Wednesday, April 20, 2011

How to Talk About the Budget

Budgets are not just about numbers. They are a numerical reflection of a state or a nation's priorities, its choices about what is important, what is right and what is wrong. They are a moral statement. They show the world what a state or nation believes in.

That's why George Lakoff, a University of California linguist known for his work on the differences between liberals and conservatives, says President Obama's April 13, 2011, budget speech was such a landmark address.

Lakoff, in a post on Huffington Post, says Obama expertly laid out America's moral vision. Lakoff's post does an excellent job of explaining, in simple terms, how Obama supporters should start talking about budget issues.

"The basic idea is this: Democracy is based on empathy, that is, on citizens caring about each other and acting on that care, taking responsibility not just for themselves but for their families, communities, and their nation. The role of government is to carry out this principle in two ways: protection and empowerment."

Obama quoted Lincoln's belief that government was a way "to do together what we cannot do as well for ourselves." Everyone, Obama said, eventually needs some help, and a great country provides that help to each and every citizens through programs such as Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.

Lakoff also praised Obama for speaking in terms of "systems" and not simple direct cause and effect. "Under the Republican budget plan, the president would get a $200,000 a year tax break, which would be paid for by cutting programs for seniors, with the result that 33 seniors would be paying $6,000 more a year for health care to pay for his tax break. To see this, you have to look outside of the federal budget to the economic system at large, in which you can see what budget cuts will be balanced by increased in costs to others. A cut here in the budget is balanced by an increase outside the federal budget for real human beings."

Lakoff urged Democrats to start talking about the budget as Obama did, in terms of Democratic moral values and systems, how tax cuts for the wealthy affect real human beings.

The reason goes back to Lakoff's basic argument -- that independent voters have two sets of frames for looking at the world, one that is mostly progressive and one that is mostly conservative. Each of those frames can be actitvated with the correct language and the more it is activated, the less active the other one begins. Democrats' goal should be to activate the progressive frames in independents.

Lakoff, therefore, says progressives should talk about the progressive moral view whenever possible when talking about the budget rather than merely refuting conservative arguments point by point.

Lakoff's post is easy to read and understand, but it is crucial for progressives to start thinking and talking this way. Read his post and start practicing.

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