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Dave Winer

Dave Winer

Posted: February 27, 2008 04:07 PM

Obama as Told by George Lakoff


Last night's debate really shifted things for me, especially after my talk on Monday with George Lakoff.

First, I'm going to help George and his thinktank, the Rockridge Institute, build their presence in the blogosphere. They're from a different world, they write books, something I'd like to do, but it isn't in my nature. In the same way when they look at communication they think big and longer-term. Instant communication, blogging and podcasting, is not their first impulse. But Lakoff and his associates understand politics in a way that Democrats don't get, but Republicans really do. That is, until Barack Obama. If you really want to understand why the Obama campaign is working and the Clinton campaign is fading, Lakoff understands it, and if you press him, he'll get out of professor mode, and tell you how it works in words anyone with a brain and an education can understand. That's his gift.

Lakoff tells a story about Dick Wirthlin, Reagan's chief strategist, in 1980. Lakoff met him at a conference after he had retired, and the two hit it off. He explained to George that when he started he did a poll, and found out that most people don't agree with Reagan, but they planned to vote for him anyway. I've seen the same thing with Obama. In a comment thread here, Phil Windley, who I like and respect (we have a technology bond) but whose politics and mine couldn't be more opposite, said he might vote for Obama. What! I asked why and he said that Obama seemed to him to have integrity. That's what Wirthlin uncovered. People don't vote on policy, they vote for leaders, for people whose values seem American to them, for people they feel they can trust.

I talked with Lakoff about how the word "liberal" had been destroyed by the right wing, and asked if that was going to be a problem for Obama. He said it wouldn't, because Obama had figured out how to say what many of us believe, that the values people label with the L-word are actually American values. When your neighbor's house is burning down, you don't lecture him on how incompetent he is (though there are Americans who would do that), you get out your fire hose and do everything you can do to help. After you call 911 to get taxpayer-funded fire department to come put out the fire.

We look forward to the coming election believing that this time the "tax and spend" label won't stick for a couple of reasons. Our candidate sees it coming this time, and understands that it's a frame, it's a way that Republicans get you to accept their point of view by letting them frame the discussion in their terms. Do Democrats tax and spend? Sure of course they do. So do Republicans. Nothing wrong with it. Imagine if we all had to hire our own fire departments. Instead we pool our resources and buy fire insurance, in the form of trucks and buildings, and brave men and women who protect our lives and property.

A picture named elephant.gifOur government provides the context, the legal system, the services, that make it possible for businesses to flourish. It's naive to think that government doesn't play that role, and the Republicans obviously believe it too. In the seven years Bush has been in office government spending has grown. Have taxes grown too? Maybe not, but borrowing surely has. The money to pay for the war came from somewhere. As it has for many Americans who borrowed against the equity in their homes, there must be a day of reckoning for our economy as a whole. We've been charging our collective lifestyle, this luxury of an occupation of Iraq which is a lousy investment for the American taxpayer (where's the return?) but a great investment for Bush, Cheney and friends in the oil and defense industries. We won't know how much money Bush gets after he leaves office and becomes a private citizen, but I bet he becomes a billionaire from kickbacks he gets from selling us out. This is a tax, and it's our future they have been spending.

While the Republicans have been in office America has become much less competitive in the world economy. Those jobs we lost while Republicans ran the show aren't coming back. And the inefficiency of our health care system, believe it or not, is an important reason industrial jobs are going across the border to Canada, where they have a no nonsense health care system that works like this -- if you get sick you get health care. Geez, does that seem fairly American to you? It does to me. It's kind of like the fire department. We all hope our houses don't catch fire, but when they do, we're damned happy we don't get an argument when we call 911. Why should cancer, diabetes and heart disease be any different? I don't get it.

All of this is part of the story Lakoff tells. You can get a taste of it starting midway through Monday's podcast. Listen to the last half hour if you're short on time. And I'm going to keep pestering him to do more, shorter podcasts with me, responding to current events, as they happen. We'll apply his model to the political system, and watch how Obama openly captures the best of the Republican playbook. It should be something to watch, something marvelous.

There was a grand moment in last night's debate; they played a clip of Hillary Clinton's sarcastic speech about the light shining down, the heavens opening, angels singing, etc. The camera goes to Obama -- he's beaming. He says it sounds pretty good. And it does. America works when we work together. Being American is simple, but people like Bush and Rove and Cheney made it complicated. Americans get shit done, and Americans don't argue when their neighbor's house is on fire. We roll up our sleeves and we can do great things. For better or worse now we need to do some great things. We're lucky that now we have the leadership we need to get started.

And there was the shift in thinking that came from last night's debate. We already have more leadership from this man who hasn't even won the Democratic nomination yet than we have from the actual President of the United States. Further, in the last two campaigns, I have exhorted the candidates to use the money they raise to solve important problems, and realize that Obama had done exactly that. He's uniting us as a country. There's nothing more important, once we remember that we're all Americans and that that means something, we can do so much more than when we're divided by the "wedge issues" of cynical political hacks. We always have had the option to take back our country, now we seem to be doing that.

When we put aside our differences, and I'm not talking about the heads of companies and lobbyists and government officials, but the people, they really can't stop us. We have the means to pass laws that they have to obey and we have police and military to enforce those laws. The founders of our country believed in this, and believed in us, we're not fools to agree with them, we're just using our power.