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Reframing: Words to Reclaim

The right wing has worked for decades to alter the meanings of concepts that define our way of life. The Bush administration's distortions of language are a culmination of these efforts.
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Progressives are now approaching the home stretch of an all-out race to elect representatives that share our values. We know that progressive leaders need our support, and the netroots and grassroots are working overtime for this vital election.

There is also a more protracted contest taking place, one that is less visible, but equally critical. It is the struggle to define our democratic principles and values. The right wing has worked for decades to alter the meanings of concepts that define our way of life. The Bush administration's distortions of language are a culmination of these efforts. To restore the meaning of values such as respect for the rule of law and reverence for human life, we all must do our part. We have many strong progressive leaders who are working to reclaim these concepts, but, as in the election at hand, they can succeed only when we are all fully engaged in this struggle.

In this excerpt of the new book, Thinking Points: Communicating Our American Values and Vision, A Progressive's Handbook by George Lakoff and the Rockridge Institute, we identify several key concepts that the right wing has worked to redefine and introduce ways that progressives can begin to reclaim them.

Reframing: Words to Reclaim
(Excerpted from Chapter Three of Thinking Points. The full chapter is available to download for free at here.

Conservatives have worked hard to redefine our words--that is, change the frame associated with a word so that it fits the conservative worldview. In so doing, they have changed the meaning of some of our most important concepts and have stolen our language.

Most notably, they have redefined the word "liberal." They have turned it upside down. What once was--and still should be--a badge of pride is now a label to run from. Consider the differences between the conservative tag on "liberal" and the real meaning that we should hold near and dear to our hearts.

: Tax-and-spend liberals want to take your hard-earned money and give it to lazy no-accounts. Latte-sipping liberals are elitists who look down their noses at you. Hollywood liberals have no family values. The liberal media twist the facts. Leftist liberals want to end the free market. Antiwar liberals are unpatriotic wimps who can't defend our country. Secular liberals want to end religion.

: Liberty-loving liberals founded our country and enshrined its freedoms. Dedicated, fair-minded liberals ended slavery and brought women the vote. Hardworking liberals fought the goon squads and won workers' rights: the eight-hour day, the weekend, health plans, and pensions. Courageous liberals risked their lives to win civil rights. Caring liberals have made the vulnerable elderly secure with Social Security and healthy with Medicare. Forward-looking liberals have extended education to everyone. Liberals who love the land have been preserving our environment so you can enjoy it. Nobody loves liberty and life more than a liberal. When conservatives say you're on your own, we liberals know we're all in this together.

"Liberal" is not the only example of the right's framing larceny. Here are other examples of words worth reclaiming--and how conservatives and progressives view them.


Conservatives: Patriots do not question the president or his war policies. To do so undermines our nation and its troops. Revealing secret, even illegal, government programs is treasonous. The Constitution should be amended to criminalize political dissent in the form of flag desecration.

Progressives: The greatest testament to one's love of country is when one works to improve it. This includes principled dissent against policies one disagrees with and against leaders who promote those policies. Times of war are no exception. Our first loyalty is to the principles of our democracy that are embedded in our Constitution, not to any political leader.

Rule of Law

: Criminals deserve strict punishment for their crimes. If that means two million people are in U.S. prisons, so be it. If police have to step on a few toes or cross a few constitutional lines, so be it. Courts have gone too far in letting criminals go free on "technicalities." Strict sentencing constraints should overrule any tendency toward leniency on the part of judge or jury. As commander in chief, the president is the highest authority. He may choose not to observe domestic and international laws when he deems it necessary to fight our enemies. Some civil liberties are also subordinate to this fight.

: No one is above the law. The president must abide by constitutional limitations on his power and follow laws passed by Congress; police and judges must respect the constitutional rights of all citizens. Criminals must be accountable for their crimes, but society should temper its desire for retribution with wisdom and compassion. In civil matters, access to the courts should be equally available to all. Corporations and individuals must be accountable for injuries they inflict. The United States must abide by international law and treaty obligations.

National Security

: It's a scary world. Fanatics wish us harm. We must respond with every means available to us, including torture and indefinite imprisonment without trial of those we suspect of acting against us. We must take the fight to the enemy regardless of the cost in lives, dollars, strained alliances, and our international reputation. Military force is our greatest weapon.

Progressives: It's a scary world, but for reasons that go well beyond the threat of terror. We can deal with terrorism far more wisely and without invading foreign nations under false pretenses. Terrorism is an international problem; we can fight it more effectively in partnership with other nations than by going it alone. We should fight terrorism with the tools for fighting international organized crime, rather than with the military. Moreover, we must recognize that our long-term security is also threatened by climate destabilization and pollution, by our dependence on foreign energy, by the growing gap between rich and poor, and by our faltering public education system.

Family Values

: Obedience and discipline are the core values of the family. Sex education in the schools, the right to abortion, and gay marriage undermine obedience and discipline. They are an affront to the family.

: Empathy and responsibility for oneself and others are the core values of the family. Respectful, loving, and supportive parenting promotes healthy families. Health care, education, food on the table, and social systems are essential to the well-being of the family. Loving, committed, and supportive individuals define the family, not gender roles.


: Abortion is the immoral taking of innocent life. It must be banned.

: Promoting life means ending America's huge infant mortality rate through pre- and postnatal care. It means caring for individuals throughout their lives. It means affordable universal health care to improve life and life expectancy for forty-five million uninsured Americans. It means improving the quality of the air we breathe and the water we drink. It means improving schools and parenting so that every young life has a chance to flower. It means finding ways to end the violence in our society that cuts short so many lives. It means fulfilling the promise of stem cell research, rather than destroying the hopes of millions of suffering Americans for the sake of a tiny cluster of undifferentiated cells that will otherwise be discarded.

Taking back these and other words is a long-term enterprise. The right didn't snatch them overnight, and we can't take them back quickly, either. But they can be reclaimed. They must be spoken often. And they must be spoken in the contexts in which progressives understand them.

Consider progressives across the country consistently saying something like this: "I am for life. That's why I support the right of all women to receive prenatal care and the right of all children to receive immunizations and to be treated when they are sick. That's why I believe we must safeguard the planet that sustains all life."

Or perhaps this: "I am a patriot. That's why I am compelled to oppose the government's spying on American citizens without court order and in defiance of Congress."

Repetition of such articulations is the key to redefining these words and reclaiming them. Progressives must say things like this when they speak to their friends, when they write letters to the editor, when they blog, when they run for office. Once this process begins, continues, and is repeated often enough, these words and the public's understanding of them can return to their traditional meanings. It will not be easy, but it must be done.

Excerpted from Chapter Three of Thinking Points. The full chapter is available to download for free here.

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