As an activist fighting for social, environmental and economic justice for some years now, I have become increasingly frustrated by the use of labels that attempt to define people and their actions but misrepresent and distort the truth. I’m talking about labels like “progressive” and “liberal” and what they’ve come to mean for many people.
Language is powerful, and narratives can be absorbed without conscious intent. People sometimes use words and phrases without knowing who crafted them for what purpose. In part goaded by moderators, even some of the candidates in the recent Democratic presidential debates fell into using the rhetoric of the right wing — conservative arguments so skillfully costumed that even well-meaning Democrats parroted them with little thought. As Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., warned during the debate, “We should stop using Republican talking points.”
In his popular book, Don’t Think of an Elephant, cognitive scientist George Lakoff writes that narratives, or “frames,” shape the way we see the world, the goals we seek, the plans we make. It’s well-documented that right-wing conservatives have worked hard over many decades to impose their narratives, or frames, on the American people. These frames are so powerful that many Americans have no idea they’ve been duped into acting, and voting, against their own best interests.
As co-founder of the advocacy nonprofit Retake Our Democracy and a founding member of the Adelante Progressive Caucus of the Democratic Party of New Mexico, I am no stranger to “progressive” values being labeled “radical” or “socialist.”
These labels need to be called out for what they are: the frames of the right wing, the language of fear and greed. What progressives want for our country is, in fact, what most Americans want for our country. Progressive values are not radical values. They are human values. They are human rights.
Since when has it become “radical” to help a neighbor or stranger in need? Since when has it become “radical” to protect our land, air, water and wildlife — the planet that gives us life? Since when has it become “radical” to think everyone deserves food, shelter and safety? Free, quality health care? A living-wage job? Since when has it become “radical” to believe that every human being deserves equal rights, equal opportunity and equal protection regardless of age, gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, national origin or physical ability? These are values this country was built on.
I’m tired of the fearmongering narrative that people should help themselves, that helping people encourages them to be lazy and dependent on that help. Research shows this is just not true. We spend billions more on corporate welfare in this country — bailing out corporations and giving tax cuts to the wealthy — than we do on people in need. Where is the conversation about how people may have been forced into that situation in the first place? What about Manifest Destiny, colonialism, slavery, racism, redlining, exploitation, and the oppressors and destroyers of communities, particularly communities of color, over centuries?
Let’s not even begin to look at the label “socialism,” a word that turns conservatives apoplectic with fear and rage at the slightest mention. We’ll save that discussion for another day. In the meantime, we will continue to enjoy public highways, public schools, public libraries, fire and police services, post offices, state and national parks, Social Security and Medicare — all “socialist” services in America.
If we can see beyond manipulative labels and talk about issues, about our values, about what we want for our state and our country, maybe we can find our common vision and work together to accomplish it.
Roxanne Barber, former communications director of the National Writing Project, is a full-time volunteer activist who has lived in Santa Fe since 2012.