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Why democracy is public: The American Dream beats the nightmare

George Lakoff, professor emeritus of linguistics | July 29, 2011

Democracy, in the American tradition, has been defined by a simple morality: We Americans care about our fellow citizens, we act on that care and build trust, and we do our best not just for ourselves, our families, and our friends and neighbors, but for our country, for each other, for people we have never seen and never will see.

American Democracy 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.

Our tradition has not just been to share the tasks, but to share the tools as well. We come together to provide a quality education for our children. We come together to protect each other’s health and safety. We come together to build a strong, open and honest financial system. We come together to protect the institutions of democracy to guarantee that all who share in these responsibilities have an equal voice in deciding how they will be met.

What this means is that there is no such thing as a “self-made” man or woman or business. No one makes it on their own. No matter how much wealth you amass, you depend on all the things the public has provided — roads, water, law enforcement, fire and disease protection, food safety, government research, and all the rest. The only question is whether you have paid your fair share for we all have given you.

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. Public roads and bridges: gone. Public schools: gone. Publicly funded police and firemen: gone. Safe food, air, and water: gone. Public health: gone. 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.

Nightmare it is, but there is no denying credit to Republicans for their skills at framing. The recent Republican “Contract from America,” for instance, begins with a statement of their moral principles. The recommendations are special cases of those principles. It is a strategic initiative. Instead of a laundry list, each recommendation is a special case of a general strategy — to defund our American government.

Furthermore, they understand that about 20 percent of the electorate consists of people who are conservative in some ways and progressive in others. These are biconceptuals, sometimes referred to loosely by political professionals as “independents” or “swing voters.” Republicans know their job is to activate the conservative part of the brains of the biconceptuals, and they do that by sticking strictly to conservative moral principles and a clear conservative strategy. They never make the mistake of ignoring biconceptuals.

Progressives too often fail to clearly state the moral principles behind the American tradition. Our arguments often sound like an abstract defense of distant “government” rather than a celebration of our people, our public, and the moral views that have defined our tradition and the real human beings who work every day to carry them out.

There is a distinction between government as the administration of what we, as a public, provide each other, as opposed to government control. The Right wants to focus only upon control, not upon all that our tradition has given us. They do not just hide the vast positives, but they also hide the fact that governmental control, control over our daily lives, is more private than public. Private government for profit runs our lives — the health care we receive, the food we eat, the cars we can drive and the gas to fuel them, the news we get, loans for our homes, and on and on. Public government is for the benefit of all of us. Private (especially corporate) government is for the private profit of top management and stockholders. If you are concerned about your life being controlled for the benefit of others, look to the private sphere.

The institution of government, however, is not the point. We must instead defend the moral principles we seek to advance through our American government — and through ethical business practices, voluntary associations etc. The traditional view of American democracy sees government as embodying these moral goals, to protect and empower everyone equally.

If we are to successfully overcome the Republican demonizing of government and shared responsibility, we must restore faith in the mutual enterprise itself. Rather than simply defend government or government programs, we must positively advance the moral values of American democracy and the Dream, not the Nightmare.

That is why we support a renewed focus on public life, a public life that includes all Americans. We should focus on the public nature of our shared responsibilities.

Public life means meeting our shared responsibilities, caring for one another, and building the mutual trust upon which democracy depends. The recommendations below are special cases of these moral principles. They also represent a special case of a general strategy — to restore public life to American democracy.

We must return the public to our political system and end the corrupt influence of selfish interests that have abandoned our shared responsibilities. This means public finance of campaigns, strict enforcement of the highest ethical standards in public life, and protection of the sacred right to vote.

Our nation has vast national wealth: a huge continental landmass with wealth in minerals, agricultural land, forests, cities, beautiful places, as well as its public wealth, that is, the creative wealth of its educated citizenry and the collective wealth of all its citizens and corporations. We, the public, can put our nation’s vast wealth to use in creating jobs that make the lives of all better: building, educating, curing, and imagining. That is the Dream.

To realize the Dream, we must end the Nightmare.

We must turn back the Right’s assault on public and higher education and meet our traditional commitment to education. Our children are tomorrow’s public. The future of democracy depends upon them.

We must rebuild our public infrastructure, a fancy term for the necessities we share: roads, bridges, dams, parks, fair grounds, water mains, sewers, and the power grid; public agencies that monitor disease, weather and food safety. Government that works for all of us can and should create jobs that serve us all by rebuilding our shared necessities.

We must come together publicly to mutually ensure the health of all America. Health is not a private matter. It is public one.

We must protect the prior earnings of American workers set aside in Social Security or private pensions. They have been earned through hard work and discipline. Taking these earnings away is theft, despite the Right’s use of the word “entitlements.”

A public of unequal voices is not a democratic public. We need a progressive tax system through which all Americans pay their fair share and a business ethics that fairly rewards those whose work creates productivity and profit.

We must put the American individual above abstract corporate entities. We must end “corporate personhood,” which gives transnational corporations a greater voice than individuals in our public deliberations.

We must end the move to “privatize” institutions through which we meet our shared responsibilities. When the public is removed, the private sphere takes over, charging more, and often creating unaccountable monopolies that bilk the public. Privatization of the public typically means that most citizens just pay more, often a lot more.

Discrimination of all kinds must be overcome. Public life depends upon recognition of our equal humanity.

This is why Democracy is, and must remain, public. This is why America has traditionally been a beacon to the world. This is the example America has set. We dare not give it up. The alternative is the Nightmare.

By George Lakoff and Glenn W. Smith, cross-posted from The Huffington Post.

Comments to “Why democracy is public: The American Dream beats the nightmare

  1. “Prologue to a Tragedy”
    (R Jacobs)

    The progressive liberal view’s government as a personal extension of his or her own will. This is to violate the first principles of association. What they can’t achieve personally or collectively they will try politically. And with enough sophism they can muster a majority vote, thus they can take by perversion of the law what is not theirs in the first place. Theft by popular vote is still theft and immoral… this is the tyranny of the majority and the fatal flaw of democracy as a government model. The Founding Fathers established a Constitutional Republic form of government of which the progressive liberal views as inadequate, because it forces them to be adults and personally accountable for moral obligations.

    “To take from one because it is thought that his own industry and that of his father’s has acquired too much, in order to spare to others, who, or whose fathers, have not exercised equal industry and skill, is to violate arbitrarily the first principle of association—the guarantee to every one of a free exercise of his industry and the fruits acquired by it.” (Thomas Jefferson)

    The legal definition of justice is to every person his or her due. The definition of social justice (a progressive concept) is to every person his or her needs. If a person is in need it is a moral obligation for you to relieve your conscious as necessary to alleviate the situation. It is not moral to petition the government to remedy the situation. This would be to shirk your moral obligation and to put in jeopardy the first principle of association… the guarantee to everyone of a free exercise of his industry and the fruits acquired by it. Simple put the progressive liberal has not matured sufficiently enough to function properly in a free society. They prefer the Nanny State. And not only do they prefer the Nanny State they wish to be the ones to perpetuate it and be employed in running it along with… comfortable salaries, automatic raises, benefits and a comfortable pension. Government is their “Security Blanket.”

    The NEA has 3.2 million of these progressive liberals teaching our children. Now you know why our country is going down the toilet.

    “A popular government without popular information or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce, or a tragedy, or perhaps both.”(James Madison)
    “ To suppose that any form of government will secure liberty or happiness without any virtue in the people, is a chimerical idea.
    (James Madison)

    There is no substitute for your moral obligations Mr. Lakoff. You can’t hide the fact that government is the most vacuous of virtue and the most costly way of meeting your moral obligations. The debt is the evidence.

    Your ignorance of what it takes “historically” to maintain a free people is staggering.

  2. Honestly, the government is bigger than ever before…yet the roads are terrible, the ports and bridges decaying, and even the water comes from old and leaking pipes. An earlier comment was right—the government is NOT spending money on much-needed infrastructure, but instead on transfer payments to buy votes.

  3. In his third paragraph, about dams, sewers and other public goods, Prof Lakoff explains the need for less than 15% of federal non-defense spending. Excellent! Let’s agree to keep that and heavily cut all the 100’s of billions of dollars that aren’t infrastructure for the common good, but just transfer payments to buy votes.

    I’m no longer willing to pay higher & higher taxes just to buy politicians votes.

  4. Why is it:
    – That we can expect more services from the “government” and yet not pay more taxes.
    – That we should cut taxes at a time when our public debt is at a record high.
    – That we should cut public employment in order to cut spending and not expect to place those employees cut on to an already burdensome unemployment list that now will get unemployment wages that must be paid for out of government expenses.
    – That somehow all of the downsizing that must take place to make the budget goals does not have a ripple effect that will cost us all in the future. Infrastructure lost is very much more expensive when you try to grow it back. Our very actions of cutting budget ends up cutting those that have least ability to handle it. At the end of any cut is a person or a family. These people will really hurt. On top of that, from a societal point of view, we are weakening the fabric of our society. We all live under a fabric of Law and Order, public schools, and other public services. We are weakening this layer with our cuts. If it breaks, it will be ugly. We do not need to repeat the experiments of countries that have little work for its people. The consequence of a break will be more costly than if we do nothing.

    On the other hand, if we allow taxes to rise, our situation is different. This immediately forces all of us to share in the burden. People will stay in their jobs. Admittedly, collectively, we will have a little less money to spend, but societal stability will be enhanced. Let us remember that one way or another, the USA must cater to ALL its people. There is no easy mechanism for just dropping off people when they are not needed. It is irresponsible to cut spending and reduce the labor force with no thought of how to cater to those cut. An economy is a mutual back scratching society. But everybody has to both be scratched and scratch. If the chain is broken, when you don’t have the wherewithal to scratch, the economy falters. From an economic standpoint, full employment cannot be achieved by firing people, jobs cannot be created by firing people. Full employment is everybody scratching… But that’s an income distribution problem.

    If we are one country, then the wealth of the country has to be shared with all. The problem is on what basis? A traditional economy has winners and losers. A benevolent society limits the fall of the losers. Income distribution is a tax structure problem. Currently, it does a good job stimulating business, especially for the very rich, but a less good job administrating to the “loser” end of the economy. So what to do?, simple, RAISE OUR TAX’S, especially on the winners. There is enough wealth to go around. Collectively, we must cater to everybody. But we must be careful not to bring the whole house down.

    • Mr. Tucker

      There is enough wealth to go around for the people but not for a utopian government the size required for George Lakoff’s national view.

      We have just read from George Lakoff’s article that all is to be democratized. This requires a government big enough to be in all aspects of our lives. It is an ideal that simply is not possible because it is not reality.

      The house is coming down because it can’t support the weight and size of George Lakoff’s utopian government. There “is not” enough wealth to support a government that duplicates moral obligations that you can do for yourself.


    What shall our legacy be, the American Dream or the Nightmare?

    The most important issues for Americans still remain unresolved because the Washington politicians have ignored them completely:





    The Bush-GOP tax cuts for the super wealthy, plus outsourcing millions of American jobs to be performed by slaves in China, are the greatest betrayals of America in our history, and our economy is crashing and burning today because of it.

    Welcome to the newest version of feudalism where the special interest lords are creating single poverty class system for the rest We The People, overthrowing Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.

    Remember the Good Old Medieval Days when men made vows that indentured themselves to their lords, such as:

    “I will love what thou lovest; I will hate what thou hatest”

    “As long as I shall live, I am bound to serve you and respect you.”

    “Thy friends will be my friends, thy enemies my enemies.”

    These are just exactly the same pledges, to individual power brokers and/or special interest groups that politicians are making today in Washington.

    Seriously, what is the answer to my question?

  6. Conservatives want to turn back the clock, by trying to skewer the American Dream by denigrating Mom, Apple Pie and demolishing 40 years of civil rights.

    Our nations, Middle America is already under attack,the republican governors in Ohio, Wisconsin, Michigan and Indiana have organized an all out assault on the values of Americas hardest working middle class.

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