Book Reviews

Chico Marxism

Freedom isn't just another word for winning elections.

By William Galston

Tagged Freedompolitics

Whose Freedom? The Battle Over America’s Most Important Idea By George Lakoff • Farrar, Straus and Giroux • 2006 • 288
pages • $23

There is a scene in the Marx Brothers’ film Duck Soup in which Mrs. Teasdale (the redoubtable Margaret Dumont), believing she is alone, begins undressing. When Chicolini (Chico Marx) emerges from under her bed, the following exchange ensues:

Mrs. Teasdale: I thought you left.

Chicolini: Oh no. I don’t leave.

Mrs. Teasdale: But I saw you leave with my own eyes.

Chicolini: Well, who you gonna believe, me or your own eyes?

George Lakoff is on Chico’s side. To the Berkeley
linguist-cum-Democratic guru, what matters are not the facts, but the
frames through which the facts are viewed. As he assures us in his new
book, Whose Freedom?, “frames trump facts”–that, if facts are
inconsistent with frames, they will be ignored. In his view, what ails
progressives is that conservatives are far more aware of their guiding
assumptions and more self-conscious about using language to “frame”
issues to their advantage–regardless of the facts. To regain
effectiveness, then, progressives must fight fire with fire. Instead of
arguing the facts, Lakoff says, they must substitute their frame for
that of the conservatives and reclaim the concept of freedom–in his
words, “America’s most important idea.”

Lakoff is entirely correct in placing freedom at the center of
American identity and politics, yet like Chico, he ignores reality and
only endorses as facts the assertions that are consistent with his
worldview. Whose Freedom? could have been a provocative book
from one of the few members of academia with real influence on
Democratic leaders; instead, it is a jerry-rigged polemic built to fit
Lakoff’s political agenda. And that’s a shame, because progressives
can–and should–enter the debate about what freedom means in America

Lakoff’s analysis–as previously laid out in his best-selling Don’t Think of an Elephant! Know Your Values and Frame the Debate–has proved appealing to many Democrats. Its underlying message is reassuring: Forget about rethinking anything except your rhetoric; there’s nothing wrong with the party that a more self-conscious and aggressive articulation of the progressive frame can’t cure. Indeed, Lakoff dominated the post-2004-election post-mortems and was showered with invitations to brief Democratic lawmakers and strategists.

Yet, as critics pointed out in reviewing his first book, there is a
limit to how much analysis can fit into a frame; facts do matter.
Lakoff is blind to this truth. For example, here’s my favorite of
Lakoff’s assertions masquerading as facts: He blithely assures us that
the percentage of “strongly progressive Democrats” equals that of
“strongly conservative Republicans”–roughly 35 to 40 percent. Alas,
surveys consistently show that conservatives outnumber liberals by a
margin of at least three to two and have done so for the past three
decades. According to the National Election Survey, liberals hover
around 20 percent of the population, while conservatives typically
score in the low 30s. The remainder (45 to 50 percent) describe
themselves as moderate. This asymmetry, a basic structural feature of
contemporary politics, helps define the arithmetic of party competition
at the national level. Because the Democrats’ base is so much smaller
than that of the Republicans, they must win not just a majority, but a
supermajority, of the voters in between. John Kerry received almost all
the liberal vote and about 55 percent of the moderates; it wasn’t
enough. Unless conservatives are so demoralized that they don’t turn
out, Democrats need upward of 60 percent of the moderate vote. And a
Berkeley-style “progressive” agenda is unlikely to get them there.

In addition to ignoring facts, Lakoff underestimates their power;
facts can–and do–trump frames. Take Iraq. No war has ever been more
deliberately framed than the 2003 U.S. invasion, and it initially
enjoyed strong public support. But facts on the ground proved
inconsistent with the expectations the Bush Administration’s frames had
engendered. Weapons of mass destruction were nowhere to be found; our
troops were not greeted as liberators; and Iraqis seemed more
interested in settling ethno-religious scores that in embracing the
democracy we so earnestly proffered. And, famously, the “mission”
turned out to be anything but “accomplished.” As the months went by and
reality sank in, Americans turned against the war in droves.

Lakoff believes that Chico-style politicians can get away with their
misdeeds indefinitely, if only they frame them correctly. But they
can’t; they can deny reality for only so long before citizens begin
trusting the evidence of their own senses.

While his approach in answering the question “Whose Freedom?” is
deeply flawed, Lakoff’s point of departure–that freedom “defines what
America is”–is one with which I agree. It was no accident that Franklin
D. Roosevelt described the Allies’ war aims as the “four freedoms.” It
was to ensure the survival and success of liberty that John F. Kennedy
declared that we were prepared to “pay any price, bear any burden, meet
any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe.” Yet during the past
generation, as liberals and progressives have abandoned the language of
freedom in favor of justice, equality, and diversity, conservatives
have appropriated it. Freedom, at home and abroad, was the theme of
George W. Bush’s second inaugural address, which Lakoff rightly regards
as a document meriting close analysis. In response, thinkers who cannot
accept the conservative interpretation of freedom, such as University
of Arizona political scientist John Schwarz, are trying to take back
the term. Lakoff argues (and again I agree) that the definition of
freedom has become a matter of political contestation and is now “up
for grabs.”

This tug of war is no accident, Lakoff argues. Decades ago, the
British scholar W. B. Gallie posited that many concepts are
“essentially contested”–that is, they can be fleshed out in many
different ways. Philosophers distinguish between abstract “concepts”
and concrete “conceptions”: Equality is a concept; equality of moral
worth or of opportunity are conceptions. And so for freedom: While
individuals agree on the core concept, they disagree on how to specify
it. In a public culture like ours, in which freedom occupies an honored
central place, winning the conceptual battle is a matter of practical
political significance.

Despite this complexity, however, Lakoff offers only the crudest of
dichotomies. For him, there is conservative freedom, part of the
“strict father” metaphor, and progressive freedom, embedded in the
“nurturant parent” metaphor. And then there are “biconceptuals,” who
mix the two in different parts of their lives. That’s it–a political
periodic table with only two elements. But Lakoff barely even tries to
show how conservative and progressive freedom, or their associated
policy agendas, flow from these two elements and their combination.
Instead, he asserts these connections over and over again on every
page, as though repetition were a substitute for argument. The result
is conceptual hypertrophy: Conservative freedom becomes a summary of
everything he dislikes about conservativism, while progressive freedom
expands to encompass everything he thinks is good about human beings
and the world. And thus we learn that when nurturant values are
identity-defining, freedom is (among many other things) “security and
health.” Disregarding Isaiah Berlin’s dictum that “everything is what
it is: liberty is liberty, not equality or fairness or justice,” Lakoff
merges these and many other values into a conceptual blob. While
freedom, so conceived, promises to illuminate the political landscape,
it is in fact an example of Hegel’s night in which all cows are black.

Among its other faults, this structuralist reductionism reflects a
deep indifference to history. Well into the twentieth century, for
example, many Americans continued to embrace a civic conception of
freedom that emphasized participation in self-government and that
differed fundamentally both from the rights-based conception that
dominates today’s progressive thought and the market-based conception
of modern conservatism. Lakoff’s assertion that his version of
progressive freedom is “traditional” and has “always dominated American
life” is breathtakingly wrong.

Inevitably, Lakoff’s two-valued structuralism leads to a political
outlook that can only be described as Manichean. Goodness and virtue
are all on one side, evil and vice all on the other. The wicked
conservatives understand causation as “direct,” virtuous progressives
as “systemic.” Accordingly, conservatives endorse individual
responsibility (bad) while progressives invoke social responsibility
(good). And thus we learn that the conservatives’ “economic liberty
myth” about “individual initiative, individual responsibility, and
pulling yourself up by your bootstraps” is “nonsense.”

If Lakoff thinks that reframing the economic debate will persuade a
majority of Americans to abandon the ideas of individual initiative and
responsibility, he and I are living in different countries. There are
even some (dare I say it?) facts that bear on this question. By are
margin of two to one, according to the Pew Research Center’s Global
Attitudes Project, Americans reject the proposition that success in
life is determined by forces outside our control; by a margin of nearly
seven to one, they endorse the proposition that lack of success is due
more to individual than to societal factors. Sensible public policy, of
course, recognizes the importance of both factors; achieving a
sustainable new balance between individual and social responsibility
was at the heart of, for instance, President Clinton’s approach to
welfare reform.

Lakoff’s Manichean outlook also leads to outright distortion of the
choices we face. For example, he quotes a line from President Bush’s
second inaugural, “Self-government relies, in the end, on the
government of the self,” a thought he characterizes as an “alien
worldview” that is not only “radically different” from traditional
views of freedom but also “frightening” and “extremist.” Not so. The
President was invoking a debate that goes all the way back to the
founding of the American republic: Can liberty be preserved through the
artful arrangement of individual and institutional self-interest, or
does free government depend as well on certain traits of
character–virtues–among its citizens? A traditional view is that some
internalized restraint on the pursuit of self-interest and the
expression of our passions–if you will, government of the self–is among
those necessary traits. Far from being “alien,” this is a position that
many progressives–such as Louis D. Brandeis and Theodore Roosevelt–have
espoused in the past, and one that today’s progressives would do well
to take more seriously than Lakoff does.

Despite Whose Freedom?’s deep flaws, the premise animating Lakoff’s enterprise is valid and important: Because freedom is central to what defines us as Americans, a continuing political struggle to seize the high ground of freedom is inevitable.

At the heart of the conservative understanding of liberty is the
presumption that government and individual freedom are fundamentally at
odds. At the heart of the liberal vision must be a subtler but more
realistic proposition: Public power can promote as well as threaten

Recall FDR’s famous four freedoms: freedom of speech and worship; freedom from want and fear. Liberals need to understand that “freedom of” and “freedom from” have distinctly different structures and implications. “Freedom of” points toward spheres of action in which individuals make choices–for example, which faith to embrace or whether to endorse any faith at all. The task of government is to secure those spheres against interference by individuals, groups, or government itself. By contrast, “freedom from” points toward circumstances that (it is presumed) all wish to avoid. In such instances, the task of government is to immunize individuals against undesired circumstances, so far as possible. Here government acts to protect, not individual agency and choice, but rather individuals’ life circumstances against outcomes that no one would choose or willingly endure. During the New Deal, for example, we made a collective decision that no senior would willingly live in poverty and that no senior should have to, and, in response, created Social Security.

The point is that any society that takes freedom from want and fear
seriously has made a collective decision: Certain conditions are
objectively bad; its citizens should not have to endure them if the
means of their abatement are in hand; and individual choice is not a
necessary component of, and may be a hindrance to attaining, these

Not only can “freedom from” clash with “freedom to,” but also A’s
“freedom to” may clash with B’s. So when government protects the weak
against the depredations of the powerful and acts to ward off, or break
up, excessive concentrations of private power, it does not diminish,
but rather enhances, liberty rightly understood.

Consider also that specific freedoms have conditions for their
effective exercise, and liberal democratic government must act to
ensure broad access to those conditions. As Stephen Holmes and Cass
Sunstein argued in The Cost of Rights, our system of rights is
a public good secured by government and administered by tax-funded
courts. The rule of law is central to safeguarding liberty, and a
central aspect of the rule of law is the guarantee of fair trials,
including the right to “assistance of counsel” as provided in the Sixth
Amendment. But many Americans are too poor to afford adequate defense,
and pro bono work doesn’t fill in the gap. So the government taxes the
better-off to provide that legal defense. Such taxes restrict the
freedom of those taxed, but does anyone seriously doubt that this use
of government’s taxing power enhances the sum of freedom in our country?

Unfortunately, few liberals are willing to make this case–but we
must. To regain the initiative, in short, today’s liberals must return
to their historic mission of modernizing and promoting freedom. In this
effort, they should be guided by three principles.

First, liberals must recognize that many of their traditional policy
instruments hold the promise of advancing freedom as well as other
goals. Social Security not only undergirds a decent retirement for the
elderly, it expands their choices. If cold winters restrict their
mobility as they age, they can consider leaving for warmer parts of the
country. If seniors do not want to move in with their children, they
can live independently as long as they are physically able.

Second, liberals should recognize that individual choice, while not
always synonymous with freedom, and sometimes contrary to it, is also
highly appealing to average Americans. And rightly so: Suitably
constrained, choice allows us to express our individuality while
respecting others’ opportunity to do the same. Liberals should
therefore look for opportunities to embrace individual choice in ways
that embody their principles and promote their objectives. A good
example–one many Democrats have already gotten behind–is adding
individual retirement savings accounts as a complement to Social
Security. Greater choice in public schools is another–allowing parents
to send their children to schools outside their districts would enhance
their education options while keeping them within the public school

The third principle that should guide a center-left freedom agenda
is the notion that freedom often requires sacrifice. Contemporary
conservatism, with its free-lunch mentality, has a hard time admitting
this. Liberals should embrace it. In his second inaugural address,
President Bush eloquently invoked the sacrifices made by young
Americans fighting for freedom abroad. Unfortunately, he asked nothing
of the rest of us. By contrast, FDR expended political capital to
maintain the military draft. And in his 1941 State of the Union speech,
at the threshold of the greatest struggle for liberty in the history of
the world, he forthrightly stated that “I have called for personal
sacrifice,” acknowledging that financing national defense would require
higher taxation.

We have never heard that kind of candor from President Bush and his
supporters, only the continuing pretense that freedom is free. Can
freedom really be sustained by a handful of troops, cheered on by a
nation of spectators, and financed by Chinese loans? In an America
living up to its own ideal of freedom, all citizens would share the
risks and burdens of its defense. That is what a courageous leader of a
free people would propose. And that–not an army of framing
consultants–is the approach progressives need today.

Read more about Freedompolitics

William Galston is the Ezra Zilkha Chair and senior fellow in the Governance Studies Program at the Brookings Institution and College Park Professor at the University of Maryland. From 1993 to 1995, he served as deputy assistant to the President for domestic policy.

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