As everyone knows, the most fundamental crisis in America today is the fierce partisan divide we have in government. This situation makes collaboration or cooperation in solving the nation’s problems across party lines appear impossible everywhere. Appear? Certainly in national and state politics it’s real. But what about at the grass roots level? In 2014 The Pew Research Center did a series of studies about where the real American people are these days. (1) True, they found that the number of those adhering to the extremes has grown since 1994. But their statistics also show that the majority of our people detest partisan conflict and hold so wide range of views that politicians are struggling to come up with messages to reach them all.
That finding suggests to me that the “One Big Family” frame is alive and kicking in the grass roots. And I have some other kinds of proof too. (2) But let’s start with a closer look at the One Big Family frame itself. Here’s what I first wrote about it in 2005:
“The story of this Extended Family frame also implies a specific, historical American way of communal problem solving–nationally the operative descriptive words were ‘bipartisan,’ ‘pragmatic,’ ‘solution-oriented,’ ‘common sense,’ ‘practical’ ‘pulling together,’ ‘teamwork,’ many of which also apply at the local level, as does ‘community building, ‘ ‘finding common ground,’ ‘problem solving,’ and so on.
The most important thing about this ‘one big family’ frame is exactly this way people focus on real problem solving together, looking at what really works and what doesn’t, emphasizing what they agree on (saving public money, for example), having a shared goal they work for even if their reasons for wanting the result differ, working out a ‘rough consensus,’ yes, compromising here and there if the potential results are worth it, tolerating each other’s differences as part of the traditional American respect for variety, individuality, and difference of views.
A vital part of this frame is also the way it acknowledges that we all hold, at least in principle, the same set of basic American Public Moral Values– fairness, honesty, equal opportunity, democracy, freedom, and compassion–drawn from both religious and secular ethics.” (3)
Except for replacing the word “compromise” with either “collaborate” or ” cooperate,” this portrait of grass roots America is still true. Of course, we did and still do have two very different family models at the extremes, Lakoff’s strict father conservative family type and the liberal or progressive nurturant parent type. But he himself is the first to say that many people still have both models in their repertoire–the “biconceptuals” or “persuadables.” Indeed, as the Pew Center studies suggest, there is even more range in views out there than when Lakoff first identified the two models in the 1990’s.
All well and good you might say, but how can grass roots activists use this information to help get our country back on the right track, for all of today’s urgent issues? If some politicians are having trouble figuring out how to reach the variety of views out there, as Pew suggests, how can we? Of course, we progressives will continue to lobby, march, and engage in nonviolent resistance in support of our concerns. But if we are going to get serious critical mass in support of smarter public policy, we need to reach out further and deeper at the grass roots level too. We must strongly challenge the assumption that “we the people” are really that divided, using some of the Pew statistics above. Grass roots Americans have been scared off talking to each other by the noise made by media figures, politicians, and commentators. The people need to be reminded that we Americans still share many important values. And they need proof that they can still safely talk with each other about our problems.
And there is proof. It comes from the documented work of a relatively new group called Living Room Conversations (LRC) founded by Joan Blades and Debilyn Molineaux.They realized that if they could bring people with differing views together for private conversations in a comfortable living room in someone’s home, it might help. They went on to create a safe, structured process that helps guide conversation. Participants are able to discuss a wide range of subjects in constructive ways, topics like criminal justice, mental health, and childhood trauma. (See their website for suggestions about how to lead conversations about energy, immigration, money in politics, crony capitalism and much more.) Their model has been adapted at the community and state level as well. Using it, people have found common ground by really listening to each other’s viewpoint and experience. Being respectful about the language they use is a big part of the project’s success too.
People who have tried Living Room Conversations are very enthusiastic about it—everyone from a conservative Tea Party leader to a leader of independent voters says that it’s the kind of grass roots conversation our country really needs. The work LRC is doing confirms for the grass roots level what Ralph Nader asserted in his recent book,Unstoppable: The Emerging Left-Right Alliance to Dismantle the Corporate State. Underneath the media megaphones and political opportunists of the Right, there is a core of common sense Americans who want real solutions to our problems. Of course, Nader was talking about Congress, and right now curing them seems like a pipe dream. But the Right always goes too far, and this new Congress is on course to make a lot of Americans absolutely furious. Starting right now, this is a huge opportunity to promote respectful grass roots, bottom up dialogue about how we can really solve our problems in this country. It would be great to see this kind of process go viral, in more and more real grass roots places.
Of course, I know this kind of organizing is not what we on the left usually do. But if the co-founder of MoveOn can do it, so can the rest of us. Living Room Conversations and other citizen activation projects like it are important ways to feed the kind of deep, wide, powerful river of citizen re-engagement we desperately need.(4)
Susan C. Strong, Ph.D., is the Founder and Executive Director of The Metaphor Project and author of our new book, Move Our Message: How to Get America’s Ear. The Metaphor Project has been helping progressives mainstream their messages since 1997. Follow Susan on Twitter @SusanCStrong.
http://www.people-press.org/2014/12/11/few-see-quick-cure-for-nations-political-divisions/2. This essay includes and expands on the content of my recent TEDxVail talk at the Vilar Center in Beaver Creek, CO, on 1.09.15, entitled “How Speaking American Can Help Save America.”
- The original essay is available in my book, Move Our Message: How to Get America’s Ear, and also on our website at http://metaphorproject.org/our-one-big-family-frame/.
- Among the many other groups working on the partisan war problem are the following: http://www.co-intelligence.org/(see the links section on this site), http://allsides.com/, http://mediatorsfoundation.org/?s=Transpartisan+Projects, https://www.future500.org/ , http://www.culturalevolution.org/ , and http://reinventors.net/ (search for transpartisan videos).