Chapter 2 of Lakoff’s new book is titled “The Political Unconscious, and it’s absolutely terrible. It’s also the first chapter likely to really piss off conservatives, or really anyone who might approach the chapter critically. Oh, and it has plenty of gratuitous neuroscience to top it all off.
First, let’s look at what will inevitably piss conservatives off. Lakoff writes that there are “thoroughgoing progressives” who “hold to American democratic ideals on just about all issues,” and that these progressives “are the bedrock of our democracy” (p. 46). Progressives, then, need to “reclaim” our founding values, because conservatives have undermined them at every turn.
Why are progressives true Americans while conservatives are, at least to the extent that real conservatives exist (more on that in a bit), killing everything that’s good about this country? Why, because of the brain, of course.
Lakoff begins with a description of progressives and their brains. He writes (with a straight face, we can assume):
Behind every progressive policy lies a single moral value: empathy, together with the responsibility and strength to act on that empathy. (p. 47)
No, he wrote that, really. This means that any time conservatives act out of empathy, they’re acting like progressives, but again, we’ll get to that in a moment. We’re talking about progressives right now.
Anyway, since progressives are all empathy, all the time, they believe in fairness, equality, and they believe that the purpose of government is “protection and empowerment.” Mostly what I got out of this section, though, is that tort reform is bad, because of empathy.
From progressives, Lakoff moves on to “neoliberals.” Neoliberals, while not as bad as conservatives, have, by embracing the Old Enlightenment (why Neoliberals if it’s about the Old Enlightenment? This is just one of the many things that makes this whole book feel like it was written in a hurry), lost their sense of the centrality and ubiquity of empathy in progressive thinking. And it’s why Bill Clinton supported NAFTA: the free market isn’t empathetic, but it is rational, to Old Enlightenment thinkers, so… oh, I really don’t know what that means, but Lakoff wrote it, so I figured I’d let you know.
The other thing is, neoliberals hate framing (apparently PZ Myers is the web’s most outspoken neoliberal), believing it to be relativism, not reason. But framing, Lakoff tells us, is “real reason,” and until neoliberals realize that (and, presumably, become progressives), conservatives will “answer liberals’ facts and figures with no facts or figures, but with their own moral-based frames presented with emotion and symbolism,” and “their framing will win” (p. 53). So wake up and smell the “real reason,” neoliberals!
Speaking of conservatives, they don’t do empathy. All of their policies are about authority. For Lakoff, conservative politics
[Begin] with the notion that morality is obedience to an authority–assumed to be a legitimate authority who is inherently good, knows right from wrong, functions to protect us from evil in the world, and has both the right and the duty to use force to command obedience and fight evil. (p. 60)
According to this view, “people are born bad” (p. 61), and must be taught discipline and responsibility if they’re to function fairly and morally in society. It’s not surprising, then, that conservatives dig the free market and privatization; it’s all about us, the citizens of this country, being responsible adults to whom our authoritarian father, the government, gives us freedom, so long as we don’t break the rules (then we get punished).
Here Lakoff makes perhaps his only good point on the topic of politics: privatization doesn’t mean getting rid of government, it just means being governed more and more by private companies instead of the government. Since he doesn’t follow this up with any other good points, it only gets one sentence here. It’s a shame, really.
Anyway, now on to that part I promised you about how real conservatives don’t exist, or at least not in great numbers. Towards the end of this chapter, Lakoff gives us the concept of “biconceptualism.” This means that some people have both progressive and conservative thoughts — that is, they dig obedience in some areas of politics, and empathy in others (the two are mutually contradictory, so they certainly can’t go together in the same political policy!). Unfortunately for us progressives, most conservatives don’t realize they’re really biconceptuals. Or as Lakoff puts it, “Many self-identified ‘conservatives’ have many, many progressive views without being aware of it” (p. 70). That’s because these things are all unconscious (that’s true, they are), and separate in our brains (that’s probably true too), so conservatives never consciously run into contradictions in their thinking, even though they’re really mostly progressives. You see, “biconceptualism is simply a fact about brains” (p. 71), and research has shown that we can resolve contradictions unconsciously (he throws in some gratuitous neuroscience here to tell us which regions of the brain neuroimagers have guessed this might, possibly, if we squint really hard at the data, take place in). Oh, and some bullshit about neural binding is in there too. Ugh.
Finally, Lakoff’s second good point in the chapter: “framing comes before policy” (p.67). That is, policy is (I’d say largely, Lakoff would say completely) “about fitting… moral frames” (p. 68), and if you want people to buy policies, you have to show them how policies are relevant to their moral frames. “Health insurance” should be changed to “health protection,” for example, because it highlights the fact that health care is about, well, protection, not about money. He ends the chapter by suggesting that we make people conscious of their moral frames, and the relevance of policies to them, so that the neoliberals can become progressives, and all those self-identified conservatives who are really unconscious liberals will vote for our side.
In closing, let me just say that I find this sort of reductionism, both in reducing the two political ideologies to one emotion and one moral frame (empathy vs. obedience to authority), and the very reduction of politics entirely to morality, to be simplistic, silly, and in some cases, pretty damned offensive. Don’t get me wrong, morality is very important in politics, but it’s about so much else as well, like social identity, social relationships, power relationships, and so on, and so forth, all of which, presumably, involve the brain. But Lakoff’s been stuck with his absurd reductions since he published Moral Politics, and he’s sticking to them, dammit, as in the next few chapters, they become even more central. It’s enough to make you want to just throw the book out. Or travel back in time and not get the damn thing.