George Lakoff, a cognitive science professor at the University of California, Berkeley, argues convincingly that the left makes grave mistakes with regard to how it frames issues and by doing so has ceded important ground to the right.

Shutterstock  July 28, 2015

From The Guardian

“The progressive mindset is screwing up the world. The progressive mindset is guaranteeing no progress on global warming. The progressive mindset is saying, ‘Yes, fracking is fine.’ The progressive mindset is saying, ‘Yes, genetically modified organisms are OK’, when, in fact, they’re horrible, and the progressive mindset doesn’t know how to describe how horrible they are. There’s a difference between progressive morality, which is great, and the progressive mindset, which is half OK and half awful.” … [George Lakoff, professor of cognitive science at the University of California, Berkeley] cannot keep the frustration out of his voice: the left, he argues, is losing the political argument – every year, it cedes more ground to the right, under the mistaken impression that this will bring everything closer to the centre. In fact, there is no centre: the more progressives capitulate, the more boldly the conservatives express their vision, and the further to the right the mainstream moves. The reason is that conservatives speak from an authentic moral position, and appeal to voters’ values. Liberals try to argue against them using evidence; they are embarrassed by emotionality. They think that if you can just demonstrate to voters how their self-interest is served by a socially egalitarian position, that will work, and everyone will vote for them and the debate will be over. In fact, Lakoff asserts, voters don’t vote for bald self-interest; self-interest fails to ignite, it inspires nothing – progressives, of all people, ought to understand this.

When he talks about the collapse of the left, he clearly doesn’t mean that those parties have disintegrated: they could be in government, as the Democrats are in the US. But their vision of progressive politics is compromised and weak. So in the UK there have been racist “Go home” vans and there is an immigration bill going through parliament, unopposed, that mandates doctors, the DVLA, banks and landlords to interrogate the immigration status of us all; Hungary has vigilante groups attacking Roma, and its government recently tried to criminalise homelessness; the leaders of the Golden Dawn in Greece have only just been arrested, having been flirting with fascism since the collapse of the eurozone. We see, time and again, people in need being dehumanised, in a way that seems like a throwback to 60 or 70 years ago. Nobody could say the left was winning.

Lakoff predicted all this in Moral Politics, first published in 1996. In it, he warned that “if liberals do not concern themselves very seriously and very quickly with the unity of their own philosophy and with morality and the family, they will not merely continue to lose elections but will as well bear responsibility for the success of conservatives in turning back the clock of progress in America.” Since then, the left has cleaved moderately well to established principles around the politics of the individual – women are equal, racism is wrong, homophobia is wrong. But everything else: a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay, the essential dignity of all humans, even if they’re foreign people or young people, education as a public good, the natural world as a treasure rather than an instrument of our convenience, the existence of motives besides profit, the pointlessness and poison of privatisation, the profundity, worth and purpose of pooling resources … this stuff is an embarrassment to centre-left parties, even when they’re in government, let alone when they’re in opposition. When unions reference these ideas, they are dismissed as dinosaurs. … If we accept Lakoff’s conclusion, what would it mean to accept his prescription? This is what he believes it would take to refashion the progressive mindset: the abandonment of argument by evidence in favour of argument by moral cause; the unswerving and unembarrassed articulation of what those morals are; the acceptance that there is no “middle” or third way, no such thing as a moderate (people can hold divergent views, conservative on some things, progressive on others – but they are not moderates, they are “biconceptual”); and the understanding that conservatives are not evil, unintelligent, cynical or grasping. Rather, they act according to the moral case as they see it. If they happen to get rich, and make their friends rich in the process, that is just the unbidden consequence of wealth being the natural reward of the righteous, in their moral universe. …

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—Posted by Natasha Hakimi Zapata



  1. Suzan Koch August 5, 2015 at 10:37 PM

    I have to apologize for not putting more thought and substance into my “shooting from the hip” response, and also for the many typos. I wrote reactively out of annoyance to Lakeoff’s underlying premise in regards to what the main problem is concerning the “Progressive” Parties. He seems to believe that it is merely a matter of doing a better “messaging” job and if they could gain power again through better messaging we would all be back on the road to a better tomorrow.

    To me, it appears that there is no room for a political party truly representing the vast majority of humanity within the current parliaments/legislatures, if there ever really was. It seems that it is a total contradiction for an anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist party to exist within the political structure created to represent the interests of the ruling capitalist class, although there were policies and social welfare supports created to assist in the preservation and continuation of the capitalist ruling class, which are being dismantled in one manner or another in Europe, the US, and Canada. They rang the buzzer in 2008, saying “times up – the party is over – we want it all!” It is much like running the bison over the cliff’s edge.

  2. Suzan Koch August 1, 2015 at 9:31 AM

    I say poppycock – George Lakeoff’s assumption and description of the Progressives as being on or for the left, but more or less misguided, totally misses the central reality. The truth is that the so called Progressives: Democratic, Democratic Socialists, Socialists, the Green Party in some part os Europe and Labor Parties are all part of the capitalist political system, working for the continuation of the Capitalist Agenda at the expense of the people and they have been part and parcel of the attack on the social welfare state and the “safety nets” that allowed the power elite to continue to control the economic, political and foreign warfare policies while offering ameliorating and often excellent social and economic benefits to the working and middle classes. These days are over, for everyone, to one degree or another, and while there are some politicians who still stand for the interests of the working class, and the majority of humanity, their political power is minimal and they are being steamrolled into oblivion, along with most or many of the gains won by the working class in the 1930s and after WWII. There are virtually no more so called Progressive Parties left, and their certainly are not leading to the left – as their working class base power has been undermined and corroded over the decades and is now a relatively empty shell. Furthermore, these Progressive Political Parties, still supported wars and economic imperialism “abroad”, and as the jobs shifted from to other countries where wages were minimal, and no labor rights or safety and health protections existed, there was no “stand up and fight back” soon enough or effectively enough to stop the momentum. Ultimately, the contradictions inherent in the Capitalist system depend on competition and the fight for the lowest slave wage bar possible in order in increase profits. We now see the total bankruptcy of supporting this system in exchange for improved working conditions and wages while the union leadership became entrenched and corrupted along with the rest of the political class overall.

  3. peteybee July 31, 2015 at 10:57 PM

    Reblogged this on Spread An Idea and commented:
    This is the conclusion I’ve come to as well, as far as identifying the problem — but being a lazy part time researcher of these things I didn’t know about George Lakeoff.

    Notice that it is inaccurate to say the left “ceded important ground to the right”, but it is effective rhetoric in that it makes one read further.

    The really big danger is that if you put enough effort into rhetoric over substance, it’s almost impossible to keep from falling into the “practical-effective rhetoric” way of thinking out of habit — i.e., you will start to believe the BS you are forced to come up with to compete effectively in politics.

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