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The “new centrism” and its discontents

George Lakoff, professor emeritus of linguistics | January 25, 2011

There is no ideology of the “center.” What is called a “centrist” or a “moderate” is actually very different — a bi-conceptual, someone who is conservative on some issues and progressive on others, in many, many possible combinations. Why does this matter? From the perspective of how the brain works, the distinction is crucial.

Because we think with our brains, all thought is physical. Our moral and political worldviews are realized as brain circuits with strong synapses. If you have two conflicting worldviews, you have two brain circuits that are mutually inhibitory, so that when one is activated, it is strengthened and the other is shut off and weakened.  When a worldview applies to a given issue, there is a neural binding circuit linking the worldview circuit to that issue circuit in such a way that the issue is understood in terms of that worldview. The right language will activate that that issue as understood via that worldview. Using that language strengthens that worldview.

When a Democrat “moves to the center,” he is adopting a conservative position — or the language of a conservative position.  Even if only the language is adopted and not the policy, there is an important effect. Using conservative language activates the conservative view, not only of the given issue, but the conservative worldview in general, which in turn strengthens the conservative worldview in the brains of those listening. That leads to more people thinking conservative thoughts, and hence supporting conservative positions on issues and conservative candidates. Material policy matters. Language use, over and over, affects how citizens understand policy choices, which puts pressure on legislators and ultimately affects what policies are chosen. Language wars are policy wars.

And so to the State of the Union Address. The President will be using business language to indicate that he is pro-business. He will speak of the need for “competitiveness” as if America were a corporations, and will stress “investments” in education, research, infrastructure, and new energy.  Paul Krugman, in the NY Times, writes:

The favorable interpretation, as I said, is that it’s just packaging for an economic strategy centered on public investment, investment that’s actually about creating jobs now while promoting longer-term growth. The unfavorable interpretation is that Mr. Obama and his advisers really believe that the economy is ailing because they’ve been too tough on business, and that what America needs now is corporate tax cuts and across-the-board deregulation.

My guess is that we’re mainly talking about packaging here. And if the president does propose a serious increase in spending on infrastructure and education, I’ll be pleased.

For Krugman, language can be just “packaging” and the packaging doesn’t matter if the right policies are followed.

But conservatives know better. They know that they had better get their language front and center.  As Eric Cantor said, “We want America to be competitive, but then he talks about investing …When we hear ‘invest’ from anyone in Washington, to me that means more spending. … The investment needs to occur in the private sector.” Mitch McConnell had the same reaction,  “Any time they want to spend, they call it investment.”

Conservatives have made the word “spending” their own. It has come to mean wasteful or profligate spending, as if the government just takes money out of your pocket and wastes is on people who don’t deserve it. “Spending” as used by conservatives, really mean the use of money to help people. Since conservatives believe in individual, not social, responsibility, they think it is immoral to use one person’s tax money on helping someone who should be helping himself. The word “spending” has been used that way so often, that for many people, it always evokes that conservative frame, and hence strengthens that frame and worldview that makes sense of it. When Democrats use the world “spending” assuming falsely that it is a neutral economic term, they are helping conservatives.

Conservatives are trained not to use the language of liberals. Liberals are not so trained. Liberals have to learn not to stick to their own language, and not move rightward in language use. Never use the word “entitlement’ — social security and medicare are earned. Taking money from them is stealing. Pensions are delayed payments for work already done. They are part of contracted pay for work. Not paying pensions is taking wages from those who have earned them. Nature isn’t free for the taking. Nature is what nurtures us, and is of ultimate value — human value as well as economic value. Pollution and deforestation are destroying nature. Privatization is not eliminating government — it is introducing government of our lives by corporations, for their profit, not ours. The mission of government is to protect and empower all citizens, because no one makes it on their own. And the more you get from government, the more you owe morally. Government is about “necessities” — health, education, housing, protection, jobs with living wages, and so on — not about “programs.” Economic success lies in human well-being, not in stock prices, or corporate and bank profits.

These are truths. We need to use language that expresses those truths.

Obama’s new centrism must be viewed from the perspective of biconceptualism. In his Tucson speech, Obama started off with the conservative view of the shooting. It was a crazy lone gunman, unpredictable, there should be no blame — as if brain-changing language did not exist. It sounded like Sarah Palin. But at the end, he became the progressive of his election campaign, bringing back the word “empathy” and describing American democracy as essentially based on empathy, social responsibility, striving for excellence, and public service. This is the progressive moral worldview, believed implicitly by all progressives, but hardly ever explicitly discussed. The end of the Tucson address has helped bring back support from his progressive base. Will “empathy” return in the State of the Union Address?

Obama’s message in his warm-up video to his supporters said that the economy can be rebuilt only if we put aside our differences, work together, find common ground, and so on. It’s the E Pluribus Unum message — no red states or blue states, just red, white, and blue states message. It’s a message that resonates with a majority of Americans.  And so his poll numbers have risen.

How realistic is it?

Cross-posted from truthout, where you can continue reading George Lakoff’s post on this topic.