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 k / o
                                       politics + culture

Friday, August 12, 2005

for a politics of coalition

One thing that gets me is how my political instincts just run counter to what most folks propose as the "magic bullet" for the Democratic Party. (In my view there isn't one.) As you may have guessed from the title, politically, my instincts always come back to coalition building. This essay is an attempt to analyse why and where I differ with what I see as the prevailing ideas...and to indicate why I am interested in 'coalition building' as the Democratic Party's best bet for winning back a legislative majority.

It seems like there are two broad schools of thought currently proposing a 'model' for moving forward, those based on message and those based on process.


Message: Lakoff and Frames


Simply put, you'll never run out of people who'll tell you that "message" is the cure-all for the Democratic Party's needs. One has only to think of the Clinton, Gore and Kerry campaigns to realize that. Of course, we've been honing our "message" one way or the other for the last twenty-five years...almost as if finding the right words would make the voters come our way. In my view, if message serves as no more than a parentheses around the coalition we're building, it is not a solution to anything.

I admire what George Lakoff is doing. His analysis informs my writing. Many of my pieces have been just another way of talking about, or using, frames. Lakoff is examining message in a powerful new way. And the best part of his analysis...ironic pun indeed...is how he points out there is this HUGE ELEPHANT in the living room of American politics. That elephant is the well-funded beast we call the Right Wing Noise Machine and we should all be thinking of it and rethinking how we deal with it.

However, I do fundamentally disagree with Lakoff in that his program has the practical effect of convincing Democratic activists to think that "framing"...or, in its popular form, simply redefining our message...is the key to victory. It isn't. And it never has been. And the danger in suggesting to our field of Democratic candidates in 2006 that they rely on the crutch of message yet again is profound.

We're not going to discuss our way out of this mess, and we all know it. Creating a legion of "framers" using the exact same words and formulations is something that is not pretty when you hear it in action. It can sound like an army of zombies to me. (Is it just me, or can you tell when someone is going to spring the "framing / Lakoff" thing on you in a conversation?)

Simplistic, repeated messaging may work for the GOP. I'm not at all convinced it works for us. In fact, I would put it this way, as a party that represents a true, broad coalition, we Democrats come together around causes and ideals around battles and pragmatic programs more that we do around frames or ideology. Yes, message and reframing are essential. They are an excellent starting point. But they are not even close to sufficient. Frankly we've been treating message as an easy answer to the real problems that face our coalition for too long. We cannot simply throw up the brackets of "message" and expect to hold our coalition together. To leave that impression with our candidates is a bad idea.


Process: the Netroots, Reform and Dean


Now, there's another school. I'll call it the Dean/Trippi school. This school is convinced that "process" is the key. Whether its the netroots...or online fundraising...or attacking special interest lobbyists...or whatever the next best hope for breaking up politics-as-usual and reforming the Democratic party might be. Let's do something new NOW is the motto.

There is enormous validity to this point of view. First, we do need reform. And second, like Dr. Lakoff, this school has had an immediate impact. Online fundraising kept John Kerry alive and in the mix in 2004...and, as we can attest...the blogosphere is a new and powerful medium that has energized the grassroots. No one needs reminding that Howard Dean is now the chair of the DNC.

However, the "process" advocates have faced some real drawbacks as well. First, the messengers...be they Dean or Trippi or Markos...as they would readily admit, are mere mortals. All of them have, like all of us here on the blogs, been in one way or another learning as they go. This has meant real, tangible, public failures...and, at times, despite good intentions, questionable judgments all around. In some ways...events and technology carried these folks to the fore, and it showed, and it still shows.

There are smart savvy people in the Democratic Party on all sides who are for progressive reform but who disagree with the "process" cadre...not about reform or innovation...but in how they've gone about it. Those voices should be heard. Good ideas should be encouraged and debated. As it stands, in my opinion there is an "echo chamber" effect and "group think" in the netroots and in DFA. It is symbolized in how a single story or movement dominates the top blogs over and over again. It is also expressed in the male "lock" on the culture of the Democratic blogs.

We need to innovate ways to break the feedback mechanism that creates this. We can start, I think, by looking at what the "reformers" are proposing, and the results they've acheived...not simply what they are critiqueing. We can start by asking how could the netroots work differently and, perhaps, better?

As it stands, Democratic politics at the netroots has been run on an ad hoc basis, making it up as we go and accepting results "just because."

There is nothing so thrilling...nor so spectacularly and frequently doomed to failure...as the ad hoc political inspiration of a thousand "like minds" all thinking and doing the exact same thing in the belief that their actions are going to change the world. The Dean campaign was exhibit A for this effect. It is, however, a really bad way to run a political campaign.

We need better than ad hoc for 2006. We need better than for the blogosphere to be a culture that is dominated by men and jocular attacks. We need better than a "no accountability" zone on the net where strategic failures and rank offensiveness are accepted "just because" it's a new medium. And we won't get there by group think, smack talk and closing ranks. We get there by open discussion and debate in an environment where results matter. For as much as the blogs represent "free speech"...I don't necessily see this happening in 2005.

Second, and in my view more noxious, is the tendency of the "process" advocates to see the entire established Democratic base as simply an obstacle to their innovation. It isn't. In fact, true reformers don't spend their time pissing off the very people that their reforms are meant to serve. True reformers build bridges. They seek to understand even as they make critiques. They build a case for their innovations by showing how those innovations are better...not by poisoning the well. Too often, playing up the "shock effect" of pushing for reform and innovation has led to some absolutely screwy and irresponsible statements, and the taking of some ludicrous positions. (Women are not a "special interest"...ahem.)

Simply put, there are millions of us out there who've sweated and bled on previous campaigns and struggles. We've been influenced by folks, mere mortals too, who fought the good fight in the trenches before the internet. Pat Schroeder. Jesse Jackson. Paul Wellstone. 1-800-Jerry Brown. We, too, deeply hunger for reform in the Democratic Party. Yet at times it seems as if the reformers rip through the hard work of two generations of Democratic and progressive activists as if that work contains nothing of value. Some days it seems like the netroots is losing itself in a sea of smack.

When Markos, and so many others, went after NARAL in such a scathing way, I have to confess, I truly scratched my head. I want to say, "Hey, there was a time before Clinton, before Casey...when we were getting up at 4AM to counter-demonstrate Operation Rescue at abortion clinics. I will bet you cold money that no one who has done that...who saw NARAL in action, and understands what that action meant at the time...would talk like this now." I'd like to use my small voice to send a message to the blogosphere: There's something called respect and solidarity. There's something called respectful disagreement and engaged debate. When we abandon that in the name of "reform", especially when we indulge in juvenile, puerile shock politics, we put the very reforms we advocate in jeopardy.

Yes, we need reform. We need to innovate process. Reforming process through the netroots is just not, in my opinion, the "be all end all" that its proponents seem to think it is. It is a necessary, but again, not a sufficient solution. And, yes, some of the poisonous attitudes surfing out there, the group-think, the smack talk, however well-intentioned, can indeed do more harm than good.

At the end of the day, we aren't going to smack talk our way to victory, either.


For a Politics of Coalition: Wellstone


I've titled this piece "for a politics of coalition." I intend to write about this project more thoroughly and concretely on this weblog. (Coalition will be a core here.) While it is not a silver bullet....I am convinced that pragmatic coalition building, in cooperation with framing and innovative party reform, is our single best chance to win back a legislative majority in this nation. We owe that to our people.

It's hard work. You can't do it with message. You can't do it simply sitting at a computer. You can't do it by mailing a check or clicking a button. Real coalition-building means people sitting in the same room and hashing things out from the local up to the national level. It means folks getting their act together in private so that they can stand together in public. It means reaching people who aren't on the web. It means reaching out to people who disagree with you, but who will vote with you. It means, at the end of the day, that we learn to take people where they're at, and move forward together

As a party, we need to emulate something that Paul Wellstone excelled at: meeting with people and listening to them. And then going back, again and again, and building a long-term relationship based on straight-forward communication and pragmatic alliance building. Wellstone burned the shoe leather. He looked people who didn't agree with him in the eye, and he won their support and respect while staying true to his roots. That is my prescription for the entire party, and for our candidates in particular. We need to bring our people together; and you can't do that at a distance...you have to do that sitting in the same room. That's how American politics works.

The challenge of pragmatic coalition building is that it is nowhere near as exciting as talking about frames or getting the top 100 blogs to do project x. It is, however, and this is a point I cannot emphasize enough, the most powerful thing we can do to counter Republican dominance of our political life. Coalition-building, hard work though it is, is the single best long-term political investment you can make. Organized Labor has always understood this: When people come together to fight for issues that matter to them, they build alliances that last.

When we get our act together and stand together as a Party, we are a force to be reckoned with. We are still, at heart, the kind of party that can actually get something done in this country. We are a coalition of diverse people from widely different backgrounds coming together for pragmatic reasons. Hence, when you elect Democrats, we get things done. People understand this.

If you ask me, the true log jam of American politics is that neither party has in recent history succeeded in building a diverse, "results-oriented" coalition that builds bridges beyond its base. (I would argue that we need to build bridges within our base as well.) Let that happen, let us begin the hard work of building a flexible, pragmatic solution-oriented coalition in this country with a party organization to back it up...and I'll bet you we can kick the GOP's ass out of DC faster than you can say...2006.

You see, in my view our coalition is the solution, and it always has been. The hard work is ahead of us.

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16 Comments:

  • kido, friend... first, by way of agreement, I appreciate your message of going out and locally organizing with people is the answer. I think just doing that is not sufficient, we also need to sit at the computer and communicate globally, locallity to locality... but still, that point, which I think is the main one in this essay, is solid.

    BUT.

    You don't understand the point of framing. I think the chief irony here is that Lakoff has given us a terrible frame for understanding his point. It's not about message.

    A frame is a web of ideas used to analyse something. The web is metaphorical. E.g., while trying to analyse national needs, people apply a family frame.

    It's not language.

    Here, Lakoff is a congnitive scientist... but he's actually a linquist... why? Cognitive science is only a couple decades old and it is interdisciplinary between psychologists, linquists and... philosophers.

    What are the philosophers doing there. They give a damn about message. They are all about concepts.

    Cognitive science is a study how the brain as a thinking material operates... philosophers are in the business of creating new ideas for it to... run, or, barring that, describing old ways of thinking and possibly trying to clean them up... restore them a little.

    That is what framing is about... and Lakoff merely comes from the linguist side.

    But language is not about message, not anymore. In the 60s a famous Berkeley philosopher (and curmudgeon) John Serle wrote a book that changed how language is viewed... Speech Act.

    In short, he says that language is an action, when we speak we are trying to change something, to do something, just as if we... say, pick up an object or open a door. So linguistic right now is about these actions that flow from ideas... so from Lakoff's perspective his work in linguistics is really work in concepts, the language comes from these concepts and is not papered over them... when people think Lakoff is about message, sure... but from his point of view it's IMPOSSIBLE to change the message unless you change the underlying way of thinking. It's this way of thinking he says we must change. We need to find good metaphors not to convince OTHER people, but because the mind uses metaphors to actually DO it's thinking.


    For philosophers language has always been about symbology for concepts... so a philosopher is inclined to create their own language that no one understands... why, this is like a furniture maker creating her own set of tools. No one but they know how the tools work, but she does, and she uses them.

    Ok, so Lakoff has said that when progressives THINK they only need the words, they are actually lacking a frame, if they had the right frame, the words would come.

    The words would not have to be lockstep talking points, not at all, because if the frame is in common, the words can vary, like different paintings of Yosemite Valley need not be identical.

    Examples would be if progressives rejected the idea "the nation IS a family" and used "the nation IS a body"... or what have you.

    And he's right. Progressives are stuck now. Most have no optimistic vision of the future. We're beset by the nihilism that occurs when one reevaluates values.

    Progressives are coming from the past, we have broken down many of the ideas and dictums and metaphors that controlled us over the ages, and we are on the way to building a new world view, but the gateway is nihilism, it's a point in which all your past dogma has been doubted and you have nothing, nothing to believe. You are afraid to rebuild a complex worldview because you've just dismantled a 10,000 year old complex of dogma... you are gun shy about world views... afraid they are all dogma, and our new perspective wishes to preserve our freedom against dogma.

    And that is the trick... a non-dogmatic worldview, and escape from the perils of nihilism.

    And that is what framing is about. Finding liberating metaphors to THINK WITH, and of course, the linguist is not going to wait around pointing out that when you have this frame to think with, you will finally be able to speak your ideas in a way that can also be heard.

    But it's about the thinking.

    EXAMPLE: strict father metaphor. This is not just about message.

    See... I know hippie dropped out tuned in people that are eerilly conservative. I noticed and said this and struggled with this. How to explain it?

    Well, Lakoff explained it for me and hit the nail on the head. These families were strict father household with a bunch of hippie-liberal dogma put in. The end result of being anti-establishment and strict father modelled household is, conservative.

    It's conservative. Regardless of the anti-war dogma or any other liberal notion they had... the result was conservative. And sure enough, these are people entirely unwilling to see Dems as any better than Republicans, and they are inclined to be luddite and prefer old old old system, what they reconstruct as traditional ways, because their identitity is in this strict father model... and the other ideas are mere window dressing. As conservatives they will not help with progress, no matter if Bob Marley is on their t-shirt or not.

    But more... Armando's (I should say Armando and I are on as good terms as ever... the guy can take a hit... and I continue to respect Armando for that...) authoritarian approach (just this once he says) is... strict father model.

    It's conservative. All the words I put into criticising his action as authoritarian really could be analysed very succinctly in terms of frames. He invoked the strict father frame... where it was better, this time, for expediency, because father knows best, to get a result... and if one spanking can save the child from a life in jail, or a hundred spankings... why it's worth it. That is how that frame works.

    Again... this is using the frame... and yet there is no convincing anyone... people that are pro-strict father model would not look at that analysis and fault Armando's choice... the frame does not convince at all! It merely clarifies the issues.

    So this is what Lakoff means when he advocates us doing work in framing. However, many people are confused about this and my own reading of Lakoff is not extensive enough to be sure that as a linguist Lakoff himself is not a little confused about the difference. However, he has said it's not about message but ideas... so I think the focus on message is more about the fact that we can start applying this knowledge right here... I.E. progressives already have frameworks they need to find the words to express... we can try to do it all at once.

    But for the long haul, it's about creating these ideas we use to break down real world events for purpose of analysis. Once you have used the frame to break down reality into components, and the components have names, well of course you'll have a message at that point as well.

    PS: this is so long it really ought to be edited and treated like an essay, I know without editing it it's probably got some characteristic discontinuities... but it's still just a comment, so forgive me that I'll leave it as it.

    cheers.

    By Blogger Pyrrho, at 3:06 PM  

  • Kid Oakland-

    I'm just wondering what grassroots groups you belong to. I'm not saying this to be snarky. I'm pretty actively involved in a number of East Bay groups, and I'm just curious where you're spending your time off-line.

    Also, I agree with Pyrrho's analysis of Lakoff up to a point. I think people don't pay enough attention to the fact that Lakoff rests his theory on the premise that metaphors structure our thought. For example, in "A Cognitive Scientist Looks at Daubert," Lakoff writes: "Abstract thought requires metaphor; almost
    all abstract thought is metaphorically based on concrete, sensory-motor concepts. This is even true of mathematics." Most people understand "metaphor" to be a purely linguistic phenomenon, and so they miss out the cognitive role metaphors play in Lakoff's theory.

    Where I disagree with Phyrrho is when he writes, "but from his [Lakoff's] point of view it's IMPOSSIBLE to change the message unless you change the underlying way of thinking. It's this way of thinking he says we must change." I think this turns Lakoff's point on its head. Lakoff's point is that because we think in metaphors, we cannot change minds unless we replace the metaphors used to frame conservative positions with our own frames. In essence, the new frames Lakoff suggest are not simply a better way to communicate the same thought, but rather the frames, by virtue of their metaphorical content, necessarily communicate a different thought. Thus, Lakoff is concerned with message insofar as he is concerned with communication. However, Lakoff is not suggesting a simple rhetorical change. Rather, his point is that by changing the frame used to communicate a purportedly stable idea, your also, necessarily, changing the very idea you're communicating.

    Lastly, I want to reject Pyrrho's comments about progressives and nihilism. Nihilism is not an absence of dogma, it is rather a very stable belief that the world is worthless. At best, I think one could argue that progressives (as a whole) no longer have one over-ridding ideological view of the world. That said, I think it's important to remember that the Republican charge Democrats with having no positive vision of the future. This criticism is constantly repeated and has become something of a common thought even among progressives. I think this is a terribly bad idea to accept. For one, it occludes the distinction between a party having one positive vision that all its members share and a situation in which every member of a party has a positive vision, of one sort or another. Now I admit not every progressive has a fleshed out positive vision of how the world should be, but neither do the conservatives. More to the point, the Republicans talk a good game and then promptly act contrary to their supposed positive vision. I wonder about the purpose of a vision if it does not inform ones actions. Anyhow, I'm just sick and tired of progressives repeating a right-wing smear. I think it's untrue, manifestly untrue, and repeating it only hurts our cause.

    -Matt Lockshin
    emetbloom at hotmail

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 4:43 PM  

  • Thank you both...Matt and Pyrrho for the monster comments. Read and appreciated.

    I agree that Lakoff is deeper that I've made him out to be. I try to emulate and use his thinking in everything I write.

    However, there's Lakoff In theory...which I am less concerned with here...and the Lakoff that gets put in practice, which is my focus.

    I hold to my view. Lakoff put into practice by the rank and file, and by our candidates and spokespeople is about message...it's clear.

    We're addicted to message even though we are not good at it.

    I sat and watched Professor Lakoff himself guide a DFA meeting through his "reframing" excercises. He's good. Brilliant. But it was clear to me that even with the Professor himself in the room...and he's a good man with a brilliant mind...

    his thinking gets boiled down into changing our message. That's how people understand it.

    My point is simple. We need to be about organizing and coalition building. Our candidates need to be about coalition building. Our party infrastructure has to be about coalition building.

    That's how you build a successful political party in the USA.

    What can the netroots do? For one, we could use the tools of the net to bring people from different locales and backgrounds together....

    say a meeting in Tracy with folks who show up from Hayward and Oakland. Or a meeting in Modesto with folks who show up from San Rafael and San Francisco.

    That's the kind of thing I'm talking about.

    Last election cycle, here in Oakland, I went to so many "cell phone" action parties in areas unaccessible by public transportation.

    I also volunteered downtown Oakland. What a shame that those two worlds did not meet. Even here in the East Bay we had segregation in our GOTV.

    Hell, I'd love to see North Berkeley and West Oakland meet up. Or East Oakland and North Oakland/Rockridge (my neck of the woods.)

    Matt, if this is going on...tell me. I have not seen it yet. But like I say above...I'm learning too..and am all ears.

    By Blogger kid oakland, at 8:55 PM  

  • The Democrats would be best served if a liberal coalition sprung up to challenge the right wing machine, a combination of liberal media, liberal think tanks, liberal activism, and a strong liberal counter offensive on the republicans would all help the Democrats, and would help liberals get their ideas turned into law by the Democrats.

    Sitting around talking politics and building imaginary bridges is all well and good, but actually putting together a liberal coalition outside of the Democratic party that is strong from top to bottom should be our goal, and reaching that goal will take a strong Grover Norquist type person on the left to help bring it all together.

    The Democratic party is not the place to build anything, the right wingers built their movement outside of the republican party and the liberals would be smart to do the same.

    you know the famous Powell memo that outlines the right wing pro business attack agenda of the last 30 years was written by a Democrat?

    Liberals need to build outside of the party and then drag the Democrats left once they've helped shift the public opinion to the left. The problem as I see it is we liberals keep hoping the Democrats will do all the dirty work that we should be doing ourselves.

    By Anonymous jbou, at 9:08 PM  

  • Jbou.

    I disagree with your proposal, even as I agree with your aims. A reawakened left coaltion.

    For one. And this is something I intend to address here on k/o. We urban liberals don't even build coalition much within our neighborhoods..

    I can walk two blocks West of my apartment in Oakland smack into a working class black-majority neighborhood that has almost nothing to do with the liberal conversations that happen at the cafe I go to two blocks East of my house.

    That's just the truth.

    I've yet to see a "third way" movement that addressed that split. I have seen Labor and the Democratic party do effective outreach in ALL our neighborhoods. Last fall it was Organized Labor that most effectively canvassed my block, coming back, time and again, to labor households.

    My problem with your proposal is that I see that it will fall into the same experience that the Nader movement did. Liberals joined. Not many others followed.

    What if liberals, instead, did the outreach the other way around? What if we found creative ways to build coalition in our cities? What if we found ways to raise the quality of life for people who live minutes away? What if we found ways to commit to revitalize our public schools in coalition with neighbors who may never have SEEN us?

    That's the kind of thing I'm thinking about. It's been going on, quietly, for decades.

    What if the netroots caught on to this?

    By Blogger kid oakland, at 9:30 PM  

  • With all due respect to pyrrho and Matt, I think k/o is spot-on.

    Message cannot be the be-all and end-all of any successful political agenda. Why? Because people can tell when you're all talk, no action--and that's not what they want out of their politicians.

    Absolutely, Democrats must have a message. And we must express it clearly, succinctly, and appropriately. Lakoff's work on framing will be of inestimable value in that process. But I come back to a line from one of the early episodes in season four of The West Wing, where Bartlet is debating Robert Ritchie and says, after Ritchie gave a quintessentially message-oriented statement on taxes, "That's the 10-word answer my staff has been looking for for two weeks. But what I want to know is, what are the next 10 words? And what are the 10 words after that?" In other words, talk is cheap--what are you planning to do about it? That's the prize we can't afford to lose sight of.

    Coalition-building is good. It is, in a very real sense, the foundation of our system of government. Go back and look at the Federalist papers and you'll see that the Framers were terrified to death of political parties ("factions," as they called them, following the classical idiom). Because they'd seen how they operated, and the picture wasn't a pretty one. What they were afraid of is exactly what we now have in Washington: one party triumphant, running roughshod not only over the other party, but over the citizens of this republic, and its laws and even the Constitution itself.

    We need to think more along a European parliamentary model, where we have allies--in our own party, to be sure, but also in others--that we can count on in a legislative battle.

    The same principle applies in the wider world. The problem with NARAL is that it's a narrowly focused group with a very specific set of interests and concerned. They get no traction with people who don't care about those issues, or who hold positions that are different from theirs.

    It's just as Ben Franklin put it, two and a quarter centuries ago. We must all hang together, or we will surely hang separately.

    By Anonymous Michael, at 7:26 AM  

  • matt,

    I'm not sure why you disagree with me on Lakoff... you seemed to describe a similar situation.

    We need to replace the metaphors in the debate, but this comes from changing the metaphors we use to actually think about the issues in question.


    Also, re nihilism. We do disagree about it being stable, I find it a very unstable philosophy, people that stay there grow convictions just as other people do... and if they continue with the idea life truly is worthless, they commit suicide, and if they havn't, they must rectify their actions (working to survive) with their professed beliefs. Progressive are not nihilists, according to me, but the process of reevaluating old biases has brought us to a location very near to nihilism.

    To identify and utilize the metaphors we prefer is, to me, a way to increase the distance between progressives and the ideological nihilism I refer to.

    I see some differences between what you said and I said, but also some of them seem semantic only.

    By Blogger Pyrrho, at 3:26 PM  

  • >I hold to my view. Lakoff put into practice by the rank and file, and by our candidates and spokespeople is about message...it's clear.<

    I agree with you here. My view is this is the same old marketing forces in the party trying to appeal with cheap stunts (e.g. having Gore change his whole demeaner over the three debates)... and they are using Lakoff to justify their own philosophy of Marketing. It's totally dishonest because that is not what Lakoff says in his work.

    Mind you, I've read very little of Lakoff's work, I'm not an expert, of his books only Don't Think Of An Elephant, and additionally many of his essays and I was made familiar with the work on metaphor years ago by a friend that almost studied under Lakoff but instead studied under Marc Johnson, a colleague of Lakoff's from the computational linguistics side of things.

    But if I can pick this up from Lakoff after one short book on framing... I really feel anyone using his name to justify their marketing plan should have picked it up too, and I distrust them as a result.

    By Blogger Pyrrho, at 3:29 PM  

  • I think the "frame" frame is actually counterproductive kid.

    That's the issue of me saying Lakoff is actually not that good at framing public messages! People think it's about message because that is what it means to "frame your argument"... or to "frame a picture"... it is, ironically, the frame of the word frame.

    But I also believe we need to find these metaphors. Frankly, I don't think progressives, as a group, are doing analysis based on a solid understanding of their own principles, we are sort of feeling our way around as a group (individual cases of course vary). We are beling a little reactive, and recognizing our benefit as being less crazy than conservatives, things like this. We need a cohesive worldview in order to think more efficiently about what we want and how to get there.

    Framing is supposed to mean that... I agree however, it tends to be understood as message specific, all talk.

    And I also would not argue against the idea that even Lakoff falls into this (I mean, if he can't keep a group away from that perception, it's because he's prone to it to, to some degree... which is perhaps why he doesn't understand how poorly framed "framing" itself seems to be as strategic advice). Of course, he's a linguist, so he is on the side of cognitive science that does blur message and idea, because language itself connects message and idea and makes them seem one and the same.

    I wonder if we would not be better off if the advice from Lakoff were merely, "find the most compelling progressive metaphors"

    By Blogger Pyrrho, at 3:40 PM  

  • I'm thrilled to come across this discussion of Lakoff. I've just been getting around to wrestling with "Elephant." I'm not completely through thinking about Lakoff, but I think I agree with what I understand pyrrho's last comment to mean: Lakoff might have helped us more if he'd just said "explore the metaphors you are comfortable with that express your values. The result will be persuasive new liberal frames."

    That is, Lakoff is really good at the theory of how language controls what we can think -- he is not so good at political thought. That's okay -- that is the job for we-the-engaged-people (maybe, if the people lead, the leaders will follow?)

    k/o, I'll be looking forward to your thoughts on coalition. I've just been in discussions of a training program for community organizations on political participation and I am convinced that they need to be helped to work in coalition as much as anything.

    By Blogger janinsanfran, at 12:16 PM  

  • Thanks Jan, and thanks much for the link to your blog.

    I guess the way I'd put it is that Lakoff's project and the netroots are valuable assets to us while we work on our main project: coalition building.

    In Minnesota, the Democrats won back a tie in the State Senate in 2004 largely because in Suburban districts a small number of "straight shooting" women candidates won election becuase they were an appealling alternative to GOP Governor Tim Pawlenty's minions.

    Now, these State Senators can use Lakoff to craft their "metaphors"....they can interact with the netroots...but the single most powerful thing they can do is build coalition with Democrats across the State..and with folks from different backgrounds in their own districts.

    This is where, imo, the "rubber hits the road" in politics...on the "face to face" local level.

    What I'm saying is that our central job is coalition building, is bringing folks together in the same room for a reason...even it's just that they're pissed off at Pawlenty...or George Bush's Social Security proposals.

    Message (Lakoff) and Process (Net Activism) help us with this...but they are not the core, they can't do the hard work for us, the heavy lifting.

    Our coalition is the core. Bringing those new women Senators into our coalition and making them stronger is our job....

    that's how we create one, two, many Obamas.

    Thanks for the comment!!

    By Blogger kid oakland, at 12:58 PM  

  • KO, your last comment shows me you just don't get it. This battle with the right wing will not be won unless we can sell our ideals to the public. Electing straight talking women is all well and good but what do these women stand for? Are they going to vote for bills that are liberal? Are they going to stand up for liberal ideals? And if they stand up for liberal ideals are they going to be run out office on a rail because they stood up for ideals that are unpopular?

    The right wingers saw that their agenda was being ignored in this country, and back in the late 60's and early 70's they made a big effort to sell their capitalistic right wing agenda. The left has not built an organized movement to counter the propaganda from the right. In today's world Richard Nixon would be to the left of the mainstream republican party, but in the 70's he was considered right wing. The right wingers have shifted our political center their way, and it's time for the left to pull it back, and this is going to happen when we sell our ideals to the public and these ideals are looked at as mainstream. Till then getting people with a D by their name elected is just not enough, because too many Democrats are quick to sell out the left once they get into office. Remember what Bill Clinton did, he spent the 90's selling out the liberals, why? Because the right wing echo chamber was hammering on his agenda daily.

    A combination of framing (I think we need a whole new product rollout for liberals that goes beyond framing), netroots activism and your on the ground ideas is needed, but the big thing that we need is a place for all of this to come together, we need a liberal team coaching staff, we need leaders willing to step up and organize, and leaders that are respected across the liberal spectrum, in order for the left to make any headway in this country we need our ideals to be heard, and these ideals to be accepted by a majority of the country, then and only then will we be able to get the funding we need to do all the good work you would like to do, then and only then will we have Democrats not afraid to be liberal, then and only then will moderate politicians lean to the left and not the right.

    One last thing, you do realize that politicians and the people are starting to hang out in the same rooms and engage in dialouge, it just happens to be on the internet. I think you are longing for days gone by, people just don't have the time to go to regular meetings, but they do have the time to log on and get involved, discuss issues, and politicians have taken notice, look what Conyers, and other politicians have done over at Dailykos. they have paid attention to what the people have been saying and they are actually engaging folks and using their ideas. And the people have responded with action, be it the Sheehan thing, or whatever, they have responded. The last piece of the puzzle is the selling of our ideals, the rest is already in place.

    By Anonymous jbou, at 9:32 PM  

  • Jbou, you make good points.

    And while I think it's unfair of you to say "I just don't get it."...I see your points and I still disagree.

    I know that you aren't talking about "message" in the old-fashioned way...slopping together some code words about Health Care and Education.

    You're talking about rebranding liberalism from the roots up. And I agree with that, and your points about "moderates" and "timid Dems".

    I also agree that the netroots have revolutionary potential. Especially for us activists. I remember what it was like to fight for Harvey Gant before the net. What a shame. Imagine if.

    But let me tell you a story in that regard. Lakoff was here ON MY BLOCK...at Sayseetha Thai restaurant last winter talking to a DFA meetup.

    Ie. The North Oakland DFA...that would BE the netroots personified...in the same room with Lakoff.

    Meanwhile, the largely working class African-American clientele of the restaurant came and went picking up take out dinner. Some folks stopped to listen as they waited. Some didn't. But let me just say there was a clear split between the "neighborhood" folks and the crowd listening to Lakoff.

    To me....that's the perfect symbol. The netroots is ONE SMALL SLICE of liberal voters. Yes, we activists are here gobbling up Conyers words...and Lakoff's theory...on the internet.

    But that's not how you win elections. You have to get it out there where people are at. And the VAST MAJORITY of our voters are not here.

    Yes, this is a great place for wonky liberals to get together and talk strategy....we're "real people" too.

    My advice...my strategy = getting off line, off screen and make new activists, new netroots afficionados in all our communities...ACROSS our coalition.

    My "wonky" idea would be to organize neighborhood meetups that did specific outreach to get outside of the "activist roots" and get to the neighborhood grass roots....

    maybe even to build a netroots that was ABOUT that, instead of just talking among ourselves all the time.

    When I volunteered for Jesse Jackson in 1988 we took a bus from Bed Stuy and the Bronx up to New Hampshire...and we had an impact. There was something powerful about that.

    It just never got sustained. I'd love to see Democratic candidates do that now. We need to start busting down walls and borders...and bringing people together in person...

    we need to be actually FORGING new activists.

    The two most radical moments in recent American history...the 30's Labor movement and the 50's/60's Civil Rights movement were marked by REAL PEOPLE taking action because of common need.

    We should remember that, and help make that happen again.

    By Blogger kid oakland, at 10:59 PM  

  • I agree that the main project must be something more than blogging and wordsmithing. I too attended the Saysetha Thai meetup when Lakoff came, and the lack of diversity was almost painful. That said, the Oakland meetup is still one of the most diverse grassroots groups I've seen in the area.

    I think a lot of people in the East Bay recognize the need to build coalitions, but it takes a lot to build them. As I understand it, a lot of the lack of cooperation between the progressive white community and the black community in Berkeley and Oakland has to do with bad blood caused by bitterly divisive primary races that occured over a decade ago. Maybe that is just a facile explination that does little to illuminate the real cause of the problem. It is, nonetheless, the one that I've heard the most.

    What I do know, is that the overwhelmingly white, progressive groups I work with have a hard time giving up control of the agenda. Even now, we decide that we need to build coalitions and so, viola, we're ready to build them. But to all the people who were shut out from the discourse until now, it might seem terribly patronizing that it is only now we realize we need friends.

    I think that a discussion about coalition building is incomplete without at least a tacit recognition that building coalition changes power dynamics.

    I don't see blogs as a panacea for the Democratic Party. I am well aware that most of the people we need to reach out to are not online, and do not organize online. Nonetheless (in spite of it's banality) it's true that knowledge is power. And insofar as blogs democratize knowledge, they devolve power. Furthermore, the nature of the internet ensures that no voice can be stifled. A lot of times I see progressives striving for unanimity where there is none. Instead of trying to paper over differences, I think we can build strong coalitions by frankly recognizing both are points of agreement and where we disagree.

    I admit, I do not know whether the internet will be a vehicle for coalition building. But I do know that it has the potential to open space for dialogue less constrained by the power dynamics inherent in offline organizing. It has the potential, in a sense, to be a type of neutral ground. I think that those of us interested in coalition building ought to pay attention to this potential. The internet certainly won't be suffient to build meaningful coalitions. That said, a narrow focus on doing things as they have always been done might cause us to miss the most revolutionary of possibilities that present themselves to us.

    Matt Lockshin

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 2:01 AM  


  • I think that a discussion about coalition building is incomplete without at least a tacit recognition that building coalition changes power dynamics.


    you made a light go off in my head... this is so true. It's obvious. I have been thinking lately aboutt this... one conservative complaint about progress is that reformers intend reformation with their own power enhanced as a result. We all know this and take it into account, but we do not discuss it. Where this lack of acknowledgment comes to a head is perhaps in coalition building.

    Building a coalition therefore involves specifying some understanding of the roles and relative powers of factions within the coalition.


    I don't see blogs as a panacea for the Democratic Party. I am well aware that most of the people we need to reach out to are not online, and do not organize online. Nonetheless (in spite of it's banality) it's true that knowledge is power. And insofar as blogs democratize knowledge, they devolve power. Furthermore, the nature of the internet ensures that no voice can be stifled. A lot of times I see progressives striving for unanimity where there is none. Instead of trying to paper over differences, I think we can build strong coalitions by frankly recognizing both are points of agreement and where we disagree.


    I have been trying to make this point on this topic for a while and I will probably borrow some of your language absent your objection, because it is so lucid.

    By Blogger Pyrrho, at 11:27 PM  

  • I have been trying to make this point on this topic for a while and I will probably borrow some of your language absent your objection, because it is so lucid.

    I'm glad the post was helpful. I have to admit, though, that the last two sentences in the final paragraph you quoted owe a lot to a conversation I had with Zeus Yiamouyiannis, who know works at the The Interactivity Foundation. Zeus teaches (or taught before IF, I'm not sure) multicultural communication.

    By Anonymous Matt Lockshin, at 11:05 PM  

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