Framing a Communitarian Ideal

The National Review has served as a fount of ideas for conservatives, and played a central role in creating the Republican majority that controls Washington. An article on its Web site is calling for a new strategy for ending Social Security.

Just as the justification for occupying Iraq evolved from protecting the United States from weapons of mass destruction to the current view that introducing elections will bring democracy to the Islamic world, so is a National Review contributor saying it is time to adopt a new justification for changing the Social Security System.

The new idea, articulated by Richard Vigilante, places the focus of reform efforts on promoting family values. “Inadvertently” Social Security has become anti-family by making the elderly “dependants” rather than “benefactors,” he argues. If the Social Security System provided “family accounts,” parents would accumulate wealth. The prospect of offspring inheriting these funds would make these parents more “popular” with their children; the young wouldn’t “easily spin out of the influence of the old.” If Social Security money were retained by the elders and could be passed on to the next generation, it would encourage the extended family.

This system is preferable to the current one where Social Security payments cease with the death of the parents, Vigilante writes, a result that creates no family ties.

There is no need, for purposes of this column, to dwell on the prospect that this proposal would re-create the petty tyrannies of wealthy grandparents, a familiar plots in novels and a situation that even bedeviled Eleanor Roosevelt who was constantly irritated by Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s mother. Nor do we need to ask how many families would accumulate sufficient assets and what happens to the families that don’t.

The importance of Vigilante’s proposal for our purposes is not in its content, but rather in the propaganda technique it employed. Vigilante is urging his fellow Republicans to “reframe” the debate over Social Security into a “family values” issue where changes in the system can help re-create the extended family and respect for elders. Democrats hoping to save the current structure of Social Security would now face the additional political burden of proving they favor the traditional American extended family.

Perhaps the most successful example of issue framing in our culture is the claim by anti-abortion activists that they are pro-life. This framing was carried over into the Terry Schiavo debate and of course it animated the philosophy of Pope John Paul II during his papacy. Being cursed, even if only by implication, as pro-death is hardly a desirable posture to find oneself in during a debate. But pro-choice advocates have found it increasingly difficult to overcome this perception and projection.

Escaping the framing trap has become a Democratic mantra. Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic leader in the U.S. House of Representatives, has urged her members to study “Don’t Think of an Elephant,” a little book with a big message by George Lakoff, a linguistics professor at the University of California at Berkeley. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton has taken a cue from Lakoff, and argues that sex education and the morning-after pill are ways of preventing unwanted pregnancy and abortion. In effect, she says, if you want to prevent abortion, you should support sex education.

Howard Dean, the new chairman of the Democratic National Committee, is another advocate of Lakoff’s approach to talking about values. He has praised the author for “seizing the high ground,” and penned a forward to the book.

More and more, it appears the Democrats have agreed on “what” needs to be done. Doing it will be more difficult. Lakoff devised his approach by carefully studying Christian theology and its concept of a moral god who punishes transgression. He concluded that the Republicans appealed to a popular belief in a strict father who sternly governs his household. This concept of strict morality translates into a foreign policy that relies on U.S. military might to punish rogue nations, and to an approach to domestic affairs that puts emphasis on law and order, where justice equals punishment.

Democrats need to make their alternative clear to themselves and clear to the public. Lakoff argues that progressive Democrats favor a communitarian approach where a nurturing society assists those in need. In the nurturing family, both parents have equal responsibilities and engage in open communication and persuasion to protect their family and teach responsibility. In his book, he makes a strong case that the nurturing family can easily be two women or two men. The qualities of love and support don’t depend on heterosexuality.

However, in the alternative scenario in which the man is the leader of the home, he must be a heterosexual because he is exerting his control over women and children. It is in this sense that conservatives believe that “gay marriage” undermines the family—that is a family where the father’s word is law and undisciplined children are punished for breaking the rules.

Lakoff believes the Democrats need to form progressive think tanks that can develop issues with a communitarian and nurturing framework that will help them explain their values. He wants these institutions to develop media savvy speakers who can frame issues that speak to communitarian values latent in the American mind, and push the Republicans onto the defensive. It is a tall order, but the momentum is running in his direction. The next step is finding the money for the new think tanks.

Lakoff has already backed up his views by creating the Rockridge Institute that emphasizes ways of framing issues from a progressive viewpoint. Work remains to be done in the areas of foreign policy and defense spending. Lakoff’s ideas will make a difference if we integrate them into our thinking over the long term. His views do not lend themselves to a quick study, but require careful consideration and practice. Despite the difficulties, George Lakoff is holding one of the keys that will open the door to a new progressive Democratic majority—a majority that must be prepared to counter the argument that Social Security is anti-family.