Government Is Not a Father or Mother, But Our Child

April 20, 2005

George Lakoff has become perhaps the most listened to thinker by progressive activists. His instruction to take care in how a debate is initially framed is very persuasive. Clearly it is much harder to bring people to a conclusion that lies outside the possibilities created by a frame. It is also useful to argue in the terms that will appeal to the widest audience.

I don’t think a lack of these communications skills has much to do with the decline of progressive politics in the United States. I think much bigger factors are legalized campaign bribery, corporate media consolidation, unauditable voting machines, timidity from advocacy organizations, and the failure of the Democratic Party to support popular and non-Republican positions on key issues, well-framed or otherwise. But I do think Lakoffian skills are useful.

However, I want to see skilled framing and spinning applied to the positions I support. I do not want to see the positions I support altered beyond recognition in order to fit some pollster’s idea of framing and spinning.

When pollsters instructed a meeting of labor union communications directors to go along with the pretense that Social Security was broken but focus on how Bush’s plan would break it worse, that fit many people’s idea of how you properly “frame” an issue. When I and many other labor communicators ignored the instructions and put out the message that Social Security was no more broken than weapons of mass destruction were stockpiled in Iraq, that was my idea of proper framing.

We should start with what we want to say, and then figure out how to say it. We can’t figure out how to say it first and then decide what it is we want. The latter method leads to Kerry-esque positions on war, DLC positions on trade and health care, and DNC positions on GLBT rights. In other words: eternal muddle and defeat.

Lakoff does not just give us tools. He also demonstrates their use and presents us with an overarching framework for speaking about our issues. He contrasts the Republicans’ depiction of government as a strict father with a liberal image of government as a nurturing parent. But where does this get us? Both of those images are indeed present in our culture. One of them has been winning and the other one losing. We can claim to be the nurturing parent, but that still frames us as the non-strict parent – which is not a good thing.

What we should be doing is rejecting government paternalism as arrogant, offensive, aristocratic, anti-democratic, and oligarchical.

Republicans do not, at least not consistently, try to frame government as a strict father. Certainly it was that image that turned Bush and Giuliani into heros, rather than clowns, simply because they were in office when a disaster struck. But more often Republicans depict government as an overprotective mother.

In truth, the government is not a separate being from the rest of us, not as long as it is to some extent democratic. But the image of the government as a Leviathan constituted by its citizens is not quite right. The government is not, or should not be, a monster towering over us.

Rather, the government is our creation. It is both independent of us and in need of care and attention and discipline from us. It does not care for us. We care for it. We care for each other through it. We should not unquestioningly obey it. We should nurture it, encourage it, allow it to try new things, and hold it accountable when it makes a mistake so that it does better next time. The government will outlast us and will carry with it what we provide it in education and guidance. The government is not our father or mother, but our child – and eternally the child of each future generation of us.

When Republicans and corporate Democrats allow corporations to pay no taxes, or pass dishonest budgets, or waste all of our family’s resources on illegal wars and give-aways to wealthy cronies, they are neglecting and abusing our child. It is our job to stop them – and that will require skills in both strictness and nurturing.

As responsible parents we must be responsible citizens. That means more citizen involvement, more engagement, more activism, more democracy. It takes a nation to raise this metaphorical child.

David Swanson is a board member of Progressive Democrats of America.

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