Rebuilding the Progressive Movement

Original Publication Date
Author of Book
Jeffrey Feldman
Author of Review
Carol White

Framing the Debate: Famous Presidential Speeches and How Progressives Can Use Them to Change the Conversation (And Win Elections) (Paperback) by Jeffrey Feldman, with introduction by George Lakoff. (Brooklyn, NY, IG Publishing 2007).

After John Kerry's 2004 defeat, George Lakoff's book Don't Think of an Elephant, became a runaway best seller among progressives. In his introduction to Framing the Debate, Lakoff not only reprises his own argument, but highly recommends Feldman's contribution to the ongoing discussion about how to build an effective progressive movement in the United States. He writes:

What Feldman has accomplished is a reuniting of contemporary progressive framing efforts with the progressive ideas that have always been at the heart of American democracy. By looking at the framing in presidential speeches, from Washington and Lincoln to Kennedy and Clinton, Feldman reminds us of the progressive themes of government of, by and for the people; Franklin Roosevelt's idea that the wealth of this country is in people, not money.[xii]

I fully agree with Lakoff's assessment of the merits of the book. I also found it useful -- after a first reading of Feldman -- to turn back to Lakoff's own work, particularly his influential Don't Think of an Elephant and I would like to set my own discussion of Framing the Debate in that context.

Despite Bush's dismal performance during his first term in office, in the 2004 election the Republicans had apparently consolidated their power. What had gone wrong? Dispirited progressives were even questioning whether the conservatives had simply become unbeatable. Lakoff dipped into his academic specialties, cognitive psychology and linguistics -- he is a member of the faculty of the University of Berkeley and a founding senior fellow at the Rockbridge Institute -- to answer with a reassuring "No!"

The problem, as he saw it, was instead the failure of Democrats to break free of Republican rhetoric and "frame" the issues in terms of a progressive world view. By repeating phrases such as "tax relief" or "social security accounts" to refute Republican rhetoric, an unwary Democratic speaker would be evoking the entire Republican package -- raising the specter of big government out to steal your hard-earned dollars.

The joke of Lakoff's title is of course, that it immediately evokes a picture of an elephant in the reader's mind despite the best effort of the reader not to think of one. This example emphasizes his warning that every time Democrats thoughtlessly repeat Republican rhetoric in order to refute it, they evoke and thereby strengthen the entire conservative conceptual framework in the listener's mind.

As he emphasizes, the mind conceptualizes by searching for a context -- what he calls a frame -- which in terms of politics is either the progressive or the conservative world view. Lakoff presents the dichotomy between a nurturing family in which the parents partner and an authoritarian family which is dominated by the father as a metaphor for these opposing Democratic and Republican world views.

Lakoff notes that this was the mistake that Nixon made in his televised State of the Union Address on Jan. 30, 1974, when he sought to defend himself by saying, "I am not a crook."

Feldman uses Lakoff's treatment of political framing as the take-off point for his own contributions to the discussion. In my opinion, by dealing with the history of policy debate in this country, he actually makes a far more substantial argument than Lakoff does. Feldman reviews 15 influential presidential speeches that shaped U.S. national discourse and policy decisions -- beginning with George Washington's First Inaugural Address, and including excerpts from speeches by Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Linclon, Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush.

Feldman shows how these presidents framed their presentation of the hot-button issues of their day in order to have the greatest impact. Feldman then takes the arguments as they were presented in the speeches and shows how the rhetorical devices that they used can be adapted by those of us who want to effectively frame the progressive message today. He gives a brilliant example how one might frame the argument for universal health care today by using an astonishingly simple device. He quotes from FDR's 1933, First Inaugural Address, [64,65], which begins with the famous line:

The money changers have fled from their high seats in the temple of our civilization ...

Happiness lies not in the mere possession of money; it lies in the joy of achievement, in the thrill of creative effort. The joy and stimulation of work no longer must be forgotten in the mad chase of evanescent profits. These dark days will be worth all they cost us if they teach us that our true destiny is not to be ministered unto but to minister to ourselves and to our fellow men.

Then Feldman makes a small change, substituting "health" where Roosevelt uses "happiness." What follows is Feldman's framing of the present health care debate.

Restoring our nation to good health lies in the extent to which we apply social values more noble than mere monetary profit.

Good health must never depend of the possession of money; it must instead lie in the joy of community and in the thrill of caring for others.

The moral stimulation of good health must no longer be forgotten in the mad chase for profits.

Recognition of the falsity of material wealth as the standard of good health goes hand in hand with the abandonment of the false belief that public office and high political position are to be valued only by the standards of personal profit.

Restoration calls not for changes in ethics alone. This Nation calls for action, and action now.

[Readers who would like to read more about the original speech, and Roosevelt's presidency might want to check out the five-part ePluribus Media series by Chris White,especially part II.]

According to a New York Times book review of April 8, 2007, Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman and Richard Nixon all tried to pass a universal health insurance plan during their term in office, but they could not buck the power of conservative opposition. Sally Satel, in her review of Sick by Jonathan Cohn, mentions this fact in a discussion of the book. His book documents the deplorable, class-driven state of health care in the United States today and points to the fact that, under the present Administration, not only do many people lack health coverage but hospitals are being denied sufficient funds to cover the needs of those who are fully insured.

It would be fun to see how these past presidents actually framed their speeches on this subject, which is at the forefront of political debate today, but this comparison is beyond the scope of Feldman's book.

Feldman envisages a "lap top" revolution taking place now, in which the internet will play a central role and much of his book is devoted using presidential messages as a guide for bloggers who share his goals, so that they can use to frame their messages most effectively. With this in mind he writes:

Some framers are bloggers, some are organizers, some are activists, but they are all progressive Americans interested in and concerned about the future. Each day, tens of thousands of these framers, most of whom see themselves as progressive members of the Democratic Party, awake with the goal of framing the debate. The idea that a principled citizenry should take up the task of monitoring and speaking back to its government is as old as the United States Constitution itself, but the drive to do it each and every day by framing the debate is new ... [xx, xxi].

Whether bloggers will play such a role remains to be seen, but it does not diminish the broader interest of his book.

In a recent conversation, Feldman said that he had asked Lakoff to contribute an introduction to his book because of Lakoff's important contributions to the progressive movement. Feldman said that his own hope has been to carry the discussion a step further by grounding it in the specifics of U.S. history in a more concrete way. To my mind, Feldman more than accomplishes this goal in this very worthwhile and absorbing book.

Even without Feldman's own insightful commentary, I found the cumulative effect of re-reading these excerpts one after the other to be a powerful evocation of the strengths and weaknesses of this country over time -- an encapsulated but provocative overview of our history. I was stimulated to wonder about Theodore's influence on FDR and to admire the precision of Dwight Eisenhower's identification of the threat to political and economic freedom posed by the growth of the "military industrial complex."

Feldman is a PhD in cultural anthropology and is a lecturer at several New York City universities. He began blogging in late 2004, posting on the websites Daily Kos and MyDD, but he presently has his own site.

About the Author: Carol White is Reviews Editor for ePluribus Media. She has edited a small science journal and is presently a free-lance writer, who covers the arts and related matters for her local newspaper.
ePluribus Contributors: Aaron Barlow, GreyHawk, cho, roxy