The Political Mind, Part III (Chapter 2)

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.


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How does this book then differ from 'Moral Politics'? And how is 'Moral Politics' simplistic - it is 200+ pages of details and additional dimension that build upon the core you mention as one-dimensional?

I once (half-seriously) came up with the formula that the left is about pseudoaltruism while the right is about antialtruism.

Seriously, though, what room is there in Lakoff's concept for an ideology centered around empathy for members of one's ingroup but antagonism for outgroups? Jack London's championing of union workers but contempt for certain nonwhites, for example, or many kinds of nationalism, populism, and national socialism (see Sheri Berman's The Primacy of Politics).

In fact, where does the early 20th century Progressive movement fit into Lakoff's scheme? There were many empathetic/altruistic policies, but racism, elitism, eugenics, and priggishness were also deeply embedded in some variants of Progressivism. And what about Juan Peron? Cherokee-butchering Andrew Jackson? Che Guevara? Tito?

Bora, there are two main differences between this book and Moral Politics. The first is a shift in goals: policy goals in this book vs. getting elected in Moral Politics. The second is the gratuitous (and often made-up) neuroscience in this book. The metaphors and reductions are still the same.

And let's face it, no matter how much depth and breadth you give to empathy, reducing it to empathy is either wrong or meaningless (because you've given it so much depth and breadth that it's no longer just empathy, but a bunch of other things too).

Furthermore, the only way Lakoff can explain conservatism given his reductionism is to posit that most conservatives are really progressives. Otherwise, why would they ever give to charity, for example? The biconceptualism stuff is a nice try, but ultimately, it fails.

And finally, in this book, we see him stretching and straining his "nation as a family" metaphors so far that the absurdity of that reductionism becomes painfully apparent. That'll come in the next couple chapters.

OK, thanks. Will read the rest as you post them. Did not have time to get the book yet.

'"Health insurance" should be changed to "health protection," for example'

I prefer "Health Care". Proper universal health care should be proactive about individual and community health. Saves money too, in the long run.

"Protection" fits the "the are comin' ter git us! Thank gawd for the Marines!" frame. Public health that is framed as "protection" will be oriented towards dealing with disasters reactively.

By Paul Murray (not verified) on 02 Jul 2008 #permalink

To say, "privatization doesn't mean getting rid of government, it just means being governed more and more by private companies instead of the government" is rather misleading.

The difference is that I cannot choose my government as I cannot choose the country of my birth. Even if I choose to switch governments, via immigration, I cannot choose the government products and services I wish to consume; I have to accept it as a bundle. As such, the costs of "government" by private companies is far lower, so it's not a simple replacement.

Lakoff completely misses why reason is important and is properly the basis for determining policy - it's transparent and replicable. The process by which an empathy is generated is not transparent to the person it's occuring in or to others, nor is it replicable - if one person experiences empathy in response to a situation and another doesn't, we neither know why one did and one didn't nor whose empathetic reaction should determine policy. This problem makes it useless as a pratical guide for policy. When considering a steel tarrif, should empathy for the domestic workers who will have to change jobs without it predominate, or the empathy for those who comsume products made with steel and will have to pay more, or the empathy for the foreign workers who have to change jobs if the tarrif is passed? When considering the legality of abortion, should empathy for the fetus or the woman bearing it predominate? The recepient of government benefits or the one taxed to pay for them? Is empathy for cows sufficient basis for banning hamburgers and leather jackets?

Reason is valuable because it is external to how we naturally think. It's external nature is what allows us to define the commonalities within our own emotions and with others. Lakoff's thinking isn't a step forward from the Enlightenment approach - it's a step back. By basing the law in something other than the opaque regions of the mind, reason allows a government, as the saying goes, of laws, not men. The only difference is that Lakoff would empower the fickle sympathies of the mob rather than the fickle sympathies of the monarch. In the end, both blindly accepting authority and relying on one's own basic emotional reactions are both terrible ways to formulate public policy. The argument that the rational neoliberal approach will fail to overcome the emotionally-driven "conservative" approach, so we should adopt an "progressive" approach that we know to be wrong as well is completely unpersuasive - those who suscribe to the rational "neoliberal" approach should oppose both.

The privatization point doesn't really hold up when you try to relate it to specific policy proposals. Privatization is about who provides goods and services, not who sets rules. Municipal utilties don't really "govern" you in any significant way - do you consider yourself governed by shoe companies because you don't get your shoes from the government? The distinction between law making and service and good providing functions is important, since the government is the only entity that does the former, while in anything but a completely communist country or a completely minarchist one, the later is always a mix between private and public activity.

Better you than me, Chris. I was unable to finish Phil Flesh and have decided that Lakoff is running on fumes, using them to blow up thought balloons.

By bill benzon (not verified) on 03 Jul 2008 #permalink

The rational/emotional axis has pretty much nothing to do with the left/right one.

Hey Chris, what are the best books on legitimate kinds of framing and framing analysis. I've read a few of the really old papers that started it all. But I'm wondering what, from a cognitive science perspective, are the best summaries of contemporary knowledge.

I'd like to be able to weed out the science from the pseudoscience but framing is invoked by so many people now it's sometimes hard to do that. I must confess I've gotten to the point where when someone, especially in the humanities or social sciences, mentions framing I roll my eyes and start to tune out. That's not entirely fair. But so much is crap that... Well you get the point.

Clark, that's a good question. Let me come up with a list.

Most of the work on framing has been done within communications, and not within cog sci proper, though that's changing a bit these days. And not just with Lakoff's work.

Gosh, that sounds painful to read (particularly the gn).

I do know there are plenty of liberals who get seriously irked by how often it seems the right wins on rhetoric alone- arguments that are logically vapid but "gut-instinct" compelling. But I hear those on the right complain of the same type of problem (different emotional appeals, but equally content-less). I think that there is a time for style and a time for substance, and woe to any politician who doesn't realize that.

@Colugo- I think you've hit upon something important. My pet theory is that the most useful way to analyze group behavior is that people need to feel like they belong, yet they need to feel special. This leads to all manner of "us vs. them" attitudes. I don't know if being empathetic for everyone is simply too exhusting, or if we actually need to have an 'enemy' (or at least 'non-friend') category.
I basically despair of eliminating the dynamic- I just hope someday we can all agree to settle down and put restrictions on hating people simply because of the group they belong to... so that it's dependent on one's choice in professional sports teams, or at least "the content of one's character" and not all the -ism based BS.