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Start Making Sense: How To Talk To America

Those who dwell in the nation's progressive oases must learn to communicate and connect with a much broader swath of Americans. Our panel of progressive thinkers tackles the problem.
 
 
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Editor's Note: The following is Part II in a series of transcripts taken from a standing-room-only book panel in San Francisco for AlterNet's new book, Start Making Sense: Turning the Lessons of Election 2004 into Winning Progressive Politics. Already in its second printing, SMS brings together some of the best-known progressive thinkers and doers to map out a realistic plan for building a new movement for change in this country.

The panel included Van Jones (executive director of Ella Baker Center for Human Rights), George Lakoff (linguist and best-selling author), Wes Boyd (co-founder of MoveOn.org), Adam Werbach (executive director of Common Assets Defense Fund), Lakshmi Chaudhry (senior editor of AlterNet) and moderator Holly Minch (director of the Spin Project).

PART II

Holly Minch: Thank you very much for joining us to celebrate the release of the book this evening. And our hope with the panel is to really explore many of the same themes that emerged in the book. Sort of 'what happened, what do we do about it and what do we find when we look to the future?' So those will be some of the questions I will be posing to the panel....

... I would like to pick up this thread about not just being a thorn in the side of the establishment but becoming the establishment; becoming a force of people, a community that is able to speak to the middle, that is able to speak to a much broader swath of Americans than we have been able to do and I want to ask that question in the context of the culture of increasing polarization in this country.

You know, coming out of the election we had a sort of either/or dynamic set up in this country; red states, blue states; hawks/doves and never the two shall meet. So, how do we in that context of increasing political polarization and how do we in particular, those of us who dwell in the liberal oasis of the Bay Area, learn to break out of that and learn to communicate with and listen to and connect with Republicans from a place of deep respect? How do we learn to connect with the part of the country that we have not been connecting with to date? [Applause]

Van Jones: How many people in this room were born and raised in San Francisco? How many people were born and raised in California? So, I wasn't. And I want to say something about this. First of all I think that the left in our country, we almost have gone through a process where we got a divorce from our own country. For me I grew up in the middle of the country. I'm from Tennessee. I'm a Southerner; red state. I got my feelings hurt really bad growing up. I was not in the big clique. I was a nerd. I was sensitive and I left as soon as I could. And I fled like a lot of people in the left strong holds. I fled to the cosmopolitan coasts where I felt like I could belong. And I joined some of the subcultures on the cosmopolitan coasts that felt more welcoming to me. And I was able to find my place and find my voice in doing that.

But something atrophied in me that showed up around the Thanksgiving table. And I suddenly discovered that I could not talk or communicate or be heard by people I had literally grown up with. I went back to neighborhoods and churches that I literally had grown up in and when I would talk the room, it would freeze. People would squirm uncomfortably and when I finished five to ten minutes later some relative, out of pure kindness, sympathy and compassion would say, "Well now, that was a mouthful. Boy can you pass the ketchup?" And the conversation would move on.

We don't have to ask the question how do we learn to talk to America. We have to ask the question when did we make the choice to forget? What was the injury? What is the pain? How long are we going to let being-bullied-in-high-school run our lives and run our movement? [Applause] This is a question.

At some point we have to accept responsibility. We cannot lead a country we don't love. We cannot lead a country that we don't love. The country is waiting for a movement. The country is waiting for a pro-democracy movement. Not a left movement, not a right movement.

The country is waiting for a pro-democracy movement that can inspire it and not just critique it. And it's time for us to have some kind of a homecoming. We are not little people any more. We are strong. We are beautiful. We are healing. We did something in this country that has not been done for decades and we did it on a dime and the turn of a dime. We built a beautiful pro-democracy movement in our own country that came within a hundred thousand votes in Ohio of unseating one of the worst presidents or the worst leaders globally the world has ever known. We are a beautiful, powerful, proud movement. [Applause] That's who we are. And we can go home now. We can go back now and we can say, "Guess what? You think things are bad now? They are bad now. But these are actually the good-old days.

We are living in the good old days. The century defining crises have yet to hit. The energy crunch, peak oil has yet to hit. The globalization; China, India coming on line and finally being able to come into their own; that has not yet hit and affected our economy. Global warming hasn't hit. The massive species extinctions haven't hit. We are in the good old days. Whatever movement prepares itself now not to protest but to govern. [Applause.] A movement that prepares itself to govern a broken country, a hurt country, a country that needs solutions, not issues, not critiques, not complaints, not kvetches but the country that needs strong people who are willing to take responsibility and bring forth solutions. That movement will be welcomed, beloved, accepted, celebrated and lauded at Thanksgiving tables in blue states and red states. Thank you. [Applause]

George Lakoff: Thanks, Van. I grew up in a rooming house near the Navy base in Bayonne, New Jersey where my mother ran a rooming house. And as a result I never knew who I was going to have dinner with on any given night. But they were usually from virtually any part of the country; sailors, people working on the oil tanks, truck drivers, hospital orderlies, whoever. And what I discovered was that there are a lot of people who are politically very, very different than I was and they were good people. And I think of them often.

One of the things that I found when I started doing the research on oral politics was that the ideal models of the family; these strict father, nurturant-parent families are just that. They are ideal models but really we all have both of them; either active or passive. Sometimes, you can be nurturant in every active part of your life but you want to go and see a Schwarzenegger movie and you understand it. That means you've got it in you somewhere. And there are a lot of people in this country who have both models active in different parts of their lives. And I like to think of them as partial progressives because they are people we can talk to about just those things.

Now, one of the things I discovered in thinking about elections was that - I asked myself why it was that the Democrats kept trying to move to the right assuming they would somehow get more votes but that the Republicans didn't have to move to the left to get more votes. And then I realized there was a very solid, sound, cognitive science, reason for that; that's my field, cognitive science. Which is, that when you speak the language of a particular ideology you activate that ideology. And when you speak to your base you activate that same idea in the swing voters in the middle. So they know perfectly well that when they speak to their base they activate the conservative part of people who have both models. And the Democrats really screw up when they try to move to the right in three ways. They not only alienate their base but they help the other side because they are actually activating the other guys' models and because they are speaking about issues that are defined in terms of their values, not ours, they are giving up on any coherent moral vision. [Applause]

Now, the question then is 'what is going on in an election?' What's going on is that people are voting not necessarily their self-interest but their identity. They are voting for someone they identify with or for an idea that they identify with. And those folks who vote for George Bush identify with him. They say there's a guy I can trust. There is a guy who is like me in certain ways. Right? And you have to understand that. These folks are not stupid. They are not mean. They are moral. They have another moral system or they have a moral system that has been acted as half there in them but activated by the language being used.

We need to speak to the progressive part of America; of those red states and it's there. I began to realize this last November after the election. I was invited to work with the leaders of a number of about thirty environmental organizations and as I interviewed them I discovered certain things. They all were worried about the Republicans in their organizations and they didn't want to offend those Republicans. But as they spoke, they said several things. They said: 1) that there was a problem with environmentalism. That environmentalism wasn't taking up issues like health, issues like energy, and issues like foreign policy. That these were important things and they knew that. But they said something else when I asked them the question, who are the Republicans in the organizations? Do you know who they are? They said, "Oh yes, we've studied this in great detail. And they started listing and it turns out there are six types.

I mean there might be seven but I only asked thirty people. But there are only six. But here they are and they are interesting. Those are the ones they gave me. This is just field work. These types are: 1) People who identify with the land and therefore join the nature conservancy or a group that does land trust stuff; 2) Business men who are concerned seriously with sustainability and conservation; 3) Other businessmen who want to be environmental entrepreneurs, start Green businesses of various kinds; 4) Then there are conservative Christians who want to preserve God's creation; 5) There are social conservatives who happen to be hunters and fishermen like from Ducks Unlimited and so on. They happened to be hunters and fishermen but they want to be able to eat their fish and maybe still have some place to hunt. 6) And then there are people who really love their families and like hiking in the parks and they are devoted to the parks.

Now, when you look at this list, it is very interesting. These are people who are nurturant in certain parts of their lives but not random parts of their lives because each of those defines an identity; an identification with the land, a care about and identification with the job and business you have, an identification with your religion, an identification with the recreation that you do and the identification with your family. Those are important and that's one of the responses to what environmentalism should do next. It should point out and go for those parts of our population that identify in lots of different ways with the environment --- where the environment is internal not external. The problem with the word environment is that it is external to you. You're in an environment. It's like it is out there. Look at all the pictures of nature; it is never where you are right now. Right? It is somewhere else.

The point is that people vote on the basis of their identity and it's important that we look at the way that people identify with our values and our issues in that way. It is also important to recognize that the notion of community in the red states is a very interesting one. It is a nurturant notion of community. It is based on a nurturant family model. It's not a strict father community. A strict father community is one where you have a leader who tells you what to do and you do it, or else; and you get punished. It is sort of like the congress under Tom Delay or the Bush administration or the Mafia, etc.

But I lived in the Midwest for four years, both teaching and when I was in graduate school. And what I found was a lot of communities that were set up on a nurturant model. Where the community leaders cared about the people in the community and the people in the community cared about each other. That is the ideal of a red state community. It's a nurturant ideal. It is a progressive ideal. And it's important to understand what it means, in part, to be a partial progressive even if you have certain conservative views. The way that we talk to progressives is to understand where they share our ideas. And it is also a question of how you talk to people. The kind of cross-fire dialogue that you see on these shows where people are screaming at each other is a competitive dialogue. It's a conservative dialogue. It's not a form of discourse that is cooperative. And we need to be able to find a form of discourse that is cooperative if we are going to be able to talk to our neighbors and our countrymen. [Applause]

Wes Boyd: But I thought we were supposed to mix it up. Aren't we supposed to mix it up?

George Lakoff: Wes is like, "I want to fight."

Wes Boyd: Yeah, where's the fight?

George Lakoff: Love it, I love it.

Wes Boyd:George, what's up with this word, nurturant? Could you have found a better word than nurturant? Our society is nurturant? Strong. Strong nurturance. Nurturance is strong. It's not these namby, pamby permissive people. You've got to be responsible. It's tough.

Adam Werbach: Van mentioned the hurt of high school. I think we need a proposal tonight that when we take power, take our rightful place on the thrown of American power, we will dissolve junior high. [Applause] No child should have to go to school when their body is changing in complicated ways. No child should have to be around people when they are going through difficulties and unfamiliar changes in themselves. Dissolving junior high. My daughter will not have to go to junior high. I've decided this.

Governing. By a strange set of circumstances I was appointed as a member of the Public Utilities Commission here in San Francisco about a year ago. And I called when Phil said, "Should I do this? This is crazy." And they said, "Well, if you can solve the problem in San Francisco, that if people have the same problem in New Jersey or Biloxi, that's a useful thing. If you solve a problem in San Francisco that's just good for San Francisco, well that doesn't really help anyone." So we set about doing that. So, in San Francisco we released eight and one-half million dollars for clean energy jobs installing solar panels in the City. That is exactly what people should be doing everywhere.

In San Francisco and the Peninsula Bay Area we released thirty million dollars for Habitat protection around the water shed because instead of engineering solutions you can protect habitat much, much cheaper and protect your water supply much cheaper by protecting land. It makes sense. And in San Francisco, under the leadership of the Mayor, we are going to have free or very low cost wireless in the City available for every citizen ubiquitously in the City.

Now that's a year. The right took over school boards and we are still reeling from that and now they are trying to shut down the whole concept of public education and make it into religious education. So we need to take over public utilities commissions; we need to take over school boards and then we need to shut down junior high schools. [Applause] I'm serious.

Wes Boyd: So to continue the junior high theme. I was the king of the geeks in junior high. I was working at age fourteen programming. So I have my credentials. It wasn't that bad though, if you just ignored it all. I just want to give some evidence; to support what the others have said, and George especially, in terms of the thesis that there is no center or that, even better, the thesis that the best way to reach America is to go to your core values and speak with integrity.

We decided in the last election cycle, that the way we would approach the media work that we did was to start from the MoveOn base to find out, as we do continuously, what people are energized about and then to develop advertising that represents those issues. For example, early on in the election cycle we did an ad called "87 billion dollars in Iraq" which was about priorities. And that came directly from a petition campaign that went gang busters with the Move On base so we knew there was a tremendous amount of base energy with that campaign. And we said, "Okay, let's take the hypothesis that the best way to reach America is to dig into that passion and to then make the case." So we took that thirty second ad and we put it out there.

I'll tell you, the people in D.C.; you would think that the problem is that they do too much research, that they are too scientific, and that they are too cold. I'll tell you, the reality is not only do they not touch and move from value and integrity, but they do lousy science. Okay? Bad, bad science. So we did good science which was to actually say, "Okay our hypothesis is that this is going to have an impact with Americans broadly." We took this ad and we placed it in the market. We did polling before and after. The same polls they do to figure out what's moving in a presidential race and how people are feeling about issues. And then we did a control - I mean they don't even do the first step and certainly they wouldn't do a control - we a control during the same period in a comparable market, polling before and after. There was tremendous movement on all the metrics; in terms of presidential favorability, it was a 7 or 8 point movement in just two weeks.

What comes from the heart, what comes from the base, it moves people. And another example was an ad that literally came from the Move On base. We had this ad contest last year where people from throughout the country submitted ads. The winning ad was about the deficit. Who knew that progressives would think that was the most important thing to talk about but it's about our kids' future. And that ad we similarly tested to similarly huge movements on all the scales.

So we have hard evidence that this theory is correct --- which is that you have to start from integrity. You have to start where there is the energy and then make your case and people move. The best thing about this - I don't know what we would have done if found this wasn't true. But because the deep dysfunction of leadership in Washington is they are being told that they have to be very cleaver in that they have to find out what people want to hear and then they have to tell them those things. And it is deeply disabling to leadership. I think that the reason the right is doing so well even though they are nuts and fruitcakes is that they believe what they are saying. [Applause]

So we need new leadership, we need the creed, so we know what believe and we can say it synthetically and leaders; it's a tough job to be in a position of somebody like John Kerry. Where you come in March and that infrastructure is not built and you are supposed to put it together in eight months. We've all let ourselves down by not building that. By not building the stories; by not building the programs; by not building the strategic initiatives that somebody like John Kerry can pick up and run with and get into the White House on and of course, not just John Kerry but every level of government. We are going to do that now. We can to it. We have the energy and the resources. [Applause]

Lakshmi Chaudhry: I think the interesting question to ask yourself is 'how can we talk to them?' The question is 'who is we?' Is it the poor, single Latina mother trying to raise two kids? Is it the working poor? Is it African American teenager? Who is we? I feel like when you talk about "we" you are talking about very well-educated, middle-class at the very least people who run progressive organizations, who lead the progressive movement and by the way, I include myself. Because I don't think I can pretend at all that I come from any kind of; given how poor India is; that I come from a deprived background. I'm saying is that we talk about "them" as those a) the NASCAR Dad or these poor white people in red states are somehow other and they are somehow different from "us" and who is "us"? That includes so many people who are poor; people who are incredibly religious, very devout; that includes a lot of Latinos who are opposed to abortion.

One of the interesting things that occurred to me when I read Tom Frank's book, "What's the matter with Kansas?" and basically his argument is that the whole culture war is a disguise to class warfare; that the more people become poor in the red states, so to speak, basically, the Republicans have set up a message machine or an ideological apparatus that makes them angrier and angrier at latte-sipping liberals in San Francisco and New York. Right? It's disguised class warfare; disguised as a cultural war. I'm like, great, and I think he is right on target.

But it doesn't work if there isn't in fact a disconnect between who speaks for progressives and who are the people being spoken for. I think the fact that we end up with an Al Gore and a John Kerry is not an accident. I think that the leadership; who have done wonderful work by the way; a lot of the big progressive organizations. It's not an accident that they don't look a lot like the people that they are talking about. And this is true even within the Democratic Party.

One of the most interesting interviews I did was with the co-author of this book called "The Right Nation." And it was with one of the editors for The Economist, Adrian Wooldridge. And he said one of the problems with the Democratic Party is that it is growing most rapidly amongst urban professional, educated people. And these are people for whom social issues are much more important than economic issues. So the Democrats think, "Oh, we can sell out the whole minimum wage stuff as long as we hold on to the right to choose; as long as we fight really hard."

I'm not saying it should be an either/or. It shouldn't be an either/or and it should never be an either/or. The two things actually go together. But the problem is that there are sort of things that we don't interrogate ourselves for. I mean there are disconnects within who we speak to and speak for even within our own movement which is exactly what the Republican Party exploits. I mean it's the reason why they are targeting Latino votes for example. It is the reason why they are targeting African American votes for example. And as long as we don't sort of look within ourselves. I feel like if we can talk to ourselves and within ourselves with great generosity and affection and sort of actually see ourselves for who we are in all our brilliant diversity; I think we are not going to have any problem talking to the rest of America. [Applause]

For a complete audio recording of this panel, visit the SMS blog entry with MP3 files for downloading.