No Center, No Centrists
Source News for Social Justice Activists
Date 07/08/18/06:17

No Center, No Centrists

by George Lakoff

“CENTRISM" IS THE CREATION of an inaccurate self-serving metaphor, and it is time to bury it.

There is no left to right linear spectrum in the American political life. There are two systems of values and modes of thought - call them progressive and conservative (or nurturant and strict, as I have). There are total progressives, who use a progressive mode of thought on all issues. And total conservatives. And there are lots of folks who are what I’ve called “biconceptuals”: progressive on certain issue areas and conservative on others. But they don’t form a linear scale. They are all over the place: progressive on domestic policy, conservative on foreign policy; conservative on economic policy, progressive on foreign policy and social issues; conservative on religion, but progressive on social issues and foreign policy; and on and on. No linear scale. No single set of values defining a “center.” Indeed many of such folks are not moderate in their views; they can be quite passionate about both their progressive and conservative views.Barack Obama has it right: Get rid of the very idea of the right and the left and the center. American ideas are fundamentally progressive ideas - the ideas this country was founded on and that carry forth that spirit. Progressives care about people and the earth, and act with responsibility and strength on that care.

The progressive view of government is simple. Progressive government has two aspects: protection and empowerment. Protection is far more than the military, police, and fire departments. It includes consumer protection, worker protection, environmental protection, public health, food and drug safety; social security, and other safety nets. It also includes protection from the government itself, and hence a balance of powers, openness, fundamental rights, and so on.

Empowerment include roads and bridges; public education; government-developed communications like the internet and satellite communications systems; the banking system; the SEC and institutions that make a stock market possible, and the court system, mostly about contracts and corporate law. Progressive government makes business possible. No one makes any money in this country without the progressive empowerment by government. A progressive foreign policy is not based solely, or even mainly, on the state - about the “national interest” defined as our military strength and GDP. Progressive foreign policy focuses on individual people’s interests as well as national interests: on poverty, disease, refugees, education, women’s and children’s issues, public health, and so on.

These are simply American values. The progressive movement is a patriotic American movement. People who call themselves “centrists” share progressive views on important issue areas, but have conservative views on other major issue areas. The areas vary from person to person. There is no single moral perspective, no single set of agreed upon issues.

The very idea that there is a “center” marginalizes progressives, and sees them as extremists, when they simply share fundamental American values. The term “center” suggests there is a “mainstream” where most people are and that there is a single set of views held by that mainstream. That is false.

The fallacy matters in terms of Democratic electoral strategy. The Democratic base consists of people who are mostly or totally progressive, just as the Republican base consists of people who are mostly or totally conservative. How does the Democratic Party as a whole, and how do Democratic candidates in particular, speak to those who are biconceptual?

I am a cognitive scientist and believe that people’s brains play a significant role in elections. From the perspective of brain science, the answer is a no-brainer. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist!) You speak to biconceptuals the same way you speak to your base: you discuss progressive values, and if you are talking to folks with both progressive and conservative values, you mainly talk about the issues where they share progressive values. What that does is evoke and strengthen the progressive values already there in the minds of biconceptuals.

And of course, you don’t negate or argue against the other on their framing turf - remember Don’t Think of an Elephant!

That was the winning strategy of Sherrod Brown in Ohio. Brown is a thoroughgoing progressive who never moved one inch to the right. He talked about the issues where he agreed with his Ohio audiences - and legitimately spoke for them.

Think about Barack Obama going to Rick Warren’s megachurch and getting a standing ovation from evangelicals because he talked about the places where he agreed with them, he activated his values in them (values they already had), he came across as a man of principle, and he didn’t get in their face about where he disagreed.

The losing strategy is to move to the right, to assume with Republicans that American values are mainly conservative and that the Democratic party has to move away from its base and adopt conservative values. When you do that, you help activate conservative values in people’s brains (thus helping the other side), you offend your base (thus hurting yourself), and you give the impression that you are expressing no consistent set of values, which is true! Why should the American people trust somebody who does not have clear values, and who may be trying to deceive them about the values he and his party’s base hold?

Harold Ford is a perfect example. He just wasn’t believable as a good ole boy Tennesseean when he took conservative positions. He just didn’t seem real. The “not a real Tennesseean” ad pointed up the discomfort that Ford’s overt appeal to the right aroused in Tennessee. It was perceived as sleazy, and the “Call me, Harold” ad pointed to it as well. The ads were racist in part, but they were more than just racist. It would be hard to imagine such ads directed at Barack Obama.

Which brings me to the DLC, which Harold Ford now heads.

My colleague, Glenn W. Smith, has pointed to the DLC strategy of getting as many “swing voters” as possible and the minimum number of base voters needed to win. That is why the DLC and Rahm Emanuel argued against Howard Dean’s 50-state strategy and for a swing-state alone strategy.

The DLC has concentrated on policy wonkishness (see their 100 new policy ideas on their website) rather than values. Their concentration on laundry lists of policies rather than vision, values, and passion has not helped the Democrats electorally.

The reason the DLC has been attacking progressives, Smith argues, is that DLC members have major conservative values and are threatened by the progressive base. Some of those values are financial: Wall Street, the HMO’s and drug companies, agribusiness, developers, the oil companies, and international corporations that benefit from trade agreements, outsourcing, cheap labor abroad, and practices that harm indigenous populations but bring profits. A powerful motivation for the party has been that, if they take such positions, they, like the Republicans, can get big money contributions from Wall Street.

But there is more involved here than money. The DLC seems also to share the foreign policy idea that we should be maximizing our “national interest” - our military strength, economic wealth (measured by GDP), and global political clout (presumably coming from economic and military clout). This is opposed to a foreign policy that maximizes the well-being of people, both at home and abroad.

But worst of all, the DLC has been cowed by the conservatives. They have drunk the conservative Kool-Aid. As Harold Ford intimated in his debate with Markos Moulitsas: To win you have be a hawk on foreign policy, a social conservative on abortion and gay marriage, and not raise taxes. Nonsense.

Even worse, Ford is suggesting that those in the party who don’t hold those views say that they do. There’s a name for someone who goes against his principles to pander for votes. It’s not a nice name.

In all the commentary about that debate, an important aspect has gone without comment. Markos certainly bested Ford. But to do so, he also had to best the moderator, David Gregory, who insisted on using the conservative-tainted word “liberal.” Over and over, Markos resisted Gregory’s frames. Gregory was not using Markos’ frames and Markos insisted on his own.

It is important to stand up to the DLC, and to the idea that there is a unitary mainstream center, that they are it, and that progressives are extremists and deserve to be marginalized.

George Lakoff is the author of Moral Politics, Don’t Think of an Elephant!, Whose Freedom?, and Thinking Points (with the Rockridge Institute staff). He is Richard and Rhoda Goldman Distinguished Professor of Cognitive Science and Linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley, and a founding senior fellow at the Rockridge Institute.

Guns Versus Butter--Our Real Economic Challenge

by Jonathan Tasini
Monday 13 of August, 2007

Guns versus butter. It’s the classic debate that really tells us a lot about our priorities that we set for the kind of society we can expect to live in--how much money a country spends on the military versus how much money is expended on non-military, domestic needs. To perhaps explain the obvious, buying a gun (or missile defense or a sophisticated bomber) means you don’t have those dollars for butter (or a national health care plan or free college education). At some basic level, we all know that those tradeoffs exist but, sometimes, numbers bring home the meaning of this equation in stunning fashion. What made me think of this is a set of revealing numbers that jumped out at me the other day­numbers that underscore why there is, in my opinion, something lacking in the message of most of the Democratic presidential candidates and our party’s leadership.

The numbers come from an article in the June 30th edition of the well-known left-wing magazine, The Economist entitled “The Hobbled Hegemon”. The theme of the article is that, surprise, the Iraq war and occupation have weakened the U.S. militarily but, The Economist reassures its readers, “America is likely to remain the dominant superpower.” What struck me in the lengthy piece were three pie charts.

The first chart details what major countries spent on defense in 2006, as a percentage of the total worldwide defense expenditures of $1.2 trillion (which, on its own, is a staggering figure):

U.S.: 45.7 percent
China: 4.3 percent
Japan: 3.8 percent
India: 2.1 percent
Rest of the world: 28.3 percent

The second chart measures world gross domestic product (GDP), as a percentage of the total of $48.2 trillion in 2006:

U.S.: 27.5 percent
China: 5.5 percent
Japan: 9.1 percent
India: 1.8 percent
Rest of the world: 38.6 percent

Finally, the third chart lays out world population shares, of the total of 6.5 billion people:

U.S. 4.6 percent
China: 20.2 percent
Japan: 2 percent
India: 17.4 percent
Rest of the world: 50.5 percent

So, what are some of the lessons from those numbers? If you want some solid explanation to explain why our country is in trouble in foreign policy, why 47 million Americans lack health care and why we don’t have money to do basic infrastructure upkeep on road, bridges, water mains and our energy system, these numbers tell a lot.

Though our country shells out almost half of the money spent worldwide on war-fighting (and, I would add, our defense industry supplies the lion’s share of the stuff that the rest of the countries buy), we account for only a little bit more than a quarter of the world’s GDP. That is, our share of military spending as a percent of the whole in the world is about twice our share of GDP as a whole (which, obviously, also includes military spending­which is counted as economic activity). China’s GDP, on the other hand, is larger as a percent of the whole than its share of military spending.

Or take Japan. With a tiny population, its GDP as a share of its piece of the world pie is almost three times the amount it spends on the military as a share of the world’s outlays. Anyway, you get the picture­it’s pretty crystal clear.

I suppose one view of this could be that the U.S. plays an important role as the world’s “cop” and steps up to the plate more than the rest of the world. That would certainly be the view of Rudy Giuliani, John McCain, Mitt Romney and the impeachable leaders in the White House.

My own view is that if we want to truly have a different image in the world, part of the road to reach that goal is to stop invading or occupying countries, or maintaining a large and growing military force throughout the world. In foreign policy and domestic policy, most of the world would like the U.S. to stay away and, at the very least, do no harm. My belief, expressed much more eloquently by many analysts and thinkers around the world, is that the threats to the U.S. are enhanced, not eliminated, by our military posture around the world­and that analysis predates the Iraq catastrophe.

What is troubling is that the prevailing view in the Democratic Party too often supports the idea that our country’s problem is that the military is not big enough. There continues to be a strong sentiment in our party that “national defense” means larger and larger budgets for the Pentagon, that the threats to the U.S. in foreign policy require building an even larger military and that to be seen as “patriotic” the party has to be seen as a chest-thumping, flag-waving promoter of ever-rising military budgets.

I believe, with the exception of Dennis Kucinich, no one is questioning the size of the military. Barack Obama, for example, calls for a new foreign policy yet, at the same, wants to expand the military:
Our men and women in uniform are performing heroically around the world in some of the most difficult conditions imaginable. But the war in Afghanistan and the ill-advised invasion of Iraq have clearly demonstrated the consequences of underestimating the number of troops required to fight two wars and defend our homeland. That’s why I strongly support the expansion of our ground forces by adding 65,000 soldiers to the Army and 27,000 Marines.

I am neither urging support for Rep. Kucinich nor singling out Sen. Obama because he is not alone; Sen. Clinton also wants to dramatically expand the defense budget and the number of people serving in the military. The point is: why is Obama­along with most other party leaders­unwilling to question the basic premise that the U.S. should have a posture of having to prepare to fight two wars? And what does it really mean to “defend our homeland?”

What’s interesting is that, politically, the public is ready to significantly cut military spending and reduce the size of the military. The Project on Defense Alternatives pointed this out recently, citing a March 2007 Gallup Poll:

For the first time since the mid-1990s, a plurality of Americans said that the country was spending too much. The surprising result of the survey shows current public attitudes to approximate those that prevailed in March 1993, shortly after former President Bill Clinton took office. Today, 43 percent of Americans say that the country is spending "too much" on the military, while 20 percent say "too little". In 1993, the balance of opinion was 42 percent saying "too much" and 17 percent saying "too little."

But, sadly, the Project also correctly says our political leaders are behind the times:

What makes this result especially surprising is that few leaders in Congress and no one in the administration today argues that the United States can or should reduce military spending. Quite the contrary: leaders of both parties seem eager to add to the Pentagon's coffers, even as public anti-war sentiment builds.

And the media is only fanning the continued build-up in military spending:

And Congress is not the only institution that appears insensitive to the shift in public opinion. The Gallup survey also drew little attention from the news media. Indeed, a Lexis-Nexis database search shows almost no coverage of the poll, which was released on 02 March 2007.

There are a variety of proposals circulating that would significantly reduce the military budget, from the relatively modest cuts proposed by Business Leaders for Sensible Priorities or Foreign Policy in Focus to the National Priorities Project which looks more deeply at the question of military spending (you can, for example, see how your state would benefit from a different definition of homeland security and find a whole set of helpful links).

So, at this point, count me as one voter who is not impressed with our party’s foreign policy vision. Our party’s vision should not be judged by the low standard that it is simply better than the Bush Administration. That is effectively saying we can do better than a bunch of incompetent, dangerous ideologues. What we should be arguing for is a foreign policy that completely resets the framework and jettisons several generations of a strategy that has bankrupted us both morally and economically.

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