The Progressive Tribe and Improving the World
by Joe Brewer
Published on Friday, May 15, 2009 by CommonDreams.org
The world is in need of some serious change. We all know this. And
many people have taken the call personally and seriously. I encourage
you to do the same. You can be an engine of creativity. You can be a
catalyst for positive change in the world.
It all starts when you see yourself as part of something bigger. And
it helps to have a way to connect to the community you find yourself
in. One key element of this is having a name that reflects your tribe
- the particular group that you resonate deeply with. In the
political world, this is the label that captures your identity. In
recent decades our labels have been conflated and, in many cases,
attacked viciously as part of public relations campaigns. One
casualty of this intensely polarized struggle was the word liberal.
That label means something very different today than it did a few years ago.
The newly popular label progressive has taken the political world by
storm. The cynical among us treat this as nothing more than a massage
of the battered liberal, and yet it is this provocative term that
feeds a movement inspiring millions of people -including the
supposedly disaffected youth - to rally together for a better world.
Why is this word so powerful? It seems like there is more happening
than mere wordplay.
Something Deeper is Going On
I am a student of language and thought (In techno-jargon, I study
cognitive linguistics.) And I apply this powerful new field of
inquiry to the world of political and social change. Insights about
the deeper concepts underlying our political labels can help clarify
just why the word progressive is so powerful as a motivator of social
change. This allows us to gain new perspectives about ourselves,
emboldening us to take steps in our own lives to make the world a better place.
An important starting point is knowing that brain function is at the
heart of thought. The minds we have are fundamentally shaped by the
way our brains operate. A major feature of brain function is that
"higher" (i.e. more complex) thought processes are built on "lower"
functions that work in combination. For example, in order to make
sense of our lives throughout the day, our brains need to be able to
construct stories that organize our experience into coherent
patterns. This is a very complex process that builds upon something
much more basic - the coordination of simple body movements into a
choreographed sequence. So when you pick up a glass to drink from,
your brain puts together arm extension, opening and closing of
fingers, rotation, and many small motions of your head, neck and
throat in a dance of complexity that you are scarcely aware of while
you are doing it.
It is this ability to choreograph movement that makes storytelling
possible. Every story is structured with a beginning, middle, and end
that is motivated by some relevant purpose. The same is true for
taking a drink of water.
The take-home message from this insight is that much of what your
brain is doing on your behalf happens outside conscious awareness. So
for movement, also for thought.
Political Labels Tell Stories
What does this have to do with politics? Everything! When you hear
the word progressive, many things are happening in your brain that
never arrive as conscious thoughts. The part of this having to do
with concepts and meaning is what George Lakoff calls a "frame." A
frame is the hidden conceptual structure that organizes your thoughts
into something meaningful. The Progressive Frame is the pattern of
information that arises when you think about the word progressive.
The Progressive Frame is very different from the Liberal Frame.
People who haven't studied cognitive linguistics fail to realize this
when they assert that the two words are interchangeable. What makes
them different? Simply put, they tell different stories. (Actually,
there's a lot more going on that I won't go into here.) The
Progressive Frame activates a narrative about progress. This
narrative has a beginning in some troubled world, then moves through
an unspecified series of events to arrive at a better one. The story
of progress is about improvement as understood by the storyteller.
By contrast, the Liberal Frame tells a story of liberty. In
particular, it is a story about individual freedom against
oppression. Historically, this has been applied to issues like
self-rule (injustices of monarchy), civil liberties (the right to
vote), and equality (empowered citizenship in the face of
oppression). The Liberty Story is often told as one of progress from
a condition of less freedom to a condition of more freedom. This is
when it is most persuasive and inspirational. The power of the
Liberal Frame, before it was tainted by an intentional process of
radicalization by its opponents, resides in the Progressive Frame
that is evoked when telling a story of progress.
The two frames are interconnected, which partly explains the
confusion about their political meanings. But it has always been the
Progressive Frame that compelled people to join movements. Don't
believe me? Ask yourself whether you would ever join a political
struggle that DOESN'T involve some kind of progress.
Ironically, the Progressive Frame lies at the heart of Conservative
Populism too. The Conservative Frame underlies the powerful label
conservative for people seeking to restore what they believe to be
traditional values that have eroded away. This is also a story of
progress, albeit one that presumes some kind of fall from grace as a
pretext to the current situation. The existence of a progress story
in conservative thought is what makes possible Obama's appeals to
historically conservative citizens. Deep down we all want progress.
It is our different notions of what we consider progress to be that
leads to so much quarreling.
Declare Your Tribe and Improve the World!
Now that we have greater clarity about the concepts behind important
political labels, a landscape of possibilities for actually improving
the world appears before us. Political labels matter because of the
stories they tell. Furthermore, the stories told by the opposition
about our labels can be harmful to us. The word liberal is severely
contentious now because it was targeted by a series of smear
campaigns in the past (which are ongoing via conservative media
outlets like Fox News and talk radio).
At the same time, we can use the power of progress to unite people.
This is the great potential of knowing your frames... you can apply
them clearly and powerfully when you know how they work. (Or you can
habitually activate them without knowing they are there!) The
essential idea is that everyone wants progress. So the label
progressive has potential as a unifying force that brings together
people who are tired of the push and pull of liberal versus conservative.
Tribes Will Transform the World
Why chose a label? Because it identifies you as part of a tribe. Seth
Godin, the marketing guru who popularized the concept of an idea
virus, makes a compelling argument that it is tribes, not money or
factories, that will change the world. This TED Talk makes the case:
We all want to make the world a better place. By implication, we are
all out to get the status quo. In spite of this the status quo has
proven to be quite resilient. What's going on here? I would argue
that two key obstacles stand in our way.
First, most people don't understand what is happening below the
surface of their awareness - making it easy to sow distrust through
manipulative practices (a problem I'm exploring solutions for). This
can be addressed by expanding citizen education about the workings of
our minds - what I call revealing the Great Political Blind Spot.
Second, we remain divided and disorganized as world-changers. The
secret behind social change is Godin's observation about tribes.
Margaret Mead famously declared that it is always a small group of
like-minded people who change the world. Emphasis should be squarely
placed on the small group part of her observation. Like-minded people
can unite with existing communications technologies in ways that
couldn't have been dreamed of a few short years ago. We have outlets
like the blogosphere, YouTube, facebook, and Twitter at our
fingertips to organize and get the word out about our activities.
Now is the time to get organized. I encourage you to watch Godin's
talk and take his closing remarks seriously. He boldly calls upon the
audience to start a movement within 24 hours. All you need is to
reach a critical threshold of people, each of whom is engaged in
other existing networks that they can reach out to and spread ideas around.
This isn't as hard as it seems. First you have to believe that you
can make a difference. Second, start thinking about things you'd like
to see improved. Third, look for people who share one of your
passions who also want to make progress on the same issue. For
example, you might really be into cycling and want to see parents
spending more time with their kids. Put the two together and you've
got a recipe for Bike-A-Child as a catchy theme for a Saturday
afternoon. Cyclist moms and dads can have some fun and teach their
kids the importance of good exercise at the same time.
For too long politics has been about preserving our differences. I
think its time to change the name of the game. Politics in the 21st
Century is going to be built with affinity groups - people who come
together around shared interests. Social change is going to arise
from a thousand little groundswells of people making a difference in
their peer networks. A thousand ripples combined can quickly become a
Rather than letting elite communications teams (marketing and PR
firms) define the labels of our politics, let's claim them for
ourselves. We can be progressives because we want to see real
progress toward a better world. This may not lead to a vision shared
by the masses, but it does allow for communities to grow around
visions of our own.
Of course, the concerned reader will quickly point out that one
person's vision can be another's nightmare. True enough. But until
the visions come from within us, instead of from message architects
in the mass media, the only progress to be made will be further
entrenchment in the status quo. We've seen where this leads... the
largest wealth inequalities in human history and intensely corrupt
economic and political systems.
I say, "No more!"
The issue I'm concerned about is manipulation of the populace. If you
don't have a movement of your own to start (or even if you do), feel
free to get involved in mine. In the days ahead, I want to lay a
foundation for new practices in the political and social change
arenas based on insights about the mind. This is not something one
person can do on his (or her!) own. It is going to take thousands of
us coming together and establishing a different set of social norms
for political engagement.
If we work together as a progressive tribe, we really can improve the world.
Joe Brewer is founder and director of Cognitive Policy Works, an
educational and research center devoted to the application of
cognitive and behavioral sciences to politics. He is a former fellow
of the Rockridge Institute, a think tank founded by George Lakoff to
analyze political discourse for the progressive movement.