Progressive Revival

Progressive Revival

Dueling Visions of American Renewal

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.

Comments read comments(12)
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posted May 22, 2009 at 2:12 pm

Diana, I’m so glad you posted on this. I was hoping you would. I needed to step away from the frame being put around the “dueling speeches” and think more broadly and deeply about what this conversation means for us as a country and as a society. You helped me do that. Thanks!

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posted May 22, 2009 at 2:37 pm

Diana I’d differ on only one point, as someone coming from the Reformed tradition it’s a new “old” vision of Progressive politics very much rooted in the covenantal understanding of the 16th & 17th century Calvinists who laid much of the theoretical basis for the emergence of constitutional government in Britain and the U.S.

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posted May 22, 2009 at 3:53 pm

As ever, Diana, you’ve hit the proverbial nail on its head. And you’ve given a fresh perspective, and reminded us that we have entered a new era in our common life, one in which the rule of law might once again come to the fore, and righteousness might flourish in the land.

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Nat Ersoz

posted May 22, 2009 at 4:09 pm

I find the notion of government as parental authority figure disturbing in either case. It makes me so infuriated that it is difficult to comment further.

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Stephen Griffith

posted May 22, 2009 at 5:05 pm

Diana, once again you open another way with an insight. And I appreciate your reminder that we are about forging a new vision that is not defined by the old liberal/conservative paradigms.

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posted May 22, 2009 at 5:47 pm

Michal Lerner’s recent article (“Barack Obama’s nonideological pragmatism will backfire”) criticizes Obama for eschewing polarizing ideologies in favor of employing more ideologically neutral strategies of pragmatism.
After just having read that article, your post offered a very interesting supplementary viewpoint: although Obama seems to eschew a certain style of ideology, the way he is attempting to transform how politics work is ideological, if subtle. I think that Rabbi Lerner’s point remains, however: the pressure to remain dispassionate and nonideological may conflict with Obama’s desire to make lasting changes in the frames that shape how our country. If we like his idea of empathetic law, we must put supportive pressure on him to lend him power and momentum as he is torn between desires to maintain a level of coolheadedness and pursue change.

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Brian Griffith

posted May 23, 2009 at 9:44 am

These two kinds of parent figures represent the two main ways for people to relate. Diana’s insight applies in our personal lives. Are our families and nations pyramid-like structures of proper authority, or networks of relationships? Do we try to influence people through intimidating them, or by building a better friendship? The two views of life are what Rians Eisler describes as the “partnership” and the “dominator” models of human relations.

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Brian Griffith

posted May 23, 2009 at 9:47 am

Sorry, I misspelled Riane Eisler’s name.

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Asinus Gravis

posted May 23, 2009 at 1:11 pm

I think of Dick Cheney as our 21st century Screwtape, admonishing his Republican cohorts as to how to undermine the divine work of carrying out the Great Commandment.

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Stacey Balduf

posted May 23, 2009 at 7:17 pm

I tell people that I am way more non-conservative than many of my longtime friends and family, but still probalby more conservative than my church tradition. Reading posts like this one, truly speaks to me in terms I can not only postively relate to, but with your permission– can take out into the world in which I live. Thank you.

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John R. Wriston

posted May 24, 2009 at 5:00 pm

May 24, 2009
Strict Father/ Nurturing Parent
Diana, I think things may be a little more nuanced than you suggest.
Dick Chaney was not “spanking” anyone, nor did he accuse anyone of “sin”, and he certainly did not ask anyone to “repent”. He was expressing his opinion. An opinion based on a considerable amount of first hand experience with the subject matter. We would be wise to give some consideration to the content of his statements. It would be dangerous to ignore and dismiss him. Nor would we be wise, or fair, or nurturing to reduce the very difficult questions and complex issues we are now facing to the simplistic and well worn paradigm of the contrasting political styles of different generations and political parties.
While pappy Chaney and young Obama do have widely disparate views of the nature of the world and how best to make it a better place, neither view is without merit. Probably, neither is without fault. The previous administration worked very hard to protect us from some very real evil that does exist in the world, the evil deeds of those who have submitted to religious fanaticism. These are people who want to kill Americans, Christians, and Jews for the sin of being Americans, Christians, and Jews. They have said so and they have demonstrated so. This is not fear-mongering; this is the way it is. The traditional approach of dealing with the problem as a law enforcement matter was not working. If we are to be honest, we have to recognize that the Bush approach appears to have worked remarkably well. We have not had a terrorist attack on American soil since 2001. This is a truly remarkable fact given the large number of attempts that have been made and thwarted. We should be thanking the previous administration for their efforts, not demonizing them. Diana, I am not accusing you of demonizing them, but others, many of us really, certainly have.
The manner and efficacy of the Obama approach is to be determined, but there are reasons for concern. It is highly unlikely that those bent on killing Americans and Jews will change their views just because Obama has declared that the United States is not a Christian nation and that we are not at war with Islam? These things have been said before, they are nothing new. Neither are Presidents Osama’s political views something new. They are based on the collectivist political thought of Karl Marx and before (one of the two general economic theories that developed following the fall of feudalism), they have been tried before in many areas of the world, and the results have often been quite “strict” and far from “nurturing”.
With Christ’s Love,
John R. Wriston

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+++++Caroline Divines

posted June 25, 2010 at 5:00 pm

I don’t want a parent; I’m an adult, I can take care of myself.
And this appeal to “religious leaders” to help shape political discourse is only another pitiful attempt to imitate the fundiegelicals.
I don’t want to listen to any clergy. Period.
If you have something to say in politics, use reason, precedent and law. Keep your invisible friends out of it.
Mainline Protestantism is just the Fundiegelicals who drive foreign cars and recycle.

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