Model of Left and Right Falls Flat

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 August 1, 2007

Conservative strategists have successfully shifted political discourse in their favor. Progressives can shift the debate back by understanding how the political mind works. In order to do so, however, it is necessary to move beyond the faulty idea that there is a horizontal political spectrum from left to center to right.

This is the first of a three part series, to be published over the next few days. Part 2 dissects the metaphors behind traditional political strategies based on the political spectrum of left-right politics – including an updated version of the Overton Window discussion withdrawn from Rockridge Nation for revision two weeks ago. Part 3 presents the real strategy used by conservatives to shift debate in their favor and offers guidance for progressives to turn the tide.

In reality, there are basic progressive and conservative worldviews, and many people have both but apply them to different issue areas. The people “in the middle” actually have many different combinations of progressive and conservative thought. There is no ideology of the middle, no unified worldview that everyone in the “center” agrees on, and no linear ordering of the issues. Something much more interesting is going on.

Most thought is metaphorical. Why does this matter in politics? Because some metaphors have undue influence on our thinking that leads to failed strategies. This is the case for the metaphor of a linear spectrum of political thought.

To be blunt, there is no such thing as a scale from left to right for political positions.

Real political thought is expressed through collections of concepts that we call worldviews. The values, ideas, and assumptions that shape our views of the world are far more interesting and complex than the horizontal position on a scale.

The pioneering work done by George Lakoff, whose linguistic analysis revealed the coherent worldviews of progressives and conservatives, has shown that there are two idealized models for political thought. The models make sense through metaphors of nurturant and strict families. The concepts in one model are often mutually exclusive from the other model, so that their meanings may be contradictory. This is why the idea of religious freedom can be expressed in the competing forms of (1) freedom from religious oppression and (2) freedom to “spread the good news” in public places. One version leads to substantive neutrality while the other leads to the endorsement of a single religious view by government institutions.

Both worldviews exist in our culture, and most people learn both, but apply them to different areas of life. People may differ considerably in how they fit the progressive and conservative worldviews to various areas of life. The existence of two incompatible conceptual worldviews in the brains of individuals is what we call biconceptualism.

Old habits take time to change. Even though there is growing awareness of biconceptualism, most political strategists and commentators still make the mistake of thinking that there is a linear scale with extreme left- and right-wing politics (with a centrist position for the “middle” of the scale).

If you are a strong progressive, the important thing to remember about biconceptuals is that they already agree with you on certain issues (but may use different language). If you stick to the areas where they agree with you, you will be activating your worldview in them as you talk to them. That will strengthen the synapses in their brains for your worldview, even if it is only over a limited range. The more your worldview is strengthened in them, the more likely it will be applied to additional issue areas.

The Long Failed Experiment

Many political strategists — both progressive and conservative — promote the use of extreme positions to make the ones they seek to achieve appear more reasonable. Other strategists, mostly Democrats, take the opposite approach. They encourage candidates to “move toward the center” to win swing votes. Both approaches make use of the Line of Political Positions metaphor.

While conservatives have consistently used the first approach, which they call the Overton Window, progressives have been divided between versions of both approaches. A successful strategy for progressives to shift discourse in our favor can only be seen when we talk about it in the context of the human brain.

The technique known as the Overton Window is not new. It has been around since the 1960′s when activists on the left took extreme leftist positions in the hope that it would make very liberal positions seem centrist by comparison.

Years later, Joe Overton was credited with the explanation of this technique (though it was first written extensively about in Gordon Tullock’s 1967 book, Politics of Persuasion). Many liberals and progressives have used this approach since then, but have not been very successful.

The Overton Window – taking very extreme positions to move the spectrum to the right – appears to work for conservatives. Why doesn’t the Overton Window work as well for progressives?

While progressives have “moved to the center,” conservatives have consistently expressed values based in a moral worldview held by all conservatives. As they express their values, their way of thinking that makes sense of them becomes more pronounced in the brains of people who hear them. This does not move people “to the right.” It moves them toward a purer mode of conservative thought, until that way of thinking seems like common sense.

Progressives who “move to the right” are accepting forms of conservative thought in doing so. When they express these conservative views, they activate conservative views in biconceptuals, which is counterproductive. Moving to the right is a losing proposition.

But shouldn’t true progressives try to move centrist Democrats in a progressive direction? Yes, but … There are two cases to consider.

Remember the centrist Democrats are biconceptual — basically progressive, but conservative in some of their views. Again, you want to activate their progressive worldview without activating their conservative worldview.

We can do this by expressing our values as clearly and consistently as possible so that our way of thinking becomes common sense, because it is activated over and over in people’s brains.

But there is a danger, one which has stymied the extreme left in the past. “Extremists” tend to be “militant,” even when they have progressive goals — that is, they use conservative (strict father) means to a nurturant (progressive) end. This approach is punitive and often abusive in its means. Punitive, abusive approaches constitute conservative means to a progressive end. By using conservative means, you are activating in people’s brains a version of the conservative worldview. In doing so, you are working against, not for progressive views.

Conservative extremists don’t have this problem. If they are militant and use punitive and abusive means, they are using conservative means to conservative ends. Their means are consistent with their ends. It is for this reason that militant extremists on the right have been more successful than militant extremists on the left.

Part 2 of this series dissects the concepts involved in the Overton Window to show how it is flawed. Then the real conservative strategy for success is presented in Part 3, laying the groundwork for how progressives can shift debate back in our favor.


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

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