George Lakoff is a professor of cognitive and linguistic science at Berkeley. His 2008 book, The Political Mind, says “progressives” are losing out because they imagine people think and vote rationally, whereas in fact most are guided by unconscious narrative “framings,” which conservatives more successfully exploit. And that this is destroying America. Because the un-American conservative ideology encompasses “an authoritarian hierarchy based on vast concentration . . . of wealth; order based on fear, intimidation, and obedience;” it’s “anti-democratic;” and so forth.
This sets the book’s tone, on page 1. As if anyone actually thinks that way. Lakoff seems to believe they do; that conservatives really are that nasty – and pursue these evil ends with an equally ruthless disregard for morality and truth. Whereas “progressives” of course are all truth, justice, morality, and the American way.
An example of what Lakoff means by issue “framing” is the locution “tax relief,” which he calls a triumph of conservative spin. He says progressives should push back by stressing what good things taxes make possible. Well, people do understand why we pay taxes; but still would rather pay less than more. Lakoff’s proposed campaign to make us love taxes seems Orwellian – or just plain silly. (And Lakoff himself is not in love with everything taxes buy – he hates military spending.)
Lakoff’s main theme is that progressives wrongly believe they need only give people the facts and they’ll respond rationally. He says progs should instead wrap their advocacy in morality, specifically the morality of empathy, which he casts as the touchstone of prog politics. Thus progs should argue for, say, higher minimum wages not as (allegedly) good economic policy but as moral, the right thing to do, the empathic thing.
Yet – if someone thought like that – he’d be a prog in the first place, would be for higher minimum wages in the first place. But some people don’t think that way and aren’t receptive to such argument. Not because they’re not moral, or empathic, but because they have a different take on morality than progs. (And maybe they think higher minimum wages would be bad economic policy.)
Lakoff’s ideology blinds him to this. His whole book is, “progressives won’t win with rational arguments.” But it’s just as wrong to think they’ll win with emotive moral arguments. People have reasons for what they believe and feel; progs have no monopoly on rationality and morality; conservatives have not only emotive but also rational and even moral reasons for their views. Changing them isn’t a mere matter of how “progressivism” is packaged and sold.
Moreover, while Lakoff preens as though presenting a dramatically new insight, to say that progs have not sufficiently cloaked their advocacy in morality and empathy is, well, bizarre. In fact, the left has forever been shouting from a high horse of asserted morality, empathy and compassion; while loudly vilifying the right as lacking in the same. What planet has Lakoff been living on? (Maybe Berkeley is a different planet.)
Progressives (Lakoff strangely denies they’re on the “left”) do tend to be baffled when they lose political arguments. Lakoff’s book shows why – not because he’s right about anything but, rather, because the book itself exemplifies the ideological tunnel vision that handicaps the left. If you really believe conservatives want an authoritarian, undemocratic country, ruled by intimidation and heartless corporate power – which Lakoff says on almost every page – you haven’t got a clue.
I’m reminded of Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind, describing studies wherein liberals were asked to fill out questionnaires as though they were conservatives, and vice versa. While conservatives were pretty accurate in guessing how liberals would answer, liberals did poorly in anticipating conservative answers – because they do tend to harbor the demonizing stereotype of conservatives that pervades Lakoff’s book.
Typifying this obtuseness, Lakoff thinks conservatives’ devotion to free market economics is about one thing only: profit, and the freedom to make profits. Thus, any government intervention that restricts or reduces the opportunity to profit is bad.* But do conservatives really think this way? It’s preposterous. Most are not in business themselves, so why should business profits be the sine qua non of their economic views? No – what any sentient conservative actually believes is that a market economy allowing businesses to profit is desirable not because of the profits per se but because that system benefits society as a whole. You’d never guess this from reading Lakoff.
He is especially scathing about what he calls “neoliberals” whose heart may be in the right place, but who are too coolly rationalistic, not fire-breathing moral scourges like him. So black-and-white is Lakoff’s view of politics that he talks of “biconceptualism” – where people don’t conform to either of his two starkly opposed worldviews, and don’t see an inconsistency. They’re “hypocrites” (though Lakoff puts the word in quotes); or merely confused!
This would apply to me. According to Lakoff’s taxonomy, I actually have a fundamentally “progressive” brain. But I reject most of the prog political ethos. Maybe that makes me especially confused. But I think it’s most progs who are confused, with their heads up their rears on many stances that are illiberal (in the classic sense). To name a few: opposition to free trade, school choice, genetic modification science, and of course their twisted relationship with freedom of thought and expression, which I’ve addressed. (And here’s something delicious on that topic.)
Lakoff says there’s no such thing as a “moderate” center in American political opinion – indeed, he thinks the “mainstream” has shifted way to the right – but it’s the “confused biconceptuals” whom he urges progressives to target with a stepped-up emphasis on empathy. Because empathy is (almost) universally wired into the human brain – even the brains of conservatives, but especially the partly conservative, who should be moveable by such appeals. Yet this seems to contradict the nasty stereotypes with which he otherwise talks about conservatives. He doesn’t seem to notice that inconsistency. Talk about confusion!
At the end of the day, not even most progressives meet Lakoff’s standard for ideological purity. For instance, he says they should have stood up to Bush 43 and opposed domestic surveillance. Well, maybe they should have; many in fact did. But many either felt the surveillance was justified, or else disagreed with Lakoff that opposing it would have been a political winner. Meantime, I seem to recall that a certain amount of Bush-bashing did take place – or, rather, an orgy of it. But whenever Bush comes up in the book, Lakoff says there was far too little Bush-bashing by progressives.
Heaven help us.
* Lakoff sees this as stemming from a “strict father” conservative family mind-frame (as against a prog “nurturing parent” frame), with the market’s rewards and punishments based on merit and effort mirroring patriarchal discipline!