Lakoff: The American dream beats the nightmare

$60 million.

That’s the mountain of cash plunked down on TV ad buys by Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS and Americans for Prosperity as of mid-August 2012.  Those two groups alone have outspent all other political-action groups combined on both sides of the political divide, including political-action committees, unions, and trade associations.

You can bet Rove and his cadre of undisclosed donors aren’t putting down that kind of money for nothing.  They know it and we know it. Political attack ads work.  And if they’re based on lies, so what?  George W. started it and Romney et al. in their desperation to kick a black man out of the White House are modifying it, shaping it,  and perfecting it. Repeat a lie often enough and people believe it, especially if their preconceived notions and prejudices are ripe for the picking.

If you harbor any lingering doubts about how profoundly cleverly chosen words hold sway over our how we think about issues and form and choose our belief systems, there’s no better person to set you straight than George Lakoff, professor of linguistics and cognitive science at University of California, Berkeley, and co-founder of Rockridge Institute, a progressive think tank.

Professor Lakoff has made it his life’s work to enlighten us about the whys and hows of communication and why we should care. In a series of books on the topic, Don’t Think of an Elephant, Metaphors We Live By, and The Political Mind, Lakoff exhorts us to be mindful of how we frame what we want to say, particularly in the political arena.  Why?  Because how we frame issues has implications far beyond the words themselves.  Ask almost any young, sexually active woman today how she feels about Republican framing of the debate raging about when and how she should be able to decide her reproductive destiny—which, let’s not forget, is actually her life destiny—and you’ll understand what’s at stake.

Articles and opinion pieces by Lakoff in print and online are coming fast and furious as he tries to sound the alarm for Democrats to get their act together before Republicans dominate all three branches of government and kill the American dream by ushering in what Lakoff calls “the nightmare.”  In this season of extremism masquerading as mainstream thought, Lakoff warns that losing this election to the right wing of the Republican party will mean losing democracy itself.

One of Lakoff’s most recent postings on his website, coauthored with Glenn W. Smith, is a must-read discussion about “the public” and the American dream. The article addresses the same concept brilliantly articulated by Elizabeth Warren in her discussion of the interconnectedness of wealth and financial success with public investment in infrastructure, education, and publicly financed safety systems.  (Interestingly, President Obama wasn’t quite as successful with the same messaging, perhaps because he borrowed the argument from Warren and lacked her innate framing conviction.)

Here is an excerpt from Lakoff and Smith’s “Why Democracy Is Public:  The American Dream Beats the Nightmare.”

 America has, over our history, called upon citizens to share an equal responsibility to work together to secure a safe and prosperous future for their families and nation.  This is the central work of our democracy and it is a public enterprise.  This, the American Dream, is the dream of a functioning democracy.

Public refers to people, acting together to provide what we all depend on: roads and bridges, public buildings and parks, a system of education, a strong economic system, a system of law and order with a fair and effective judiciary, dams, sewers, and a power grid, agencies to monitor disease, weather, food safety, clean air and water, and on and on.  That is what we as a people who care about each other, have given to each other.

Only a free people can take up the necessary tasks, and only a people who trust and care for one another can get the job done.  The American Dream is built upon mutual care and trust.

. . . We are now faced with a nontraditional, radical view of “democracy” coming from the Republican party.  It says that “democracy” means that nobody should care about anybody else, that “democracy” means only personal responsibility, not responsibility for anyone else, and it means no trust.  If America accepts this radical view of “democracy,” then all that we have given each other in the past under traditional democracy will be lost; all that we have called public. . . . Everything that made America America, the crucial things that you and your family and your friends have taken for granted: gone.

The democracy of care, shared responsibility, and trust is the democracy of the American Dream.  The “democracy” of no care, no shared responsibility, and no trust has produced the American Nightmare that so many of our citizens are living through.