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Lakoff writes: "By all means, discuss the policies. Praise them when you like them, criticize them when they fall short. Don't hold back. Talk in public. Write to others. But be sure to make clear the basic principles behind the policies."

Portrait, George Lakoff. (photo: UC Berkeley)
Portrait, George Lakoff. (photo: UC Berkeley)

Speaking Out Is at the Heart of Being a Citizen

By George Lakoff, Reader Supported News

16 February 13


olitical journalists have a job to do - to examine the SOTU's long list of proposals. They are doing that job, many are doing it well, and I'll leave it to them. Instead, I want to discuss what in the long run is a deeper question: How did the SOTU help to change public discourse? What is the change? And technically, how did it work?

The address was coherent. There was a single frame that fit together all the different ideas, from economics to the environment to education to gun safety to voting rights. The big change in public discourse was the establishment of that underlying frame, a frame that will, over the long haul, accommodate many more specific proposals.

Briefly, the speech worked via frame evocation. Not statement, evocation - the unconscious and automatic activation in the brains of listeners of a morally-based progressive frame that made sense of what the president said.

When a frame is repeatedly activated, it is strengthened. Obama's progressive frame was strengthened not only in die-hard progressives, but also in partial progressives, those who are progressive on some issues and conservative on others - the so-called moderates, swing voters, independents, and centrists. As a result, 77 percent of listeners approved of the speech, 53 percent strongly positive and 24 percent somewhat positive, with only 22 percent negative. When that deep progressive frame is understood and accepted by a 77 percent margin, the president has begun to move America toward a progressive moral vision.

If progressives are going to maintain and build on the president's change in public discourse so far, we need to understand just what that change has been and how he accomplished it.

It hasn't happened all at once.

In 2008, candidate Obama made overt statements. He spoke overtly about empathy and the responsibility to act on it as the basis of democracy. He spoke about the need for an "ethic of excellence." He spoke about the role of government to protect and empower everyone equally.

After using the word "empathy" in the Sotomayor nomination, he dropped it when conservatives confused it with sympathy and unfairness. But the idea didn't disappear.

By the 2013 Inaugural Address, he directly quoted the Declaration and Lincoln, overtly linking patriotism and the essence of democracy to empathy, to Americans caring for one another and taking responsibility for one another as well as themselves. He spoke overtly about how private success depends on public provisions. He carried out these themes with examples. And he had pretty much stopped making the mistake of using conservative language, even to negate it. The change in public discourse became palpable.

The 2013 SOTU followed this evolution a crucial step further. Instead of stating the frames overly, he took them for granted and the nation understood. Public discourse had shifted; brains had changed. So much so that John Boehner looked shamed as he slumped, sulking in his chair, as if trying to disappear. Changed so much that Marco Rubio's response was stale and defensive: the old language wasn't working and Rubio kept talking in rising tones indicating uncertainty.

Here is how Obama got to 77 percent approval as an unapologetic progressive.

The president set his theme powerfully in the first few sentences - in about 30 seconds.

Fifty-one years ago, John F. Kennedy declared to this Chamber that 'the Constitution makes us not rivals for power but partners for progress ... It is my task,' he said, 'to report the State of the Union - to improve it is the task of us all.' Tonight, thanks to the grit and determination of the American people, there is much progress to report. ...

First, Obama recalled Kennedy - a strong, unapologetic liberal. "Partners" evokes working together, an implicit attack on conservative stonewalling, while "for progress" makes clear his progressive direction. "To improve it is the task of us all" evokes the progressive theme that we're all in this together with the goal of improving the common good. "The grit and determination of the American people" again says we work together, while incorporating the "grit and determination" stereotype of Americans pulling themselves up by their bootstraps - overcoming a "grinding war" and "grueling recession." He specifically and wisely did not pin the war and recession on the Bush era Republicans, as he reasonably could have. That would have divided Democrats from Republicans. Instead, he treated war and recession as if they were forces of nature that all Americans joined together to overcome. Then he moved on seamlessly to the "millions of Americans whose hard work and dedication have not yet been rewarded," which makes rewarding that work and determination "the task of us all."

This turn in discourse started working last year. Empathy and social responsibility as central American values reappeared in spades in the 2012 campaign right after Mitt Romney made his 47 percent gaff, that 47 percent of Americans were not succeeding because they were not talking personal responsibility for their lives. This allowed Obama to reframe people out of work, sick, injured, or retired as hard working and responsible and very much part of the American ideal, evoking empathy for them from most other Americans. It allowed him to meld the hard working and struggling Americans with the hard working and just getting by Americans into a progressive stereotype of hard working Americans in general who need help to overcome external forces holding them back. It is a patriotic stereotype that joins economic opportunity with equality, freedom and civil rights: "if you work hard and meet your responsibilities, you can get ahead, no matter where you come from, what you look like, or who you love."

It is an all-American vision:

It is our unfinished task to make sure that this government works on behalf of the many, and not just the few; that it encourages free enterprise, rewards individual initiative, and opens the doors of opportunity to every child across this great nation.

"Our unfinished task" refers to citizens - us - as ruling the government, not the reverse. "We" are making the government do what is right. To work "on behalf of the many, and not just the few." And he takes from the progressive vision the heart of the conservative message. "We" require the government to encourage free enterprise, reward individual initiative, and provide opportunity for all. It is the reverse of the conservative view of the government ruling us. In a progressive democracy, the government is the instrument of the people, not the reverse.

In barely a minute, he provided a patriotic American progressive vision that seamlessly adapts the heart of the conservative message. Within this framework comes the list of policies, each presented with empathy for ideal Americans. In each case, we, the citizens who care about our fellow citizens, must make our imperfect government do the best it can for fellow Americans who do meet, or can with help meet, the American ideal.

With this setting of the frame, each item on the list of policies fits right in. We, the citizens, use the government to protect us and maximally enable us all to make use of individual initiative and free enterprise.

The fact that the policy list was both understood and approved of by 77 percent of those watching means that one-third of those who did not vote for the president have assimilated his American progressive moral vision.

The president's list of economic policies was criticized by some as a lull - a dull, low energy section of the speech. But the list had a vital communicative function beyond the policies themselves. Each item on the list evoked, and thereby strengthened in the brains of most listeners, the all-American progressive vision of the first section of the speech. Besides, if you're going to build to a smash finish, you have to build from a lull.

And it was a smash finish! Highlighting his gun safety legislation by introducing one after another of the people whose lives were shattered by well-reported gun violence. With each introduction came the reframe "They deserve a vote" over and over and over. He was chiding the Republicans not just for being against the gun safety legislation, but for being unwilling to even state their opposition in public, which a vote would require. The president is all too aware that, even in Republican districts, there is great support for gun safety reform, support that threatens conservative representatives. "They deserve a vote" is a call for moral accounting from conservative legislators. It is a call for empathy for the victims in a political form, a form that would reveal the heartlessness, the lack of Republican empathy for the victims. "They deserve a vote" shamed the Republicans in the House. As victim after victim stood up while the Republicans sat slumped and close-mouthed in their seats, shame fell on the Republicans.

And then it got worse for Republicans. Saving the most important for last - voting reform - President Obama introduced Desiline Victor, a 102-year spunky African American Florida woman who was told she would have to wait six hours to vote. She hung in there, exhausted but not defeated, for many hours and eventually voted. The room burst into raucous applause, putting to shame the Republicans who are adopting practices and passing laws to discourage voting by minority groups.

And with the applause still ringing, he introduced police officer Brian Murphy who held off armed attackers at the Sikh Temple in Minneapolis, taking twelve bullets and lying in a puddle of his blood while still protecting the Sikhs. When asked how he did it, he replied, "That's just how we're made."

That gave the president a finale to end where he began.

We may do different jobs, and wear different uniforms, and hold different views than the person beside us. But as Americans, we all share the same proud title: We are citizens. It's a word that doesn't just describe our nationality or legal status. It describes the way we're made. It describes what we believe. It captures the enduring idea that this country only works when we accept certain obligations to one another and to future generations; that our rights are wrapped up in the rights of others; and that well into our third century as a nation, it remains the task of us all, as citizens of these United States, to be the authors of the next great chapter in our American story.

It was a finale that gave the lie to the conservative story of America, that democracy is an individual matter, that it gives each of us the liberty to seek his own interests and well-being without being responsible for anyone else or anyone else being responsible for him, from which it follows that the government should not be in the job of helping its citizens. Marco Rubio came right after and tried out this conservative anthem that has been so dominant since the Reagan years. It fell flat.

President Obama, in this speech, created what cognitive scientists call a "prototype" - an ideal American defined by a contemporary progressive vision that incorporates a progressive market with individual opportunity and initiative. It envisions an ideal citizenry that is in charge of the government, forcing the president and the Congress to do the right thing.

That is how the president has changed public discourse. He has changed it at the level that counts, the deepest level, the moral level. What can make that change persist? What will allow such an ideal citizenry to come into existence?

The president can't do it. Congress can't do it. Only we can as citizens, by adopting the president's vision, thinking in his moral frames, and speaking out from that vision whenever possible. Speaking out is at the heart of being a citizen, speaking out is political action, and only if an overwhelming number of us speak out, and live out, this American vision, will the president and the Congress be forced to do what is best for all.

By all means, discuss the policies. Praise them when you like them, criticize them when they fall short. Don't hold back. Talk in public. Write to others. But be sure to make clear the basic principles behind the policies.

And don't use the language of the other side, even to negate it. Remember that if you say "Don't Think of an Elephant," people will think of an elephant.

Structure is important. Start with the general principles, move to policy details, finish with the general principles.

Reader Supported News is the Publication of Origin for this work. Permission to republish is freely granted with credit and a link back to Reader Supported News. your social media marketing partner


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We too were alarmed at the patterns we were, and still are, seeing. It is clear that the provocateurs are far more savvy, disciplined, and purposeful than anything we have ever experienced before.

It is also clear that we still have elements of the same activity in our article discussion forums at this time.

We have hosted and encouraged reader expression since the turn of the century. The comments of our readers are the most vibrant, best-used interactive feature at Reader Supported News. Accordingly, we are strongly resistant to interrupting those services.

It is, however, important to note that in all likelihood hardened operatives are attempting to shape the dialog our community seeks to engage in.

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Marc Ash
Founder, Reader Supported News

-61 # Depressionborn 2013-02-16 10:08
Not if your politically incorrect it isn't.

Try this: Global warming is a fraud
+33 # Nominae 2013-02-16 11:08
Quoting Depressionborn:
Not if your politically incorrect it isn't.

Try this: Global warming is a fraud

Try this: The Earth Is Flat and the Moon is made of Green Cheese.
-23 # Depressionborn 2013-02-16 13:14
-27 # Depressionborn 2013-02-16 13:21
Yours maybe, mine is cooling.

Despite playing a key role in advancing climate change hysteria, the United Kingdom’s National Weather Service, known as the Met Office, quietly released a report last week conceding that so-called “global warming” actually stopped more than 15 years ago. The startling admission shows once again that United Nations theories and climate models are wildly inaccurate at best, experts say, meaning multi-trillion dollar schemes to deal with alleged human-caused “climate change” are at the very least severely misguided.

According to the latest UK Met Office report, first reported by the Daily Mail, there has been no noticeable increase in global temperatures since early 1997. The alleged warming trend supposedly observed from 1980 to 1996 was about as long as the current “plateau” period, the paper reported. Prior to that, climate scientists admit, global temperatures had been stable or dropping for decades, a fact that prompted previous generations of climate alarmists to sound the alarm about the supposed dangers of man-made “global cooling.”

Sorry NOMINAE, you've been had.
+3 # jbsarts 2013-02-17 11:04
After looking up the Met Office and global warming, I must direct you to their site where the talk is supportive of global warming
+18 # Helen 2013-02-16 11:48
On the contrary, global warming is the biggest issue of our generation. You can read the recent NASA and NOAA reports and trust the 97% of climate scientists who know what they are talking about. Looking at Hurricane Sandy, a record-breaking wildfire season and severe droughts in parts of the midwest, 77% of Americans no longer want to be dependent on our greedy fossil fuel industries.
+6 # Scotty44 2013-02-16 13:16
Depression - Watch this video and see if your mind stays locked -
-7 # Depressionborn 2013-02-16 17:23
Couldn't make it work. Must be too cold
+1 # Scotty44 2013-02-16 22:10
Copying and pasting into my browser address bar works. Don't know why it wasn't live here.
+40 # DaveM 2013-02-16 10:14
All human beings have fundamental rights. In the United States, they are guaranteed by the Constitution (even though that document is seeing troubled times at present). Being aware of those rights, and working to keep them, is the task of a citizen. Simple obedience to authority is the task of a serf.

Americans are not serfs. We empower the government, not the other way around. Let us work in every way possible to insure that that remains true.
+23 # MainStreetMentor 2013-02-16 11:03
Just so, DaveM! It would appear our Congressional members have forgotten, or have chosen to ignore, the essence of your comment. In either case, I maintain the reason for their "back-turning" on the principles inherent to the document your reference is: Greed.
+2 # Depressionborn 2013-02-16 19:01
Not serfs? You bet!

A ruling class, oligarchy or dictatorship, needs to control four things.
• Money (Try the Fed)
• Force (Try Homeland Security)
• Education (Try progressive schooling)
• Media (Try watching the news)

Then if you still don't catch on, write down the Bill of Rights and weep. (Hint: Corporate America has gained control over Congress and the bureaucracy.)

The oligarchy, or what ever, also strangely meddles in the affairs of other nations. (Why, I don't know)

History may show it usually goes to war.
+2 # Scotty44 2013-02-16 22:12
Control and resources are why.
+27 # maddave 2013-02-16 11:13
"Americans are not serfs. We empower the government, not the other way around. "
Sorry, Dave. This isn't true and has not been true for forty years and counting. That rhetoric, effectively repeled by Citizens United, is still in motion due to it's 200+ years of accumulated inertia, but Corporate America has bought and paid for our Congress, our Courts, our regulatory agencies, our career bureaucracy our military and, arguably - but not yet certainly - our Presidency.

Our unions have been destroyed from both within and without; our once-proud middle class is hard pressed to survive; and --- in Corporate America's eyes --- working people are consumables: expendables. Use 'em and when "used up", throw 'em away. When necessary, they can all be replaced quickly and economically from the ranks of the increasingly desperate unemployed and under-employed . . . who keep hanging around out front looking for jobs.

And, still, inexplicably, fat-assed Joe SixPak and his buddies - loaded with debts and satiated on junk food, beer and a TV clicker - vote overwhelmingly AGAINST their own self interests in both local and National elections all across the country.

Wake up Americans!! It's the hate-and-fear mongering, greedy 1%-ers whom you ought to be fearing & hating.

They are NOT your friends.

They will NOT invite you up to join them.
+6 # KrazyFromPolitics 2013-02-16 13:24
Amen, and I'm not religious. Well stated, especially about the lack of concern.
+2 # Majikman 2013-02-16 21:07
Right on, maddave. Once the Pacific Trade Treaty goes through things will get much worse as the US will lose sovereignty to the corporations. Did anyone catch in the SOTU address that Obama now wants a similar Atlantic Trade Treaty? Interesting that all of this is flying under the radar.
+20 # DPM 2013-02-16 11:13
Silence IS consent.
+8 # goodsensecynic 2013-02-16 12:52
Well put!

But what about the main point of the article?

"Reactionaries" can come up with their wish lists: low taxes, "family values" and so on.

"Progressives" can do likewise: social investment, "liberal values" and the like.

But very few even consider the principles that underlie the specifics (at least more thoughtful ways than bumper sicker slogans).

Instead, words such as "fascist" and "socialist" are tossed around as terms of abuse by people with neither historical nor theoretical knowledge of either one.

Lack of attention to serious political thought (commonly called "ideology" - meaning any thinking that we don't like) is a core theme in American life.

Philosophical ignorance is tolerated and often encouraged, because even the best Americans deem themselves pragmatic,
"can-do" people who like to solve
"practical" problems without worrying much about their causes or the problematic implications of their solutions.

The result? American exceptionalism!

As someone said, "the USA is the only country in history to go from barbarism to decadence without an intervening period of civilization."

It may be too late, but it would be nice to observe Americans having not only "grown-up," but also well-informed and ultimately principled debates.
+14 # tbcrawford 2013-02-16 12:01
Actions speak louder than words...and it's Obama's actions, or lack of them, that disturb me. Why more deportations, why drones, why close down medical marijuana clinics, why STEM only when children need creative time, why educational debt our most severe financial problem, why solve international issues with guns? why not support small farms, why Obama advisers all from Wall Street...the list goes on and on. Many of us do speak up, constantly, and protest, and vote...but who listens. WHY? Because Citizens United is based on fraud, because we are addicted to things, because our national optimism has been crushed, because we do not see justice fairly administered, because we can not promise our children our once cherished hope in the future.
+11 # D12345 2013-02-16 12:28
Great Post TBcrawford!!!

When O started with the deficit and said that economists all agree on the need for massive debt at was the real message.

Elizabeth Warren in the Senate hearing was the first breath of fresh air in a long time. She exposed the entire O administration as lackeys for the banks.

During the last 4 years the 1% has made a fortune and everyone else has lost ground.

As you pointed out....wall to wall CITI and Goldman people surround him. Including DOJ!!!

Flowery words while he assumes imperial powers that Nixon or Cheney would envy.

As to why....I would add something. With the fall of the USSR and world Communist movement, the ruling elite were emboldened to go back to total crushing of the working class.
Obama is no populist. Nobody knows what he did as a "community organizer." He is a spokesman and protector for the Ruling elite. Even on small things he is servant of the wealthy. Fewest pardons of any modern president, and prison population soaring!
Thanks again for the strong commentary
+10 # goodsensecynic 2013-02-16 12:34
When some people think of elephants, they think of Republicans.

Me? I have too much respect for elephants.

Jackasses? That's another matter.
+2 # Scotty44 2013-02-16 13:37
Why do we have to force Obama to follow his speech? Convince others to follow I understand. But Obama could appoint progressive heads to the agencies that regulate the financial industry and heavily impact our economy, spy on innocent people and undermine and suppress those working to promote populous causes here and abroad, and otherwise perpetrate violations of human and civil rights. With that sentence, Lakoff indicates Obama isn't with us. Good speech, but he didn't mean it.
+1 # goodsensecynic 2013-02-16 15:42
I confess that I don't understand this letter.

I especially don't understand the phrase "populous cause".
+1 # Scotty44 2013-02-16 22:33
For me, it is synonymous with progressive. Lakoff delineates progressive characteristics in his book, The Little Blue Book.
0 # Selwick 2013-02-16 17:01
What's wrong with Scotty44's post?
He's right. Obama is using nice words but his actions speak louder. I'm still waiting for the change that he was about to bring. I do not want to give his words a chance in my mind and heart when his daily operation contradicts him. Right now he has nothign to loose, why doesn't he act according his oh so golden words?
+4 # dukesjoker 2013-02-16 14:21
SOTU Shit on the uniform? No? Than at least include how you are using the collection of letters the first time they are used to preclude others from forming their own and likely different meaning.
Otherwise the article was interesting.
+1 # goodsensecynic 2013-02-16 15:44
Good point in principle, but surely "State of the Union" isn't THAT hard to figure out.
+2 # RicKelis 2013-02-16 15:40
Read this yesterday, under the title "How the State of the Union Worked." From the comments here, I'd have to conclude that George is talking over the heads of most folks who aren't fact-based and likely to consult scientifically supported research like an academic professor does. All opinions are not equal -- intelligent, researched articles presenting points of view are much more valuable in our process of "speaking a citizen."
+1 # tclose 2013-02-17 08:28
I agree with this post - George has given us an excellent analysis of the way in which the President's speech was constructed to emphasize the progressive viewpoint. What we get in the way of comments are mostly off the wall, puerile, and sophomoric. Well, George did ask us to speak out - I guess he got what he asked for.

Thank you, George, for a brilliant essay.
+5 # Torvus 2013-02-16 16:39
'. . . discuss the policies. Praise them when you like them, criticize them when they fall short. Don't hold back. Talk in public. Write to others. . .'

That is, if we are ALLOWED to be active citizens:
if we are not:-
banned, sprayed, tazered, clubbed, arrested, excluded from the media,ignored.
Enforced silence is not consent.
+2 # dovelane1 2013-02-19 23:10
Torvus - Perhaps the bottom line is that we must speak out, and not hold back, even when we are banned, sprayed, tazered, clubbed, arrested, excluded and ignored.

It may come down to that.

Sometimes I feel as if Obama is walking a tightrope, trying to balance everything. I'm not sure how outspoken he can be against the 1% and those who are richer and more powerful, without inviting someone amongst them to hire someone to permanently shut him up.

Of course, they tried that with M. L. King, Jr., and he became a martyr. Perhaps the 1% fear making Obama a martyr, and go along with his duplicity because he appears to be working for them on some level.

In the long run, (and Obama may be looking at things in the long run,) we will HAVE to take back the government, and it may not matter who sets up the roadblocks. What will matter is that we continue to take them down, and keep moving away from fear, and towards a good "quality" of life for all.

To move away from using competition as the basis for defining what is good and profitable, and towards empathy, consensus and cooperation.

For a male in a patriarchal culture that's been raised from birth to see competition as the way to do things, that may be the hardest change to deal with. In the ong run, competition will always benefit the 1% more than it does the 99%.
+4 # Organizer 2013-02-17 22:10
Yeah, I agree with Scotty44. Blake said it long ago, "He who would do good to another must do it in Minute Particulars: general Good is the plea of the scoundrel, hypocrite, and flatterer..." Obama has been doing way too much pleading for the general good....I am still waiting for the concrete positions that would demonstrate real courage - a pipeline to be blocked, habeus corpus to be defended, etc. Sure, he created a pretty frame...he did that last time too...I want to see something real
+4 # sschnapp 2013-02-19 12:08
Good points. We will see real change from politicians when there is a broad-based, multi-race, multi-class, democratic social movement pushing hard for those changes. Roosevelt did the right thing because of the rising labor movement. LBJ did the right thing because of the Civil Rights movement. Power concedes nothing without a demand (Frederick Douglas).
-1 # jazzman633 2013-02-18 11:51
OF COURSE Georgie loved the speech: he's a liberal, and the speech promised govt. solutions for every problem. Georgie and I both came of age as linguistics PhD's in the 1960s and 70s. He seems to have laid aside his scientific objectivity in analyzing the speech, which he already agrees with emotionally.

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