The Rockridge Institute, a Berekely based progressive think-tank formed to combat its better funded conservative counterparts, is closing its doors due to lack of money.
The institute was founded by UC Berkeley linguist professor and author George Lakoff, who gained fame after Democrats tapped into his “framing” concept in the book, “Don’t Think of An Elephant.” Framing is the study of how individual worldview affects thought.
Here’s what the institute sent out this morning in an e-mail announcement:
First, a big Thank You!
The Rockridge Institute was founded with a mission: to teach Americans about the role of values and framing in political debate, and to help progressives equalize the framing advantages enjoyed by conservatives. With your help, Rockridge has done more than any small think tank could be expected to do. About 1,000 of you have donated to support our efforts. More than 8,000 have registered as members of Rockridge Nation to engage actively with us.
And hundreds of thousands, both in the US and abroad, have bought our books and used our materials. If you are one of those hundreds of thousands, political discourse will now look different to you. As you read the newspapers and the blogs and watch TV, you can see the effects of our work everywhere. Your support has made that possible. For this and so much more, you have our complete admiration and gratitude.
Nonetheless, the Rockridge era will come to an end on April 30.
The end of any organization, even a small one, is a complex matter, and an emotional one for those who have invested themselves in its life. In important ways, Rockridge’s triumphs and its limitations reflect the state of the progressive community and point to what the progressive future needs to be. Let’s begin at the beginning.
The Rockridge Institute was formed to address a set of challenges: The right-wing think tanks, after spending 35 years and 4 billion dollars, had come to dominate public debate. They had done this by framing Big Ideas their way: the nature of government, the market, taxation, security, morality, responsibility, accountability, character, nature, even life. This allowed them to then frame lower-level issues, special cases like terrorism, Iraq, education, health care, retirement, stem-cell research, the death penalty, affirmative action, and on and on.
Our challenge was to figure out exactly how they had achieved such dominance over the minds of Americans and what progressives could do–not just how to respond case by special case, but how to do the Big Job: to reframe the Big Ideas governing our politics.
How could a tiny institute in Northern California hope to make any progress on such a large task? Our strategy was to use the tools of the cognitive and brain sciences, and to address not just one or two issues, but the full range.
In the last five years, and on a shoe-string budget, Rockridge has achieved more than we could have dreamed of:
- Theoretical achievements: We worked out the theory of conceptual structure in politics, including how framing works; value-based modes of reasoning for conservatives and progressives; biconceptualism; top-to-bottom issue-based framing; neo-liberalism; contested concepts; elementary and complex cultural narratives as they apply in politics; and the idea of cognitive policy.
- Applications: We have applied top-to-bottom issue framing and other theoretical results to many issue areas, most recently, health care, immigration, and climate change policy. And we have applied other of our theoretical results to such issues as the war on terror, tort reform, popular democracy, education, religion, and so on.
- Popularizations: We popularized the understanding of framing and values in political discourse, and have produced a progressive handbook–Thinking Points–and other useful materials, all free online. As a result, political advocates all over America have become far more sophisticated about framing and values than they were five years ago.
- Community Creation: We have created and maintained a busy, interactive and sophisticated on-line community, Rockridge Nation, with features like question-answering, a weekly workgroup, and a blog. And we have aligned with key influencers to turn our ideas into action on health care, climate policy, and more.
- Trainings: We have done successful trainings and workshops on a small scale.
- Political effectiveness: We have helped get progressive candidates elected across this country at all levels, and even in Spain. Various observers, upon reading Thinking Points, have seen in it many elements of the Obama campaign and a new politics.
Most important to us has been how our work has resonated with you. We are proud of what we have done together. In short, with your support and participation, we have had more of an effect than any tiny Northern California nonprofit think tank had any right to expect.
But… we have not done the Big Job, not even close. The conservatives’ Big Ideas about government, taxes, security, the market, and the rest still dominate political discourse. Democrats in Congress still cringe at attacks based on these Big Ideas, and many have been intimidated into voting for conservative policies–on funding for Iraq, on government spying without a warrant, on taxes, on bankruptcy, and on and on. The Big Idea intimidation is still working. Changing that is the Big Job.
We at Rockridge have used the physical think tank form to get us this far. We’ve made important advances in understanding and articulating political cognition. We have done more in-depth studies than most people have the time to read, and we know what has to be done to tackle the Big Job. But we also realize that no small non-profit think tank can do significantly more of the Big Job than we have already done. That will take a large-scale, well-funded progressive cognitive infrastructure.
The progressive infrastructure built so far does not include a cognitive infrastructure. It has not tackled the Big Job–reversing the dominance of conservative Big Ideas in public life. Policy institutes do not address cognitive policy–the ideas and values that have to structure the public mind in order for nuts-and-bolts progressive policy to be accepted as just common sense.
When Rockridge started on its mission, we knew there were huge hurdles — not just from the Right, but within the progressive community itself.
- The Progressive Funding Problem: The 1997 Covington Report [Sally Covington, Moving a Public Policy Agenda: The Strategic Philanthropy of Conservative Foundations] observed that conservative foundations tend to give large, multi-year block grants to promote conservatism in general. By contrast, progressive foundations tend to give small grants for a short time over a short list of specific issue areas. This results in small nonprofits having to constantly spend a lot of time and effort raising money, and all too often failing to raise enough.
- The Cognitive Science Problem: Few people are aware of the results in cognitive science and neuroscience and the techniques of analysis developed in cognitive linguistics. Progressives tend to view research in terms of polls, surveys, and focus groups, rather than the methods for understanding human cognition.
- The Enlightenment Reason Problem: Progressives commonly believe in some version of Enlightenment Reason, which says that reason is conscious, dispassionate, logical, universal, literal (it directly fits the world), and interest-based. The cognitive and brain sciences have shown this is false in every respect. But if you aren’t aware that we normally think unconsciously in terms of frames and metaphors, then framing would seem like deception, spin, or propaganda.
- The Material Policy Problem: Unlike conservatives, progressives tend to think of policy as material policy alone–the nuts and bolts–and not cognitive policy: the ideas that must be in the brains of the public for policies to be seen as common sense. There is thus little or no understanding of the importance of cognitive policy.
- The Framing-as-Messaging Problem: If you don’t know that framing is the study of thought, then you would naturally but incorrectly think of framing as messaging. This is reinforced by the fact that understanding framing does, in fact, help with effective messaging.
- The Training Problem: Framing research can’t be done by just anyone. It takes training. And since staff members have lives and need financial security, it is hard to maintain a highly-trained staff without sufficient and stable funding.
In the end, we encountered all these problems. They are endemic to progressive advocacy and politics. We weathered them for years and accomplished a huge amount. Eventually–even with a thousand donors–the funding problem caught up with us.
Thank you for all your support.
Together, we will keep the Rockridge spirit alive and together we will continue to build a strong progressive movement with a sustainable infrastructure and a vital understanding of the cognitive dimension of politics, policy and governance.
–The Rockridge Staff
Glenn W. Smith
P.S. We are conducting a final Rockridge Nation discussion on this issue through Wednesday, April 23rd.