What Type of Progressive Are You?

Quoting from the George Lakoff book “Don’t Think of an Elephant,” excerpted at ThinkingPeace:

Now let me talk a bit about how progressives understand their morality and what their moral system is. It too comes out of a family model, what I call the nurturant parent model. The strict father worldview is so named because according to its own beliefs, the father is the head of the family. The nurturant parent worldview is gender neutral.

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.

What does nurturance mean? It means two things: empathy and responsibility. If you have a child, you have to know what every cry means. You have to know when the child is hungry, when he needs a diaper change, when he is having nightmares. And you have a responsibility — you have to take care of this child. Since you cannot take care of someone else if you are not taking care of yourself, you have to take care of yourself enough to be able to take care of the child. All this is not easy. Anyone who has ever raised a child knows that this is hard. You have to be strong. You have to work hard at it. You have to be very competent. You have to know a lot. In addition, all sorts of other values immediately follow from empathy and responsibility. Think about it.

First, 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, from smoking, from poisonous additives in food. So progressive politics focuses on environmental protection, worker protection, consumer protection, and protection from disease. These are the things that progressives want the government to protect their citizens from. But there are also terrorist attacks, which liberals and progressives have not been very good at talking about in terms of protection. Protection is part of the progressive moral system, but it has not been elaborated on enough. And on September 11, progressives did not have a whole lot to say. That was unfortunate, because nurturant parents and progressives do care about protection. Protection is important. It is part of our moral system.

Second, if you empathize with your child, you want your child to be fulfilled in life, to be a happy person. And if you are an unhappy, unfulfilled person yourself, you are not going to want other people to be happier than you are. The Dalai Lama teaches us that. Therefore it is your moral responsibility to be a happy, fulfilled person. Your moral responsibility. Further, it is your moral responsibility to teach your child to be a happy, fulfilled person who wants others to be happy and fulfilled. That is part of what nurturing family life is about. It is a common precondition for caring about others.

There are still other nurturant values.

  • If you want your child to be fulfilled in life, the child has to be free enough to do that. Therefore freedom is a value.
  • You do not have very much freedom if there is no opportunity or prosperity. Therefore opportunity and prosperity are progressive values.
  • If you really care about your child, you want your child to be treated fairly by you and by others. Therefore fairness is a value.
  • If you are connecting with your child and you empathize with that child, you have to have open, two-way communication. Honest communication. That becomes a value.
  • You live in a community, and that the community will affect how your child grows up. Therefore community-building, service to the community, and cooperation in a community become values.
  • To have cooperation, you must have trust, and to have trust you must have honesty and open two-way communication. Trust, honesty, and open communication are fundamental progressive values — in a community as in a family. These are the nurturant values — and they are the progressive values. As progressives, you all have them. You know you have them. You recognize them.

Every progressive political program is based on one or more of these values. That is what it means to be a progressive. There are several types of progressives. How many types? I am asking as a cognitive scientist, not as a sociologist or a political scientist. From the point of view of a cognitive scientist, who looks at modes of thought, there are six basic types of progressives, each with a distinct mode of thought. They share all the progressive values, but are distinguished by some differences:

  1. Socioeconomic progressives think that everything is a matter of money and class and that all solutions are ultimately economic and social class solutions.
  2. Identity politics progressives say it is time for their oppressed group to get its share now.
  3. Environmentalists think in terms of sustainability of the earth, the sacredness of the earth and the protection of native peoples.
  4. Civil liberties progressives want to maintain freedoms against threats to freedom.
  5. Spiritual progressives have a nurturant form of religion or spirituality, their spiritual experience has to do with their connection to other people and the world, and their spiritual practice has to do with service to other people and to their community. Spiritual progressives span the full range from Catholics and Protestants to Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Goddess worshippers, and pagan members of Wicca.
  6. Anti-authoritarians say there are all sorts of illegitimate forms of authority out there and we have to fight them, whether they are big corporations or anyone else.

All six types are examples of nurturant parent morality. The problem is that many of the people who have one of these modes of thought do not recognize that theirs is just one special case of something more general, and do not see the unity in all the types of progressives. They often think that theirs is the only way to be a true progressive. That is sad. It keeps people who share progressive values from coming together. We have to get past that harmful idea. The other side did.

Lakoff’s claim is that different forms of conservatism are united by a common metaphorical projection from the family to society: they project a “Strict Father” model of the family onto society (the Strict Father Model being exemplified, in the parental advice of Dr. James Dobson).

Conversely, different forms of progressive are united by a common metaphorical projection from the family to society: they project a “Nurturant Parent” model of the family onto society. (Lakoff gives no particular examples of advice for this kind of parent, but there are many, and I’m starting to get to know them — Alfie Kohn and Inbal Kashtan are two authors who have written this kind of advice.)

That doesn’t mean that progressives and conservatives necessarily come from those respective kinds of families, or organize their own families along those lines, though it may happen that way. It’s an idealized metaphor that guides thinking.

Anyway, I found the “Six Types of Progressives” listing interesting. I’m not sure I precisely fit into any of them, which isn’t that unusual I guess cause they’re caricatures, idealized models themselves, created to illustrate extremes.

Myself, I guess I’m anti-authoritarian, but I don’t think that means I should “fight” authority, because I don’t think “fighting” accomplishes anything. I guess I’m a spiritual progressive, because I believe in a nurturant-parent model of God. I’m highly pro-civil liberties, leading me to side with libertarians on some issues. I’m in favor of anybody who’s been denied a share being granted it. I’m pro-environment, though I’m fairly ignorant about environmental causes. As for socioeconomics, I’d say that “everything is a matter of money and class” only secondarily — first of all, things are a matter of social structure and worldview, and class and economics flow naturally from there.

Maybe somebody should make a Quizilla quiz that tells you what type of progressive you are, like the ones that tell you what Buffy character you are, or whatever.

Almost everyone I know is “progressive” in at least one of Lakoff’s senses, but Lakoff is correct in that many of the people who hold progressive values do not see themselves as part of a larger progressive movement — partly because progressives in America have been focused on politics and policy issues to such a degree over the last several decades that they are far, far behind conservatives in the art of articulating a vision.

2 thoughts on “What Type of Progressive Are You?”

  1. I guess that I would classify myself as a socioeconomic and environmental progressive. I think I know what he’s saying, but I guess that I prefer the sibling model to the parent model when talking about government. First of all, it gives more of a sense of participation and responsibility from the nation as a whole than the parent model does. Second, its less heirarchichal (father/mother knows best) and draws more on the “bonds of natural affection). Its a classic liberal point of view, but it seems to have fallen on hard times lately.

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