The Daily 750

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What Would Gen O Say? Why Liberals Can't Make a Case

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

My friend David is 54 and used to call me and argue politics once or twice a week. His knowledge is more than headline depth and usually includes a number of facts and some syntheses that I hadn’t retained or seen, and he’s a dedicated liberal. I mean that his arguments regularly begin with a bash of Bush and other unnamed “right-wing religious conservatives”; that about halfway through Karl Rove is revealed as the evil mastermind of America and any country that might be a friend of America’s; and in the end there’s so much spin I feel the room revolving.

Our conversations are lively and envigorating. Sometimes I'll put off a walk until I've recovered from them. They remind of my old foreign policy days, some of them spent reading Communist propaganda. The Commies were terrific at hooking citizens into their stories with modest proposals and moderate language, waiting several pages before taking a hard left turn, then returning to moderate language as if nothing had happened.

Where do you think Orwell got his best ideas.

Lately, David has started quoting his son Emmett. Emmett is 15 and the product of Los Angeles private schools and entertainment industry parents, both smart, voracious readers and one of them a writer. Emmett is bright. Maybe very, very bright. He talks fast, like everyone of his generation. (Empirical evidence leads me to believe that SciFi writers who portray advanced civilizations as needing no words to communicate have gotten it right. Whole conversations are now reduced to: “And he was like, you know, and I went like, whatever. Know what I’m sayin’?”

Emmett’s agile young brain, so far as we know not yet polluted by booze, drugs, cigarettes or sex, retains everything. It’s hard to have a conversation with him because either he knows everything and you can’t get a word in edgewise, or he’s totally uninterested and walks off. Emmett’s into politics.

According to David, Emmett’s been reading George Lakoff’s Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think, a 500-page text in which the professor of cognitive science at Berkeley tries to explain the “unconscious worldviews” of liberals and conservatives. Tedious. No wonder he wrote a shorter, perkier version – except for the title -- Don't Think Of An Elephant!/ How Democrats And Progressives Can Win: Know Your Values And Frame The Debate: The Essential Guide For Progressives.

Lakoff uses models of Conservative and Liberal parenting as the premiere example that meets his three “adequacy conditions” for valid comparison. I am neither parent, conservative nor liberal, so I am left to wonder if it's really possible to pigeonhole parents in such a way. It seems he doesn't think it's possible either, since the main qualities that he ascribes to both he goes on to say are vital to the other worldview as well.

Lakoff’s most interesting and important concept is this:

“If this analysis is right, or even close to right, then a great deal follows. Liberals do not understand what unifies their own worldview and so are helpless to deal effectively with conservatism. Not only is there no unified liberal political structure, but there is no overall effective liberal rhetoric to counter the carefully constructed conservative rhetoric. Where conservatives have carefully coined terms and images and repeated them until they have entered the popular lexicon, liberals have not done the same. Liberals need to go beyond coalitions of interest groups to consciously construct a unified language and imagery to convey their worldview. This will not be easy, and they are 30 years behind.”

So I wrote my friend David and asked if he had read Lakoff and what did he think of Lakoff’s parental example. I asked if Lakoff went on to explain WHY liberals don’t “understand what unifies their worldview” or offers explanations about how they might come to such an understanding.

David referred me to Emmett.

Lakoff’s premise is that the Conservative model values parental authority over all else; while the Liberal model emphasizes the child’s own values. Now, I don’t mind being shunted off to have a conversation with a fast-talking, fact-filled, scholarly 15-year-old. I like Emmett. He was my best friend until he turned 11 or 12 and stopped having adults as best friends. But could it be that one reason why liberals are having such a hard time stating their case is because they’re leaving it to their children?