George Lakoff is a linguist who has looked at how language is used in politics. His book “Don’t Think of an Elephant” was first published in 2004; it has gone through a few revisions and a new edition since then. That book was very popular among Democrats around 2004-2006, perhaps because Lakoff was telling them that he knew how they could win. I don’t think they really followed his advice, however.
If I recall correctly (and I’m not sure I do), Lakoff was saying that it’s not enough just to promote progressive policies, such as universal healthcare. One should go deeper, and also promote progressive values, such as empathy. I liked the sound of that.
But the people running the Democratic Party were corporate Democrats, not progressive Democrats. They could mouth some of the words, but they couldn’t really go very far in that direction. They were not going to turn on the lights in people’s hearts; they were not going to convert people to progressivism from other positions. Instead, they would just concentrate on the tired old technique of Get Out The Vote. So instead of converting some of their opponents’ pieces, they would just try to make better use of the pieces they already had on the game board. They weren’t interested in ushering in a new enlightenment; they just wanted to raise funds and win elections, not necessarily in that order.
Still, around 2004-2008 there was extensive discussion among progressives: Just what is a progressive? I was most impressed by an essay by Paul Waldman, perhaps because I saw it before I saw the other, similar pieces. Waldman’s piece was “The Progressive Identity Complex,” published in May 2006. This essay eventually disappeared from the websites where it was first published, but I have preserved a copy in my own website; you can find it at https://leftymathprof.files.wordpress.com/2016/05/waldman-2006.pdf. Waldman said that “progressives believe we’re all in it together,” and he explained that at some length. In contrast, he said “conservatives believe we’re all on our own and we’re all out for ourselves.” Jared Bernstein worked with similar ideas; he used WITT and YOYO as acronyms for “we’re in this together” and “you’re on your own.”
Those ideas made a big impression on a lot of politicians. In the 2008 presidential election, every one of the many Democratic candidates, corporate or progressive, was saying “we’re in this together,” whether their past record supported that idea or not. Even a few Republicans were saying it. Apparently they thought they could win over part of the progressive voting bloc just by saying that magic phrase. And they were partly right: Some progressives were really beginners and didn’t understand the whole business very well yet.
This attempt to steal progressive credentials has continued. Hillary Clinton, definitely a corporate Democrat, in 2016 described herself as “a progressive who gets things done.”
Of course, we can all interpret WITT differently. It eventually led me to socialism, but as far as I know Lakoff, Waldman, and Bernstein are still just Democrats.
And we can all interpret “socialism” differently too. Many people have attached many different meanings to that word, though most of them claim that their definition is the only correct one.
Recently there has been some squabbling in social media about who is or isn’t a “leftist.” This essay was inspired by Peter Daou’s recent attempts to define and/or describe “leftists.”
I don’t think it’s desirable or possible to find a “correct” definition for the terms “progressive” or “socialist” or “leftist.” Rather, I think it is helpful to look at the many different definitions, and to find in them a variety of ideas that can inspire and guide us.
Personally, I’m now at the very extreme left end of the Political Compass chart (see illustration). If anyone doesn’t agree with me, then I am “leftier-than-thou.” In fact, I’m near the lower left corner. That’s because I have found many things wrong with hierarchy and private property. And the wrongs are fundamental, not superficial; they can’t be fixed through reforms. I wish I could get people to see what I have seen. If we don’t start sharing everything very soon, then externalized costs are going to kill us all (see illustration).
But we saints in the holy corner are few and far between, so I’m willing to work with people who are merely in that quadrant. More than that, I’m hoping to convert some people, and move them closer to the corner. Take a look at my most recent leaflets (https://leftymathprof.wordpress.com/#leaflets) if you’re curious.
By now I don’t remember where I was going with this essay, so I don’t have a good ending. Maybe I’ll revise this in a day or two, and the ending will be better.
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2022 Feb 14, version 1.01.