Unfortunately, a little well-placed progressive sarcasm can’t compete with the ongoing 40-year right-wing campaign to capture the sympathies of an impressionable public. It’s a remarkable accomplishment on their part. Even though just about every thinking being would agree that fortunes are made through the efforts of many people over a long period of time, and that a lot of income owed to the middle class has flowed to the top instead, many Americans still believe it’s wrong to take their hard-earned money back. They’re scared off by phrases such as “soak the rich,” even though the rich are the ones doing the soaking.
Why are conservatives so successful at spreading their message? They believe that improvements in the individual will help society. Progressives, on the other hand, believe that improvements in society will help the individual.
Whereas the danger on the progressive side is that cumbersome social structures could stymie individual initiative, the danger on the conservative side is that stronger individuals will exploit weaker ones. Both are legitimate concerns. But the conservatives have been a lot noisier in making their case.
Linguist George Lakoff has written about the conservative response to the Vietnam War, when students were developing an anti-business attitude and many progressive goals were being achieved. The National Chamber of Commerce rallied the wealthy around the flag. Before long think tanks like the Heritage Foundation were set up, research assistants and media agents were hired, right-wing intellectuals were showcased in books and TV shows, and all the best business practices were followed to sell the product of information.
What has been the result over 40 years? Emotional phrases such as “death tax” and “class warfare” that disguise necessary revenue initiatives in ugly metaphors. Or glorious terms that would seem un-American to oppose, including “pro-life” and “free trade” and “tax relief.” Or a rant against any phrase with the nasty word ‘social’ in it.
It goes beyond terminology, to conceptual claims that sound meaningful until subjected to reasonable scrutiny. For example, the claim that new faces keep appearing among the ranks of the wealthy. Both Thomas Sowell and James Q. Wilson reference a 2007 U.S. Treasury Department report about income mobility that states “Among those with the very highest incomes in 1996 – the top 1/100 of 1 percent – only 25 percent remained in this group in 2005.” But they ignore the fact that nearly 9 out of 10 of those in the top 1% remained in the top quintile of earners over those ten years. Other reports make it very clear that the U.S. ranks near the bottom of developed countries in economic mobility.
Conservative claims are also framed in feel-good denials, such as the recent downplaying of global warming by the Heartland Institute. Just as absurd is inequality denial, based on the “decline in the prices of products that poorer consumers buy,” and on a living standard among the poor that includes “a refrigerator, an oven and stove, and a microwave.” The Economist calls inequality “a red herring” that obscures the real task of fixing economic and political corruption.
Worst of all is the suggestion that the poor should be blamed for their own misfortunes. American Enterprise Institute spokesman Charles Murray concludes: “Healthy men are supposed to work. In practice, though, that norm has eroded everywhere…Married, educated people who work hard and conscientiously raise their kids shouldn’t hesitate to voice their disapproval of those who defy these norms.”
Lakoff has an explanation for what’s been happening, based on the difference between the individual-oriented conservative and the society-oriented progressive. He describes the “strict father” conservative, the “moral authority” who uses strict discipline to teach independence to his children. Wealth is a measure of discipline. Social programs spoil the children, making them dependent.
The “nurturant parent” progressive, in contrast, is focused instead on community responsibility, and empathy for others. Proper care for others helps to develop the individual discipline that is part of the complete person.
Empathy is an interesting word and concept. It is defined as “identification with and understanding of another’s situation, feelings, and motives.” Various studies have shown that the ability to empathize with others requires a higher level of abstract thinking, and that people of wealth have less empathy, tending instead toward greedy, and even unethical, behavior.
Conservatives may also be, to put it delicately, not smart. A Canadian study in the journal Psychological Science concluded that “individuals with lower cognitive abilities may gravitate toward more socially conservative right-wing ideologies that maintain the status quo and provide psychological stability and a sense of order.”
It makes sense that less empathetic, stability-seeking conservatives would be more likely to use simplistic insults like “death tax” and “class warfare.” And that their reliance on individual achievement would be challenged by the absence of economic mobility. And that, to them, inequality would not be an issue if people just worked harder.
Yet perhaps we progressives are the real dummies, for despite a self-perceived abundance of wisdom and compassion we’ve allowed the opposition to hijack the language of voters. We should be proclaiming the message we believe in: that America is not a collection of individuals, but rather a community of people who need each other to ensure health and education and a clean environment and job opportunities. As Lakoff says, “The Public is what makes The Private possible.”
We shouldn’t allow self-interest to guide our country’s growth, or to use wealth as a barometer of human value, or to stand by as one man celebrates the “American Dream” by making enough money to pay the salaries of 100,000 teachers. We need to look into our own progressive minds to plan a better strategy for publicizing the important role of society in America.
About the author: Paul Buchheit is a college teacher and the Founder of several social justice and educational websites such as Us Against Greed, Pay Up Now and Rapping History. He is also the Editor and main author of ‘American Wars: Illusions and Realities’ (Clarity Press).