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George Lakoff

George Lakoff

Posted: September 27, 2006 04:59 PM

Biconceptualism


When pundits talk about "moderates," or "the center," or "centrists," what exactly are they talking about? And why does the answer matter?

There is no single, consistent worldview, or set of ideas, that characterizes any of these terms. The terms instead refer to what we have called "biconceptuals," people who have both conservative (strict) and progressive (nurturant) worldviews, but apply them in different domains of life. The question is, Which worldview will they apply in voting?

A given political worldview can be activated by language. Thus, conservatives talk to "the center" the same way they talk to their base. The idea is to use conservative language to activate the conservative worldview in the brains of such voters. Progressives should be doing the same, talking to the center the same way they talk to their base. The worst mistake they can make is to "move to the right" on the rationale that "that's where the voters are." Here's the explanation.

Biconceptualism
(An Excerpt from Chapter 2 of the new book, Thinking Points: Communicating Our American Values and Vision, by George Lakoff and the Rockridge Institute)

Understanding whom we are talking to--and whom we want to talk to--is crucial before progressives begin to articulate what it is they have to say and how best to say it. This is true for progressive candidates as well as activists and activist groups. The real challenge in this area is twofold: First, we want to activate our base while reaching swing voters at the same time; second, we want to do so without having to lie, distort, mislead, or pretend to be something we aren't.

The pressure to dissemble comes from certain commonplace myths about swing voters and the "center." So for starters, let's put to rest the notion of the political or ideological "center"--it doesn't exist. Instead, what we have are biconceptuals--of many kinds.

When it comes to progressive and conservative worldviews, we are all biconceptuals. You may live by progressive values in most areas of your life, but if you see Rambo movies and understand them, you have a passive conservative worldview allowing you to make sense of them. Or you may be a conservative, but if you appreciated The Cosby Show, you were using a passive progressive worldview. Movies and television aside, what we are really interested in are active biconceptuals--people who use one moral system in one area and the other moral system in another area of their political thinking.

Biconceptualism makes sense from the perspective of the brain and the mechanism of neural computation. The progressive and conservative worldviews are mutually exclusive. But in a human brain, both can exist side by side, each neurally inhibiting the other and structuring different areas of experience. It is hardly unnatural--or unusual--to be fiscally conservative and socially progressive, or to support a liberal domestic policy and a conservative foreign policy, or to have a conservative view of the market and a progressive view of civil liberties.

Political biconceptuals are commonplace, and they include those who identify themselves as having a single ideology. Biconceptuals are not to be confused with "moderates." There is no moderate worldview, and very few people are genuine moderates. True moderates look for linear scales and take positions in the middle of those scales. How much should we pay to improve schools? A lot? A little? "A moderate amount" is what a true "moderate" would say. Such folks may exist, but moderation is not a political ideology. Nor is the use of two strongly opposed ideologies in different arenas a matter of "moderation." It is biconceptualism.

Partial Conservatives

Consider Senator Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, who describes himself as a moderate. In fact, little about him is moderate. He doesn't typically stake out middle-of-the-road positions on particular issues. Instead, his politics include both liberal and conservative positions, but on different issues. This makes him a biconceptual. His progressive worldview appears in his staunch support of environmental protection, abortion rights, and workers' rights. His conservative worldview emerges in areas like his support of faith-based initiatives, school vouchers, and most notably, the current policy on Iraq. Because he tends to adopt progressive positions more often than conservative ones, we refer to him as a "partial conservative."

Many liberals are biconceptual. The "cold war liberals" were divided between a progressive domestic policy and a conservative foreign policy based on using force--or the threat of it--to further the nation's military, economic, and political strength. Other Democrats may be economic progressives and social conservatives, or vice versa. Unions, for instance, have genuinely progressive goals but are often organized and run in a strict way. "Militant" progressives commonly have strict means and nurtur-ant ends, while courtly, gentlemanly and ladylike conservatives may have nurturant means and strict ends. Such a split between means and ends is not unusual.

Partial Progressives

Similarly, within the wide range of those who tend toward a conservative worldview, many are "partial progressives." If we want to communicate with these conservatives, we'd better recognize that they may live by the progressive moral system in extremely important areas of their lives.

In fact, their progressive values may be their defining characteristics, who they most essentially are--even if they do not see themselves as progressives or liberals. Let's look at five of the more common types of "partially progressive conservatives" and see how their values match up with those of self-defined progressives.

Lovers of the land. A lot of conservatives may be hunters and fishermen (who want to fish in unpolluted waters so they can eat their catch); they may be cyclists, hikers, and campers who love to take their families to the national parks; they may be farmers or ranchers who are viscerally connected to their land; or they may be devout Christians who take seriously their biblical obligation to be stewards of the earth. They might never call themselves "environmentalists" or toss around words like "sustainability" or "biodiversity," but they share many of the same values--values that are ultimately progressive.

Communitarians. There are conservatives who believe in progressive communities. Across the nation, for instance, self-styled conservatives often live in communities--rural towns or suburban neighborhoods--where leaders care about people and act responsibly, where everyone looks out for one another, cares about one another, helps others in need, provides community service, and emphasizes progressive empathy and social responsibility instead of conservative strictness and individualism. They may thus be conservative in their national voting patterns and yet progressive in their communities.

People of faith. A sizable chunk of Americans who are conservative in certain parts of their lives are also progressive in their religion. For instance, religious Christians, both Catholics and Protestants, are progressives at heart if they believe they should live their lives according to the teachings of Christ--help the poor, feed the hungry, cure the sick, forgive the sinner, turn the other cheek. They will most likely see God as nurturant and loving, not strict and punitive. Even evangelicals (like former president Jimmy Carter) are often progressive.

Socially conscious employers. Many conservative entrepreneurs run their companies as progressive businesses--whether they see it that way or not. They treat their employees well, pay living wages and offer decent benefits, would not dream of harming the environment or their customers, and believe other businesses should also practice a morality that extends beyond just maximizing profit and following the letter of the law.

Civil libertarians. Some of the most ardent civil libertarians in America identify themselves as conservatives or simply as libertarians. They believe in the Bill of Rights and especially the Fourth Amendment. They want their privacy protected and don't want the government spying on them or interfering with personal moral decisions or with their sex lives. They want free speech and freedom of association and want the government to stay out of religion and religion to stay out of government. They want constraints on the powers of the police and want strong protections from the courts. On issues of personal freedom, they abide by progressive morality.

Understanding this opens up a powerful way for progressives to communicate with swing voters on the basis of real shared values.

The complete text of Chapter 2 from which this excerpt is taken is available to download on the Rockridge Institute's website, along with more information about Thinking Points, which is now shipping from selected online bookstores and will be available this week in bookstores across the country.

By George Lakoff and the Rockridge Institute