community better, and your nation better. Government has two moral missions: protection and empowerment for all. To carry them out, government must be by, for, and of the people.


It's only a paragraph. The principles apply to all issues. That's the basis of a democracy movement. That's what separates a movement from a coalition. Coalitions are based on interests. Movements are based on principles. We need a movement that transcends interests and goes beyond coalitions.

Movements also transcend particular policies. The framing of moral principles comes first and the policies elaborate on the principles. The way to unite a movement is to form policies that carry out the principles in ways that everyone can understand.

The time is now

We have a triple disaster on our hands: the administration's failure at deal-making in the name of pragmatism and bipartisanship; the Tea Party victory in Massachusetts fueling and propelling ultra-conservatism; and the anti-democratic 5-4 ruling of the Roberts Court. We can no longer sit on our hands and just criticize the President, or give him advice and hope he can do it alone. We have to provide the answer to his question: Where's the movement?

George Lakoff is the author of Don't Think of an Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate' (Chelsea Green). He is Professor of Linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley and a Senior Fellow of the Rockridge Institute.
 
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