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The Progressive Tribe and Improving the World

The world is in need of some serious change. We all know this. And many people have taken the call personally and seriously. I encourage you to do the same. You can be an engine of creativity. You can be a catalyst for positive change in the world.

It all starts when you see yourself as part of something bigger. And it helps to have a way to connect to the community you find yourself in. One key element of this is having a name that reflects your tribe - the particular group that you resonate deeply with. In the political world, this is the label that captures your identity. In recent decades our labels have been conflated and, in many cases, attacked viciously as part of public relations campaigns. One casualty of this intensely polarized struggle was the word liberal. That label means something very different today than it did a few years ago.

The newly popular label progressive has taken the political world by storm. The cynical among us treat this as nothing more than a massage of the battered liberal, and yet it is this provocative term that feeds a movement inspiring millions of people -including the supposedly disaffected youth - to rally together for a better world. Why is this word so powerful? It seems like there is more happening than mere wordplay.

Something Deeper is Going On

I am a student of language and thought (In techno-jargon, I study cognitive linguistics.) And I apply this powerful new field of inquiry to the world of political and social change. Insights about the deeper concepts underlying our political labels can help clarify just why the word progressive is so powerful as a motivator of social change. This allows us to gain new perspectives about ourselves, emboldening us to take steps in our own lives to make the world a better place.

An important starting point is knowing that brain function is at the heart of thought. The minds we have are fundamentally shaped by the way our brains operate. A major feature of brain function is that "higher" (i.e. more complex) thought processes are built on "lower" functions that work in combination. For example, in order to make sense of our lives throughout the day, our brains need to be able to construct stories that organize our experience into coherent patterns. This is a very complex process that builds upon something much more basic - the coordination of simple body movements into a choreographed sequence. So when you pick up a glass to drink from, your brain puts together arm extension, opening and closing of fingers, rotation, and many small motions of your head, neck and throat in a dance of complexity that you are scarcely aware of while you are doing it.

It is this ability to choreograph movement that makes storytelling possible. Every story is structured with a beginning, middle, and end that is motivated by some relevant purpose. The same is true for taking a drink of water.

The take-home message from this insight is that much of what your brain is doing on your behalf happens outside conscious awareness. So for movement, also for thought.

Political Labels Tell Stories

What does this have to do with politics? Everything! When you hear the word progressive, many things are happening in your brain that never arrive as conscious thoughts. The part of this having to do with concepts and meaning is what George Lakoff calls a "frame." A frame is the hidden conceptual structure that organizes your thoughts into something meaningful. The Progressive Frame is the pattern of information that arises when you think about the word progressive.

The Progressive Frame is very different from the Liberal Frame. People who haven't studied cognitive linguistics fail to realize this when they assert that the two words are interchangeable. What makes them different? Simply put, they tell different stories. (Actually, there's a lot more going on that I won't go into here.) The Progressive Frame activates a narrative about progress. This narrative has a beginning in some troubled world, then moves through an unspecified series of events to arrive at a better one. The story of progress is about improvement as understood by the storyteller.

By contrast, the Liberal Frame tells a story of liberty. In particular, it is a story about individual freedom against oppression. Historically, this has been applied to issues like self-rule (injustices of monarchy), civil liberties (the right to vote), and equality (empowered citizenship in the face of oppression). The Liberty Story is often told as one of progress from a condition of less freedom to a condition of more freedom. This is when it is most persuasive and inspirational. The power of the Liberal Frame, before it was tainted by an intentional process of radicalization by its opponents, resides in the Progressive Frame that is evoked when telling a story of progress.

The two frames are interconnected, which partly explains the confusion about their political meanings. But it has always been the Progressive Frame that compelled people to join movements. Don't believe me? Ask yourself whether you would ever join a political struggle that DOESN'T involve some kind of progress.

Ironically, the Progressive Frame lies at the heart of Conservative Populism too. The Conservative Frame underlies the powerful label conservative for people seeking to restore what they believe to be traditional values that have eroded away. This is also a story of progress, albeit one that presumes some kind of fall from grace as a pretext to the current situation. The existence of a progress story in conservative thought is what makes possible Obama's appeals to historically conservative citizens. Deep down we all want progress. It is our different notions of what we consider progress to be that leads to so much quarreling.

Declare Your Tribe and Improve the World!

Now that we have greater clarity about the concepts behind important political labels, a landscape of possibilities for actually improving the world appears before us. Political labels matter because of the stories they tell. Furthermore, the stories told by the opposition about our labels can be harmful to us. The word liberal is severely contentious now because it was targeted by a series of smear campaigns in the past (which are ongoing via conservative media outlets like Fox News and talk radio).

At the same time, we can use the power of progress to unite people. This is the great potential of knowing your frames... you can apply them clearly and powerfully when you know how they work. (Or you can habitually activate them without knowing they are there!) The essential idea is that everyone wants progress. So the label progressive has potential as a unifying force that brings together people who are tired of the push and pull of liberal versus conservative.

Tribes Will Transform the World

Why chose a label? Because it identifies you as part of a tribe. Seth Godin, the marketing guru who popularized the concept of an idea virus, makes a compelling argument that it is tribes, not money or factories, that will change the world. This TED Talk makes the case:

We all want to make the world a better place. By implication, we are all out to get the status quo. In spite of this the status quo has proven to be quite resilient. What's going on here? I would argue that two key obstacles stand in our way.

First, most people don't understand what is happening below the surface of their awareness - making it easy to sow distrust through manipulative practices (a problem I'm exploring solutions for). This can be addressed by expanding citizen education about the workings of our minds - what I call revealing the Great Political Blind Spot.

Second, we remain divided and disorganized as world-changers. The secret behind social change is Godin's observation about tribes. Margaret Mead famously declared that it is always a small group of like-minded people who change the world. Emphasis should be squarely placed on the small group part of her observation. Like-minded people can unite with existing communications technologies in ways that couldn't have been dreamed of a few short years ago. We have outlets like the blogosphere, YouTube, facebook, and Twitter at our fingertips to organize and get the word out about our activities.

Now is the time to get organized. I encourage you to watch Godin's talk and take his closing remarks seriously. He boldly calls upon the audience to start a movement within 24 hours. All you need is to reach a critical threshold of people, each of whom is engaged in other existing networks that they can reach out to and spread ideas around.

This isn't as hard as it seems. First you have to believe that you can make a difference. Second, start thinking about things you'd like to see improved. Third, look for people who share one of your passions who also want to make progress on the same issue. For example, you might really be into cycling and want to see parents spending more time with their kids. Put the two together and you've got a recipe for Bike-A-Child as a catchy theme for a Saturday afternoon. Cyclist moms and dads can have some fun and teach their kids the importance of good exercise at the same time.

For too long politics has been about preserving our differences. I think its time to change the name of the game. Politics in the 21st Century is going to be built with affinity groups - people who come together around shared interests. Social change is going to arise from a thousand little groundswells of people making a difference in their peer networks. A thousand ripples combined can quickly become a sea change!

Rather than letting elite communications teams (marketing and PR firms) define the labels of our politics, let's claim them for ourselves. We can be progressives because we want to see real progress toward a better world. This may not lead to a vision shared by the masses, but it does allow for communities to grow around visions of our own.

Of course, the concerned reader will quickly point out that one person's vision can be another's nightmare. True enough. But until the visions come from within us, instead of from message architects in the mass media, the only progress to be made will be further entrenchment in the status quo. We've seen where this leads... the largest wealth inequalities in human history and intensely corrupt economic and political systems.

I say, "No more!"

The issue I'm concerned about is manipulation of the populace. If you don't have a movement of your own to start (or even if you do), feel free to get involved in mine. In the days ahead, I want to lay a foundation for new practices in the political and social change arenas based on insights about the mind. This is not something one person can do on his (or her!) own. It is going to take thousands of us coming together and establishing a different set of social norms for political engagement.

If we work together as a progressive tribe, we really can improve the world.

This is the world we live in. This is the world we cover.

Because of people like you, another world is possible. There are many battles to be won, but we will battle them together—all of us. Common Dreams is not your normal news site. We don't survive on clicks. We don't want advertising dollars. We want the world to be a better place. But we can't do it alone. It doesn't work that way. We need you. If you can help today—because every gift of every size matters—please do.

Joe Brewer

Joe Brewer is co-founder and research director of Culture2 Inc., a culture design lab for social good. He is a former fellow of the Rockridge Institute, a think tank founded by George Lakoff to analyze political discourse for the progressive movement.

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