Freedom's not just another word

George Lakoff, bestselling author of "Don't Think of an Elephant," says that liberals have foolishly allowed conservatives to claim ownership of "freedom" -- even though the progressive version is the one Americans actually believe in.

Published June 29, 2006 1:00PM (EDT)

A recurring gag on "The Daily Show" involves a series of short clips of appearances by various advocates of the Bush administration on assorted news programs; the joke is that they all use the same buzzwords -- "cut-and-run" is the latest example -- with a robotic uniformity. The laughter this routine gets comes partly from the way it makes the conservatives seem like automatons, and partly from the sheer obviousness of the ploy. What makes them think we're so dumb? George Lakoff, a University of California at Berkeley linguistics professor who has lately taken to advising the left on how to better convey its political message, would probably reply, "What makes you think you're so smart?"

Lakoff's latest book, "Whose Freedom? The Battle Over America's Most Important Idea," doesn't offer a material advance on his earlier works on political culture, "Moral Politics" (1996) and the how-to manual "Don't Think of an Elephant," which became a bestseller in 2004. "Whose Freedom?" focuses on the one key concept in its title and elaborates on all the ways that progressives can reclaim the idea of freedom from the right and present their political approach as more true to traditional American ideals of liberty. Conservatives, Lakoff argues, have used the media to imprint their version of "freedom" in the public's mind -- literally in the circuits of our brains -- using a canny understanding of how political language shapes political beliefs and the very same numbing repetition that "The Daily Show" mocks.

People on the left tend to regard Lakoff either as a prophet preaching the way out of the wilderness or as a psychobabble-spouting ivory towerist who caters to the self-help mind-set of cloistered liberals instead of advocating roll-up-your-sleeves organizing. The truth is probably in the middle, because Lakoff is right when he observes that American political behavior seldom follows the directives of rational self-interest and that a lot of our thinking transpires unconsciously. The dopey repetition that we chuckle over watching "The Daily Show" uses the same technique employed by the show's advertisers, a litany that sneaks into our heads despite our knowing skepticism. (And what skeptics could be more knowing than Jon Stewart fans?) It works. Otherwise, the corporate advertisers -- no fools -- wouldn't be paying so much for it.

The strength of "Whose Freedom?" is that it attributes the left's current foundering not just to a failure of strategy but to a failure of self-knowledge. Progressives, he argues, don't really understand what they believe or, just as important, how they believe it. "Freedom and liberty are progressive ideas -- our ideas," he writes. "It is time for progressives to fully integrate them into our everyday thinking and into our language." Furthermore, the progressive notion of freedom is identical to "traditional American freedom," which "still reigns in the American mind." Progressives really are in tune with what many average Americans believe, Lakoff insists, but conservatives are so good at hijacking the language to peddle their own radical redefinition of "freedom" that the other side can't get its message across.

Lakoff's political thinking turns on several ideas gleaned from his background in cognitive science. First, rooted in his early work in linguistics, is the idea that most thought is metaphorical. We understand abstract concepts by "mapping" them onto concrete, physical experiences. The language we use to describe freedom (or the lack of it) is grounded in metaphors of bodily movement and of coercion and restraint: groups are "held back," the press is "gagged," people gain "access" to higher office, etc. That's why, Lakoff writes, our feelings about freedom are "visceral," because they're based on our animal desire to move about as we please. These feelings, like most feelings, are essential to the judgments we make about what we do, but they aren't strictly rational.

More important to Lakoff's political influence is the idea of "frames," the underlying structures of abstract concepts. A concept like freedom has an "uncontested core" -- a central nugget of ideas that almost everyone can agree on -- while different people can harbor radically different notions about the form the concept takes in real life. For example, the left and right in America may both agree that freedom is good, but while the left sees poverty relief programs as offering the poor freedom from want and fear, the right usually sees them as fostering a dependency on the government that lessens their freedom.

In Lakoff's scheme, there are deep frames -- larger structures that define how someone understands a whole range of questions -- and surface frames, which determine how they view specific issues. Probably the most resonant of Lakoff's ideas contrasts conservative and progressive beliefs about how governments relate to their people. These frames are metaphors based on family models. Conservatives, as he sees it, subscribe to a "strict father" ideal, a model in which the leader leads with a moral authority that "must not be seriously challenged," protecting the family from the very real evils of the outside world. He teaches the children using a demanding system of laws and punishments, instilling in them the self-discipline to succeed in a ruthlessly competitive and morally dangerous world. They learn that if they don't play by the rules, they will lose out, and deserve it.

Progressives, by contrast, subscribe to the "nurturant parent" model. This concept seems somewhat foggier, "authoritative without being authoritarian," based on mutual respect and the idea that discussion and explanation, rather than simple decree and force, are the best way to set rules. Adhering to key principles like fairness or kindness according to the situation is more important than following the letter of the law in every circumstance. The reward for behaving well is affection, togetherness and help when you need it. It holds that the "citizens care about their community and each other and act responsibly toward their community and each other." The nurturant-parent model puts its emphasis on the carrot, while the strict-father model is all about the stick.

Lakoff wants his progressive readers to understand that when conservatives like George W. Bush talk about "protecting our freedoms" by, say, trying to eliminate Social Security, they aren't being simply hypocritical, cynical or "mean"; within their own moral framework, what they are saying is true. It's just that their concept of freedom is "so alien to progressives that many progressives cannot even understand it, much less defend against it." There is no single, shared definition of what "freedom" looks like because it's a contested concept. And in the past 30 years or so, when it comes to running America, the right has been winning the contest.

In the strict-father model, discipline and morality are the same thing, and the free market is the ideal, natural forum in which they can prove their worth. People become rich and powerful because they are disciplined and therefore moral; people become poor and weak because they are undisciplined and therefore immoral. To "reward" the poor for this by giving them resources taken from the rich is immoral. Because the free market supposedly rewards morality and discipline, it's immoral to interfere with its operation. For some conservatives, all of this has been ordained by the ultimate in strict fathers, God, and to suggest that it should be done otherwise amounts to blasphemy.

Many Americans, however, are what Lakoff calls "biconceptual." In some parts of their lives -- at home, say -- they behave according to the nurturant-parent model, while in others -- perhaps the workplace -- they're more strict-father. The point is, they swing both ways, although in recent years, conservatives have done a much better job at persuading them to the strict-father view of things. This has happened, Lakoff believes, because conservatives really worked at it. Finding themselves out of power in the '60s and '70s, they did some serious soul-searching and consolidated their moral view of American political life. They invested heavily in the think tanks, educational institutions and media outlets that figured out how to hone their message so that it penetrated to the very heart of the American political imagination.

If progressives would only do the same thing -- get a better grasp on the moral frames that unite them and concentrate on how to express those frames properly -- Lakoff believes they could arouse the nurturant-parent models that lie dormant in the minds of most Americans. And they wouldn't have to betray their ideals or pander to centrists by "skewing right." They can win back the public (or at least the biconceptuals) "honestly, using framings, both deep and surface, that we really believe and that reveal the truth about our social, economic and political realities." That's why much of "Why Freedom?" is devoted to explaining how classic progressive issues like social welfare, universal healthcare, improved public education, fair trade, labor unionization and a less warlike foreign policy can be articulated as forms of freedom.

Instead of allowing conservatives to define, for example, taxes as a restriction on a person's economic freedom, progressives should seize the initiative and characterize taxes as each citizen's contribution to a commonwealth that provides more freedoms than most of us could afford on our own. Government regulations don't limit the freedom of business, they free citizens from threats to the commonwealth like pollution or defective products. They liberate citizens from unfair discrimination that would otherwise prevent them from freely realizing their dreams and potential.

Instead of doing this, progressives insist on making what Lakoff calls "the rationalist mistake." This is the "myth," born of the Enlightenment, that people behave rationally, according to universal principles of reason, in their self-interest and according to the facts. As Thomas Frank's "What's the Matter With Kansas?" memorably pointed out, this just isn't the case, at least in America.

What progressives fail to understand, Lakoff maintains, is that unless facts can be accommodated in the frames that people use to understand a situation, they'll just ignore them. And conservatives have been winning the frame game for three decades, mostly because they're clever enough to understand that it's the only game in town. They know that American voters prefer to select candidates (or, more precisely, presidents) on the basis of how they feel about them as people. "It is not that positions on issues don't matter," Lakoff writes. "They do. But they tend to be symbolic of values, identity, and character, rather than being of primary import in themselves."

A lot of this makes a lot of sense, and it's easy to start imagining ways that pressing issues could be recast according to Lakoff's formula. Progressives could demand that the wealthy pay their "fair share" to enjoy the "freedoms" guaranteed by such government-funded infrastructure as the highway system, the Internet, the court system, the banking system and so on. (Lakoff points out that the rich tend to use more of these resources than others do.) Instead of allowing themselves to be portrayed as anti-business, progressives should say that they want to protect citizens from the sway of big corporations -- like HMOs and oil companies -- which, unlike an elected government, have no accountability to the public.

Research has long shown that the American electorate may listen to negative campaigning, but when it votes, it wants to vote for something, not just against something else. If progressives continue, as they have in recent decades, to see their main role as the critics of the powerful, they'll continue to eliminate themselves as a positive choice. But what kind of political system do progressives actually advocate? Is it socialism? The vast majority of Americans, including many progressives, see that ideology as practically discredited. (As a well-meaning but somewhat muddled friend of mine once protested, "I think it can be good for some people. Not for me, though.")

Most progressives probably support some form of social democracy, but that term is faintly tinged with socialism and associated with old-line European states. Lakoff's interesting innovation is to try to reframe progressivism as deeply in tune with traditional American values rather than as a critique of them. Instead of saying,` "Let's be like the Swedes!" he wants progressives to say, "Let's be like..." well, that's not entirely clear, but a good approximation might be an idealized small American town where people still believe in public service, civic responsibility and helping out fellow townsfolk who are down on their luck. Most important, "Whose Freedom?" is really a call for the left to synthesize its current random assortment of positions and theories into a single, powerful and unambiguously American vision.

The problem with this prescription, though, is that it's not clear how many would sign on to the progressive vision once it was clarified. Lakoff implies that the natural home of this vision is in the Democratic Party, but how much of the Democratic leadership is really willing to cut its ties to corporate power and money? He uses Bill Clinton as an exemplar of a more progressive approach to foreign policy, but Clinton presided over the North American Free Trade Agreement, a treaty that Lakoff never names but surely must deplore for undermining labor rights and environmentalism. And Clinton also initiated massive welfare reforms, whose ambiguous results suggest that caring for the chronically poor might really be a more complicated matter than simple cutting them a check.

Progressives would also have to find ways to counter arguments that large public aid programs tend to turn into inefficient, self-perpetuating bureaucracies; that labor unions have been prone to corruption; that identity politics often divides groups in need of unification. Those are all legitimate criticisms (coming from both right and left) of past progressive positions, and they are grounded in real experience, not just strict-father frames.

Some critics have pointed out that while many progressives see themselves as helping the poor and disenfranchised, they don't actually belong to those classes or want to have much to do with them, which in turn alienates the very people whose interests are supposedly being served. Others note that the leftist intelligentsia seems most deeply invested in seeing itself as cooler and more sophisticated than the American mainstream, which makes the goal of finding common ground with that mainstream an anathema.

When it comes to the Democrats, it's probably more than just lame leadership that prevents the party from clearly articulating what it stands for. If it did that, chances are a good portion of the loose conglomeration of interests that compose the party would split off in protest. (It's happened before.) Lakoff is right in insisting that ideas are crucial to political success. Every effective movement needs ideas and a vision that move people emotionally, bring them together and reach down to the very fiber of their identity. If progressives, the left, the Democrats -- whoever -- want to gain power, they'll have to do the hard work of figuring out how to show the rest of America that it shares their beliefs, and to do that, they'll have to figure out exactly what those beliefs are. But most of all, they'll need to make sure they really and truly believe them.

By Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

MORE FROM Laura Miller

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Books Democratic Party Republican Party