Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Want to change America?

Talk about it, says George Lakoff

It says here, in an article in today's Washington Post, that what President Obama talks about tonight in his State of the Union address isn't likely to make much difference. I don't buy that. Not for this particular speech.

After all, Obama is coming off an inaugural address that received wide approval in public opinion polls. The speech may also have been Obama's most vigorous defense of social programs and action during his presidency.

"The commitments we make to each other--through Medicare and Medicaid and Social Security--these things do not sap our initiative; they strengthen us. They do not make us a nation of takers; they free us to take the risks that make this country great," he said.

Variations of statements like that received majority support in follow-up polls, in some cases polling over 60 percent. Some might argue that Obama is free to say such things because he won't have to run for reelection. I would argue that it was Obama's decisive victory over Mitt Romney that has allowed him to begin reasserting liberal values that have been in retreat since Ronald Reagan began the redefinition of the federal government as the enemy of democracy and free enterprise.

The Reagan-era initiated a steady right-wing agenda of "right-to-work" laws and assaults on public employee unions, opposition to taxation in general, government regulation and social programming, aggressive intervention into health-care and the private lives of women, new laws mandating the continuing closeting of lesbians and gay men, and more.

In a piece in the Post's Sunday Outlook section, UC Berkeley linguistics professor George Lakoff asserts that political speech is sometimes not so separate from political action. "When we hear political language, particular circuitry is activated in our brains," he wrote. "The more often we hear the words, the stronger that circuitry gets, until the frames become embedded in our thinking.

"The ascent of extreme conservativism and the gridlock so apparent in Washington have everything to do with divergent moralities, as reflected in language and its framing. The conservative call for 'tax relief' assumes that taxation is harmful and immoral," he continued.

"Tea party supporters framed Obama's health-care plan in moral terms as a violation of freedom ('government takeover!') and life ('death panels!')," Lakoff wrote. That is why more than 50 percent of Americans opposed the law, even though "many key provisions...had majority backing across the country." And continuing ideological opposition to the health-care law led directly to the Republican capture of the House of Representatives in the 2010 election.

But Obama's reelection victory may have changed all that in a way that did not happen when Bill Clinton was elected. Clinton's presidency was still decisively shaped by Republican framing. The mid-term elections in 1994, fueled by the Contract with America, resulted in the election of the first House Republican majority in 40 years. As the Republican propaganda machine relentlessly and effectively linked Clinton's sexual dalliances with the liberal agenda, an embattled Clinton pursued welfare reform and announced that the "era of big government is over" in his 1996 State of the Union address.

Given how dominant Republican tropes have been these last 30 years or so, Obama's 2008 victory was fortunate. Despite the mobilization of African Americans and others in support of an historic election outcome, it was almost certainly the collapse of the economy that prevented Republicans from destroying Obama's candidacy in much the way that they "swift-boated" John Kerry in 2004.

But Mitt Romney's defeat was different. A weak candidate who publicly and privately embraced his own eliteness--"my job is not to worry about [the 47 percent]," he said at a fundraiser--Romney helped to shape an election in which a stronger candidate with a superior election apparatus saw an opportunity to renew the elements of a liberal agenda.

It appears now that the Obama administration sees that the same opportunity continues to unfold. "You and I, as citizens, have the obligation to shape the debates of our time--not only with the votes we cast, but with the voices we lift in defense of our most ancient values and enduring ideals," Obama said in his inaugural speech.

In saying so, Obama made clear that it is no longer simply a matter of what a president has to say. Lakoff puts it this way:

"This means Obama can take the first step, framing public discourse, but all of us as citizens must do the heavy lifting. We can also do it by using words that have vital meaning--among our families, co-workers and communities.

"The more we repeat the language of equality, freedom and social responsibility, the more those ideas come to dominate the public conversation."

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