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What Happened to Progressivism? 


I spend a lot of my time yelling at my former progressive comrades hoping that they will come to their senses. But it also occurs to me that I speak the language and I could just explain how progressives should be responding to this crisis — if they were still progressive. And then they can choose to uphold their purported values or confess that they’ve embraced a new ideology. Regardless of where you are on the political spectrum, I believe that the points below about framing are useful and important.


George Lakoff, a cognitive linguist at UC Berkeley, is the intellectual godfather of progressive messaging. Lakoff’s books, Metaphors We Live By (with Mark Johnson), Moral Politics, and Don’t Think of an Elephant are the sacred texts of progressive framing and are read and used by nearly all Democratic political strategists. After reading his books and using them to design messaging campaigns for over a decade, I took a class in graduate school from Dr. Lakoff in 2012. I continue to use his work today.

What is framing?

Lakoff’s key insight is that “understanding is inherently metaphorical.  We process complex ideas in terms of other, simpler, more primal experiences (spatial and tactile sensations, pictures, basic family relations).” Choosing the most advantageous metaphor to describe a problem and its solutions is the art of framing. 

Four principles of proper framing      

1. Every word evokes a frame.

So for example, arguments are often described in terms of war. Choosing that metaphor will lead one to think of attacks and defenses, winners and losers, domination and surrender. Some of the examples he gives are:

He shot down all my arguments.

Her criticisms were right on target.

If you use that strategy, he’ll wipe you out.

But there is nothing inherent in arguing that leads us to liken it to war. It’s just a metaphor that people use to understand it. But “imagine a culture where an argument is viewed as a dance, the participants are seen as performers, and the goal is to perform in a balanced and aesthetically pleasing way.” (Metaphors We Live By, p. 5). 

2: Words defined within a frame evoke the frame.

In the examples above, the words shot down, right on target, and wipe you out all evoke the war metaphor. 

3. Negating a frame evokes the frame.

This is the most important rule of all. Every time you try to debunk your opponent’s frame you just end up evoking it which activates the neurological circuits associated with that frame in people’s minds. So it is always better to reframe and go on offense. 

4. Evoking a frame reinforces that frame.

“Every frame is realized in the brain by neural circuitry. Every time a neural circuit is activated, it is strengthened.” At the most fundamental level, messaging is an attempt to literally build certain neural pathways in the brain. As Lakoff writes, 

Framing is the process of choosing words and phrases to communicate an idea in a way that invokes certain metaphorical associations and rules out others. Frames set the vocabulary and metaphors through which an issue can be comprehended and discussed. By consistently invoking a resonant frame, the framing party sets the terms of the debate, shapes the perceptions of the issue, and provides a narrative for possible solutions.

Two Primary Frames in Politics: Nurturant Parent Model vs. Strict Father Model

Lakoff argues that most of us think metaphorically of the nation as family. 

But what kind of family?

Progressives and conservatives think differently:

Progressives tend to invoke a nurturant parent frame. 

The nurturant parent model is gender-neutral and envisions a family where both parents are equally responsible for raising the children. 

  • “The assumption is that children are born good and can be made better. 
  • The world can be made a better place, and our job is to work on that. 
  • The parents’ job is to nurture their children and to raise their children to be nurturers of others.”

Children develop best through their positive relationships to others…. The obedience of children comes out of their love and respect for their parents, not out of the fear of punishment.

If you empathize with your child, you will provide protection. This comes into politics in many ways. What do you protect your child from? Crime and drugs, certainly. You also protect your child from cars without seat belts, pollution, lead paint, pesticides in food, unscrupulous businessmen, and so on. So progressive politics focuses on environmental protection, worker protection, consumer protection, etc. —Don’t Think of An Elephant, p.12.

Okay, let’s apply that to the current debate

This is where it all falls apart. Lakoff is on record as supporting vaccine mandates — because apparently he’s never read a vaccine safety study and he mistakenly assumes that captured government bureaucrats and the pharmaceutical industry are being truthful about the data (when in fact they are not). 

If we lived in a sane world, the progressive response to mandatory vaccines would look like this:

Nurturant parents do NOT allow felons to perform medical experiments on their kids.

Nurturant parents do NOT allow regulators who are captured by industry to make decisions about their family’s health.

Nurturant parents do NOT allow school officials to deprive their children of oxygen and require injections as a condition of school entry.

Nurturant parents do NOT gaslight other parents for their medical decisions.

Nurturant parents do NOT get their medical information from news sources that are captured by industry.

Nurturant parents have a responsibility to read vaccine safety inserts and vaccine safety studies for themselves. 

Nurturant parents have a responsibility to read the Nuremberg Code and understand the reasons why “The voluntary consent of the human subject is absolutely essential.”

Nurturant parents have a responsibility to listen to the mothers and fathers of vaccine-injured children and learn from their experience.

Nurturant parents have a responsibility to engage in critical thinking and unbiased due diligence and have realized that independent doctors understand prevention and treatment of Covid better than captured regulators. 

Nurturant parents have a responsibility to oppose show-me-your-papers and vaccine passports because they do not want their children to grow up in a fascist country. 

See that’s not difficult. If progressives were still progressives they would be fighting bio-fascism with every cell in their body. Some are, but most are not.

The takeaway

Here’s the very real problem and I’m not sure what to do about it — there is no such thing as progressivism anymore. It has evaporated over the last two years. It’s now a memory carried by the elders but it does not exist in the real world anymore. Adherents of the ideology became robots, embraced censorship and cancel culture, and mindlessly repeat and obey diktats. So I write this article as a bedside whisper to a friend who is in a coma hoping that the remembrance of the old ways might help him to wake up.

Adapted from the author’s Substack

Published under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License
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  • Toby Rogers

    Toby Rogers has a Ph.D. in political economy from the University of Sydney in Australia and a Master of Public Policy degree from the University of California, Berkeley. His research focus is on regulatory capture and corruption in the pharmaceutical industry. Dr. Rogers does grassroots political organizing with medical freedom groups across the country working to stop the epidemic of chronic illness in children. He writes about the political economy of public health on Substack.

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