Excerpt from George Lakeoff and Elisabeth Wehling’s THE LITTLE BLUE BOOK: The Essential Guide to Thinking and Talking Democratic (Free Press).
Conservatives have framed public discourse on just about every issue. Most Democrats don’t know how to respond. Just negating frames can’t work, as Nixon found out when he said, “ I am not a crook.” Negating just reinforces existing frames.
Democrats have a powerful alternative: morality and truth brought together.
All politics is moral: every political leader says to us that we should do what he or she recommends because it’s right, not because it’s wrong or doesn’t matter. And today our politics is governed by two very different views of what is right and wrong.
The progressive view, mostly in the Democratic Party, is that democracy depends on citizens caring about each other and taking responsibility both for themselves and for others. This yields a view of government with a moral mission: to protect and empower all citizens equally. The mechanism for accomplishing this mission is through what we call the Public, a system of public resources necessary for a decent private life and a robust private enterprise: roads and bridges, education, health care, communication systems, court systems, basic research, police and the military, a fair judicial system, clean water and air, safe food, parks, and much more.
Conservatives hold the opposite view: that democracy exists to provide citizens with the maximum liberty to pursue their self-interest with little or no commitment to the interests of others. Under this view, there should be as little of the Public as possible. Instead, as much as possible should be relegated to what we call the Private. The Private is comprised of individuals (private life), businesses owned by them (private enterprise), and institutions set up by groups of individuals (private clubs and associations). The Private is, for conservatives, a moral ideal, sacrosanct, where no government can tread, whether to help or hinder, regulate, or even monitor. No one should have to pay for anyone else. Private interests should rule, even if that means that corporate interests, the most powerful of private interests, govern our lives through a laissez faire free market. Citizens are free to sink or swim on their own.
Each moral worldview comes with a set of issue frames. By frames, we mean structures of ideas that we use to understand the world. Because all politics is morally framed, all policy is also morally framed, and thus the choice of any particular policy frame is a moral choice. Americans are now faced with two sets of moral choices, each leading the nation in opposite directions. Nowhere is this clearer than in the issue of health care.
Rudolph Giuliani, in his 2008 run for the presidency, likened health care to a product, using the example of a flat-screen TV. Not everyone, he argued, deserves a flat-screen TV. If you want one, work for it and save up for it. Similarly not everyone deserves health care, but you should be free to buy it if you want it. Like a flat-screen TV, health care is in this view a product. If you want a product, you can make the money for it and buy it, and if you can’t afford it, too bad. But if you don’t want a product, no one should be able to force you to buy it.
The problem, of course, is that this is a metaphor. Health care is not literally a product built in a factory and transferred physically from a seller to a buyer. It cannot be crated and shipped. You cannot return defective health care and get a refund. Yet the metaphor of health care as a product survived the presidential campaign and was even adopted by the Democrats.
In formulating his health care act, President Obama placed health care in the context of the commerce clause of the Constitution, thus imposing an economic frame on health care. Notice what is not in the frame: if health care is a product, it is not a right. Providing health care is thus not a moral concern; it is an economic matter. The word affordable fits the economic frame, as do words like market, purchase, and choice.
The Obama administration missed the opportunity to argue on the basis of the same moral ideals of freedom and life. Serious illness without health care takes away your liberty and threatens your life. Forcing people to live without health care is an infringement on their liberty. But the White House did not choose to frame the issue with that moral counterargument; instead they discussed technical policy details.
Conservatives, meanwhile, were arguing their values. People should not be forced to pay for other people’s goods. The Public should be kept to a minimum. And the individual mandate constitutes a government takeover: if the government can force people to buy particular products — say, burial plots or broccoli — it can force them to do anything at all. Liberty is imperiled.
The Obama administration’s rationale inadvertently helped its opponents by adopting the product metaphor and placing health care in a market context. Whatever happens with the health care law, Medicare and Social Security are likely next in line for attack, as is environmental legislation. At stake is the very idea of the Public and the view of democracy as a system where citizens are bound to fellow citizens, with each individual bearing social as well as personal responsibility.
This state of affairs should never have come to pass. Health care should never have been a market issue. The Constitution gives Congress the right to “provide for the . . . general welfare of the United States.” That right should have been, and should be, the moral and conceptual basis of health care law. But because it was not, because the issue was placed within a market frame, the general welfare of the United States is in danger.
Do we care about each other? Will we recognize that, without the Public, we have no reasonable private lives or private enterprise? And will we recognize that the dismantling of the Public exposes us to corporate control over our lives—not for our well-being but for corporate profit, and not under the control of a government we elect and can change but under the control of corporate managers we did not elect and cannot change?
This is a deep truth not now in public discourse. It is a truth that fits the Democratic moral system. We want the Democratic Party and its candidates to bring it to the fore. To do so, they need to use language appropriate to the moral views they believe in.
Language is not a matter of “mere words” or wordsmithing. Words mean things. They are defined by conceptual frames. In politics those frames are morally based. To discuss political language is to discuss morality and policy.
And so we say to Democrats: Know your values. Go on a morally-based truth offensive. Refuse to use conservative language. Resist the inclination to negate conservative framing. Have the courage to speak — and repeat — truths previously hidden by dominant conservative frames. And tell why they are moral as well as true.
We believe that most Americans care about their fellow citizens, and since this is the moral basis of Democratic thought, we think Democrats can retake public discourse.
Will this work? It depends on how well it is done. Our job is to help, starting with The Little Blue Book.