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Team America: Making Lakoff Work for Democrats

March 6, 2005

George Lakoff's advice for Democrats in Don't Think of An Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate continues to be the focus of much discussion within the left-of-center blogosphere.
In the last week, while Perrspectives took Lakoff to task, Matthew Yglesias praised Democratic efforts to stop President Bush on Social Security as an example of successful Lakoffian "framing." Meanwhile, Marc Cooper in his book review in The Atlantic thundered against Lakoff's "neuroscientific hooey." And just today, DailyKos has called for progressives to "frame" the GOP "attack on working class America."
I'm largely in agreement with Kevin Drum's assessment of Lakoff over at the Washington Monthly. In a nutshell, Lakoff's analysis of the GOP's success is valuable and his branding tools helpful, but his prescriptions for Democrats are a recipe for continued electoral defeat. Among the shortcomings of Lakoff's approach is his concept of the "nurturant parent" model for progressives, which leaves a fragmented Democratic Party divided and weakened against the conservatives' "strict father" morality play in the 21st century media messaging wars.
Lakoff's framing exercise has value for progressives, but not with an "empathetic family" at it core. Since 2003, Perrspectives has labelled the GOP agenda "The Opt Out Society", offered approaches for branding it as such, and developed an alternative progressive public philosophy, the "New American Bargain." What?s needed to articulate that is a different frame. One that projects confidence, unity, aspiration ? all the while working with, not running counter, to the trajectory of 21st century media. Forward looking, rewarding success, respecting personal autonomy, requiring shared responsibility, empowering each citizen to achieve their utmost and setting and achieving common national goals (a concept of ?winning?, if you will), those are the values needed in a new Democratic ?frame.? And the model for that is not a family, but a team.
Call it "Team America."
Unlike a family, a team has goals and objectives. It has notions of winning and success, not only for the collective team, but for its individual members. Teams want to continually get better and to "win", next season if not this. For teams, this means championships, professionalism, and fair play. For the United States, this means security, world leadership and respect abroad, and economic prosperity, safety and justice at home.
For this happen, all team members must be prepared, helped to improve, and able to give their maximum contribution. They all have responsibilities and must make sacrifices. No one can opt out. Any sense of privilege, superiority or entitlement on the part of any member or group of members threatens the success of the team endeavor. Similarly, players who underperform or fail imperil the team. This spirit of sacrifice by each for the common goal of all is the hallmark of the NFL's New England Patriots. It is fitting for America as well.
And just like the Patriots, Team America can encourage and accept dramatic inequality and status - to a point. Everyone is urged to succeed, to maximize their salary and prestige, to become a star. But to succeed, teams need every player to participate and contribute at his or her highest level. Backup or starter, special teamer or quarterback, journeyman or Pro Bowler, the team needs them all to win, and pays a minimum salary (a safety net, if you will) in recognition of that fact. And from time to time, even the stars have to restructure their contracts, "for the good of the team."
Beyond mutual sacrifice and responsibility, teams have a clear value system and moral universe. Unlike Lakoff's models, the young may (nurturing model) or may not (strict father model) be born "good", but the team (American society) is capable of incremental improvement, if not perfection, over time. Race, class, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and other identities are accidental and morally irrelevant just as in John Rawls' "original position." Members of those groups deserve no punishment - or benefit - by virtue of their group identity. Only public performance and conduct detrimental to the team, and not private behavior, is relevant and sanctioned.
In this sense, the public philosophy of Team America, like John Stuart Mill, draws a sharp distinction between "self-regarding" and "other regarding" behavior. Players can party all night, wear dresses, and say crazy things, just as long their play doesn't suffer and impact the team. For Team America, "self-regarding" acts including consensual sexual behavior, marriage and reproduction similarly should be no business of the state. Valuing both personal autonomy and social responsibility is central to the moral ethos.
A "Team America" frame gives Democrats a powerful language, an implicit "New American Bargain" to use in overcoming the good vs evil, rugged individualism of conservatives. Team America's emphasis on winning, success, competition and the future supports American capitalism and the market model. Except, that is, where market failure or limitations imperils the success of the American team and its members, as with health care, child care and retirement security. And Team America's civil religion respects personal privacy, including rights to marry and reproductive choice, while requiring sacrifice (national service, energy conservation, wartime levies) and the best from each citizen (progressive taxation).
The advantages to Democrats with the Team America rather than Nurturing Parent frame should be clear. And there's one added plus. If the "strict father" coach doesn't win, he gets fired.

One comment on “Team America: Making Lakoff Work for Democrats”

  1. I agree with your opinion about the 'nurturant family' framework. The bottom line here is that it's a buzzword for 'we are willing to negotiate about anything all the time.'
    Where you make an excellent point is getting away from the family motif. Social conservatives want us to think of America as a family and the government as parents, nuturant, authoritarian or otherwise.
    The core of the issue is that it still does not feel like we have clarified what the role of the government is in our vision of America.
    Personally, I want a government that focuses on infrastructure and managing, shared national resources. For example, Bill Gates opposed repealing estate taxes because he believes that he benefited greatly from the investment of tax dollars that led to the development of the internet. The money that funded that research is a shared resource. The money that funds research that pharmaceuticals can then turn into profitable applications is a shared resource. The roads, highways, army, police, firefighters all these are shared resources.
    Health too is resource. Education can be a resource. Just as all the Neocons who graduated from City College in NYC how important public universities are as a resource. Government can best serve us by managing these resources.
    I am being remiss about the source, but I read recently that government can provide the national resources that we all use to become self sufficient. It's a shared platform. Government as scaffold.
    At this point no one wants programs that lead to dependence on government. However the government can scaffold personal independence through public education (e.g. City College), accessible health care (gov't provided or through some voucher system) that will enable people to take the chance on staring small businesses. How many people are afraid to leave dead end jobs or jobs they hate? How many people dream of opening their own business but are afraid that they won't be able to afford health insurance for themselves and their family, let alone employees?
    I think the team idea starts to get there but I still believe that we need to emphasize how shared resources enable individual success. Maybe that's a team maybe that's community.


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Jon Perr
Jon Perr is a technology marketing consultant and product strategist who writes about American politics and public policy.

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