Public Values

Government has a moral mission - George Lakoff

Obama won because he identified empathy and aspiration, protection and empowerment as defining properties of democracy.

George Lakoff spoke about the moral mission of government at the Persuading to Win: 2008 Ish Theilheimer

MILLCROFT, ON, November 15, 2008: StraightGoods.caBarack Obama won the Democratic nomination and the American presidency because he framed progressive values as core American values. That was the key message of cognitive linguist, author, and political commentator George Lakoff, who visited Canada this week to keynote Straight Goods's Persuading to Win symposium.

Lakoff said, in a series of interviews and workshops, that the key for progressive activists is to understand, as Obama does, that they must talk about how their deepest values connect them with others. Rather than merely fighting out of self-interest, progressives need to emphasize that empathy and aspiration, protection and empowerment are the defining properties of democracy and the reason public services exist, he said.

What follows is a transcription of the first of a series of interviews Lakoff gave over the weekend. A video of the interview can be viewed on YouTube by clicking here.

One of the interesting things about the election of Barack Obama has to do with his conception of what democracy is about. It's a remarkable conception. It's not really discussed by the pundits, and it wasn't discussed openly in the election, except by Obama - who actually discussed it, and it was never taken up. But it's there in his book, The Audacity of Hope, and it's there in his speeches.

What he says is this. That, for example, he was asked about patriotism by Anderson Cooper on 360 — March 19 — if you want to look it up, 2008.

He was asked, "What is patriotism?"

He says patriotism begins with people caring about each other, and with people following out the ideas of the founders. And this goes along with his view of democracy which he's given in many speeches, and which is in The Audacity of Hope, and it goes like this:

It says that democracy has to do with empathy. With people caring about each other. With responsibility. Acting on that care. Not just for one other person, but social. Acting on it for your community, for your country.

And, with aspiration. With trying to do the best for yourself, the best for your community, wanting your country to do the best for its citizenship, its citizens in the future, as well as now.

Those are the defining properties of democracy. And out of empathy you get notions like freedom and fairness and equality — because you care about people. Those ideas, those critical political ideas, are consequences of that view, that moral view, and government, therefore, has a moral mission.

It's a dual moral mission. The moral mission is: Protection and Empowerment. And we begin to see this coming out even more clearly in his discussion of the economic crisis, where he talks about the duty of the government to protect people. But it's there all through.

And protection is not just military protection, or police protection. It's environmental protection. Worker protection. Consumer protection. Safety nets of various kinds. Health care is part of it. Social security is part of it. And disaster protection.

But it's not just protection. It's also empowerment.

And empowerment has to do with things like infrastructure. Building roads. Building public buildings and bridges, and maintaining them. It has to do with having a communication system that works. An energy system that works. And of course, a banking system that you can trust, where you can get your bank loans, and put your money and be sure it's there. And a stock market that works. That's part of what empowerment is about. And a court system that works both for corporate law, as well as criminal law. And the idea here is that nobody in the country can function at all, can make a dime, nobody in the United States, and probably also in Canada, without the empowerment and protection of the government.

I think Warren Buffet, who's an advisor to Obama, said it very well. He said some years ago that it you had dropped him in Bangladesh thirty years before, he'd still be impoverished, because they had no banking system and no stock market. And what that's saying is that is that there's no system of government empowerment.

And he says it in the context of taxes— you know, that our taxes on corporations are too low. That what taxes are is what you pay to have the protection and empowerment of the government. That if you don't have that, you're going to live in a third world country. And that you should understand what taxation is really about that way.

Now, the right wing has defined taxation in a very different way: as government taking money out of your pocket, and wasting it, and spending it on people who don't deserve it, and so on. And in fact, they're supported in that by the tax forms. The tax forms say you've earned this much, the government is taking this away, and we'll leave you with that much.

But, there could be a reverse tax form that explains what's going on. Which is, you've earned this much, and in addition to that, the government has provided for you. That is, your fellow citizens have provided that much, you and your fellow citizens through your work have provided that much — and the difference you could call a tax, but it is the economic benefit you accrue from living in this country that shows up, not as money in your pocket, but in terms of all of the mechanisms of everyday life that allow you to have any money at all, but also allow you to have a decent life.

That is a different view of government in terms of protection and empowerment. And a very different view of democracy.

Obama is interesting. He doesn't call himself a progressive. He calls himself simply an American. Because he says those are the principles of American democracy. And it's rather imposing to say that because what he does when he talks about bringing America together, what he says is that a lot of people who can call themselves conservatives in many parts of their lives recognize those things.

They recognize the importance of liberty. They recognize the importance of equality. They recognize the importance of having a banking system that works. And having an infrastructure that works — that's there and being protected. That, most people do, if they think about it, do recognize that.

I think what we have now with Obama is an opportunity to tell the truth about the origins of democracy. To tell the truth about what a government is. About what is meant by taxes. And about many other things.

Links and sources
  YouTube video of George Lakoff interview
  What is framing?,
  George Lakoff on Obama's appeal, Straight Goods, November 11, 2008
  "Support Our Troops" frames war as loyalty,, June 25, 2007

Posted: November 20, 2008

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