Guest Post by George Lakoff: The Obama Code

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obama twn 2009.jpg
This is a guest post for The Washington Note by UC Berkeley cognitive linguistics professor George Lakoff, author of The Political Mind: Why You Can’t Understand 21st-Century American Politics with an 18th-Century Brain and Don’t Think of an Elephant! Know Your Values and Frame the Debate–The Essential Guide for Progressives. To listen to a talk recently given by George Lakoff at the New America Foundation, click here.
Berkeley, CA. February 24, 2009
The Obama Code
As President Obama prepares to address a joint session of Congress, what can we expect to hear?
The pundits will stress the nuts-and-bolts policy issues: the banking system, education, energy, health care. But beyond policy, there will be a vision of America–a moral vision and a view of unity that the pundits often miss.
lakoff.jpgWhat they miss is the Obama Code.
For the sake of unity, the President tends to express his moral vision indirectly. Like other self-aware and highly articulate speakers, he connects with his audience using what cognitive scientists call the “cognitive unconscious.” Speaking naturally, he lets his deepest ideas simply structure what he is saying. If you follow him, the deep ideas are communicated unconsciously and automatically. The Code is his most effective way to bring the country together around fundamental American values.
For supporters of the President, it is crucial to understand the Code in order to talk overtly about the old values our new president is communicating. It is necessary because tens of millions of Americans–both conservatives and progressives–don’t yet perceive the vital sea change that Obama is bringing about.
The word “code” can refer to a system of either communication or morality. President Obama has integrated the two. The Obama Code is both moral and linguistic at once. The President is using his enormous skills as a communicator to express a moral system. As he has said, budgets are moral documents. His economic program is tied to his moral system and is discussed in the Code, as are just about all of his other policies.


Behind the Obama Code are seven crucial intellectual moves that I believe are historically, practically, and cognitively appropriate, as well as politically astute. They are not all obvious, and jointly they may seem mysterious. That is why it is worth sorting them out one-by-one.
1. Values Over Programs
The first move is to distinguish programs from the value systems they represent. Every policy has a material aspect–the nuts and bolts of how it works– plus a typically implicit cognitive aspect that represents the values and ideas behind the nuts and bolts. The President knows the difference. He understands that those who see themselves as “progressive” or “conservative” all too often define those words in terms of programs rather than values. Even the programs championed by progressives may not fit what the President sees as the fundamental values of the country. He is seeking to align the programs of his administration with those values.
The potential pushback will come not just from conservatives who do not share his values, but just as much from progressives who make the mistake of thinking that programs are values and that progressivism is defined by a list of programs. When some of those programs are cut as economically secondary or as unessential, their defenders will inevitably see this as a conservative move rather than a move within an overall moral vision they share with the President.
This separation between values and programs lies behind the president’s pledge to cut programs that don’t serve those values and support those that do — no matter whether they are proposed by Republicans or Democrats. The President’s idealistic question is, what policies serve what values? — not what political interests?
2. Progressive Values are American Values
President Obama’s second intellectual move concerns what the fundamental American values are. In Moral Politics, I described what I found to be the implicit, often unconscious, value systems behind progressive and conservative thought. Progressive thought rests, first, on the value of empathy–putting oneself in other people’s shoes, seeing the world through their eyes, and therefore caring about them. The second principle is acting on that care, taking responsibility both for oneself and others, social as well as individual responsibility. The third is acting to make oneself, the country, and the world better–what Obama has called an “ethic of excellence” toward creating “a more perfect union” politically.
Historian Lynn Hunt, in Inventing Human Rights, has shown that those values, beginning with empathy, lie historically behind the human rights expressed in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.
Obama, in various interviews and speeches, has provided the logical link. Empathy is not mere sympathy. Putting oneself in the shoes of others brings with it the responsibility to act on that empathy–to be “our brother’s keeper and our sister’s keeper”–and to act to improve ourselves, our country, and the world.
The logic is simple: Empathy is why we have the values of freedom, fairness, and equality — for everyone, not just for certain individuals. If we put ourselves in the shoes of others, we will want them to be free and treated fairly. Empathy with all leads to equality: no one should be treated worse than anyone else. Empathy leads us to democracy: to avoid being subject indefinitely to the whims of an oppressive and unfair ruler, we need to be able to choose who governs us and we need a government of laws.
Obama has consistently maintained that what I, in my writings, have called “progressive” values are fundamental American values. From his perspective, he is not a progressive; he is just an American. That is a crucial intellectual move.
Those empathy-based moral values are the opposite of the conservative focus on individual responsibility without social responsibility. They make it intolerable to tolerate a president who is The Decider–who gets to decide without caring about or listening to anybody. Empathy-based values are opposed to the pure self-interest of a laissez-faire “free market,” which assumes that greed is good and that seeking self-interest will magically maximize everyone’s interests.
They oppose a purely self-interested view of America in foreign policy. Obama’s foreign policy is empathy-based, concerned with people as well as states–with poverty, education, disease, water, the rights of women and children, ethnic cleansing, and so on around the world.
How are such values expressed? Take a look at the inaugural speech. Empathy: “the kindness to take in a stranger when the levees break, the selflessness of workers who would rather cut their hours than see a friend lose their job, the firefighter’s courage to storm a stairway filled with smoke, but also a parent’s willingness to nurture a child…” Responsibility to ourselves and others: “We have duties to ourselves, the nation, and the world.” The ethic of excellence: “there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of character, than giving our all to a difficult task.” They define our democracy: “This is the meaning of our liberty and our creed.”
The same values apply to foreign policy: “To the people of poor nations, we pledge to work alongside you to make your farms flourish and make clean waters flow; to nourish starved bodies and feed hungry minds.” And to religion as well: By quoting language like “our brother’s keeper,” he is communicating that mere individual responsibility will not get you into Heaven, that social responsibility and making the world better is required.
3. Biconceptualism and the New Bipartisanship
The third crucial idea behind the Obama Code is biconceptualism, the knowledge that a great many people who identify themselves ideologically as conservatives, or politically as Republicans or Independents, share those fundamental American values–at least on certain issues. Most “conservatives” are not thoroughgoing movement conservatives, but are what I have called “partial progressives” sharing Obama’s American values on many issues.
Where such folks agree with him on values, Obama tries, and will continue to try, to work with them on those issues if not others. And, he assumes, correctly believe, that the more they come to think in terms of those American values, the less they will think in terms of opposing conservative values.
Biconceptualism lay behind his invitation to Rick Warren to speak at the inaugural. Warren is a biconceptual, like many younger evangelicals. He shares Obama’s views of the environment, poverty, health, and social responsibility, though he is otherwise a conservative. Biconceptualism is behind his “courting” of Republican members of Congress. The idea is not to accept conservative moral views, but to find those issues where individual Republicans already share what he sees as fundamentally American values.
He has “reached across the aisle” to Richard Lugar on nuclear proliferation, but not on economics.
Biconceptualism is central to Obama’s attempts to achieve unity–a unity based on his understanding of American values. The current economic failure gives him an opening to speak about the economy in terms of those ideals: caring about all, prosperity for all, responsibility for all by all, and good jobs for all who want to work.
I think Obama is correct about biconceptualism of this sort–at least where the overwhelming proportion of Americans is concerned. When the President spoke at the Lincoln Day dinner recently about sensible Midwestern Republicans, he meant biconceptual Republicans, who are progressive and/or pragmatic on many issues.
But hardcore movement conservatives tend to be more ideological and less biconceptual than their constituents. In the recent stimulus vote, the hardcore movement conservatives kept party discipline (except for three Senate votes) by threatening to run opposition candidates against anyone who broke ranks. They were able to enforce this because the conservative message machine is strong in their districts and there is no nationwide progressive message machine operating in those districts. The effectiveness of the conservative message machine led to Obama making a rare mistake in communication, the mistake of saying out loud in Florida not to think of Rush Limbaugh, thus violating the first rule of framing and giving Rush Limbaugh even greater power.
Biconceptual, partly progressive, Republicans do exist in Congress, and the president is not going to give up on them. But as long as the conservative message machine can activate its values virtually unopposed in conservative districts, movement conservatives can continue to pressure biconceptual Republicans and keep them from voting their conscience on many issues. This is why a nationwide progressive message machine needs to be organized if the president is to achieve unity through biconceptualism.
4. Protection and Empowerment
The fourth idea behind the Obama Code is the President’s understanding of government–“not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works.” This depends on what “works” means. The word sounds purely pragmatic, but it is moral in operation.
The idea is that government has twin moral missions: protection and empowerment. Protection includes not just military and police protection, but protections for the environment, consumers, workers, pensioners, disaster victims, and investors.
Empowerment is what his stimulus package is about: it includes education and other forms of infrastructure–roads, bridges, communications, energy supply, the banking system and stock market. The moral mission of government is simple: no one can earn a living in America or live an American life without protection and empowerment by the government. The stimulus package is basically an empowerment package. Taxes are what you pay for living in America, rather than in Congo or Bangladesh. And the more money you make from government protection and empowerment, the more you owe in return. Progressive taxation is a matter of moral accounting. Tax cuts for the middle class mean that the middle class hasn’t been getting as much as it has been contributing to the nation’s productivity for many years.
This view of government meshes with our national ideal of equality. There needs to be moral equality: equal protection and equal empowerment. We all deserve health care protection, retirement protection, worker protection, employment protection, protection of our civil liberties, and investment protection. Protection and empowerment. That’s what “works” means–“whether it helps families find jobs at a decent wage, care they can afford, a retirement that is dignified.”
5. Morality and Economics Fit Together
Crises are times of opportunity. Budgets are moral statements. President Obama has put these ideas together. His economic program is a moral program and conversely. Why the quartet of leading economic issues–education, energy, health, banking? Because they are at the heart of government’s moral mission of protection and empowerment, and correspondingly, they are what is needed to act on empathy, social and personal responsibility, and making the future better.
The economic crisis is also an opportunity. It requires him to spend hundreds of billions of dollars on the right things to do.
6. Systemic Causation and Systemic Risk
Conservatives tend to think in terms of direct causation. The overwhelming moral value of individual, not social, responsibility requires that causation be local and direct. For each individual to be entirely responsible for the consequences of his or her actions, those actions must be the direct causes of those consequences. If systemic causation is real, then the most fundamental of conservative moral–and economic–values is fallacious.
Global ecology and global economics are prime examples of systemic causation. Global warming is fundamentally a system phenomenon. That is why the very idea threatens conservative thinking. And the global economic collapse is also systemic in nature. That is at the heart of the death of the conservative principle of the laissez-faire free market, where individual short-term self-interest was supposed to be natural, moral, and the best for everybody. The reality of systemic causation has left conservatism without any real ideas to address global warming and the global economic crisis.
With systemic causation goes systemic risk. The old rational actor model taught in economics and political science ignored systemic risk. Risk was seen as local and governed by direct causation, that is, buy short-term individual decisions. The investment banks acted on their own short-term risk, based on short-term assumptions, for example, that housing prices would continue to rise or that bundles of mortgages once secure for the short term would continue to be “secure” and could be traded as “securities.”
The systemic nature of ecological and economic causation and risk have resulted in the twin disasters of global warming and global economic breakdown. Both must be dealt with on a systematic, global, long-term basis. Regulating risk is global and long-term, and so what are required are world-wide institutions that carry out that regulation in systematic way and that monitor causation and risk systemically, not just locally.
President Obama understands this, though much of the country does not. Part of his challenge will be to formulate policies that carry out these ideas and to communicate these ideas as well as possible to the public.
7. Contested Concepts and Patriotic Language
As President, Barack Obama must speak in patriotic language. But all patriot language in this country is “contested.” Every major patriotic term has a core meaning that we all understand the same way. But that common core meaning is very limited in its application. Most uses of patriotic language are extended from the core on the basis of either conservative or progressive values to produce meanings that are often opposite from each other.
I’ve written a whole book, Whose Freedom?, on the word “freedom” as used by conservatives and progressives. In his second inaugural, George W. Bush used “freedom,” “free,” and “liberty” over and over–first, with its common meaning, then shifting to its conservative meaning: defending “freedom” as including domestic spying, torture and rendition, denial of habeus corpus, invading a country that posed no threat to us, a “free market” based on greed and short-term profits for the wealthy, denying sex education and access to women’s health facilities, denying health care to the poor, and leading to the killing and maiming of innocent civilians in Iraq by the hundreds of thousands, all in the name of “freedom.”
It was anything but a progressive’s view of freedom–and anything but the view intended in the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution.
For forty years, from the late 1960’s through 2008, conservatives managed, through their extensive message machine, to reframe much of our political discourse to fit their worldview. President Obama is reclaiming our patriotic language after decades of conservative dominance, to fit what he has correctly seen as the ideals behind the founding of our country.
“Freedom” will no longer mean what George W. Bush meant by it. Guantanamo will be closed, torture outlawed, the market regulated. Obama’s inaugural address was filled with framings of patriotic concepts to fit those ideals. Not just the concept of freedom, but also equality, prosperity, unity, security, interests, challenges, courage, purpose, loyalty, patriotism, virtue, character, and grace. Look at these words in his inaugural address and you will see how Obama has situated their meaning within his view of fundamental American values: empathy, social and well as personal responsibility, improving yourself and your country. We can expect further reclaiming of patriotic language throughout his administration.
All this is what “change” means. In his policy proposals the President is trying to align his administration’s policies with the fundamental values of the Framers of our Constitution. In seeking “bipartisan” support, he is looking beyond political affiliations to those who share those values on particular issues. In his economic policy, he is realigning our economy with the moral missions of government: protection and empowerment for all.
It’s Us, Not Just Him
The president is the best political communicator of our age. He has the bully pulpit. He gets media attention from the press. His website is running a permanent campaign, Organizing for Obama, run by his campaign manager David Plouffe. It seeks issue-by-issue support from his huge mailing list. There are plenty of progressive blogs. MoveOn.org now has over five million members. And yet that is nowhere near enough.
The conservative message machine is huge and still going. There are dozens of conservative think tanks, many with very large communications budgets. The conservative leadership institutes are continuing to turn out thousands of trained conservative spokespeople every year.
The conservative apparatus for language creation is still functioning. Conservative talking points are still going out to their network of spokespeople, who still being booked on TV and radio around the country. About 80% of the talking heads on tv are conservatives. Rush Limbaugh and Fox News are as strong as ever.
There are now progressive voices on MSNBC, Comedy Central, and Air America, but they are still overwhelmed by Right’s enormous megaphone. Republicans in Congress can count on overwhelming message support in their home districts and homes states. That is one reason why they were able to stonewall on the President’s stimulus package. They had no serious media competition at home pounding out the Obama vision day after day.
Such national, day-by-day media competition is necessary. Democrats need to build it. Democratic think tanks are strong on policy and programs, but weak on values and vision. Without the moral arguments based on the Obama values and vision, the policymakers most likely be unable to regularly address both independent voters and the Limbaugh-FoxNews audiences in conservative Republican strongholds.
The President and his administration cannot build such a communication system, nor can the Democrats in Congress. The DNC does not have the resources. It will be up to supporters of the Obama values, not just supporters on the issues, to put such a system in place. Despite all the organizing strength of Obama supporters, no such organizing effort is now going on. If none is put together, the movement conservatives will face few challenges of fundamental values in their home constituencies and will be able to go on stonewalling with impunity.
That will make the president’s vision that much harder to carry out.
Summary
The Obama Code is based on seven deep, insightful, and subtle intellectual moves. What President Obama has been attempting in his speeches is a return to the original frames of the Framers, reconstituting what it means to be an American, to be patriotic, to be a citizen and to share in both the sacrifices and the glories of our country. In seeking “bipartisan” support, he is looking beyond political affiliations to those who share those values on particular issues. In his economic plan, he is attempting to realign our economy with the moral missions of government: protection and empowerment for all.
The president hasn’t fooled the radical ideological conservatives in Congress. They know progressive values when they see them — and they see them in their own colleagues and constituents too often for comfort. The radical conservatives are aware that this economic crisis threatens not only their political support, but the very underpinnings of conservative ideology itself.
Nonetheless, their brains have not been changed by facts. Movement conservatives are not fading away. They think their conservative values are the real American values. They still have their message machine and they are going to make the most of it. The ratings for Fox News and Rush Limbaugh are rising.
Without a countervailing communications system on the Democratic side, they can create a lot of trouble, not just for the president, not just for the nation, but on a global scale, for the environmental and economic future of the world.
— George Lakoff

Comments

25 comments on “Guest Post by George Lakoff: The Obama Code

  1. shep says:

    “Movement conservatives are not fading away. They think their conservative values are the real American values.”
    .
    The followers, perhaps. The leaders know that it’s just a big con job on the rubes – the Bush years proved without doubt that there are no such things as “conservative values”, just corporatist ones.

    Reply

  2. Troy Camplin, Ph.D. says:

    It is amazing how such a gifted linguist can allow himself to be
    taken in this way and to then gush like a naive virgin who is
    going out on a date with the football star. She has no idea she’s
    going to get screwed. Where Lakoff sees wonder and glory and
    goodness and truth, I see cynical manipulation. Democracy?
    What is democratic about giving billions of dollars to megabanks
    and then using the FDIC to nationalize small banks to auction off
    to those same megabanks? Sounds like cronyism to me. Obama
    demonstrates that even experts in language can be taken in by
    a good rhetorician. Lakoff doesn’t even seem to be aware that
    most of Obama’s eloquence comes from his ability to read well
    off a teleprompter. When he’s on his own, he sounds like some
    guy you pull in from off the street. Obama knows what to say to
    get power — that is all. He knows all this that Lakoff said, and
    used it to fool people like Lakoff. Rather than getting down into
    the sewer with politicians, Lakoff should go learn some
    economics so he doesn’t embarrass himself further.

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  3. ejfirestorm says:

    Perhaps, Obama’s voice of American values is really a Declaration of Interdependence.

    Reply

  4. Mr.Murder says:

    There is no reason to be scared of Americans and their capacity to to understand noble concepts.
    JFK realized that and moved people with his words. He could make the conversation with America into one the world could share.
    Now he may also have spoke in broad terms with those words, but they often accompanied a clear result.
    Do not shy away from the capacity of people to think, try instead to cultivate this opportunity before you.

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  5. Dennis Alvernaz says:

    Though excessively verbose and somewhat constrained by the
    progressive/conservative dialectical vocabulary, Mr. Lakoff
    articulates well some of what I have been noticing in Obama’s
    texts.
    Cleverly, Obama has “civic virtue” in his scope. With Lakoff, I
    agree that he is not preaching to the congregation yet since
    there is no natural congregation for civility or virtue in recent
    days, years, decades. His pragmatic logic is lawyerly and
    compassion is his civic virtue.
    Think tanks tank themselves on policies. A method, a
    technology, a policy for every problem. There is, however, no
    method, no technology, no policy, or even law for a person with
    freedom to choose to make a virtuous choice. The Western
    religions are mostly mute on secular virtue and the Eastern ones
    relegate virtue to the enlightned.
    If I ruled the world, I would invent a civic virtue message
    machine around the words of Lincoln on Democracy, a book I
    am enjoying tremendously.
    I find much in Obama’s approach that is a subtle reinvention of
    Lincoln mind.
    The standard of communication has been set very high by O.
    Unfortunately, when he speaks, the interpreters, right and left,
    get the public’s hearing.
    The Lakoff article was good, tedious and academic, but it jibed
    with what I have been thinking and trying to articulate in other
    ways.
    I was going to do an essay about “of the people, by the people,
    for the people” vs. “of the individuals, by individuals, and for
    individuals” as a kind
    of comparison.
    I have written the publisher of the Lincoln On Democracy book,
    Fordham Press, for permission to use some of Lincoln’s quotes.
    Otherwise I shall, as O does, have to dye and weave another
    cloth from Lincoln’s threads.

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  6. Dennis Alvernaz says:

    The message machine for the “O” penning of the American mind
    should be focused on “Civic Virtue” and should take its inspiration
    from Lincoln’s texts touching on Democracy. An excellent resource
    is “Lincoln on Democracy” in print now by Fordham Press.

    Reply

  7. Eleanor says:

    For further amplification of Lakoff’s concepts, google Jean Piaget’s theory of cognitive – emotional development. If, as Piaget postulates, most of us have not moved beyond concrete operations and into abstract formulations, than we are a nation of black and white thinkers. George Bush, Rush Limbaugh etc. are quintessential concrete thinkers. Bush’s “I don’t do nuance” is a perfect example. Bill Clinton’s use of nuance got him into trouble. Obama is an abstrct thinker and he has to find a way to connect with concrete thinkers among us. A tricky proposition indeed. As an aside, the no child left behind concept, the crown jewel in Bush’s legacy, is meant to cement into place concrete thinking in our public school system. Teach to the test, one right answer, and no time for creativity. Creativity is the door to abstract formulations.

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  8. Marion says:

    Dan: He did all that, several times , in several speeches.
    PissedOffAmerican:Lakoff is not referring to speaking in tongues.
    Dr. Lakoff provides an additional linguistic perspective on Obama’s language and the way he frames his concepts. It’s worth the effort to understand what Dr. Lakoff is attemptig to share with you, “how” language means. He knows what he’s talking about. Do yourselves a favor and reach beyond what you assume. Some additional advice? Read a book!

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  9. Polly says:

    What a great codebreaker! I do enjoy your analysis. Specifically – I note that I feel the most uplifted when Obama is transmitting that progressive values are American values. I’d follow him anywhere when he is able to display and convince such empathy from people. There’s a great book on progressive values and an agenda for the Obama admin: Thinking Big.

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  10. erichwwk says:

    On a National stage, WORDS ALWAYS precede actions, and the right words are MUCH more important than the right actions, initially. One man, all he can do is speak to get others to act. Words enabled GWB to do his destructive phase, get folks to kill and rob for him. W/o GWB’s”horsepucky” words, we would not be in this mess.
    I too, have been skeptical re Obama. While i am still troubled by his understanding of the banking system and how money works, I am no longer skeptical about his process and intent. THAT I find masterful given the problem. But yes, Obama is wrong on Afghanistan as well, and at some point action matters.
    Were Obama to include Joe Stiglitz, Robert Reich, and James Galbraith in his inner economic circle, we would have better policy than we get from Summers and Geithner, almost immediately
    Obama is not an economist, but he does seem to be a fast learner.
    I hope folks that don’t find high value in theGeorge Lakoff piece to give it another go
    Also try Joe Stiglitz on http://www.democracynow.org today.
    Haven’t had a chance to hear last night’s speech.

    Reply

  11. Kathleen G says:

    “Code” ” If you follow him, the deep ideas are communicated unconsciously and automatically”
    I have heard Obama and now Holder say that “no one is above the law” so many times it just does not hold water until we see some action.
    Obama has worried me for quite some time as well as many other Dems who started singing the “move on, turn the page” chorus several years ago.
    If they have not noticed (hell the MSM has stopped reporting about the war in Iraq or injured and dead American and Iraqi people) the war in Iraq based on a “pack of lies” is still going on.
    We have yet to witness one person held accountable for the false pre-war intelligence…Not one. That is unless it passed me by. Anyone held accountable for those Niger Documents.
    Obama and Holders words “no one is above the law” ring hollow until our nation witnesses some much needed action on these most serious issues.
    This is the very least that they can do for the thousands who have lost their lives, been injured or turned into refugees.
    They can either allow our nation to continue to rot from within or go after the truth and accountability.
    The whole world is watching

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  12. TonyForesta says:

    Thanks for adding a broader understanding to this complex issue. I agree with you that “words define the range of deeds we consider thinkable”, and that “Words shape the possible range of deeds’. My larger point is that without the deeds, – the words, no matter how glorious, -amount to little more than air and noise.
    The wingnuts and message-form multipliers in the gop and fascists in the bushgov have succeeded in thoroughly mangling and dismembering language to such a great extent that all these critical defining words, and concepts; freedom, human rights, equality, democracy, freemarkets, capitalism, liberation, privatization, conservative, libreral etc, have no more real meaning because in practical application the actions and deeds of the past eight years have used these terms to describle polar opposite, countermining policies, ideologies, concepts and practices.
    The “small government” conservatives left the Obama administration and America’s children the largest, most porcine, most debt and deficit ridden, most predator class favoring, most unitary, most lawless, deceptive, and least liked or respected government in American history.
    Unilateraly preemptively invading and occupying, a soveriegn nation that did not attack America, and posed absolutely no legitimate or imminent threat to America and nothing to do with 9/11, and no links to al Quaida, based on a festering litany of OSP/OSI concocted exaggerations, deceptions, disinformation and patent naked LIES and then slaughtering hundreds thousand of innocent people, and marauding the nations resources and profiteering wantonly in TYRANY and IMPERIALISM, – NOT liberation, or democratization.
    Words mean nothing without deeds.

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  13. questions says:

    TonyForesta,
    Words shape the possible range of deeds. If “freedom” is taken to mean merely Reebok or Nike, that is, if freedom is consumer choice only, then we lose sight of free expression, freedom of movement, freedom to be left alone. When Geo. Bush told people to go shopping after the 9/11 bombings, he began a shift in the meaning of “freedom”. We were free to go to Michael’s or Frank’s to get craft supplies, we were free to go to Ford or Toyota to get a truck. We weren’t free to criticize the coming war.
    It’s not all academic or theoretical. The words of the Constitution set up a rage of deeds the government is allowed to engage in. Words make deeds possible.
    Obama’s major task at this point is to make a new range of deeds possible by changing the words we use to define ourselves. As Lakoff notes above, the very way we characterize ‘morality”, in terms of individualism o collectivism shapes our policy. Consider that guy Santelli (or whatever his name is) — he’s FREAKING out about “moral hazard” — the utter immorality of helping anyone who got him/herself into trouble in the housing bubble by willingly joining in with the herd. So all the bad bad speculators and the bad bad people who thought that if they got in trouble they could flip the house or refinance or whatever. They got caught by the popping of the bubble and, according to Santelli, it’s simply immoral to help them even accidentally. So, given Santelli’s definition of “moral” here, we cannot help anyone out of the housing mess lest we accidentally help those who are complicit.
    When Reagan says the scariest words are, “I’m from the government and I’m here to help”, suddenly the government is bad bad bad.
    Again our words define the range of deeds we consider thinkable.

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  14. Bill R. says:

    Well stated analysis, George. And, miracle of miracles, you stated it without a word of offensive profanity.
    Words do matter, and our President is a master of words who is able to weave his policy agenda into the American story and the world of mythical meaning. Without that skill policy has no possibility of being realized.

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  15. TonyForesta says:

    Words mean nothing. Deeds define and frame the mettle or the metrics of nations, societies, industries, groups, or individuals. Words are hollow and moot,”…full of sound and fury, signifying nothing” if not substantiated by deeds.
    The last eight years of relentless deception by our government, and our president and highest government officials repeatedly lying to us on a daily basis and intentionally manipulating or message-force multiplying patent LIES framed and mass marketed in partiotic platititudes, partisan propaganda and evangelicalspeak babal prove that words mean nothing. All the words pimped and bruted by the bushgov in the last eight were lies “…with no more substance or moral dignity than a shout.”
    Will Obama’s soaring rhetoric be substantiated by actual deeds and the practical application of these seven crucial intellectual moves and the advance of American values and progressive policie? – or are we to witness more lies, told more beautifully?
    For example, this passage; – (“Freedom” will no longer mean what George W. Bush meant by it. Guantanamo will be closed, torture outlawed, the market regulated. Obama’s inaugural address was filled with framings of patriotic concepts to fit those ideals. Not just the concept of freedom, but also equality, prosperity, unity, security, interests, challenges, courage, purpose, loyalty, patriotism, virtue, character, and grace.”) touches all the critical intellectual moves, but in actuall practical application, and in terms of actions and deeds, Obama has reversed on or outright betrayed all of the loft promises hollow academic theoretical discourse.
    Words, without deeds are meaningless and moot.

    Reply

  16. questions says:

    Pacific John,
    It’s not a rejection of partisanship; rather, what Obama has to do is shift the terms of the dabate just the way Gingrich did, and further back, even Reagan did. Both Reagan and Gingrich moved American political rhetoric far far to the right, far far into individualism, far far into anger towards any kind of collective effort. We were conned into thinking that we alone were responsible for any mishaps along life’s path and we therefore needed to suffer alone. Collective action paid for by taxation of labor or of labor’s products was unjust because labor belongs either to the laborer or to the owner of that labor (the capitalist). (This is all straight Locke on property.)
    What this rhetorical regime has gotten us is low tax rates (whoopee — really helps all the people earning minimum wage), few benefits in times of crisis, and HUGE anger at anyone who costs us money through their own foolishness. (Look at the RAGE directed at Nadya Suleman — rage, sheer rage at how she’s singlehandedly (or 30-handedly if you add in all the kids too) bankrupting the state of California.) So, just through rhetoric, through language, we have a system in which suffering is privatized and we alone are responsible for everything.
    Obama can’t do a whole lot politically without shifting the national rhetoric away from this notion of absolute individual responsibility towards a more collective notion. It’s at the level of rhetoric that this shift has to take place, it’s at the level of rhetoric that Lakoff does some nice linguistic analysis, and it’s at the level of rhetoric that the dems will pick up a few more seats in the House and Senate in 2010.
    And as for the Pakistan/Afghanistan stuff POA invokes at the top, my sense at this point is that we and our drones are welcomed unofficially by the Pakistan government. The country is ungovernable as it stands, they’re ready to cede territory to the Taliban for heaven’s sake. Could you imagine just letting the wingnuts take over Louisiana or something? There’s some hope, I guess, that a smallish contingent of military power might help civilians in Afghanistan who detest the Taliban but are terrified into supporting them. It’s an ugly ugly situation. It doesn’t have a military solution, and I honestly don’t know if Obama’s strategy of mild military engagement with a lot of political development will work. I kind of doubt it, but what, POA, would you do? Let the Taliban kill and terrorize? You can’t stand what Israel is doing in Gaza, why would you advocate to stop the Taliban in Afghanistan?
    And finally, not that Locke is relevant in POA’s eyes, but still…. Locke has an interesting line in the 2nd Treatise about how if we’re to have executive and legislative power, sometimes we have to let them decide things and sometimes they don’t decide well and at that point we’re left with looking towards heaven to intercede. What’s not a crock about this (to invoke POA’s instant response) is that we set up a government TO GOVERN. If we take away the government’s ability to govern, then we don’t have a government. Not rocket science here. Sometimes the government really really really screws up and we have to decide whether or not to have a government any longer. Locke does not like the permanent revolution thing. He doesn’t think that the state of nature is that lovely or that worthwhile. So sometimes we’re stuck. I think that the Bush admin. is one of those stuck moments. If Obama puts in all of the legal changes, ties his own hands and allows the executive branch to become very very weak, then we have, in a sense, no executive branch any longer. And we should think carefully about what it might mean to have no executive branch. POA’s libertarian leanings probably prefer this version of un-government, but I’m not sure how well the country would do without an executive. The logic of political philosophy generally demands a separation of powers because we don’t want the legislators to be the ones who also carry out the laws. Too much room for conflict of interest, injustice, and favoritism. At any rate it needs to be thought through. If we have an executive, it needs to have executive powers, or it’s simply not an executive.
    The question is whether or not there are institutional structures that can contain the executive to some extent while still maintaining the branch’s basic powers. But in large measure, we as a people really need to be more careful about whom we elect. Bush/Cheney was a mistake, but that mistake does not entail doing away with the executive branch entirely.
    Go for it POA!!

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  17. Bil says:

    Lakoff ROCKS POA.
    Don’t think of a Failed Pink GeorgeWBush.

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  18. rich says:

    This is GREAT. Been waiting for Lakoff to weigh in on the cognitive aspects of Obama’s political rhetoric.
    I’ve been amused that so many have gotten it wrong: some, of course, have been in denial. David Brooks, f’rinstance, claiming the President’s inaugural addrss was not just weak soup but actually bad, is obviously an overt refusal to acknowledge a masterful performance that explicitly called out Bush and set the course back on track, and on a course that is by definition true to America’s moral and political DNA. Others (Mark Shields) just didn’t grasp its signficance, or was instructed not to say out loud precisely how directly Prznt. Obama addressed recent mishaps and failures.
    MSM/conventional critics can’t have it both ways: it was common to slam Clinton for his barrage of policy details–no uplifting phrases, no lofty rhetoric! they complained. NOw, they turn around and assert–erroneously–that Prznt. Obama has no core, no main thrust, no policy specifics. Pretty words! And not good ones, either! went the refrain. But this was ignoble and obstinate: it ignores Obama’s very direct references to Bush’s errors and violations. It refused to acknowledge that Obama set the country back on course soberly but with enormous grace, handling the Bush/Cheney issue with muhc finesse. He took it on, but did not dwell on it; he named it, but was not captive to it or bogged down in it as he faced the future.
    Stanley Fish had a really good piece on it as well.
    Obama does have serious problems. Hiding Bush’s emails; hiding torture evidence; adopting Bush’s stance on various cases before Federal courts—these are not done to maintain legitimate Przntl power, and if Obama succeeds, he will damage the country.
    Again, GREAT that George Lakoff’s analysis made it to the Washington Note. The guy’s got it.

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  19. JohnH says:

    Lakoff is right to point out conservatives’ perversion of the languuage. “George W. Bush used “freedom,” “free,” and “liberty” over and over–first, with its common meaning, then shifting to its conservative meaning: defending “freedom” as including domestic spying, torture and rendition, denial of habeus corpus, invading a country that posed no threat to us, a “free market” based on greed and short-term profits for the wealthy, denying sex education and access to women’s health facilities, denying health care to the poor, and leading to the killing and maiming of innocent civilians in Iraq by the hundreds of thousands, all in the name of “freedom.”
    Sadly, the corporate media and propoganda-oriented think tanks were happy to blur the distinction between the traditional and conservative meanings, even when it became totally obvious that Bush’s rhetoric had nothing to do with his actions. Among those was TWN, which tended to accept neocons’ noble rhetoric at face value rather than delving into the reasons for the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan.
    However, Lakoff is wrong to criticize those who are skeptical of Obama’s policies. For it is only by analyzing Obama’s actions that we can determine if he is walking the walk, not just talking the talk of the ordinary, hypocritical Washington politician.

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  20. Zathras says:

    I need some time to decide whether to read this as George Lakoff’s description of what Barack Obama would be thinking if he were George Lakoff, or as George Lakoff’s attempt to convert Obama’s English into a code no one can understand without the aid of George Lakoff.
    In the event the sheer length and density of this essay does not drive away readers altogether, the takeway message is in Lakoff’s fourth point: the necessary condition for anything any American does to live an American life is the American government. Dependency is empowerment. The stimulus bill, which is all spending (plus tax cuts) and no tax increases, is about empowerment, and progressive tax increases, which Obama has not proposed, are also about empowerment, since they are the price Americans must pay for their empowering dependency on the government.
    That’s George Lakoff’s moral vision. I’m not entirely sure it is President Obama’s.

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  21. luch says:

    I agree with POA that this post is academic horsepucky, however, the last paragraph stating that the Democrats need a countervailing message machine makes reading the post worthwhile. I have often yelled at Democratic “talking heads” on TV that they only have to state a few facts to counter what the conservative next to them is spewing.
    For example, when conservatives say all we need to end this recession is to lower taxes, why doesn’t anyone state the fact that lowering taxes during each recession without raising them in good times (as GB did), means eventually we’ll pay zero taxes. How will that solve anything? Normally, logic and truth are the best countervailing messages, but the progressives need a machine that spews it out constantly.

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  22. Pacific John says:

    This column is going to be the source of endless satire.
    It’s an amazing feat for the high priest of moral contrast to turn rejection of partisanship into the awesomeness of “code.”

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  23. Dan Kervick says:

    I think Obama would be well-advised to follow Bill Clinton’s recent advice to add more “hope” to his message. He needs to suggest not only that there is light at the end of the tunnel, but must also paint a more vivid image of what the world is going to look like when we emerge from the tunnel. His inauguration address was rather gloomy and stern – perhaps the psychological effect of economic advisers informing him for three months between election and inauguration about the various ways in which the world is going to hell. He needs to rekindle a sense of optimism, in part just because it will help people feel better. But also because the national and global economies are being held back right now by utter fear and lack of confidence.
    In most political speeches, there is a structure based on answers to the questions, “Where are we?”, “How did we get here?” and “Where are we going?” And in the “Where are we going?” section, there is sometimes a need to distinguish near term aims from long-term aims. That’s what Obama needs to focus on tonight. My suggestions for Obama’s answers:
    1. Where are we?
    It’s bad. We face crisis, emergency, a potential global economic catastrophe. The situation is very serious, and it is global. Foundational structures and patterns of the global economy are breaking down. Those preaching a return to the recent past just don’t get it.
    2. How did we get here?
    From the failed policies of the past: a radical agenda of deregulation and government irresponsibility; a systematic neglect of needed public investment; a cowardly failure attend to long-term problems and a blind faith in unrestricted and uncoordinated private enterprise and acquisitiveness, denialism about major problems and feel-good, short-term band-aids; and a systematic attempt to dismantle the capacity for effective government.
    I, Barack Obama, campaigned openly against these failed policies, and I was elected handily. Thus the American people elected me to end these policies and replace them with something else. That’s what I am going to do.
    3. Where are we going?
    a. Immediate term: stop the bleeding, prevent the patient from going critical. We need to stimulate production and demand, keep people in their jobs and houses, fix the zombie banks and get capital flowing again to the places where it can be most productively invested.
    b. Short term: address systematic national and global problems. We need to address a fragmented, inefficient, costly and unjust health care system; an inadequate educational system that doesn’t prepare enough of our citizens either to thrive in the global economy or participate intelligently in democratic self-governance; an antiquated system for global financial coordination and governance that was built after WWII and is no longer adequate to the challenges of the integrated global economy; and an outdated manner of attending to our environment and providing for our energy needs in ways that are destroying our beautiful God-given world and are promoting conflict and insecurity among nations.
    c. Long term: We will get through this. We’re Americans, and we always do. After we have done the work that needs to be done, we emerge into a better world: greener, more peaceful, more sustainable and less toxic than the world we have inherited. [Insert exciting images here of the bright future that awaits on the other side of the emergency.] And the work itself, while hard and time-consuming, will not be dreary. It will be ennobling and inspiring, and fill us all with pride in the world we are building for our children and their descendants.

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  24. erichwwk says:

    Nice communiqué!
    Obama was masterful at yesterday’s “fiscal summit”, and gave me a sense of what George Lakoff is talking about, and how skilled Obama is.
    George Walker, CEO of the Peterson Foundation was completely marginalized. In the context of a higher vision, Walkers pure policy fact presentation seemed rather irrelevant. In general one gets the sense in that one may not be able to hide for long under the sound bites of “socialism”, “free market”, “liberal”, “the other side of the aisle” , “private property”, that in the end are just dogma, and do nothing to gauge whether or not deeper values of dignity, respect, social justice, common purpose, and nurture are being met.
    EG, I am watching Sen.Kyle (R-AZ) on Cspan 2 allege that New Mexico did “best” by “receiving” it received $2.03 “back” from the Federal Government for every dollar in tax payments “out”, implying on can include NM received more than its share.
    This is the kind of nonsense (BULL SHIT?) that needs to stop. NM payments are for high tech extermination techniques, nuclear weapons, laser space weapons, etc. From our perspective, these “payments” is what CAUSE NM to be a poor state, when measured by the Obama metrics that matter, education, health care, poverty ranking. One can easily see this by correlating the Los Alamos National Lab [LANL] budget with its poverty ranking. The more LANL receives, the poorer and worse off we are. To us, nothing usable is produced. Instead these dollars compete for the resources we DO use. From our perspective, we must subsidize these free loaders at Los Alamos, which has more millionaires per capita than any other place in the US. So PLEASE, Sen, Kyle we have been begging you to take those dollars away, and stop making us subsidize these free loaders. So stop this crap about receiving more than our share by using meaningless metrics. Lets start with values and metrics that matter. Aren’t you one of those that are cramming these unwanted dollars down our throat?

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  25. PissedOffAmerican says:

    What a long winded crock of shit.
    Code.
    Gads, like his escalation in Pakistan and Afghanistan must be deciphered through the translation of an some sort of intellectual pidgin formulated by great intelligence and enlightened moral fiber.
    You gotta be kidding me.
    Meanwhile, he, (as Turley said last night on Maddow), “carries the water” for Bush, supporting some of the most egrigious, controversial, and criminal policies of the past administration.
    I don’t need a President speaking in political tongues. I need, and want, a President that will say things like, “Hey, Holder, if this piece of shit Karl Rove doesn’t get his ass before Congress, NOW, than arrest him”.
    This particular guest post is some of the loftiest horseshit I have seen in along time. Usually one has to watch where you step to avoid the field spore. In this case, you have to duck.

    Reply

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