Time for Progressives to Grow Up

By Frances Moore Lappé

Beyond Lakoff’s strict father vs. nurturant parent, a strong community manifesto

George Lakoff’s new best-seller Don’t Think of an Elephant has been heralded as the “bible” for battered progressives searching for direction in the post-election doldrums. Lakoff himself has become the Left’s answer to Frank Luntz, the focus-group genius behind the branding of Bush’s “death tax,” “Clear Skies” and “Healthy Forests” initiatives.

“Frames,” according to Lakoff, are the key to understanding how political ideas are received. Human beings don’t absorb information as raw material; we sift input through frames of meaning carried in the language we use.

Lakoff’s central idea is that conservatives see the world through a “strict father” frame emphasizing discipline, self-reliance, forceful defense, while progressives see the world through a “nurturant parent” frame—supportive, nourishing, emphasizing mutual responsibility. Lakoff claims that thirty-five to 40 percent of Americans fall into each camp, although most are some sort of mix.

The Right, Lakoff points out, is extremely good at selling their policies in clear, easy to understand “strict father” frames. Progressives, on the other hand, too often seem to offer laundry lists of issues lacking any overarching moral framework.

So, it’s easy to see why progressives are rallying around Lakoff’s call to arms. Since polls show majorities actually agree with the progressive agenda on many key issues, including corporate power, the environment and abortion, focusing on “framing” issues in ways that Americans can understand them seems like the answer they’ve been praying for. Certainly, much of Lakoff’s advice about communicating progressive ideas is powerfully insightful and right on target.

But two big dangers loom.

First: Too narrowly focusing on getting the frame right might delude progressives into believing that’s all they need to win, since we all share a common, democratic playing field.

No. The radical Right plays by different rules. In this, David Brock’s book Blinded by the Right was my wake-up call. Because Brock was not so long ago a radical right-wing insider himself, his experiences inside this mean-spirited, ends-justify-means mindset of this group is – chillingly – convincing. He depicts people willing go to any lengths, including lying (as did Brock himself in his character assassination of Anita Hill) in order to vanquish enemies. (See his new book: The Republican Noise Machine)

In 2000, leading Republican Congressman, Majority Whip Tom DeLay distributed a pamphlet to all his Republican colleagues entitled The Art of Political War: How Republicans Can Fight to Win. Its author David Horowitz writes, “Politics is war conducted by other means. In political warfare you do not fight just to prevail in an argument, but to destroy the enemy’s fighting ability…In political wars, the aggressor usually prevails.” (Read more in Banana Republicans)

On his final episode of Now, Bill Moyers spoke with Richard Viguerie, a founding father of the modern conservative movement and author of America’s Right Turn: How Conservatives Used New and Alternative Media to Take Power. Viguerie couldn’t have described the Right’s Macheivellian outlook more succinctly, speaking about the vicious pre-election attacks on Kerry:

“I just wish he [Bush] could have done a little bit more [against Kerry]. I thought it was just great. And we’re not gonna play, Bill, by the liberal establishment’s rules. They say, ‘This is acceptable and this is not acceptable.’ Those days are gone and gone forever.”

I got my own taste of Viguerie’s anything-goes world, where the facts are irrelevant and, as he told Moyers, all journalism “is opinion.” Campaigning in late October for Lois Murphy, who challenged incumbent Republican Congressman Jim Gerlach in Pennsylvania’s 6h district, I experienced the power of a lie. Gerlach campaign telephone message ads linked Murphy to the Taliban (MoveOn supports her, MoveOn “supports” the Taliban, ergo Murphy = Taliban-lover). Who would swallow that, I thought, especially since Murphy is a feminist? But…it worked. “Are you with the Taliban lady?” said a potential voter when I approached his door. He threatened to set his dog on me.

Most Americans would be appalled – if they knew: There’s no evidence the majority of Americans approve this ends-justify-means, destroy-the-enemy approach.

So here’s one point progressives might want to savor as they think about frames: A broad swath of the American people may share the “strict father” frame just enough to be vulnerable to manipulation; but this does not mean Americans broadly, deeply share the worldview of those in power. The Left must get much better, not just at placing its issues in a compelling moral frame, but at exposing and holding the radical Right accountable for its lies and deception – without, and here is the tricky part, making those who have been manipulated feel ridiculed and put down.

Time to grow up

Second, the frame Lakoff identifies with progressives – “nurturant parent” – itself needs critical thought.

Nurturant parent – what could be worse for progressives?

They’re already stereotyped as coddlers of the lazy poor; dubbed “bleeding hearts” who refuse to require people to take responsibility for themselves. A nurturant parent framing may confirm the caricature. Lakoff is careful to distinguish his parent model from “mother,” but I fear it is too easily received as a soft mother alternative to strict father.

The question few seem to be asking is: Are “strict father” (Right) versus “nurturant parent” (Left) our only choices, or can we move beyond the nuclear family metaphors?

If the Left is indeed stuck with nuclear-family metaphors, they’re seriously out of luck; in scary times like these “strong father” will win out over what is seen as “soft mother” every time. Thankfully, the narrow, Western psychoanalytic, nuclear-family frame itself is becoming dated.

Maybe we’re entering a new stage that has much in common with eras before the invention of the nuclear family. Maybe, in many respects, we’re moving beyond hierarchy, which any parent-centered frame necessarily must be. Big shifts are underway:

First, the communications-technology revolution is allowing us to experience one planet. Billions of us can now see and converse with people on other continents. We experience the events of 9/11, our fellow humans starving in Darfur, and the battles in Iraqi streets in real time.

Second, the ecological revolution is infusing our consciousness with an awareness of our interrelatedness far wider than our immediate family. Ecology teaches us that there is no single action, isolated and contained; all actions have ripples – not just ripples up through systems in hierarchical flows, but out through webs of connectedness in what we might think of as lateral flows. Ecology teaches us that the world is co-created through complex networks of relationships, no one of which is dominant.

These revolutions are unconsciously but profoundly reshaping human identity—the definition of self-interest and our place in the world. We’re realizing that we exist in community with each other and the world. We therefore share needs, interests, and experience with many communities far beyond our immediate families.

Third is the “revolution in human dignity.” We’ve lived so long under the spell of hierarchy – from god-kings to feudal lords to party bosses – that only recently have we awakened to see not only that “regular” citizens have the capacity for self-governance, but that without their engagement our huge global crises cannot be addressed. The changes needed for human society simply to survive, let alone thrive, are so profound that the only way we will move toward them is if we ourselves, regular citizens, feel meaningful ownership of solutions through direct engagement. Our problems are too big, interrelated, and pervasive to yield to directives from on high. Besides, few of us – unless we’re scared into it—are prepared simply to take orders.

With “regular people” stepping up as public problem-solvers on every continent and on so many levels, it’s hard to identify this change for the revolution it is. Some measure it in the explosive growth of citizen organizations, now totaling two million in the U.S. alone. In just one decade, the ‘90s, they jumped 60 percent. And they’re being noticed: more national governments, global corporations, as well as the U.N., are inviting citizen representatives to the table.

This growing appreciation of the power of each one of us also means students gaining a role in mediating their own disputes and in school governance; work teams spreading in factories; citizen boards in major municipalities now making significant budget choices from Sao Paulo to St. Paul; and patients increasingly enlisted in their own healing practice. Everywhere, citizens themselves are involved in decisions affecting their futures, the better the outcomes for all.

A desire to break with parentism in favor of fellowship and a hunger for healthy, strong community is not a progressive’s pipedream. It is palpable. It is everywhere. Three far-flung illustrations come quickly to mind.

The open source revolution

Consider the revolution underway in computer software: the widening embrace of Linux – an open source operating system – and nascent rejection of Microsoft, with its top-down control of 90 percent of the world’s software market. Recently Munich, Germany, decided to convert 14,000 government computers to the Linux system despite the personal intervention of Microsoft’s chief executive. Founder of the open software movement that created Linux, Richard Stallman, said this about why he left the proprietary, exclusive, top-down control software world: In that world, “the first step in using a computer was to promise not to help your neighbor. A cooperating community was forbidden. The rule made by the owners of proprietary software was, ‘If you share with your neighbor, you are a pirate.’”

Stallman considered this approach immoral. So he created the opposite software rules and culture: one that encourages mutual help and mutual learning. And it’s catching on. And now the business pages are fretting about Microsoft’s future.

Or turn to another, land-not-cyber-based, expression of community: The community-food-security movement (See localharvest.org) springing up from Brooklyn to Iowa City, from Oakland to Burlington. Farmers’ markets, community-support-agriculture, school gardens, buy-local campaigns, restaurant-farmer alliances, fair trade purchasing – all reflect a sense of strength through interdependence and face-to-face relationships. They emphasize self-responsibility in community and are rejections of top-down, centralized solutions.

And here in Boston, local Catholics are upset that several parishes are closing, sunk by the huge cost of sex-abuse scandals. Some parishioners are “sitting in” in their own churches to protest. Refusing to leave in what they call “24-hour vigils,” these Catholics have said “no” to their priests and bishops. They are saying that their parishes are their communities – and are as essential to their happiness and well being as are their nuclear families. Such renegade communities are now forming an association in the Boston area.

In a sense, these parishioners are rejecting the strict father in favor of community. (Just as soldiers in Iraq recently publicly challenged Rumsfeld while their “community” cheered.) “Support is growing,” one parishioner said on the radio recently. “People are slipping money under the door to keep us going.” And the result? Our area bishop declared that two of the parishes slated to close would instead remain open.

New metaphors, new “frames,” are called for to capture these profound changes in ways of seeing ourselves and our world.

We need to ask: What frames best embrace the growing appreciation that human beings are going beyond one-directional communication, moving from “one-to-many” directives toward “many-to-many” multi-logues? What frame suggests mutuality – mutual responsibility, cooperation, teamwork, dialogue, synergy, inter-connectedness, and the co-creation of meaning?

Any parent frame fails the test; it is inevitably one-directional, and hierarchical. So let’s bury the family metaphor and search for a more robust frame—one that suggests communities that work for all because they are connected, responsible, compassionate and therefore strong.

When Lakoff expands on his nurturant parent frame, he also notes that “the basic progressive vision is of community – of America as family, a caring responsible family.” He includes “mutual responsibility” and “community-building” as central pieces of an effective progressive framing, suggesting he, too, chaffs within the limits of the nuclear family metaphor. And his examples of progressive reframing are more embedded in a community than a nurturant parent metaphor: such as the progressive rationale for taxes being “membership dues” contributed in order to reap the benefits of a community to replace the Right’s message of taxes as an affliction for which they offer “tax relief.” Here his progressive frame is about mutuality, not nurturing.

A New Frame: Strong Communities

In times of war, when fear is being consciously stoked to keep a populace in “freeze” mode, the Right’s strict father frame carries strong appeal. Fearful creatures duck for cover. We try to cast out those who might rock the boat. Frightened, we look for a strong protector. And this is precisely why progressives must not fall back on nurturing themes. In addition to holding the radical Right accountable for its mean-spirited, anti-democratic outrages, as mentioned above, we must get tough in at least two other ways.

First, we must more effectively show just how our security is threatened, not secured, by today’s strict-father “protectors.” We can show how dreadfully ill-prepared to defend ourselves we are when anti-government ideology has its hold on Washington, leading to under-funding our “first responders”; to 15,000 highly vulnerable private chemical plants in charge of their own security; and to health care dependent on giant drug companies.

Progressives can also show that society is weak and vulnerable when we are divided, rich against poor, white against Black, Evangelicals against other faiths. Americans intuitively know that divisions weaken us; it’s one reason we’ve responded throughout our history to calls for basic fairness, such as the Civil Rights movement.

Second, in a positive vein, progressives can show that the more engaged and just a community, the stronger and safer we all are. The more we know that we can count on our neighbors, our schools, our health care providers – because we know them and because they are adequately funded—the safer we feel. Immediately after 9/11, a public health expert pointed out an obvious link between fairness and community safety. With over 40 million people lacking health insurance, if there were an act of biological warfare against us, an infectious agent could spread swiftly, he pointed out. For how could it be contained if millions of uninsured delayed seeking medical attention? Obviously a case in which unfairness – the fact that so many can’t afford insurance—threatens everyone’s safety.

A “strong communities” frame might require progressives to stop, for example, talking about the “environment,” which non-progressives can hear as a “soft” distraction in war time, and frame ecological challenges as threats “to safe air and water and food.” We might stop talking about poverty, and alleviating it, which evokes images of do-gooders, and talk about “fair-chance communities.” Stop talking about reforming criminal justice and talk about results-based crime prevention.

Let’s salute George Lakoff and his colleagues for rallying progressives to frame our “issues” in a compelling moral vision. But rather than reacting to the “strict father” frame by searching for a better use of a “nurturing parent” frame, let’s reframe the entire conversation to one that begins with a definition of citizens as responsible grown-ups, not helpless children. In this progressive moral vision we strive to live in strong communities—safer and more viable than ones that rely on a strict father, who on deeper examination may turn out to be only a stubborn loner, a bully bringing on the very threats from which he claims to protect us?

Let’s choose frames that capture what most people intuit: We all share one small – shrinking – planet, and our real hope therefore lies in creating strong communities.


Frances Moore Lappé is the author or co-author of 14 books, most recently You Have the Power: Choosing Courage in a Culture of Fear (Tarcher/Penguin 2004). Her books are widely used in college courses and have been translated into over a dozen languages. She’s now at work on a book about taking democracy to its next historical stage – democracy as a living practice that embraces economic and social as well as political life.