Friday, April 08, 2005


Framing the Role of Government --
Inspired by the back-and-forth between Ezra Klein and Lindsay Beyerstein here, here, and here, I offer my own ideas on framing that completely bypass the "strict father" vs. "nurturant parent" debate.

Warning: I haven't actually read Lakoff, but every blog I read that mentions Lakoff refers to the concept of framing and the concept of the nurturing parent vs. the strict father. The basic idea is that the Republicans have crafted an image of the role of government and their party best fits that image. Lakoff's solution, it seems, is to craft a different image to fill that same role of government.

Can anyone else see what is wrong here? Lakoff is accepting the Republican framing of government as parent. Keeping with this image, dissent from government is then cast in the role of rebellious punk teenager, a role which Democrats seem very happy to play.

What is needed is to come up with a new frame for the role of government. First, though, we must come up with the reality of the role of government before we can come up with a symbolic frame. What does progressivism see as the role of government? Well, progressive government is clearly activist and interventionist at times; certainly it is no where near the libertarian desire for the minimal state. At the same time, it is run for the benefit of actual, living, breathing citizens, not for the benefit of "the state" as national security hawks might argue, nor for the benefit of specific group identities within the state, although it is sensitive to both those concerns.

What Lakoff at least realizes is that if we can't say in a nutshell what we are about, then we have no message. Where he fails is in being a copycat rather than an innovator. The parental framing of government is flawed because it puts government above the people. The public becomes but children in the eyes of government, which explains why conservatives often see liberals as the aforementioned punk teen.

The Lockean tradition holds that the people come together and form a social contract. By this contract, a government is created, but which can be abolished when the contract is broken. Let us take that further and say that the people coming together breathe life into this thing we call government and, once established, it becomes separate from the people, yet hopefully of, by, and for the people. Government seeks to protect its own existence; it is its own entity. This is evident in the fact that we have a representative democracy. The Founding Fathers set up a system to elect a government yet insulate from the day-to-day pressures of the masses, and this has served well.

Corporations seek to enslave government to their will. So, too, do other factions. In some countries, the military tries to take over government. Instead, we should seek a mutually beneficial association between government and people. This symbiosis means that government serves to protect the people. In return, we uphold the legitimacy of government. We do not seek to tear it down. The people create government and form a symbiotic partnership with it, to protect against potential threats from the likes of business or other nations (although, of course, businesses or foreign nations are inherently harmful to government or the people). So long as government becomes a partner of the people rather than a tool to be exploited, independent enough to be an impartial instrument of justice, dependent enough to never stray too far from the needs of the people.

This conception of government is a useful artificiality that points the way to a non-parental framing of government's rule. Rather than Republicans implying that government works best when government adopts the strong father role, instead Democrats should imply that government works best when government adopts an "equal partners" spousal role. Rather than a government of unquestionable authority, we have a government which fulfills duties to its spouse, the people, who in term fulfill duties (taxes, jury duty, voting, etc.). Just like any household, necessary tasks are split up. In creating a well-ordered society, government takes care of those things that government does best and leaves to the people what is best done by individual initiative. Government creates public goods, the people create private goods. This is not limited government, but neither is it a nanny-state; this is government doing what it can and it is the people's responsibility to not place on government's back more than it can handle. The struggle for the Democrats is deciding which problems are best addressed by government and which problems are are best left up to the people, a dilemma in which the party has not always chosen wisely. The pro-gun control sentiment (as opposed to the Howard Dean position on gun control which earned the former Vermont governor an A rating from the National Rifle Association) is one example of placing an excessive burden on government.

The "equal partners" spousal framing of the role of government works to the Democrats advantage. It also places the Republicans in the role of the dominating, or even abusive, spouse, which often fits the language already in use by critics of the Bush administratin.
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