George Lakoff: The Obama Code
February 24, 2009
As President Obama prepares to address a joint session of Congress, what can we expect to hear?
The pundits will stress the nuts-and-bolts policy issues: the banking system, education, energy, health care. But beyond policy, there will be a vision of America--a moral vision and a view of unity that the pundits often miss.
What they miss is the Obama Code. For the sake of unity, the President tends to express his moral vision indirectly. Like other self-aware and highly articulate speakers, he connects with his audience using what cognitive scientists call the "cognitive unconscious." Speaking naturally, he lets his deepest ideas simply structure what he is saying. If you follow him, the deep ideas are communicated unconsciously and automatically. " The Code is his most effective way to bring the country together around fundamental American values.
For supporters of the President, it is crucial to understand the Code in order to talk overtly about the old values our new president is communicating. It is necessary because tens of millions of Americans--both conservatives and progressives--don't yet perceive the vital sea change that Obama is bringing about.
The word "code" can refer to a system of either communication or morality. President Obama has integrated the two. The Obama Code is both moral and linguistic at once. The President is using his enormous skills as a communicator to express a moral system. As he has said, budgets are moral documents. His economic program is tied to his moral system and is discussed in the Code, as are just about all of his other policies.
Behind the Obama Code are seven crucial intellectual moves that I believe are historically, practically, and cognitively appropriate, as well as politically astute. They are not all obvious, and jointly they may seem mysterious. That is why it is worth sorting them out one-by-one.
1. Values Over Programs
The first move is to distinguish programs from the value systems they represent. Every policy has a material aspect--the nuts and bolts of how it works-- plus a typically implicit cognitive aspect that represents the values and ideas behind the nuts and bolts. The President knows the difference. He understands that those who see themselves as "progressive" or "conservative" all too often define those words in terms of programs rather than values. Even the programs championed by progressives may not fit what the President sees as the fundamental values of the country. He is seeking to align the programs of his administration with those values.
The potential pushback will come not just from conservatives who do not share his values, but just as much from progressives who make the mistake of thinking that programs are values and that progressivism is defined by a list of programs. When some of those programs are cut as economically secondary or as unessential, their defenders will inevitably see this as a conservative move rather than a move within an overall moral vision they share with the President.
This separation between values and programs lies behind the president's pledge to cut programs that don't serve those values and support those that do -- no matter whether they are proposed by Republicans or Democrats. The President's idealistic question is, what policies serve what values? -- not what political interests?
2. Progressive Values are American Values
President Obama's second intellectual move concerns what the fundamental American values are. In Moral Politics, I described what I found to be the implicit, often unconscious, value systems behind progressive and conservative thought. Progressive thought rests, first, on the value of empathy--putting oneself in other people's shoes, seeing the world through their eyes, and therefore caring about them. The second principle is acting on that care, taking responsibility both for oneself and others, social as well as individual responsibility. The third is acting to make oneself, the country, and the world better--what Obama has called an "ethic of excellence" toward creating "a more perfect union" politically.
Historian Lynn Hunt, in Inventing Human Rights, has shown that those values, beginning with empathy, lie historically behind the human rights expressed in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Obama, in various interviews and speeches, has provided the logical link. Empathy is not mere sympathy. Putting oneself in the shoes of others brings with it the responsibility to act on that empathy--to be "our brother's keeper and our sister's keeper"--and to act to improve ourselves, our country, and the world.
The logic is simple: Empathy is why we have the values of freedom, fairness, and equality -- for everyone, not just for certain individuals. If we put ourselves in the shoes of others, we will want them to be free and treated fairly. Empathy with all leads to equality: no one should be treated worse than anyone else. Empathy leads us to democracy: to avoid being subject indefinitely to the whims of an oppressive and unfair ruler, we need to be able to choose who governs us and we need a government of laws.
Obama has consistently maintained that what I, in my writings, have called "progressive" values are fundamental American values. From his perspective, he is not a progressive; he is just an American. That is a crucial intellectual move.
Those empathy-based moral values are the opposite of the conservative focus on individual responsibility without social responsibility. They make it intolerable to tolerate a president who is The Decider--who gets to decide without caring about or listening to anybody. Empathy-based values are opposed to the pure self-interest of a laissez-faire "free market," which assumes that greed is good and that seeking self-interest will magically maximize everyone's interests. They oppose a purely self-interested view of America in foreign policy. Obama's foreign policy is empathy-based, concerned with people as well as states--with poverty, education, disease, water, the rights of women and children, ethnic cleansing, and so on around the world.
How are such values expressed? Take a look at the inaugural speech. Empathy: "the kindness to take in a stranger when the levees break, the selflessness of workers who would rather cut their hours than see a friend lose their job, the firefighter's courage to storm a stairway filled with smoke, but also a parent's willingness to nurture a child..." Responsibility to ourselves and others: "We have duties to ourselves, the nation, and the world." The ethic of excellence: "there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of character, than giving our all to a difficult task." They define our democracy: "This is the meaning of our liberty and our creed."
The same values apply to foreign policy: "To the people of poor nations, we pledge to work alongside you to make your farms flourish and make clean waters flow; to nourish starved bodies and feed hungry minds." And to religion as well: By quoting language like "our brother's keeper," he is communicating that mere individual responsibility will not get you into Heaven, that social responsibility and making the world better is required.
3. Biconceptualism and the New Bipartisanship
The third crucial idea behind the Obama Code is biconceptualism, the knowledge that a great many people who identify themselves ideologically as conservatives, or politically as Republicans or Independents, share those fundamental American values--at least on certain issues. Most "conservatives" are not thoroughgoing movement conservatives, but are what I have called "partial progressives" sharing Obama's American values on many issues. Where such folks agree with him on values, Obama tries, and will continue to try, to work with them on those issues if not others. And, he assumes, correctly believe, that the more they come to think in terms of those American values, the less they will think in terms of opposing conservative values.
Biconceptualism lay behind his invitation to Rick Warren to speak at the inaugural. Warren is a biconceptual, like many younger evangelicals. He shares Obama's views of the environment, poverty, health, and social responsibility, though he is otherwise a conservative. Biconceptualism is behind his "courting" of Republican members of Congress. The idea is not to accept conservative moral views, but to find those issues where individual Republicans already share what he sees as fundamentally American values. He has "reached across the aisle" to Richard Luger on nuclear proliferation, but not on economics.
Biconceptualism is central to Obama's attempts to achieve unity --a unity based on his understanding of American values. The current economic failure gives him an opening to speak about the economy in terms of those ideals: caring about all, prosperity for all, responsibility for all by all, and good jobs for all who want to work.
I think Obama is correct about biconceptualism of this sort -- at least where the overwhelming proportion of Americans is concerned. When the President spoke at the Lincoln Day dinner recently about sensible Midwestern Republicans, he meant biconceptual Republicans, who are progressive and/or pragmatic on many issues.
But hardcore movement conservatives tend to be more ideological and less biconceptual than their constituents. In the recent stimulus vote, the hardcore movement conservatives kept party discipline (except for three Senate votes) by threatening to run opposition candidates against anyone who broke ranks. They were able to enforce this because the conservative message machine is strong in their districts and there is no nationwide progressive message machine operating in those districts. The effectiveness of the conservative message machine led to Obama making a rare mistake in communication, the mistake of saying out loud in Florida not to think of Rush Limbaugh, thus violating the first rule of framing and giving Rush Limbaugh even greater power.
Biconceptual, partly progressive, Republicans do exist in Congress, and the president is not going to give up on them. But as long as the conservative message machine can activate its values virtually unopposed in conservative districts, movement conservatives can continue to pressure biconceptual Republicans and keep them from voting their conscience on many issues. This is why a nationwide progressive message machine needs to be organized if the president is to achieve unity through biconceptualism.
4. Protection and Empowerment
The fourth idea behind the Obama Code is the President's understanding of government--"not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works." This depends on what "works" means. The word sounds purely pragmatic, but it is moral in operation.
The idea is that government has twin moral missions: protection and empowerment. Protection includes not just military and police protection, but protections for the environment, consumers, workers, pensioners, disaster victims, and investors.
Empowerment is what his stimulus package is about: it includes education and other forms of infrastructure--roads, bridges, communications, energy supply, the banking system and stock market. The moral mission of government is simple: no one can earn a living in America or live an American life without protection and empowerment by the government. The stimulus package is basically an empowerment package. Taxes are what you pay for living in America, rather than in Congo or Bangladesh. And the more money you make from government protection and empowerment, the more you owe in return. Progressive taxation is a matter of moral accounting. Tax cuts for the middle class mean that the middle class hasn't been getting as much as it has been contributing to the nation's productivity for many years.
This view of government meshes with our national ideal of equality. There needs to be moral equality: equal protection and equal empowerment. We all deserve health care protection, retirement protection, worker protection, employment protection, protection of our civil liberties, and investment protection. Protection and empowerment. That's what "works" means--"whether it helps families find jobs at a decent wage, care they can afford, a retirement that is dignified."
5. Morality and Economics Fit Together
Crises are times of opportunity. Budgets are moral statements. President Obama has put these ideas together. His economic program is a moral program and conversely. Why the quartet of leading economic issues--education, energy, health, banking? Because they are at the heart of government's moral mission of protection and empowerment, and correspondingly, they are what is needed to act on empathy, social and personal responsibility, and making the future better. The economic crisis is also an opportunity. It requires him to spend hundreds of billions of dollars on the right things to do.
6. Systemic Causation and Systemic Risk
Conservatives tend to think in terms of direct causation. The overwhelming moral value of individual, not social, responsibility requires that causation be local and direct. For each individual to be entirely responsible for the consequences of his or her actions, those actions must be the direct causes of those consequences. If systemic causation is real, then the most fundamental of conservative moral--and economic--values is fallacious.
Global ecology and global economics are prime examples of systemic causation. Global warming is fundamentally a system phenomenon. That is why the very idea threatens conservative thinking. And the global economic collapse is also systemic in nature. That is at the heart of the death of the conservative principle of the laissez-faire free market, where individual short-term self-interest was supposed to be natural, moral, and the best for everybody. The reality of systemic causation has left conservatism without any real ideas to address global warming and the global economic crisis.
With systemic causation goes systemic risk. The old rational actor model taught in economics and political science ignored systemic risk. Risk was seen as local and governed by direct causation, that is, buy short-term individual decisions. The investment banks acted on their own short-term risk, based on short-term assumptions, for example, that housing prices would continue to rise or that bundles of mortgages once secure for the short term would continue to be "secure" and could be traded as "securities."
The systemic nature of ecological and economic causation and risk have resulted in the twin disasters of global warming and global economic breakdown. Both must be dealt with on a systematic, global, long-term basis. Regulating risk is global and long-term, and so what are required are world-wide institutions that carry out that regulation in systematic way and that monitor causation and risk systemically, not just locally.
President Obama understands this, though much of the country does not. Part of his challenge will be to formulate policies that carry out these ideas and to communicate these ideas as well as possible to the public.
7. Contested Concepts and Patriotic Language
As President, Barack Obama must speak in patriotic language. But all patriot language in this country is "contested." Every major patriotic term has a core meaning that we all understand the same way. But that common core meaning is very limited in its application. Most uses of patriotic language are extended from the core on the basis of either conservative or progressive values to produce meanings that are often opposite from each other.
I've written a whole book, Whose Freedom?, on the word "freedom" as used by conservatives and progressives. In his second inaugural, George W. Bush used "freedom," "free," and "liberty" over and over--first, with its common meaning, then shifting to its conservative meaning: defending "freedom" as including domestic spying, torture and rendition, denial of habeus corpus, invading a country that posed no threat to us, a "free market" based on greed and short-term profits for the wealthy, denying sex education and access to women's health facilities, denying health care to the poor, and leading to the killing and maiming of innocent civilians in Iraq by the hundreds of thousands, all in the name of "freedom." It was anything but a progressive's view of freedom--and anything but the view intended in the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution.
For forty years, from the late 1960's through 2008, conservatives managed, through their extensive message machine, to reframe much of our political discourse to fit their worldview. President Obama is reclaiming our patriotic language after decades of conservative dominance, to fit what he has correctly seen as the ideals behind the founding of our country.
"Freedom" will no longer mean what George W. Bush meant by it. Guantanamo will be closed, torture outlawed, the market regulated. Obama's inaugural address was filled with framings of patriotic concepts to fit those ideals. Not just the concept of freedom, but also equality, prosperity, unity, security, interests, challenges, courage, purpose, loyalty, patriotism, virtue, character, and grace. Look at these words in his inaugural address and you will see how Obama has situated their meaning within his view of fundamental American values: empathy, social and well as personal responsibility, improving yourself and your country. We can expect further reclaiming of patriotic language throughout his administration.
All this is what "change" means. In his policy proposals the President is trying to align his administration's policies with the fundamental values of the Framers of our Constitution. In seeking "bipartisan" support, he is looking beyond political affiliations to those who share those values on particular issues. In his economic policy, he is realigning our economy with the moral missions of government: protection and empowerment for all.
It's Us, Not Just Him
The president is the best political communicator of our age. He has the bully pulpit. He gets media attention from the press. His website is running a permanent campaign, Organizing for Obama, run by his campaign manager David Plouffe. It seeks issue-by-issue support from his huge mailing list. There are plenty of progressive blogs. MoveOn.org now has over five million members. And yet that is nowhere near enough.
The conservative message machine is huge and still going. There are dozens of conservative think tanks, many with very large communications budgets. The conservative leadership institutes are continuing to turn out thousands of trained conservative spokespeople every year. The conservative apparatus for language creation is still functioning. Conservative talking points are still going out to their network of spokespeople, who still being booked on tv and radio around the country. About 80% of the talking heads on tv are conservatives. Rush Limbaugh and Fox News are as strong as ever. There are now progressive voices on MSNBC, Comedy Central, and Air America, but they are still overwhelmed by Right's enormous megaphone. Republicans in Congress can count on overwhelming message support in their home districts and homes states. That is one reason why they were able to stonewall on the President's stimulus package. They had no serious media competition at home pounding out the Obama vision day after day.
Such national, day-by-day media competition is necessary. Democrats need to build it. Democratic think tanks are strong on policy and programs, but weak on values and vision. Without the moral arguments based on the Obama values and vision, the policymakers most likely be unable to regularly address both independent voters and the Limbaugh-FoxNews audiences in conservative Republican strongholds.
The president and his administration cannot build such a communication system, nor can the Democrats in Congress. The DNC does not have the resources. It will be up to supporters of the Obama values, not just supporters on the issues, to put such a system in place. Despite all the organizing strength of Obama supporters, no such organizing effort is now going on. If none is put together, the movement conservatives will face few challenges of fundamental values in their home constituencies and will be able to go on stonewalling with impunity. That will make the president's vision that much harder to carry out.
The Obama Code is based on seven deep, insightful, and subtle intellectual moves. What President Obama has been attempting in his speeches is a return to the original frames of the Framers, reconstituting what it means to be an American, to be patriotic, to be a citizen and to share in both the sacrifices and the glories of our country. In seeking "bipartisan" support, he is looking beyond political affiliations to those who share those values on particular issues. In his economic plan, he is attempting to realign our economy with the moral missions of government: protection and empowerment for all.
The president hasn't fooled the radical ideological conservatives in Congress. They know progressive values when they see them -- and they see them in their own colleagues and constituents too often for comfort. The radical conservatives are aware that this economic crisis threatens not only their political support, but the very underpinnings of conservative ideology itself. Nonetheless, their brains have not been changed by facts. Movement conservatives are not fading away. They think their conservative values are the real American values. They still have their message machine and they are going to make the most of it. The ratings for Fox News and Rush Limbaugh are rising. Without a countervailing communications system on the Democratic side, they can create a lot of trouble, not just for the president, not just for the nation, but on a global scale, for the environmental and economic future of the world.
George Lakoff is Goldman Distinguished Professor of Cognitive Science and Linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley. He is the author of The Political Mind and Don't Think of an Elephant!