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Why Don't We Have a National Narrative of Empathy?

Friday, 11 June 2010 13:54 By Ira Chernus, t r u t h o u t | Op-Ed | name.

Why Don
(Photo: Pete Souza / White House)

George Lakoff has many talents. But he cannot read hearts and minds. When he wrote recently that Barack Obama "knows in his heart" that acting on empathy "is the main business of government," it was sheer guesswork. As a trained scientist, Lakoff should know better than to make claims for which there is not, and can never be, any evidence.

But The New York Times' Matt Bai, a rising young star in the firmament of mainstream political analysts, goes a step further. He claims to read "the public mind" of all the American people. We feel that "chaos is all around us," he wrote in his latest piece for the Times. We are "chaos-weary ... and what we ask of a president, increasingly, is to somehow use the instruments of government to rein it in."

Yet, we fear that the Obama administration is losing the battle of "chaos versus control," Bai asserted. The oil gushing from the Gulf floor "comes to represent a pattern in the public mind, a sense that too many dangers at once (mines and foreign economies collapsing, possible war on the Korean peninsula) seem to be gushing beyond his reach." So, Obama is in bad trouble.

As a trained journalist, Bai should know better than to make claims for which there is not, and can never be, any evidence. No one can know what is in other people's minds and hearts.

If Lakoff and Bai were true to the standards of their professions, they would only draw conclusions based on tangible evidence. They would say up front that they're not actually talking about people's thoughts or feelings. They are talking about the words that people say and write. And they've got some very valuable insights about those words.

Lakoff is absolutely correct on several key points about language: An effective president needs a clear, simple narrative to tie his policies together. The words on Obama's teleprompters during his presidential campaign offered a fine narrative, based on empathy as the key term. And it would be great if Obama would keep up that narrative - and act upon it. At least it would be great for those of us who would like to see a major shift leftward in American politics.

Lakoff's correct on another key point, too: "Unless and until the progressive left develops an effective media voice, there can be no restoration of American democracy, no return to political sanity, and no establishment of economic justice." It takes a powerful narrative and powerful media to broadcast that narrative if you want to turn the ship of state around.

But Lakoff never got around to the key questions: Why doesn't Obama do it? And why have progressives failed to do it?

Here's where Bai, as an analyst of language, not a reader of hearts and minds, has a valuable insight to offer: The language of American political culture is massively focused on a single question. It's not: How can we all use government to show more empathy to those who need it? Far from it. The question that dominates our political discourse is: How can the average American family stay safe and secure amid the apparently ever-increasing swirl of chaos?

Those two question encapsulate two very different, and perhaps contradictory, views of the meaning of political life. The empathy question naturally leads to a vision of positive change - pooling our efforts and resources to help everyone, especially the neediest, live better lives. That should be what politics is all about.

The security question leads in a very different direction. It starts from the premise that things are changing too fast, and generally for the worse. So, it focuses on all the signs of the average person's "lack of control as workers, providers and parents" (in Bai's words). And that implies a very different view of the role of government - not making life better, but simply preventing it from getting worse, not initiating more change, but preventing more change.

That's the premise underlying the "anti-big-government" rhetoric we hear so much today. The Tea Party's basic message seems to be: We don't want government intervening in our private lives. That would create new and unpredictable changes, increasing the chances of chaos. We only want government to build a fence around our private lives, just big enough to keep us safe from the uncontrollable, hence, threatening, world outside.

The security approach has been central in US public life since the presidency of the iconic conservative, Ronald Reagan, as everyone knows. What everyone does not know is that Reagan was building on the foundation laid by the iconic liberal, Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR).

Bai rightly points out that FDR acted on an essential principle in confronting the Great Depression: "People needed to know you [the president] would impose order, even if not every attempt at doing so worked." When he first took office, his more progressive advisers wanted him to use the crisis to create a new economic and social order in America. But Roosevelt saw that as too radical, dangerously disrupting the old order. Instead he worked to make the old order more secure. In historian Ellis Hawley's words, he became "a new crisis manager rather than a leader committed to building a new order."

FDR spoke about his aims very openly. The motive for all of his New Deal policies was "protect us against catastrophe. ... against disasters once considered inevitable," to provide "a margin of security against the inevitable vicissitudes of life," like illness, old age, or unemployment. "We can reduce those dangers ... and we can provide the means of mitigating their results." His goal was not economic expansion shared by all, but only insuring for everyone "that minimum necessary to keep a foothold." And that was "the kind of protection Americans want," FDR asserted. He was more interested in preventing dangerous change than promoting widespread new positive change.

That's what he meant when he said: "Security is our greatest need. I am determined to do all in my power to help you attain that security." But every time he committed the government to keep every American secure, Roosevelt reminded the nation that what he called "the nation-wide frontier of insecurity, of human want and fear," was never far away.

By 1940, the themes of security and protection against disaster were just as prominent in Roosevelt's foreign policy pronouncements. His plan to aid British resistance to Germany were bitterly opposed by many Americans. To win that domestic political battle, he relied on the language of fear, saying things like: "Never before since Jamestown and Plymouth Rock has our American civilization been in such danger as now."

And he focused most on the danger to the individual American home. The war was "coming very close to home," he warned. "The safety of American homes ... has a definite relationship to the continued safety of homes in Nova Scotia or Trinidad or Brazil." Therefore Americans should act to defend those distant homes "just as much as we would to fight for the safety of our own homes."

When FDR told a press conference that there were about 30 countries whose political and economic independence "seriously affect the defense of the United States," and dubbed the war against Germany and Japan a "world war," he inaugurated a new principle in US political life: the security of every American home would now be intertwined with the order and security of nations all over the world - at least in presidential rhetoric.

Ever since then, any major change anywhere has come to look like a threat of chaos and catastrophe. So, US presidents have promised, above all, to protect Americans and their homes from threatening changes everywhere in the world. As Bai said, presidents have been judged by their perceived ability to fulfill that promise.

But it has been largely the language of the presidents themselves that has framed our political discourse in that particular way. Their insistence on national security as the highest value has immersed us in a constant sense of insecurity, turning the US into a national insecurity state.

Barack Obama has continued in that tradition. Lakoff rightly pointed out that the president came into office on a rhetorical wave of hope and change, exuding the narrative of empathy.

Yet, in his inaugural address he emphasized the dangers all around: "The oath is taken amidst gathering clouds and raging storms ... a nagging fear that America's decline is inevitable." He concluded by quoting George Washington - "In the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive ... the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet it" - and then added his own words: "Let us brave once more the icy currents, and endure what storms may come." That's the language of security, not hope and change.

Ever since, Obama has relied primarily on warnings of catastrophe to build support for his policies. He exhorts us to prevent financial catastrophe, prevent a total breakdown of the health care system, prevent environmental disaster, prevent al-Qaeda from attacking us again, prevent the world from turning against us, and on and on.

Some of these dangers are quite real, some more imaginary. All could probably be better averted by policies of a genuinely progressive government acting on a narrative of empathy and positive change. As progressives promote that narrative, though, they must recognize that it is quite alien to most Americans, because their political views are so profoundly rooted in and shaped by the narrative of security and protection from chaos.

Perhaps, Obama wants to challenge that narrative, but finds it politically impossible. Perhaps, he has decided that resistance is futile, that it's better to accept the dominant narrative and use it to promote a bit of the progressive agenda. Or, perhaps, he truly believes in the narrative of security. We'll probably never know.

The same question - to compromise with and perhaps co-opt or to reject and resist the security narrative - is the most vital question for US progressives today. Once we stop thinking we can read peoples' hearts and minds, and start analyzing language in thoughtful detail, we can begin that crucial discussion.

Last modified on Friday, 11 June 2010 13:57