In 2004, a little book appeared that made quite a splash
among dispirited Democrats: George
Lakoff’s Don’t Think of an Elephant. In it, Lakoff argued that
Republicans and Democrats worked out of two different “framing” stories–frames
are “mental structures that shape the way we see the world.” Republicans frame their politics in the
terms of “a strict father family,” while Democrats frame theirs on the ideal of
a “nurturant parent family.”
According to Lakoff, the party with the most compelling storyline often
“wins” in public discourse.
Yesterday, in the dueling national security speeches of former
Vice-President Cheney and President Obama, the two storylines stood in stark
contrast–a visible demonstration of the difference between political approaches.
On one hand, Vice-President Cheney enacted the part of the
strict father. He chided Obama as
a parent might correct an erring child–delivering a verbal conservative
spanking to the young upstart who (according to Cheney) doesn’t understand the
ways of the real world. He
protected the traditions of the older generation, applauding himself for his
own wisdom and insight–all the while reassuring the rest of the fearful family
that his way is the right way.
Stay on the course of the Fathers (Cheney and Bush) and all will be
And it was implicitly religious in the style of a Puritan
jeremiad. Cheney chastised the new
administration for the sin of departing from the true path and threatened
hellfire and damnation would result.
He insisted Obama repent and return. Only then can the nation be saved. It was a narrative masterwork of the old Republican
frame–brilliant, scary, intimidating, and bizarrely reassuring all at the same
In contrast, President Obama’s speech embodied many of the
characteristics of nurturing parent politics–he empathized with people’s
worries about terrorism, and reiterated his commitment to national security
(thus allowing for maximum human happiness). He brought themes of freedom, fairness, community-building,
trust, and open communication to the discussion–all of which are the nurturing
values of progressive politics.
However, Obama turned the prism of nurturing parent politics
in an interesting and unexpected way.
Historically, progressives have said, “I empathize with you” (as did
Bill Clinton), “These policies empathize with you” (as did Jimmy Carter), or
“The government empathizes with you” (as did FDR). But President Obama essentially said, “The law empathizes with you.” The entire speech, delivered at the National Archives (the
building that houses our most cherished legal documents), argued that the
closest possible attention to the traditions of the law would both protect us
from harm and save our national soul.
The nurturing parent is not an individual, policies, or government. In Obama’s progressive politics, the
law nurtures the American family with its hopes for happiness, fairness,
community, and justice.
This emphasis on the law-as-nurturing parent helps explain
Obama’s own coolheaded and dispassionate nature–he is able to stand alongside
an issue and analyze it through the lens of legal traditions. And it also explains his remark on
wanting an “empathetic” Supreme Court justice. He wants someone who shares this vision of the nurturant law
as his legacy on the Court.
It is also a profoundly Judeo-Christian vision. The law–as summed up in the injunction
to love God and love one’s neighbor–saves. The law is not a set of rules to be adhered to in every
circumstance (as some people misinterpret it); rather, the law is a summary of
divine wisdom of how to shape a community in both devotion and ethics. As rabbis, ministers, and theologians
know, the law both instructs and empathizes. According to Jewish and Christian scriptures, the law
delights; the law forms the soul; the law teaches; the law nourishes; the law
guides; the law frees; the law protects.
The law establishes Israel; Jesus reaffirmed the grace-filled power of
the law in his own teaching: The
law is life.
Obama isn’t trying to mediate between liberals and
conservatives as Dick Cheney charged.
The President is trying to create an entirely new vision of progressive
politics–one based deeply in American law, and one anchored in the wisdom
traditions of Judaism and Christianity.
A progressive revival–both secular and sacred–of American community
through the Law.
Happy are those who do
not follow the advice of the wicked, or take the path that sinners tread or sit
in the seat of scoffers; but their delight is in the law of the Lord, and on
his law they meditate day and night.
They are like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit
in its season, and their leaves do not wither. In all that they do, they prosper. Psalms 1:1-3.