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Monday, September 01, 2008

Political Mind

No, this is not a post on the Democratic National Convention. It’s a review of a very interesting book I read over vacation, The Political Mind: Why You Can't Understand 21st-Century Politics with an 18th-Century Brain. Author George Lakoff, a Professor of Cognitive Science and Linguistics, argues that Democrats have long made a strategic mistake by basing their campaigns on the outdated Enlightenment idea that people are rational and that given the facts, they will vote in their self-interest. Instead, Lakoff explains, our thinking is largely unconscious and shaped by emotions, metaphors, and even language. Radical conservatives, he asserts, have used the insights of contemporary cognitive science to shape, not only the way Americans vote, but the way they think about the issues. Progressives, he argues, must get smarter about the way we convey our values or we will lose more than elections.

I found the book particularly helpful in explaining how good people can see issues of morality so differently. He explains “the politics of authority” and “the politics of empathy” as competing modes of thought that co-exist in most of us, though we may tend toward one or another. An authority mindset tends to value self-discipline, obedience, and personal responsibility, while an empathy mindset values responsibility to care for one’s neighbor and the government’s unique ability to protect and empower citizens. His description of these different ways of thinking reminded me of a conversation several years ago with a woman whom I know to be a very good person. She said, “The Democrats just seem so immoral, and I was struck dumb because to me the Republicans seem so immoral. Presumably she was referring to things like Bill Clinton’s lack of self-discipline when it comes to sex, while I was thinking of what I see as a Republican lack of empathy across a range of issues. As the bumper sticker says, “When Clinton lied, no one died.” One thing I hope to take away from this book is a better ability to explain my values in those conversations where we seem to be talking across a chasm.

Lakoff explains that different events, even the repeated use of different words, can prompt our brains to move into one way of thinking or the other. For example, fear triggers the authority mindset, which is why 9/11 boosted Bush’s popularity and helped conservatives achieve so much of their political agenda. It’s not that Republicans are better at dealing with terrorists, but that terror makes people think in ways that favor conservative policies. On the other hand, Hurricane Katrina triggered the empathy of the American people. When the administration was perceived as not being empathetic enough, Bush’s approval dropped, helping the Democrats to regain a majority in Congress, though Lakoff argues they have not been able to use their majority well because they keep accepting conservative “frames” for issues.

Framing means choosing words for an issue that trigger a series of metaphors in the brain. As long as we call the occupation of Iraq part of “the war on terror”, Lakoff asserts, we have lost the argument before we’ve begun. (I’ve always thought this!) Similarly the term “tax relief” assumes that taxes are bad, instead of framing them as an investment in our community and future. One of the issues Lakoff is most concerned about is what he calls “privateering,” the systematic undermining of important government functions and turning them over to profit motivated corporations that are not accountable to the public. It is happening to our public schools, our prisons, our food and drug supervision, and our military in Iraq in the form of companies like Blackwater. By connecting these issues under the word “privateering,” Lakoff suggests we will be better able to argue against the dangers of being governed by corporations.

Although I found this book very interesting and thought provoking, I do have to point out that at points it is a little hard to take. I found the Introduction repetitive and self-congratulatory, while the latter chapters get too much into the details of the history of cognitive science. Still, most of it is very readable and informative. While Lakoff doesn’t talk explicitly about the upcoming presidential race, the implications are clear. A national mood of fear favors the Republicans, while empathy favors the Democrats. And the language we use to talk about the issues matters.


Blogger naturalmom said...

Thanks for the review. I heard the author on the radio a couple of months ago, and almost picked up that book at the library last week. Interesting stuff!


12:46 PM  
Blogger Lone Star Ma said...


10:27 PM  

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