Chapter 3 – Part 3: Expressing Our Values

This article is part of the Thinking Points Discussion Series published by the Rockridge Institute in early 2007. It was written by Joe Brewer (Rockridge Institute staff member) on Friday, April 9, 2007 04:00 PM

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In this final installment for the discussion of chapter 3, we consider why so many progressives have been unable to express their values. The remedy to this obstacle is to recognize how a number of essential concepts in politics have been framed in ideological terms that undermine progressive positions. We need to reclaim the words that express our most important ideas.

Chapter 3 of Thinking Points covers a broad range of ideas that are important to politics. Some of you may feel like the first two installments on frames and cognitive science were filled with difficult materials that require grappling to understand. This article explores ideas that are more concrete and, hopefully, will be less challenging to comprehend.

Brief Note of Encouragement

A friend of mine who has been following these discussions, described the stream of comments from parts 1 and 2 as being like walking into a room where people are engaged in a deep philosophical conversation. He felt unsure of how to get involved and opted to be a fly on the wall instead of jumping into the dialogue. For those of you still following along, I would like to thank you for your continued interest and encourage you to go ahead and get involved if you have questions or ideas to contribute. I would also like to thank all of our active participants who have shared ideas so enthusiastically as we’ve struggled with these challenging and important concepts.

Now let’s look at another important idea. How do we express our values in the language we use? (This article will act as a bridge to the discussion of Chapter 4, which looks at progressive and conservative values in much greater depth.)

Expressing Your Values

An interesting phenomenon often occurs when progressives are asked what they stand for. These people who are articulate, intelligent, and well informed about political issues have difficulty expressing their values and political principles. Why is that? Is it that progressives don’t stand for anything? Or perhaps they don’t have values and political principles? Of course not! Progressives do stand for things (usually a lot) and do have values and principles. So why can’t they just say what they are?

The answer is simple from a cognitive science point of view. Our conceptual systems are unconscious. We don’t usually have direct access to them or direct knowledge of them. Instead, we “feel” that something is right or wrong about policies that inform the positions we take. Many progressives just don’t know how to say why they feel the way they do. They have not learned how to express the moral principles involved in these “feelings”.

Our goal at Rockridge – and the primary purpose of Thinking Points – is to help you learn how to make implicit reasons explicit. We want to help you fill the gaps in progressive forms of arguments and better express the moral values and principles you believe in.

Proactive Framing is Essential

A school of thought that actively shapes progressive politics today is that it may be best not to engage in articulating our values and principles, and not do much of anything to put forth a progressive vision. The thinking, in a nutshell, is that things are going so wrong for conservatives that they are likely to self-destruct.

This is a terrible mistake!

And here is why:

Brains change more radically under conditions of trauma. When disasters arise, the frames used to explain what happened become deeply entrenched and shape our thinking for a long time. Endorsement of this school of thought allows conservatives to frame the disasters. You can be sure they won’t frame them as being caused by problems with conservatism. We have done in-depth analysis of two examples where conservatives have successfully pulled victory from the jaws of defeat. One explores the response to Hurricane Katrina [link to Framing Katrina] and the other looks at the redirection that happens when we focus on the incompetence of politicians [link to Incompetence article] instead of the destructive nature inherent in conservative moral philosophy. This advances the conservative agenda – to the detriment of progressives.

The way to counter this is by articulating progressive values – through the honest use of framing – to demonstrate clearly how conservative philosophy is to blame. This advances the progressive vision and expands public discourse to include debates about the viability of conservative philosophy for serving the public interest.

Words to Reclaim

Conservatives have worked hard to redefine our words. Yes, I mean they have framed our words so that they convey their meanings – by creating contexts from the strict father worldview. We need to change this. Here are several important words that have been slanted through aggressive reframing initiatives by the right wing message machine. I use the word reframing deliberately here because their original meanings have been displaced and need to be recovered. All of these words are examples of “contested concepts,” which are concepts that have a core meaning everyone agrees upon but require a context to fill in the details. As noted in Chapter 3 Part 1, frames provide this context. Thus it is possible to frame the same core concept in ways that result in vastly different and incompatible meanings.


When Shakespeare wrote the immortal words, “What’s in a name?” he missed out on the power of labels for people who identify themselves with a group. The right wing won a critical battle of ideas when they succeeded at tainting the word “liberal” in a negative way.

Conservative Meaning
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 twists 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.

Progressive Meaning
Liberty-loving liberals founded our country and enshrined our freedoms. Dedicated, fair-minded liberals ended slavery and brought women the vote. Hard-working liberals fought the goon squads and won worker’s 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 nature have been preserving the environment so you can enjoy it.

We need to reclaim this word so that we can use it with pride. Its historical meaning expresses the American values we all hold dear to our hearts.


Very different meanings exist for the idea of patriotism. I regularly see bumper stickers here in Berkeley that express the progressive version, such as the one that declares “Dissent is Patriotic.” In my home state of Missouri, I have occasion to see conservative versions like the one that declares “These Colors Don’t Run” or “Mess with the Best – Die Like the Rest.”

Conservative Meaning
Patriots do not question the President or his war policies. Revealing secret, even illegal, government programs is treasonous. The Constitution should be amended to criminalize political dissent in the form of flag desecration.

Progressive Meaning
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 these 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.

All of us who work to improve our country are patriots. This is true even for people who do not want to be associated with many things our country has come to represent under the radical rule of right-wing authoritarians. An important step in this process is to recognize that we can reclaim this word and promote the inclusive meaning given to it by the progressive worldview.

Rule of Law

Just as child raising practices vary considerably between authoritarian and nuturant families, the nature of punishment and rules of conduct have pronounced differences in conservative and progressive language.

Conservative Meaning
Criminals deserve strict punishment for their crimes. Courts have gone too far in letting criminals go 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 can 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.

Progressive Meaning
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 [link to accountability] for their crimes, but society should temper its desire for retribution with wisdom and compassion. In civil matters, access to 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.

We cannot adequately address injustices or ethical concerns in politics without being aware of these vastly different meanings. It is our responsibility as progressive citizens to preserve the American ideals put in place by the framers of our Constitution – which are consistent with the progressive meaning of the law.

National Security

All of us, regardless of political leaning, recognize the dangers that exist out there in the world. We all want to be safe. Vastly different meanings of “security” result in vastly different responses to danger. The response we choose as a nation needs to be the one that will be most effective at providing us with authentic security. Which of these meanings will make us safer?

Conservative Meaning
It’s a scary world. Fanatics wish to harm us. We must respond with every means we have available to us, including torture and indefinite imprisonment without trial, but not necessarily including approaches that don’t use military force. We must fight the enemy regardless of the cost in lives, dollars, strained alliances, and our international reputation. Military force is our greatest weapon and is given priority when it is necessary to react quickly to the threat of harm.

Progressive Meaning
It’s a scary world, but for reasons that go well beyond the threat of terrorism. Terrorism is an international problem. We can fight it more effectively in partnership with other nations than by going it alone. We must recognize that our long-term security is threatened by climate destabilization and pollution, by our dependence on foreign energy, by the growing gap between rich and poor, by our faltering public education system, and by the deterioration of our international reputation.

Any approach to national security that narrows discourse to the use of force to fight terrorism will ultimately fail. We cannot allow this “tunnel vision” to threaten the future of the United States. A complex array of factors come together to preserve our security. We must recognize this if we are to truly be safe. (If you would like to jump ahead, the contested concept for security is discussed at length in Chapter 6 of Thinking Points.)

Family Values

The mere mention of this phrase demonstrates how successfully it is been hijacked by conservative language. Many progressives I’ve met consider “family values” to be politically loaded in the same way as “faith-based initiatives” – another phrase that needs to be reclaimed, particularly by progressive practitioners of religious faith.

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

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

Notice how the conservative meaning narrows any discussion of family values to things that threaten the traditional family model. The progressive meaning is open-ended and includes consideration of all components of healthy family functioning.


This is one that I find particularly interesting. Notice how constrictive the conservative meaning is. Do we really want political discourse about life to be this narrow?

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

Progressive Meaning
Promoting life is about a lot more than the issue of abortion. It includes 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 lives and life expectancy for all Americans (including the 45 million among us who are uninsured!). It means improving the quality of water we drink, air we breathe, and food we eat. It means improving schools and parenting so 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.

The progressive meaning can be extended even further. While I recognize the importance of publicly debating abortion – after all, it is an emotionally potent subject with significant ramifications in either direction – we are missing out on the opportunity to explore all the ways we can promote healthy living for people. Public discourse is tragically limited by the extreme narrowing of this fundamentally important idea.

Long Term Enterprise to Rediscover American Ideals

Taking back these words is a long-term enterprise. It won’t happen overnight. Yet, when I think of progressives across the country saying things like,

“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.”


“I am a patriot. That’s why I’m compelled to oppose government’s spying on American citizens without a court order and in defiance of Congress.”

I am hopeful that we can succeed in the long run. We can do this. We just need to understand how real people think – which requires some understanding of the cognitive sciences – and to recognize that these ideas are too important to discard. The consequences are unacceptable!

Please share your thoughts with the rest of us. How do you think we should go about reclaiming these words? Are there other words that also need to be reclaimed? If so, what are they and why? How can we effectively call conservatism into question with the media we have now? How can discussions like this empower people to feel like they can make a difference? I would love to hear your ideas about these important topics!

(Next week we will explore Chapter 4 of Thinking Points which looks at the Nation as a Family metaphor and discusses the structures of the strict father and nurturant parent moral worldviews.)

Go to the next discussion in this series.

Cognitive Policy Works specializes in providing organizations and individuals with frame analysis, policy briefs, strategic advising, and training.

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