Democrats are finally discussing progressive values


I’m watching the DNC convention on CSpan in order to enjoy every minute and not be distracted by commentary. As much as I like the political chatter on MSNBC, I think I can decide for myself which speeches are priceless and which are “not so much” as Rachel Maddow would say.
The videos and short talks by unknowns are as fascinating to me as the longer speeches by the firebrands and the First Lady. I’m watching for words and phrases that reflect progressive values and give voters an honest look at why Democrats are a better choice at the ballot box this November. There have been times when I might mix and match GOP and DEM candidates on a ballot, but not any more. Today’s Republican Party has been hijacked by extreme free market true believers who would rather destroy our country than give an inch of ground.

Coincidentally, I read George Lakoff’s The Little Blue Book yesterday, so I was watching the convention speeches looking for and taking notes on what the underlying message themes are. The first few speeches were mostly a list of things that have already happened and high praise for President Obama. But, as the evening progressed (pun intended,) I couldn’t keep up with the note taking and was blown away by how effectively the connections were made between our beliefs and our goals.

Short summary of the differences between a progressive worldview and a free market one:
(paraphrasing from Lakoff)

Progressives believe that a democratic form of government depends on citizens caring about each other and taking responsibility for themselves and others. The moral mission of government is to protect and empower all citizens equally. The mechanism for accomplishing this is through what we call the Public, a system of public resources necessary for a decent private life and robust private enterprise. (You know the list.)

Free market conservatives hold the opposite view – that democracy exists to provide citizens with the maximum liberty to pursue their self-interest with little or no commitment to the interests of others. They believe there should be as little of the Public as possible, allowing only for the necessities such as roads, a standing army, courthouses for record keeping, etc. No one should have to pay for anyone else’s needs or opportunity for advancement. Citizens are free to sink or swim on their own abilities or lack thereof.

Although this sounds harsh to us, this emphasis on individual freedom and responsibility has a moral underpinning in the minds of radical conservatives. Fortunately, there are fewer of these true believers than we are led to believe, but they have been successful at selling their ideas by using the right words and phrases.

Lakoff says we learn about being governed by the kind of family we come from. The idealized conservative family is structured around a strict father who is the natural leader and who metes out favors and punishment as needed. He teaches that the world is a dangerous place and uses tough love to teach his children self discipline. This self discipline is the most likely path to financial and social success.

Based on this philosophy, people who have prospered deserve their prosperity and should not be punished with taxes or have to pay taxes to support those who are not morally disciplined enough to become prosperous. Issue areas of concern include a free market with maximal privatization, sexual morality controlled by a strict father, harsh punishment in the courts and a strong military.

For progressives, the values of empathy, social responsibility, and excellence lead to a concern with issues of safety nets, public education, public health, humanitarian foreign aid and a nurturant society rather than a punitive one.

What we progressives have been doing is allowing the radical conservatives to frame the issues we debate and then trap ourselves by always rebutting instead of initiating the conversation. For example, we’ve been forced to discuss health care in economic terms instead of in moral terms. Lakoff says even using a term like “single payer” implies that the most important frame of reference is economic – who is going to pay? He much prefers “Medicare for all” because it reflects the value of caring for each other. There are many more examples in this little book, and I hope many of you will buy it, read it, and practice using progressive frames of reference in your conversations, emails and letters to the editor.

Back to the convention speeches – – of course Michelle Obama made my heart sing, but I already admire her so much it would have been hard for her to let me down.

When she said “the truth matters,” we all knew the folks she was bringing to mind. But she didn’t do it as a criticism of the other camp; she stated it positively as something we really think is important. This should definitely be one of our recurring themes this fall.

She recalled visiting with citizens all over the country and “seeing the very best of the American spirit.” She knows that children need unconditional love as a foundation to support them through the lessons of life. She said she and the President “value everyone’s contribution and respect everyone.”

“Being president doesn’t change who you are. It reveals who you are.” Wow. I hope voters with minds open enough to think about that will compare the candidates honestly.

The First Lady said we are all guided by the values and life experiences that make us who we are. Because President Obama came from a family that had to struggle to survive, he thinks about those families today and the dignity of going to work every day even though the salary may not be huge and other, less experienced workers, are promoted out of turn. It’s not about how much money you make but how much of a difference you make in the lives of others that counts.

She said the President cares about doing the “right thing,” not just what’s politically helpful. He doesn’t divide the world into “us vs. them” but looks for the best in everyone. (Some of us hope he’s learned how to be a little more discerning about the people he trusts, especially when it comes to finding middle ground on important issues.)

The First Lady’s big finish came with a challenge to us to look back at the hard work and accomplishments of our ancestors and to see what they built as ours to make even better and to pass on to our children and grandchildren. “Doing the impossible is the history of this nation.” We owe something for the exceptional opportunities we enjoy and shouldn’t be timid or discouraged when there is so much more to do. If we’ve been fortunate enough to do well, we should not “shut the door behind us.” Those are the values that made it possible for the good things we’ve accomplished as a nation, and it is our job now to keep working for justice, equality and to give everyone a “fair chance at the American dream.”

More later on useful phrases from many of the other speakers on the opening night of the Democratic National Convention. Watching it on CSpan gives the best feeling of being there in person.