Progressive Information Project: George Lakoff's Thinking Points

The purpose of the Progressive Information Project is to more widely share resources and information created to advance progressive causes. A lot of good work is being done, but the average progressive often doesn't learn about it or know what

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The purpose of the Progressive Information Project is to more widely share resources and information created to advance progressive causes. A lot of good work is being done, but the average progressive often doesn't learn about it or know what is available. This series is designed to help alleviate that problem.

Anyone familiar with the progressive movement is probably very familiar with George Lakoff and his work on framing and the use of language in reaching the public. One of his key works is a book called Thinking Points. What few people seem to know is that the entire text of the book is available online for free. Cognitive Policy Works hosts not only the full text of the book, which every progressive should read at least once, but the site also offers a series of articles and discussions that go well beyond Lakoff's original ideas and expand upon the ideas he presents.

Lakoff talks about the importance of the progressive vision and values:

Progressives have a long and storied history in the United States. It is a narrative driven by the liberal principles of freedom, equality, human dignity, tolerance, and the celebration of diversity, and by the conviction that our common wealth should be used for the common good. Our nation’s greatest moments occurred when these principles prevailed. We write so that they may endure.

These principles belong to no person, place, or party. They belong to no race, class, or gender. They belong to no time, region, or country of origin. And they recognize no red state/blue state dichotomy. We write to remind ourselves of the progressive principles that have always lifted our nation to higher moral ground. And we reflect on our past in the hope that we can leave our children with a better future.

The purpose of the book, according to Lakoff, is that the country has strayed from those progressive values and progressives themselves have a problem expressing the values and vision that most Americans would agree with if they heard articulate explanations of those values. And that for us to fend off the right-wing assault on America's progressive values and past, we have to learn how to speak about our values in a way that the average citizen can understand and internalize.

Lakoff points to a number of roadblocks we run into in terms of trying to communicate our values:

  1. The Issue Trap
  2. The Poll Trap
  3. The Laundry List Trap
  4. The Rationalism Trap
  5. The No-Framing-Necessary Trap
  6. The Policies-Are-Values Trap
  7. The Centrist Trap
  8. The “Misunderestimating” Trap
  9. The Reactive Trap
  10. The Spin Trap
  11. The Policyspeak Trap
  12. The Blame Game Trap

He explains these traps and goes into how they hurt us. Then he goes on to explain what the actual progressive vision and values are:

Progressive morality, like the nurturant parent model, is based on empathy and responsibility.

Empathy is the capacity to connect with other people, to feel what others feel, to imagine oneself as another and hence to feel a kinship with others.

Responsibility means acting on that empathy—responsibility for yourself and for others.

From empathy and responsibility, a set of core progressive values follows. These are the values that define progressive thought and structure progressive positions on any issue. They all involve acting on your empathy to achieve the following:

  • Protection (for people threatened or under duress)
  • Fulfillment in life (so others can lead meaningful lives as you would want to)
  • Freedom (because to seek fulfillment, you must be free)
  • Opportunity (because leading a fulfilling life requires opportunities to explore what is meaningful and fruitful)
  • Fairness (because unfairness can stifle freedom and opportunity)
  • Equality (because empathy extends to everyone)
  • Prosperity (because a certain base amount of material wealth is necessary to lead a fulfilling life and pay for enough shelter, food, and health)
  • Community (because nobody makes it alone, and communities are necessary for anyone to lead a fulfilling life)
  • The book also goes into a number of specific issue areas, such as the economy, and expresses specific values related to those issues:

  • Regulation protects the public from harmful products and fraud by unscrupulous or irresponsible businesses.
  • Taxation brings together the common wealth to build a common infrastructure that we all need to fulfill our individual needs and dreams. Progressive taxation is fair: Those who benefit most from the common wealth should pay the most to sustain it.
  • Unions and workers’ rights help balance the unfair distribution of power in job negotiations and promote safe, healthy, and ethical workplaces.
  • Tort lawsuits are the last possibility—the baseline of protection—for dissuading irresponsible companies from harming the public.
  • Lakoff extends that discussion to talk about the mythology the right has built that is in opposition to those values and tackles specific false premises that conservatives frequently espouse:

      Myth 1: A Purely “Free Market” Is Ideal
      Myth 2: People Are Rational Actors
      Myth 3: There Is a Level Playing Field
      Myth 4: A Company’s Balance Sheet Reflects True Costs
      Myth 5: Everything, Even Life, Has a Fair Monetary Value
      Myth 6: Markets Are Outside the Scope of Moral Judgments
      Myth 7: Everyone Can Pull Himself or Herself Up by their Bootstraps

    The book ends with a discussion of how to construct arguments and the features of successful arguments.

    In the extension of the book on the website, Joe Brewer expands upon ideas that Lakoff writes about. A key article explains his strategy for shifting the public conversation back to the left:

    The strategy is simple:

  • Know your values and be authentic
  • Express your political views using language that expresses your values (Refuse to accept language that undermines your values)
  • Point out the consequences of progressive and conservative approaches to government
  • With enough repetition, people will start to see that you are talking about things that make sense
  • As more people see the world through the progressive lens, they will find progressive policies more acceptable (and conservative policies will be less acceptable).
  • Avoid being punitive or abusive.

    This is better than expressing views you don’t hold or using means you don’t believe in. And it will help you win!

  • There is a lot to read on the extended website and much of it is a vital part of the conversation that all progressives should be having — how do we get the public to understand what progressivism is and how do we get them to vote for more progressive candidates and demand more progressive policies?

    About Kenneth Quinnell

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