Frances Moore Lappé : Time for Progressives to Grow Up


Richard Moore

Original source URL:

 Saturday, February 17, 2007

Published on Thursday, May 26, 2005 by Guerrilla News Network

Time for Progressives to Grow Up

Beyond Lakoff¹s Strict Father vs. Nurturant Parent, A Strong Community Manifesto

by Frances Moore Lappé

George Lakoff¹s new best-seller Don¹t Think of an Elephant has been heralded as 
the ³bible² for battered progressives searching for direction in the 
post-election doldrums. Lakoff himself has become the Left¹s answer to Frank 
Luntz, the focus-group genius behind the branding of Bush¹s ³death tax,² ³Clear 
Skies² and ³Healthy Forests² initiatives.

³Frames,² according to Lakoff, are the key to understanding how political ideas 
are received. Human beings don¹t absorb information as raw material; we sift 
input through frames of meaning carried in the language we use.

Lakoff¹s central idea is that conservatives see the world through a ³strict 
father² frame emphasizing discipline, self-reliance, forceful defense, while 
progressives see the world through a ³nurturant parent² frame‹supportive, 
nourishing, emphasizing mutual responsibility. Lakoff claims that thirty-five to
40 percent of Americans fall into each camp, although most are some sort of mix.

The Right, Lakoff points out, is extremely good at selling their policies in 
clear, easy to understand ³strict father² frames. Progressives, on the other 
hand, too often seem to offer laundry lists of issues lacking any overarching 
moral framework.

So, it¹s easy to see why progressives are rallying around Lakoff¹s call to arms.
Since polls show majorities actually agree with the progressive agenda on many 
key issues, including corporate power, the environment and abortion, focusing on
³framing² issues in ways that Americans can understand them seems like the 
answer they¹ve been praying for. Certainly, much of Lakoff¹s advice about 
communicating progressive ideas is powerfully insightful and right on target.

But two big dangers loom.

First: Too narrowly focusing on getting the frame right might delude 
progressives into believing that¹s all they need to win, since we all share a 
common, democratic playing field.

No. The radical Right plays by different rules. In this, David Brock¹s book 
Blinded by the Right was my wake-up call. Because Brock was not so long ago a 
radical right-wing insider himself, his experiences inside this mean-spirited, 
ends-justify-means mindset of this group is ­ chillingly and convincing. He 
depicts people willing go to any lengths, including lying (as did Brock himself 
in his character assassination of Anita Hill) in order to vanquish enemies. (See
his new book: The Republican Noise Machine)

In 2000, leading Republican Congressman, Majority Whip Tom DeLay distributed a 
pamphlet to all his Republican colleagues entitled The Art of Political War: How
Republicans Can Fight to Win. Its author David Horowitz writes, ³Politics is war
conducted by other means. In political warfare you do not fight just to prevail 
in an argument, but to destroy the enemy¹s fighting abilityŠIn political wars, 
the aggressor usually prevails.² (Read more in Banana Republicans)

On his final episode of Now, Bill Moyers spoke with Richard Viguerie, a founding
father of the modern conservative movement and author of America's Right Turn: 
How Conservatives Used New and Alternative Media to Take Power. Viguerie 
couldn¹t have described the Right¹s Machiavellian outlook more succinctly, 
speaking about the vicious pre-election attacks on Kerry:

³I just wish he [Bush] could have done a little bit more [against Kerry]. I 
thought it was just great. And we¹re not gonna play, Bill, by the liberal 
establishment¹s rules. They say, ŒThis is acceptable and this is not 
acceptable.¹ Those days are gone and gone forever.²

I got my own taste of Viguerie¹s anything-goes world, where the facts are 
irrelevant and, as he told Moyers, all journalism ³is opinion.² Campaigning in 
late October for Lois Murphy, who challenged incumbent Republican Congressman 
Jim Gerlach in Pennsylvania¹s 6th district, I experienced the power of a lie. 
Gerlach campaign telephone message ads linked Murphy to the Taliban (MoveOn 
supports her, MoveOn ³supports² the Taliban, ergo Murphy = Taliban-lover). Who 
would swallow that, I thought, especially since Murphy is a feminist? ButŠit 
worked. ³Are you with the Taliban lady?² said a potential voter when I 
approached his door. He threatened to set his dog on me.

Most Americans would be appalled ­ if they knew: There¹s no evidence the 
majority of Americans approve this ends-justify-means, destroy-the-enemy 

So here¹s one point progressives might want to savor as they think about frames:
A broad swath of the American people may share the ³strict father² frame just 
enough to be vulnerable to manipulation; but this does not mean Americans 
broadly, deeply share the worldview of those in power. The Left must get much 
better, not just at placing its issues in a compelling moral frame, but at 
exposing and holding the radical Right accountable for its lies and deception ­ 
without, and here is the tricky part, making those who have been manipulated 
feel ridiculed and put down.

Time to grow up

Second, the frame Lakoff identifies with progressives ­ ³nurturant parent² ­ 
itself needs critical thought.

Nurturant parent ­ what could be worse for progressives?

They¹re already stereotyped as coddlers of the lazy poor; dubbed ³bleeding 
hearts² who refuse to require people to take responsibility for themselves. A 
nurturant parent framing may confirm the caricature. Lakoff is careful to 
distinguish his parent model from ³mother,² but I fear it is too easily received
as a soft mother alternative to strict father.

The question few seem to be asking is: Are ³strict father² (Right) versus 
³nurturant parent² (Left) our only choices, or can we move beyond the nuclear 
family metaphors?

If the Left is indeed stuck with nuclear-family metaphors, they¹re seriously out
of luck; in scary times like these ³strong father² will win out over what is 
seen as ³soft mother² every time. Thankfully, the narrow, Western 
psychoanalytic, nuclear-family frame itself is becoming dated.

Maybe we¹re entering a new stage that has much in common with eras before the 
invention of the nuclear family. Maybe, in many respects, we¹re moving beyond 
hierarchy, which any parent-centered frame necessarily must be. Big shifts are 

First, the communications-technology revolution is allowing us to experience one
planet. Billions of us can now see and converse with people on other continents.
We experience the events of 9/11, our fellow humans starving in Darfur, and the 
battles in Iraqi streets in real time.

Second, the ecological revolution is infusing our consciousness with an 
awareness of our interrelatedness far wider than our immediate family. Ecology 
teaches us that there is no single action, isolated and contained; all actions 
have ripples ­ not just ripples up through systems in hierarchical flows, but 
out through webs of connectedness in what we might think of as lateral flows. 
Ecology teaches us that the world is co-created through complex networks of 
relationships, no one of which is dominant.

These revolutions are unconsciously but profoundly reshaping human identity‹the 
definition of self-interest and our place in the world. We¹re realizing that we 
exist in community with each other and the world. We therefore share needs, 
interests, and experience with many communities far beyond our immediate 

Third is the ³revolution in human dignity.² We¹ve lived so long under the spell 
of hierarchy ­ from god-kings to feudal lords to party bosses ­ that only 
recently have we awakened to see not only that ³regular² citizens have the 
capacity for self-governance, but that without their engagement our huge global 
crises cannot be addressed. The changes needed for human society simply to 
survive, let alone thrive, are so profound that the only way we will move toward
them is if we ourselves, regular citizens, feel meaningful ownership of 
solutions through direct engagement. Our problems are too big, interrelated, and
pervasive to yield to directives from on high. Besides, few of us ­ unless we¹re
scared into it‹are prepared simply to take orders.

With ³regular people² stepping up as public problem-solvers on every continent 
and on so many levels, it¹s hard to identify this change for the revolution it 
is. Some measure it in the explosive growth of citizen organizations, now 
totaling two million in the U.S. alone. In just one decade, the Œ90s, they 
jumped 60 percent. And they¹re being noticed: more national governments, global 
corporations, as well as the U.N., are inviting citizen representatives to the 

This growing appreciation of the power of each one of us also means students 
gaining a role in mediating their own disputes and in school governance; work 
teams spreading in factories; citizen boards in major municipalities now making 
significant budget choices from Sao Paulo to St. Paul; and patients increasingly
enlisted in their own healing practice. Everywhere, citizens themselves are 
involved in decisions affecting their futures, the better the outcomes for all.

A desire to break with parentism in favor of fellowship and a hunger for 
healthy, strong community is not a progressive¹s pipedream. It is palpable. It 
is everywhere. Three far-flung illustrations come quickly to mind.

The open source revolution

Consider the revolution underway in computer software: the widening embrace of 
Linux ­ an open source operating system ­ and nascent rejection of Microsoft, 
with its top-down control of 90 percent of the world¹s software market. Recently
Munich, Germany, decided to convert 14,000 government computers to the Linux 
system despite the personal intervention of Microsoft¹s chief executive. Founder
of the open software movement that created Linux, Richard Stallman, said this 
about why he left the proprietary, exclusive, top-down control software world: 
In that world, ³the first step in using a computer was to promise not to help 
your neighbor. A cooperating community was forbidden. The rule made by the 
owners of proprietary software was, ŒIf you share with your neighbor, you are a 

Stallman considered this approach immoral. So he created the opposite software 
rules and culture: one that encourages mutual help and mutual learning. And it¹s
catching on. And now the business pages are fretting about Microsoft¹s future.

Or turn to another, land-not-cyber-based, expression of community: The 
community-food-security movement (See springing up from 
Brooklyn to Iowa City, from Oakland to Burlington. Farmers¹ markets, 
community-support-agriculture, school gardens, buy-local campaigns, 
restaurant-farmer alliances, fair trade purchasing ­ all reflect a sense of 
strength through interdependence and face-to-face relationships. They emphasize 
self-responsibility in community and are rejections of top-down, centralized 

And here in Boston, local Catholics are upset that several parishes are closing,
sunk by the huge cost of sex-abuse scandals. Some parishioners are ³sitting in² 
in their own churches to protest. Refusing to leave in what they call ³24-hour 
vigils,² these Catholics have said ³no² to their priests and bishops. They are 
saying that their parishes are their communities ­ and are as essential to their
happiness and well being as are their nuclear families. Such renegade 
communities are now forming an association in the Boston area.

In a sense, these parishioners are rejecting the strict father in favor of 
community. (Just as soldiers in Iraq recently publicly challenged Rumsfeld while
their ³community² cheered.) ³Support is growing,² one parishioner said on the 
radio recently. ³People are slipping money under the door to keep us going.² And
the result? Our area bishop declared that two of the parishes slated to close 
would instead remain open.

New metaphors, new ³frames,² are called for to capture these profound changes in
ways of seeing ourselves and our world.

We need to ask: What frames best embrace the growing appreciation that human 
beings are going beyond one-directional communication, moving from ³one-to-many²
directives toward ³many-to-many² multi-logues? What frame suggests mutuality ­ 
mutual responsibility, cooperation, teamwork, dialogue, synergy, 
inter-connectedness, and the co-creation of meaning?

Any parent frame fails the test; it is inevitably one-directional, and 
hierarchical. So let¹s bury the family metaphor and search for a more robust 
frame‹one that suggests communities that work for all because they are 
connected, responsible, compassionate and therefore strong.

When Lakoff expands on his nurturant parent frame, he also notes that ³the basic
progressive vision is of community ­ of America as family, a caring responsible 
family.² He includes ³mutual responsibility² and ³community-building² as central
pieces of an effective progressive framing, suggesting he, too, chaffs within 
the limits of the nuclear family metaphor. And his examples of progressive 
reframing are more embedded in a community than a nurturant parent metaphor: 
such as the progressive rationale for taxes being ³membership dues² contributed 
in order to reap the benefits of a community to replace the Right¹s message of 
taxes as an affliction for which they offer ³tax relief.² Here his progressive 
frame is about mutuality, not nurturing.

A New Frame: Strong Communities

In times of war, when fear is being consciously stoked to keep a populace in 
³freeze² mode, the Right¹s strict father frame carries strong appeal. Fearful 
creatures duck for cover. We try to cast out those who might rock the boat. 
Frightened, we look for a strong protector. And this is precisely why 
progressives must not fall back on nurturing themes. In addition to holding the 
radical Right accountable for its mean-spirited, anti-democratic outrages, as 
mentioned above, we must get tough in at least two other ways.

First, we must more effectively show just how our security is threatened, not 
secured, by today¹s strict-father ³protectors.² We can show how dreadfully 
ill-prepared to defend ourselves we are when anti-government ideology has its 
hold on Washington, leading to under-funding our ³first responders²; to 15,000 
highly vulnerable private chemical plants in charge of their own security; and 
to health care dependent on giant drug companies.

Progressives can also show that society is weak and vulnerable when we are 
divided, rich against poor, white against Black, Evangelicals against other 
faiths. Americans intuitively know that divisions weaken us; it¹s one reason 
we¹ve responded throughout our history to calls for basic fairness, such as the 
Civil Rights movement.

Second, in a positive vein, progressives can show that the more engaged and just
a community, the stronger and safer we all are. The more we know that we can 
count on our neighbors, our schools, our health care providers ­ because we know
them and because they are adequately funded‹the safer we feel. Immediately after
9/11, a public health expert pointed out an obvious link between fairness and 
community safety. With over 40 million people lacking health insurance, if there
were an act of biological warfare against us, an infectious agent could spread 
swiftly, he pointed out. For how could it be contained if millions of uninsured 
delayed seeking medical attention? Obviously a case in which unfairness ­ the 
fact that so many can¹t afford insurance‹threatens everyone¹s safety.

A ³strong communities² frame might require progressives to stop, for example, 
talking about the ³environment,² which non-progressives can hear as a ³soft² 
distraction in war time, and frame ecological challenges as threats ³to safe air
and water and food.² We might stop talking about poverty, and alleviating it, 
which evokes images of do-gooders, and talk about ³fair-chance communities.² 
Stop talking about reforming criminal justice and talk about results-based crime

Let¹s salute George Lakoff and his colleagues for rallying progressives to frame
our ³issues² in a compelling moral vision. But rather than reacting to the 
³strict father² frame by searching for a better use of a ³nurturing parent² 
frame, let¹s reframe the entire conversation to one that begins with a 
definition of citizens as responsible grown-ups, not helpless children. In this 
progressive moral vision we strive to live in strong communities‹safer and more 
viable than ones that rely on a strict father, who on deeper examination may 
turn out to be only a stubborn loner, a bully bringing on the very threats from 
which he claims to protect us?

Let¹s choose frames that capture what most people intuit: We all share one small
­ shrinking ­ planet, and our real hope therefore lies in creating strong 

Frances Moore Lappé is the author or co-author of 14 books, most recently You 
Have the Power: Choosing Courage in a Culture of Fear (Tarcher/Penguin 2004). 
Her books are widely used in college courses and have been translated into over 
a dozen languages. She¹s now at work on a book about taking democracy to its 
next historical stage ­ democracy as a living practice that embraces economic 
and social as well as political life.


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