Brewer and Frisch | What Obama Can't Do for the Progressive Movement (2)

Wednesday, 30 April 2008 02:00 By Joe Brewer and Evan Frisch, t r u t h o u t | Perspective | name.

    Wednesday 30 April 2008

    This is an exciting time for progressives. An inspiring new approach to politics has mobilized millions of politically ambivalent citizens. There is, for the first time in our lives, a genuine optimism that we can reclaim our country from a corrupt and morally bankrupt extremist group that has hijacked the discourse - and thus the dominant institutions - of the body politic.

    And yet, there are dangers far greater than the smears we have seen so far.

    As members of the Rockridge Institute, we have been unable to comment on the promise of the Obama campaign, and the perils progressives face in its midst, due to the restriction against partisan activities by 501(c)(3) nonprofits such as ours. The Rockridge Institute closed this week and, so, we are able to comment directly on our analyses of political campaigns. Now that we are free from legal constraints, we feel the need to help our fellow progressives prepare to face the challenges that lie ahead.

    First, a note about the Rockridge Institute. This nonpartisan progressive think tank was founded by George Lakoff to shift the political debate through insights and analyses from the cognitive sciences. You can read the announcement declaring the end of the Rockridge Era here. In this article, we call for a new era for progressive politics informed by the opportunities and pitfalls we discovered through our work at this small shop based out of Berkeley, California.

    A Wake Up Call for Progressives

    Obama has ignited the civic passions of millions with an inspiring call to transcend the politics of the past and deliver on the promise of a more perfect union. His campaign is grounded in the fundamental American values and principles that have brought about progressive changes throughout our history. The success of this approach, though often criticized in the media, exemplifies a basic tenet that Lakoff and the Rockridge Institute have advocated for a long time, namely that voters are motivated by shared values and authenticity.

    The Clintons and others criticized Obama when he rightly pointed out "Republicans were the party of ideas," in recent decades, because they "were challenging conventional wisdom." At a time when his opponents were trying to represent Obama as too far to the right, they linked these comments to his insightful observation that Ronald Reagan had successfully "changed the trajectory of America," which they spun as Reagan worship. A key insight missed by the media during that trifle is that conservatives have indeed shifted the common sense of our nation - for the worse. For decades, conservative think tanks have churned out and propagated strategic initiatives that have undermined the founding principles of the United States. Meanwhile, progressives have been stuck in reaction mode, struggling to defend the policies of the past, issue by issue.

    It has been an uphill battle to get progressives to recognize the need to (a) challenge the conservative principles behind all of their policies and (b) advance progressive principles to replace them. So, for example, when conservatives call for privatization of the central functions of government, progressives recoil in disgust. But when asked how to respond to privatization and the defunding of successful social programs, progressives remain stuck in the reaction trap and position themselves against the conservative thrust.

    When prodded about their stance, they generally lack a proactive progressive response - such as the recognition that government has a positive moral mission to protect and empower its people, which led to a large middle class and our historic prosperity. An expansive middle class doesn't happen naturally as the conservatives have worked to convince us. (Nor will global climate change just go away.) It takes community understanding of shared prosperity achieved through an infrastructure of government support and protection. But progressives aren't getting this understanding out there. While the rich get richer and the middle class struggles, while we wait for polluters to voluntarily clean up their act, too many people continue to believe that middle class prosperity and clear skies just happen.

    This lack of a coherent progressive vision leads to the creation of many single-issue organizations that simply react to conservative efforts to privatize, defund and dismantle X, Y or Z. Such organizations compete with each other for resources and fail to establish a public understanding of the vital role of government. It may be obvious to the people who work in these organizations, but it's not the current common sense. Why not? Why aren't good works enough? Because, everyday for the last 40 years, conservatives have been investing in long-term strategic efforts to undermine public appreciation for the positive and necessary role of government in a thriving society. Even failures, such as the disastrous response to Hurricane Katrina, enable conservatives to strengthen the perception that we can't count on government to protect us. Too many people cannot separate Republican governing failures from government itself. And, so, we acquiesce to Republican privatization - instead of strengthening the Federal Emergency Management Administration, we get a transfer of governance to private companies like Halliburton and Blackwater.

    What does this tell us? Obama alone cannot change the political landscape of ideas. A landslide victory will not shift public discourse toward more progressive ideas about the role of government in society. Even Reagan, for all his strength as a conservative messenger, did not do it alone. He depended upon an elaborate communications infrastructure of conservative think tanks, media outlets and churches to shape public opinion and reinforce the conservative worldview his administration sought to create. For a President Obama to bring the changes we seek, we must stop playing defense on individual issues and start building a coherent movement that will articulate our principles and strengthen the progressive worldview.

    This is what George Lakoff called for when he declared in "Don't Think of an Elephant!" that progressives need to rigorously analyze and replace the frames dominating political discourse to reflect key truths about the challenges we face. Some powerful Democrats have sought to marginalize these efforts as wordplay and spin. Rahm Emanuel, a high-ranking member of the Democratic leadership in the House, and Bruce Reed, president of the Democratic Leadership Council, devoted an entire section of their book "The Plan" to dismissing Lakoff's work as "a new coat of paint," a dangerous diversion into the "dark arts" of manipulation. The Rockridge Institute was founded by Lakoff to advance a compelling progressive vision, but remained perpetually incapable of attracting sufficient funds from progressive donors, partly due to these high-level attacks on his credibility.

    Lessons Learned, Experience Gained

    Of course, the demise of Rockridge is about more than funding problems associated with big donors. As staff members who lived through the final stage of its life, we have learned, in a profound way, many of the key challenges faced by progressives and how much work will be needed to overcome them. Here are a few of the strategic obstacles confronting the progressive movement.

    The Hero Myth: Our culture is so saturated with conservative ideas of rugged individualism that many saw Lakoff as a singular voice come to save the inept community like a hero in a fairy tale. Many rejected his observations because they lacked perspective on the broad scientific community his work is part of - from fields such as neuroscience, psychology and linguistics. Others who were sympathetic to his work didn't understand why he couldn't do it all on his own. They saw Rockridge as the "George Lakoff Institute" and had little sense that much more support would be needed to do this team-oriented work that ultimately must span the nation and the world, building a vibrant grassroots movement along the way.

    The same problem exists for Obama. As president, he could use the bully pulpit to press for progressive change. But, without a ground swell of pressure from the grassroots, there will be little chance of success on strategic issues. Without broad shifts in public understanding, such problems as the health care crisis will not be solved. Without widespread recognition of the moral mission of government, we will continue to engage in skewed debates over false choices, such as whether to mandate the purchase of private insurance that does not guarantee care. Obama himself has admitted that his plan, as well as Clinton's, falls short of the policy we would have in an ideal world, one in which care comes first and profits are not an issue. But hundreds of millions of people live in that "ideal world" right now - in all other wealthy nations on earth. Yet, it remains impossible to conceive as a realistic goal by politicians in the US. A massive shift in our way of thinking is going to be necessary if we want to change this. It is not simply a matter of whom we elect.

    The Misunderstanding of Framing: George Lakoff and the Rockridge Institute have familiarized many people with the importance of framing, but some misunderstandings continue, partly fed by critics across the political spectrum. A common misunderstanding is the faulty notion that framing is about "messaging" and "slogans." Rahm Emanuel is not alone in perpetuating this myth. In truth, framing is about the way we think. Frames are the mental structures that shape human thought. Frame analysis is about how people think, the ideas they have about the world and the interpretations they make about things happening around them. This goes much deeper than words. It goes to the core of our most basic understandings of the world.

    Progressives need to understand this in order to challenge conservative ideas and promote our own at the deepest levels of human thought. Until we do so, public debates will remain embedded in conservative assumptions about the way the world works.

    The Institutional Inertia Problem: Most political institutions on the left are rigidly structured to serve the politics of the past. This means issue-oriented, bound to the election cycle, short-term organizational structures that have no place for the strategic changes we believe are necessary for success. Many of these organizations are founded on the idea that people simply lack enough facts to reason to the right conclusions. This view of human reasoning desperately needs an update - it's three hundred years old! People do indeed need the facts, but they also need an appropriate context to make sense of them.

    What's more, progressive institutions need to express progressive ideals in their organizational structure. Top-down hierarchies with centralized management schemes are demonstrative of conservative ideals. They simply won't work for progressives who seek egalitarian institutions that recognize the basic dignity of every human being. Our values make sense through the experiences we have in the world - including the modes of social organization we engage in through our advocacy efforts.

    The "Electing Democrats Fixes Everything!" Attitude: There is a deep undercurrent of desperation among progressives who are so accustomed to losing that they put all their time and energy (and money!) into the next round of elections. So, back in 2006, the thinking was that everything would be O.K. if only more Democrats had seats at the table. When the new batch of bodies arrived, the thinking was that the problem had been solved - we simply needed to get more bodies in the seats. No thought has been given to the systemic changes that need to take place in the political discourse. Don't we need new ideas about politics to change the game? Shouldn't these people be made aware of the dominant conservative ideas shaping political discourse? Wouldn't it help if they had a clearer understanding of progressive ideas too?

    And what about We the People? Don't we all need to be involved with the advancement of a clear set of progressive ideas? Citizens are not passive observers, at least not in a functioning democracy. It is vital that progressive leaders resonate with the people they represent. This connection between elector and elected has been marginalized by political elites who forget the lessons of the American and French Revolutions. Leaders who wander too far from the views of the people quickly find themselves in a dangerous predicament. Conservatives learned this the hard way back in the 1970s when they found themselves out of touch with mainstream perspectives. It took them 30 years and four billion dollars invested in a powerful cognitive infrastructure to promote conservative ideas and principles and sway the mainstream back to their view of the world. As a result, the blind patriotism conservative ideology demands was widespread when the conservative media (tellingly called "mainstream") sounded the drumbeat of war back in 2003.

    The Scarcity Problem: This is a BIG one! For decades, progressive and conservative funders have pursued different strategies. Most progressive funders have set "standards" for their gifts, divided into small grants focused on narrow issues, holding recipients accountable for every penny, and refusing all but the minimum needed to achieve small gains. All the while, conservative funders spread hundreds of millions a year to support long-term growth of a message machine and the talent needed to run it. The net result - as observed in the 1997 Covington Report [Sally Covington, Moving a Public Policy Agenda: The Strategic Philanthropy of Conservative Foundations] - that conservative foundations offer multi-year block grants to promote conservatism in general. By contrast, progressive foundations tend to give small grants for a short time over a short list of specific issue areas. This results in small nonprofits having to constantly spend a lot of time and effort raising money, and all too often failing to raise enough.

    Everyone who has worked in the non-profit world on the left can attest to the desert we find ourselves in today. The bureaucratic nightmare of competing against our allies for scraps. The immense loss of time devoted to fundraising while conservatives spend half their swollen budgets on spreading the word across the media spectrum.

    Toward a New Vision

    Progressives need to know all of this if we are to succeed. Simply electing Obama and expecting him to save the day is guaranteed to disappoint, something he has been saying all along. And the world is depending on us to get our act together. Conservative ideas are driving us off the climate cliff, tearing away the life-supports of our economy, and miring us in endless surges of aggression against fellow humans who happen to reside on foreign soil. We need to transcend this nightmare scene with a new vision of hope and solidarity.

    As the conventional media (and many bloggers on the left) focus on the superficial differences between Clinton and Obama, we are calling on anyone who cares about the future of America and the world to look deeper at the problems we face.

    Here's what we need to do:

  • Recognize insights about the human mind that tell us what it means to be a political actor. The Rockridge Institute may not be around any longer, but the need to update our political strategies remains as glaring as ever. It is absolutely crucial that progressives learn the valuable lessons from cognitive science, especially the role of frames in everyday thought and the importance of authenticity and trust in the selection of political leadership.

  • Learn how our politics have come to be the way it is now. We will be better equipped to create a new politics when we know more about the old one. This great overview (Parts I, II and III) by Sara Robinson reveals exactly how conservatives have come to dominate political thought and recommends strategies to reclaim it for ourselves.

  • Challenge the dominant institutions of the past and call for new ways of organizing to face the challenges of the future. This includes the creation of institutions devoted to the creation of a progressive cognitive infrastructure. Our values and principles remain largely unarticulated, while those of conservatives continue to dominate public discourse unchallenged. The Rockridge Institute stands as a test bed for thinking about how to do this. There is much to learn about what worked (and what didn't) as we seek ways to bring our collective efforts into greater synergy in the future.

  • Redefine the nature of civic engagement to be more participatory, interactive, collaborative, and contemplative. (The groundbreaking work just released by our Rockridge colleague Glenn W. Smith on the Promise of Popular Democracy offers a fitting coda for this effort.) The elite control of politics is draining the lifeblood of democracy and failing to call upon the ingenuity of our people. The challenges are huge and the solutions require more of us than simply changing a few light bulbs.

  • Articulate the progressive vision so that progressives everywhere can recognize the common ground we all share. Our vision is based in the human capacity to care for one another and act on that care. We are much more than an assortment of "special interest groups" waiting to be micro-targeted.

  • Create a new progressive infrastructure that embodies our ideals and values. This includes a cognitive infrastructure - the ideas, values and modes of thought that express the progressive vision. Simply churning out more policy proposals and statistical analyses without taking into account what people understand the situation to be will leave the populace bored, confused, and distant from the political process.

    The progressive movement is ripe for change. We are better organized and more engaged than ever before. After years of conservative rule, there is a growing recognition that the country is firmly stuck on the wrong track, and a growing yearning for a new kind of politics. And, when the media finally acknowledges that Obama is the nominee, we all have a part to play in the process of transforming a nation.

    It is time to roll up our sleeves and get to work.


    Joe Brewer and Evan Frisch worked at the Rockridge Institute until its closure. They are the creators of a new project called hivethrive, to transform progressive understandings of prosperity, wealth and community.

Last modified on Wednesday, 07 May 2008 20:25