Monday, July 17, 2006

Interview with George Lakoff

Austin Evers at Emboldened talks with Dr. George Lakoff about his new book, Whose Freedom?: The Battle over America’s Most Important Idea. A follow up to his last book, Don’t Think of an Elephant, Dr. Lakoff’s new book offers insights into why progressives seem to be losing their version of America. The book also suggests ways to fight back and reclaim the notion of freedom, and the country as a whole, for traditional American values.

"It was clear that Dr. Lakoff was excited to get his message out to the blogs. When I told him I was nervous he immediately rejected my claim to be 'only a blogger'. We discussed the role of language and ideas in forming our ideologies, his favorite Democrat Barack Obama, and the role of blogs in our national identity. Dr. Lakoff has an important contribution to make to the progressive movement and his ideas should inform the progressive blogosphere as it struggles to protect America from the regressive conservativism of today’s Republicans."

Austin Evers interviews Dr. George Lakoff:

[audio podcast here]

Austin Evers: Your book, Whose Freedom, is a follow up on Don’t Think of an Elephant, which was a broad approach to language in politics. I’m wondering, what were you trying to accomplish in writing this book?

George Lakoff: Many things. Don’t Think of an Elephant was an attempt to alert the progressive community to what the right wing was doing, to explain how it worked, and to give some idea of what could be done about it. It mainly concentrated on what I’ll call “surface framing.” That is, the kinds of mental structures that go along with words and are evoked by words and slogans. And although it did talk about what I’ll call “deep framing,” that is, values, political principles and ideas that go across individual issues at a higher level than any particular words or slogans, it didn’t talk about that in too much depth.

Whose Freedom is an attempt to move to deep framing, to explain how deeper ideas work, to show that this is not just a matter of surface language, not just a matter of slogans, but a matter of ideas. And it’s here to alert people that you can’t just change the slogans without changing the deeper ideas, and that we are really in danger of having the deepest ideas in American political life changed without the progressive community even being aware of it, or even knowing that that particular change is taking place.

AE: Why is freedom America’s most important idea?

GL: Freedom ties in centrally to democracy. Freedom is part of all of American life, and it is central to progressive thought. All of progressive thought has to do with, say, people fulfilling their dreams, people achieving their purposes, people getting their needs met. These are all issues of freedom. That is, freedom concerns whether you will be able to achieve your goals or get your needs met and what would stand in your way. Many things can stand in your way, people particularly blocking you, blocking access, lack of access, lack of resources and so on. Any of those things—lack of resources, lack of access, or the government or other people stopping you from living your life—all of those are issues of freedom.

AE: Can you talk about the notion of freedom as something that you call a “contested concept?”

GL: A contested concept is a concept that people will necessarily disagree about. The classic examples are art and democracy. Everybody has got a different idea about what constitutes art, and there are all sorts of different theories of art, and so on. People have different ideas about what constitutes a democracy. Freedom is like that as well.

What was discovered back in the 1950s by W.B. Gallie was that there’s a structure to contested concepts. They have uncontested cores—parts that people do agree on, and that the contestation has to do with people’s values, and is determined by those values and the structure of the uncontested core itself. He never went and did detailed studies of these things but linguists have in the past decade, particularly cognitive linguists. What I did in undertaking this book was to take the hardest example that had ever been looked at and to do an analysis of it as a contested concept to see exactly how it worked. What came out of it was in many ways surprising, but in many ways not surprising. The non-surprising part was the different value systems on the right and on the left, that is, the strict father and nuturant parent systems that I described in my book Moral Politics, those systems when applied to the uncontested core yield the different views of freedom by conservatives and liberals.

AE: As a progressive, I was particularly interested to learn that conservatives aren’t just crazy, that they see things in an entirely different way. They apply a strict father frame or understanding to freedom and their entire system of morality and politics stems from that. Can you talk about that a little bit?

GL: What I found when I did Moral Politics was this: I began by asking how different positions fit together. What is it about conservative ideology that makes it natural for that ideology to be against abortion, for the flat tax, against environmental regulations, for owning guns, and for tort reform? How do those things fit together? And what to they mean by family values? And I also asked the same thing about my own values. And I realized that this was a problem in cognitive science: how our ideas fit together. And that’s what I study, my field.

What I discovered was that the conservatives were right when they talked about family values, but their family values had to do with a strict father view of the family, and that the application to politics was metaphorical—it was via a metaphor that everyone in America has—the metaphor for the nation as family. We talk about George Washington as the father of our country, and we have Founding Fathers, and we send our sons and daughters to war. And the reason that this is a powerful metaphor is that we learn about governance in our family. There is a reason that government is understood in family terms.

In a strict father family the structure goes like this—and this is what is taught by James Dobson and other people on the right who teach child rearing. The idea is that you need a strict father because there’s evil in the world and they have to protect you from evil. You need a strict father because there’s competition in the world, there will always be winners and losers of competitions, and the family needs a winner to support the family. You need a strict father because it is assumed that children are born bad in the sense that they just do what they want to do. They don’t know right from wrong, and that they have to be taught right from wrong. It is further assumed that there is an absolute right and wrong, that the father knows right from wrong, and that the only way to teach it is through punishment when the children do wrong. The punishment must be painful enough so that the children will want to avoid the punishment and will discipline themselves to do right, not wrong, in order to avoid punishment. That discipline, called “tough love,” is assumed to be important in another way because if you are disciplined enough to be moral then you are disciplined enough to be prosperous in a free market. You can go out into the free market and if you work hard enough you should become prosperous.

Now, there’s a logic to this, and the logic is that if you’re not prosperous then you’re not disciplined enough to be prosperous and then that means you’re not disciplined enough to be moral so you deserve your poverty. That is part of the logic of the right wing.

It also has a further implication: that the strict father is a moral authority, that morality is obedience, and therefore everybody should do what the strict father says. When you apply this to government what you get is Bush as the moral authority, and that everybody both in the country and in the world should be doing what he says.

Lakoff on Bush

AE: Speaking of Bush, since your book is so much about language, I think it is interesting that Bush is this ideal strict father and yet is widely derided for his speaking abilities. His control over language and ideas seems very great compared to his personal control over language. How is that possible?

GL: Bush has been underestimated. I was called in as a linguist by the Atlantic Monthly a few years ago to look at tapes made by Bush when he was running for Congress in Texas, when he lost. And in those tapes he never mispronounced a word, he spoke in syntactically complete sentences, and argued in classical rhetorical form like a good Yale graduate. And he lost. He lost to a Texan that was a kind of bubba and he said he would never be out-bubba-ed again. He has learned to fit into the image of what a president should be from his base. He can be perfectly articulate when he wants to be articulate, but this is the kind of president that his base wants.

AE: Bush speaks in absolutes—this is the right way compared to the wrong way. Is this the strict father morality coming through?

GL: Absolutely. The strict father morality comes through even in the way he walks. It’s there in every gesture, in his face. It’s there in his tone of voice and it’s there in everything he says.

AE: You talk in your book about how people can in private be nurturant parents while in public espouse a strict father view. It seems like the Bush children have a pretty nuturant set of parents in that they have a lot of freedom compared to what Bush would prescribe for his country.

GL: I actually disagree with that. I don’t know the details of that, but remember that nurturance requires a strong parent who sets limits and guides, and who teaches children to ask questions, answers their questions, but is responsible for their safety and their protection and for their well-being. The Bush daughters have a lot of problems. They have problems with alcoholism, they had problems with the law. I have a feeling they come from a very different kind of background—one that lacks appropriate nurturance.

Democrats vs. Republicans

AE: Let’s talk about the underlying debate that is happening. There is always debate in Congress between Democrats and Republicans, but let’s talk about them in terms of frames. Are there major opposing frames that you see at work in today’s debates?

GL: Well, I do, but what has happened in a lot of cases is that a lot of the frames that determine how progressives come down on a particular issue are unconscious. What happens in Congress very often is that the Democrats go on the defensive and accept the other side’s frames.

Let me give you an example. Take the case of “cut and run.” The frame for “cut and run” is the following: There’s a war against evil that is crucial for us to win, and that it takes bravery and courage and all that we’ve got, and that it takes sacrifice. You have to be above your self-interest in this battle, and if you give in to your self-interest then you are being both immoral and a coward. You’re cutting and running. What you should do is stand and fight. Those three words, “cut and run,” say all of that.

What happened in Congress was that the Democrats got sucked into trying to work within this frame, and they did it all wrong. For example, John Murtha said we should talk about “stay and pay” instead. Well first, “stay and pay” has the same grammar as “cut and run,” and so it evokes cut and run. Mistake number one: grammar matters. Mistake number two: “stay and pay” says we pay—that’s a self-interest point of view. It buys right into their frame that we’re self-interested and therefore we’re cowardly and immoral. John Kerry made the same mistake when he said “lie and die.” Who is dying? Us. It’s our self-interest. We’re cowards and we’re immoral. Jack Reed made the same mistake when he said this was the Republican plan to stay in Iraq forever. Who’s stuck in Iraq? We are. This is accepting self-interest and buying into the idea that we’re immoral and cowards. As long as you accept their frame—even if you think you’re arguing against it—you get sucked in.


AE: You’re Harry Reid and you’re standing on the floor of the Senate, or you’re in Congressman Murtha’s office and your telling him how to frame his opposition to the war, what frame do you recommend?

GL: I think what you have to do is tell the truth, and you can’t tell the truth without framing it appropriately. That’s very important. Frames are not ways to spin or lie. They can be used for spinning but if you’re going to tell the truth very often you can’t tell it without framing it properly.

What you need to do in this case is first admit that George Bush got something right: Three years ago when he stood on that aircraft carrier and said “Mission Accomplished” he was right because a war is a conflict between two armies over territory, and we won that war. And right after we won that war, when he was standing on that carrier, the occupation began. We have been an occupying power in Iraq for over three years. But our troops were trained not to be occupiers but to be combatants in a war. They were not trained for an occupation, they were not equipped for an occupation, they didn’t know the language, they didn’t know the culture, they didn’t have the armor, they didn’t’ have enough troops. And the result was that they were betrayed by our president and the administration, and sucked into being an occupying force which they weren’t trained to be. The result is that they’ve been cut down, they’re dying, they’re going a bit nuts killing other people. They’re under tremendous pressures and they’re not really helping.

The issue in an occupation is not winning or losing because you can’t win and occupation, you can only leave. So the question is a practical one: Are we welcome? For many Iraqis we’re not welcome. Are we helping? Well, the situation seems to be getting worse not better. There’s a civil war going on there, and that civil war was predicted by our generals if we went in this direction. They knew in advance that a civil war was a real possibility under these circumstances but they went ahead anyway. This is not a good thing, and moreover the US has pretty much given up on reconstruction. There’s not a dime in the present budget for Iraqi reconstruction. So it’s not clear that we’re helping very much at all.

Barack Obama: Star pupil

AE: You’re a professor. Thinking about the Democratic Party as your class, who’s your star pupil? Where are you seeing success on the Democratic side in speaking in the proper frames?

GL: I think the person who best understands this is Barack Obama. There are a number of reasons for this. To explain, let me go back a couple of steps.

The Democrats on the whole have a misunderstanding of elections, which is fatal. It’s the rationalist myth but also what Richard Wirthlin discovered about elections when they were running Ronald Reagan’s campaign. Wirthlin was Ronald Reagan’s chief strategist and he had been taught that people voted based on positions on issues. When he started to work for Reagan as a pollster he did a poll and found that people didn’t like Reagan’s positions on issues but they wanted to vote for Reagan. So he tried to find out why and he found out the following things: That Reagan talked about values and if he talked about issues they were symbolic of values. People liked that he talked about values. He was authentic: he said what he believed and it was clear that he said what he believed. People liked authentic politicians who say what they believe. He was trusted because of that, and in addition he could connect with people. He had a kind of empathy with people, he could connect with them, and they identified with him because of that. Those are the factors in an election: values, authenticity, trust, connection and identity. That’s how Wirthlin ran the Reagan campaigns, not on the issues. Even the debates were run that way. And George Bush learned from this—the Bush campaigns were run on the same basis.

You’ve got policy wonks like Gore and Kerry who knew lots and lots about policy, but who didn’t know much about values, authenticity, trust, connection and identity. They should have won handily but they didn’t. So that’s part one. Obama understands these things instinctively. He gets it. Some other people in Congress do, but I think nobody gets it like him.

Then there’s a second part. Many Democrats have a false view of the electorate. They think that if you look at polling data that it will tell you about the electorate because polling data looks at the electorate issue by issue. And there the electorate looks like it’s spread out in a line from left to right, issue by issue. But in fact, that’s not how people work; the human mind does not work issue by issue. The human mind works in terms of systems of thought, and we all have both strict father and nurturant parent systems of thought. That is, both conservative and progressive systems. So for example, you can be progressive and nurturant in every part of your life but if you can understand a John Wayne movie or a Schwarzenegger movie you have a strict father model. Many people are biconceptual: they have both models in different parts of their lives.

The things that Obama understands deeply are several things. First, that progressive positions, progressive values are really traditional American values. Secondly, that people who identify as conservatives, who would write down conservative on a survey or poll, often have many progressive views in important areas of their lives. We at Rockridge [Institute] have been studying this and there’s a system to it. There are many people who call themselves conservative but love the land. That means they’re basically environmentalists but they wouldn’t call themselves that. They’re people who identify as conservative but are really progressive, not conservative Christians. That is, they see God not as a strict father God but as a nurturant God. They really care about the poor, the downtrodden, meek, etc. There are many people who call themselves conservative but want to live in progressive communities where their leaders care about them and are responsible, and people care about each other and are responsible, and where they do community service. This is true throughout the Midwest and the West and it’s a very important thing for Democrats to understand. And then there are businessmen who are really progressive businessmen in the sense that they’re honest, that they treat their employees well, and respect their employees, and that they would never harm the public, they would never put profit above public safety and harm their consumers. These folks are all over America calling themselves conservatives.

What Obama understands is that there’s a way to talk to these partial progressives in the same way you would talk to progressives in general, namely as folks with traditional American values. And if you talk inclusively in that way, you can get people to listen to you.

AE: What about as a regular person, not as a politician like Barak Obama? As a blogger and a Democrat and a progressive, I encounter people all the time who seem like fully indoctrinated conservatives. These are people who read Anne Coulter and listen to Bill O’Reilly and think that they’re not only correct but fair. Is there a conversation to be had with these people? How would you suggest having a conversation with people that approaches them as biconceptuals?

GL: Actually, Don’t Think of an Elephant has a whole chapter at the end of the book about how to do this. Imagine your uncle who is very conservative is coming to dinner. What do you say to him? The first thing to do is to avoid getting into a big argument. Instead, ask him what he cares about. The reason you do this is that progressive thought is based on empathy. That is, caring about things. And when he tells you, because there probably are things that he cares about, ask him how he expresses his responsibility for acting on that care. How does he do it? What does he do? If he has any progressive values then he cares about things and is responsible. Ask him whether he’s proud of that, whether there are other friends who do the same thing, and what else he cares about. Get him talking about what he cares about. Get him talking in terms of your value system. Find the nurturant part of him and get him talking about it. And stop.

Don’t try and make the jump [to Democrat]. Try and get an understanding that on those issues you’re just as moral a person as he is or she is and that you respect them in those areas. And if they want to talk about the ways you differ, say that you want to talk about the ways that we’re the same. I’d rather talk about the ways that we both share American values.

AE: Would you describe Obama’s style as the translation of this approach from dinner table to podium?

GL: Well, there is a different thing if you’re at a podium, or even on the air or doing a blog. If you’re talking one-on-one then you have a different discourse than if you have an audience. Because when you have an audience you’re really doing a form of indirect speech act—you’re really talking to the audience not to the person you’re talking to. That’s a different form of conversation.

You may want to do this with an audience. You can do what Obama does very cleverly and talk to the audience by talking to the other folks and bringing out the common American themes in the audience as well as other people. Now there are other way that you can do that, because as you do this you can make cases for things that they might disagree with but coming out of traditional American ideas. I think the main thing to do is always start with progressive ideas that are clearly based in traditional America, and then building on those. And that’s one of the messages of Whose Freedom?, that is, this book is about how to do that.


AE: On the subject of blogs, I’m wondering how you feel the progressive blogosphere is currently framed in the minds of non-bloggers and the media, and if you have any suggestions for bloggers as writers of a new media.

GL: One of the most interesting things about going to the YearlyKos conference was meeting the most respected figures in the blogosphere who are respected for the best of reasons. They’re just really smart. Many of them are really good investigative journalists. Many of them are better educated about what’s going on in the world than the best reporters for newspapers. There are some rather remarkable people in the blogosphere. In any area like that there is going to be a relatively small percentage of people who are that quality, but in the blogosphere that percentage translates into fair numbers—there are a lot of very good people out there.

The usual view of the blogosphere is what you find on random blogs. On random blogs you get people sounding off, and they think that this is just sounding off. And they don’t spend much time looking at the right wing blogosphere, which is sounding off in the other way. So the progressive blogs are seen basically as far left rants. And they may be in many cases; that’s not untrue that there are far left rants on the blogs. But the best things about the blogs are the remarkable people who really know what they’re talking about, who have courage to say what they need to say, who get the word out there. These are terrific people—Markos being one of them, but also people like David Sirota and Thom Hartman, not to mention people like Dan Froomkin. These are terrific people in the blogosphere and there are plenty of them out there. It’s a wonderful thing to see and it’s an important resource for the country. But the reputation is not a very good reputation.

I think that that reputation should be fought. The blogosphere has to frame itself to the world. It has to frame itself through the celebration of its best people.

AE: So is this an active support you’re talking about—buying books by progressive bloggers, calling radio stations—or is this a more general support?

GL: I think many things. Things like that. There ought to be awards to people for major contributions. The best people should be held up and praised regularly. I think examples of great contributions to the blogosphere should be collected; there should be a best of the blogs. There are many ways to do it, but I think the blogosphere has to frame itself to the American people in an effective way that shows its really productive side.

AE: Can you talk about blogs in relation to the idea of freedom that you want to protect?

GL: Blogs have everything to do with that. The way blogs can work now has everything to do with freedom: whatever your political views are, you can get out there, write them down and anybody in the world can see them. Not only that, but you can put them on the DailyKos diaries and they can rise to the top if people care about them. If people read them and find them worthwhile and tell their friends about them, who then read them and find them worthwhile, then they’ll get noticed. That’s deeply important. It’s a form of freedom that’s crucial.

It’s funny because the right wing talks a lot about meritocracy. They don’t like equality, they like equity. They think people should be judged on their merits. That’s exactly one of the things that happens in the blogosphere—there’s a system built in for judging certain things by their merits, mainly by what moves people, by what people care about for good reasons, by what people will take time to read. That’s very powerful.

Bring It On! Questions

AE: As you know, I write for a community blog called Bring It On! which has a number of front page contributors and a diary system similar to that of the DailyKos, but on a smaller scale. I asked the community to submit questions and ideas to talk to you about and I’d like to get your thoughts on a few of them.

The first one is from Liberal Jarhead and it’s about gun control. He asks about your argument that progressive values mean guns should only be in the hands of people exercising police duties and says, “that smacks of the kind of strict parent preemptive control that is much more conservative than progressive in its nature. Taking away guns has always been one of the steps totalitarian governments take in consolidating power.” Can you address that?

GL: I’m not against hunters owning .22s or something like that. There is legitimate hunting and that’s fine. Whether people should be owning machine guns or Saturday Night Specials is a very different matter. Those are not used for hunting; they’re used for killing people. Their availability does contribute to deaths.

The nurturant idea is that we’re all in this together; we’re here to take care of each other. I recently heard a very interesting interview on Terry Gross with a doctor who works in the inner cities. He says that the introduction of automatic weapons into gangs has created the same kinds of horrible wounds in teenagers in drive-by shootings that you find in Iraq when there are explosions or people are shot with machine guns. The horribleness of wounds has increased as well as the number of them. The lack of control of automatic weapons is very important if you’re going to protect people who are innocent. Gang members are not there to be a militia and protect against an overbearing government. That’s not what’s going on here.

Also, a lot of people who are criminals or who have records who shouldn’t be owning guns can get them at gun shows. The idea that you might want to have controls on this is a good idea and there are ways to do it without imposing on people who are not criminals and don’t have records and are not violent. There are also people who have mental illness problems who probably shouldn’t be owning guns.

AE: So you would perhaps argue that gun locks and background checks, not just gun control by limiting ownership but suggesting ways that we can be more progressive in our ownership is a better description of your position.

GL: That’s correct. And then there is another issue of accidents. There are a huge number of accidents each year with guns. I remember this at the age of 13 when one of my close friends killed his sister by accident. His father happened to have a gun up a their summer cabin, he didn’t know it was loaded. He took it down—he was 13 years old—and by accident it slipped out of his hands, went off, and killed his sister. This was a matter of there being guns there. It wasn’t a matter of him being a nasty person, he wasn’t a killer, but his father had kept guns around. And then you say, well, his father shouldn’t have had it loaded, he should have kept it locked away—all true, but people make mistakes. You have to account for the kinds of mistakes that can result in death. They say guns don’t kill people, people kill people. That may be true, but people make mistakes, and people aren’t always in their right minds, and people are not always nice.

AE: The next question that I have comes from Paul Merda. He asks whether you’re not just talking about marketing. To piggyback on that, I think it’s interesting that you brought up Barack Obama before because he was just interviewed about a speech he gave in which he said progressives need to reach out to people of faith, and in responding to concerns that he was falling into the conservative trap he says: “You know, I love Lakoff. I think he’s an insightful guy. But the fact is that I am not a propagandist. That’s not my job.” Can you talk about why what you’re talking about is deeper than that?

GL: Frames are normal. Every word is defined by a frame. Words like “table” or “bottle.” What is a table? There’s a mental structure that you use to understand a table: it has a flat surface, it has legs or a base to support it, you put things on it, etc. You know a few things that define tables—the table frame. Contested concepts are normal. There are lots of them, and there are uncontested cores for each of them, and there are variations of right and left wing views of each of them. They include things like harm or coercion or property or justice, even notions like nature or competition. Any linguist who has studied these things can go on for hours about their contestation. Those are just normal.

The question is how they’re used. Frames can be used to express what you really believe. For example, if you are conservative you can speak in conservative frames saying what you believe. Next, most frames are unconscious, not conscious. What I’m trying to do is make people conscious of their own frames and of other people’s frames. So my main job is education. My main job is making everybody conscious of what they believe. But especially because conservatives are doing a pretty good job of theirs, I’m interested in helping progressives understand what it is conservatives believe, what their frames are, and what it is that most progressives believe but don’t even know that they believe.

Frames can be used for propaganda. Frames can be used for marketing. But let me tell you a little bit about marketing because a lot of people don’t know what it’s about and why it’s interesting. There’s a difference between marketing and sales. In sales you’re just trying to get someone to buy something. The Democrats are in sales, often trying to get the public to buy their candidate by their positions on issues. The conservative are interested more in marketing. Marketing has to do with much more than that. Marketing has to do with changing the way people understand their relationship to the world and a product. By looking at what people really need, and what people really care about, and who they are, and branding has to do with identity based on needs and desires.

Suppose you are marketing Nike sneakers. What you want to do is notice that people identify themselves as athletes—as basketball players or as joggers or whatever—and then marketing is saying that this product suits your identity, expresses your identity to someone else, and when you wear the product it tells the world what your identity is and expresses your pride in it. It’s not just selling somebody sneakers; it’s creating a relationship over time with people and the product. I’m not saying this is good or bad, I’m just describing it. This is how it works.

Conservatives understand the difference between sales and marketing. They are trying to develop a base where people identify themselves as conservatives, as Republicans, and will vote for people on that basis and be proud of it. They will identify themselves that way and identify liberals as bad people, as the other side. This is what conservative populism is about.

Conservatives have convinced many people who have strict father morality, which makes them conservative in at least many parts of their lives, that if they’re poor and lower middle class that they are being oppressed by liberals. The word used is “liberty.” Liberty means freedom in a political context from oppression by an elite. The assumption is that the elite looks down on you, does not respect you, and oppresses you because of your cultural beliefs. This is a cultural not an economic populism. Many Democrats wonder why poor conservatives vote against their economic interest and the reason is that they’re conservative populists. They see liberals as looking down on them, as not sharing their values. In fact, many liberals do look down on them and don’t share their values. They feel oppressed. That’s why they’re angry, that’s why they often say “these people think we’re stupid but we’re not, blah blah blah.” Liberals don’t understand that this is how conservative populism works. This is about freedom: they feel that liberals are imposing on their liberty.

Take the case of private property. If you’re a conservative and you’ve bought some land near a swamp and you want to fill in the swamp and develop the land and build a motel on it. Environmentalists have passed laws preventing this, protecting wetlands. Well, you own this swamp, you want to do something with it, you want to profit from it. It’s your private property. You don’t understand this as part of an ecological commons, as part of something larger than your property, as filling in the swamp as damaging the wetlands, and as damaging a part of an ecology—it’s not part of your world view. And someone who is trying to stop you from making a buck on your private property is imposing on your freedom. Whereas the opposite is true for progressives who see the guy who want to destroy the wetlands, destroy the species in it, screw up the rivers and streams going into it and the outflow from it, as imposing on the freedom of those who want to function within the best ecology we can have.

AE: For my last question I want to ask you about how optimistic you are right now. My co-blogger at Emboldened, Matt Browner Hamlin, points out that the conservatives seem to be splintering over immigration and military tribunals, and I’m wondering what you think the prospect is for progressives to reinsert their nurturant values back into the debate.

GL: In general I’m an optimist but I don’t see very much being done right now by the Democratic Party that’s really effective. They seem to be reacting more than acting positively. They’re a little bit more sophisticated about framing but, as you saw on “cut and run,” they were very unsophisticated. I don’t take the fissures in the Republican Party as boding anything whatever about this election. I think they can patch that over very well. I just don’t see it harming them that significantly in a Congressional election.

Secondly, there’s a terrible Democratic strategy being put forth which is to say, as Chuck Schumer said last week, this is a referendum on the Republicans. They all talk about the Republicans as being incompetent. That’s a big mistake for two reasons. What that says is that you’re going to be quiet and let the other guys fail. That’s wrong because what that does is allow the Republicans to frame all the issues between now and the election. If you’re silent and you just say, “you’re going to fail,” you’re letting the other guys control the debate, and you can’t do that. Moreover, if you say that they’re incompetent, what is the incompetence frame? It says, “you’ve got the right idea, you’re just not carrying it out right.” So what does Bush do? He appoints more competent people. “Well now we have a more competent person who is Secretary of the Treasury, and now we have a more competent head of the CIA, and now we have a more competent this and more competent that.” It doesn’t change the ideology. It’s the ideology that is screwing up the country. And that ideology is being used by every Congressman and every candidate for office among the conservatives. That ideology has to be fought.

Now the Barack Obama question comes up. How do you fight it? What do you say? What Obama does is this: he says there are traditional American values, unity being among them, and he appeals to those values. We share a lot of those values and you hear in his speeches that there are plenty of them. Among those values have to do, as he points out, with religion—there are a lot of religious people in the country. They are not mostly conservatives, and that’s the thing he understands. He knows that most people who are religious Christians are, in fact, progressive Christians, and he wants to appeal to them. He wants to be able to talk to them as well as to people who don’t happen to be Christians and don’t happen to have other religions, but are also moral beings. And when he talks about religion what he immediately gets to is morality. The morality he gets to is progressive morality. Why? Because he talks about the empathy deficit. Empathy is at the heart of progressive morality—that’s what progressive morality is about. Immediately, he is able to talk to a huge audience about central progressive themes without using a word like progressive, without mentioning the ideology, but mentioning what is behind the ideology: caring and empathy. That is also what is behind the values that were there at the founding of this country.

Ideology is important but it is mostly unconscious. I write about it because it’s important for us to understand it. But understanding it is different from making political speeches, and it’s different from talking to your uncle over the dinner table.

AE: Thank you so much from the entire Bring It On! community. I know we’re all looking forward to talking about this interview and to discussing the book further. Thank you.

GL: I am delighted that you’re doing what you’re doing and I’m really glad you called.