Pilgrim Pathways: Notes for a Diaspora People

Incarnational Discipleship

Winning the Future or Building the Future? Which Image is Most Helpful for a Progressive Agenda?

George Lakoff, the communications expert who uses  brain studies to help progressives better sell progressive politics, has a column reinforcing what I said about Obama’s attempt to use center-right language to move the center back from the left.  Lakoff notes that for his first two years in office, Obama, with sizeable Democratic majorities in Congress, was all about policy and refused to sell those policies with any kind of image or narrative.  Now he has a narrative image: competition.  Lakeoff notes that the slogan “winning the future” looks to be helpful in splitting business conservative off from rabid, far-right, “Tea Party” types.  But “winning,” fits with either a war or a sporting competition and several things that progressives care deeply about don’t easily fit into either narrative.  Lakoff also has helpful suggestions for the way the Obama team can fit many of those progressive concerns into the “winning the future” competition narrative.

As I said in my earlier post, I think those of us who are U.S. progressives and liberals should try to help Obama move the center back from the right.  Bob Cornwall, who has been a more thorough Obama partisan than I am, reminded me privately that U.S. politics is always determined by who wins the center.  But, as I emphasized, it makes a difference whether one is winning the center by Clinton-style watching where the right moves the center and then moving there or trying to move the center back from the right. 

Obama is trying the right strategy, but I wonder if “winning the future” is the right narrative image to do this.  Lakoff is right that Obama had been neglecting the necessity of selling his policies–he let the right define him–a mistake made by Jimmy Carter to disastrous results in 1980.  But Obama had been toying over the last 2 years with a different metaphor: “A New Foundation.”  That’s not the metaphor of a war (which can be used for progressive ends, as with LBJ’s”War on Poverty”), but of construction.  What if Obama, or progressives independent of him, talk not of “winning the future,” but of building the future?”  That fits with the desire for investment in infrastructure, education, innovation and green energy, but it also allows more concern for the common good.  “Winning,” competitions can reinforce rightwing social Darwinist narratives of “ruthless tooth and claw” competition, which doesn’t do much for Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, universal healthcare, ending the Afghanistan war, etc.  (Yes, Lakoff shows how Social Security can be defended in Obama’s image as something already earned by competitors and other ways of defending progressive programs in the competition narrative, but some of it is forced and can be easily hijacked by conservatives.)   “Building the Future,” allows us to see society not as a fierce competition, but as a web of connection or as a home (images which help bring back concern for the environment).  It also helps us forge a foreign policy that is more about cooperation than competition.


January 31, 2011 - Posted by | political philosophy, U.S. politics

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