Politics IN the Mind

the_political_mind_lakoffGeorge Lakoff’s excessively subtitled The Political Mind: Why You Can’t Understand 21st Century Politics with an 18th Century Brain tries to make sense of our political behavior in terms of cognitive science.  I first encountered Lakoff through an author event podcast and was intrigued enough to pick up his book at the PCI branch library.

Lakoff starts off with the idea that these United States of America were founded on progressive Enlightenment ideals like Man being a rational being and Reason a dispassionate, logical, fact-based process.  Therefore, we can come together in enlightened self interest and form a more perfect union.  Today’s traditional Progressive movement (AKA Liberals) operate on these Old Enlightenment principles which sound pretty good to me, frankly.

Cognitive science is drawing a new picture of reason as a mostly unconscious process depending on a labyrinth of intertwined frames, narratives, and metaphors whose weight in neural network terms is inextricably related to the emotional content and frequency of activation.  The Conservatives have embraced this model, consciously or not, and have dominated the political discussion by controlling fundamental cognitive elements to speak to this cognitive unconscious in ways the progressives haven’t.

Putting politics aside for a moment, what really fascinated me was the idea that basic abstractions like frames, metaphors, and narratives are neural building blocks of cognition that give rise to such structures in language rather than the previously “obvious” other way around.  How this works/maps/associates are part of a picture too big to draw in a blog post, so I’d suggest starting with Lakoff’s Wikipedia page and branching out from there.  Or you could just listen to the podcast and read the book.  I’ll wait.  There’s still plenty of debate, but there’s also real science about it in the journals and the overall idea generates that “Aha!” gut feeling from that 98% back-seat-driver latching onto something.

Zombie Outline Remember that myth about only using 10% of our brains?  The body wouldn’t lavish brains with so much food and oxygen and protection (probably why zombies find them so tasty) if they were such underachievers.                 

We use it all, but the surprise is that maybe 2% of cognitive activity is conscious.  The part you think of as you, the conscious you, is literally just the tip of the iceberg.  Human brains are also the product of millions of years of redundant, conflicting evolutionary development with lots of crazy mind hacks to do some things really well, like spotting tigers, that also make us easy to deceive and confuse in unnatural situations, like Presidential elections perhaps. They are a crazy mess, about as confusing and impenetrable as quantum physics when viewed through the lens of daily experience.  That’s why these discoveries by cognitive science are so remarkable.

The rest of what’s going on in your head is completely hidden from “the conscious you”, so it’s not surprising that people act against their own (conscious self) interests or have to rationalize things that appear to just pop into their heads (conscious selves).  Simple methods like repetition and selective framing can have an enormous impact on these hidden processes because they are literally altering brains.  Activating a particular frame sets off neural cascades that strengthens pathways to related frames and weakens to opposing frames.

Lakoff claims that the pervasive “nation is a family” metaphor defines the dividing line between conservative and progressive as the association of the nation frame to authoritarian or nurturing parenting styles.  He dances around gender biases that manifest themselves in our political discourse when Arnold talks about “girly-girl democrats”.  Try not to think of the 2006-2008 Democratic-majority Congress as wimps who can’t even fight like girls.  It’s an uncomfortable notion that such a simple dichotomy is the basis of our political conflict, but it rings true.  Of course people aren’t completely one or the other. Self-identifying conservatives often have progressive views on a few issues and vice versa; all kinds of environmental factors might kick an individual association in a different direction or reinforce it.

All this neural network entanglement means that relentlessly hammering home a subset of conservative issues (equal rights for gays, abortion, immigration, etc.) will also reinforce the overall conservative frame while suppressing the overall progressive frame.  The Republican Propoganda machine excels at this, and their efforts over the last 30 years are responsible for changing brains according to Lakoff.  Their claim of America as a Right-leaning nation isn’t as much about the inherent nature of the country as a result of relentless brainwashing changing.  It’s also more GOP revisionist history, like claiming America has always been a Christian nation because of God Talk on our currency and in our Pledge while neglecting the fact that  1950s McCarthyism added the God Talk to separate ourselves from the Godless Communists.  Ironically, it’s an homage to one of the greatest revisionist history machines of all time, The Soviet Union.

Lakoff tries to weave these ideas into a New Enlightenment framework for Progressives to start operating effectively against the Right.  This approach is one of the book’s weaknesses; while there’s plenty of meaty content, it feels disorganized in the first two thirds without a clearer separation between science and agenda. The lack of diagrams is also vexing, especially since he goes into a long-winded explanation of a rooted, directed graph when a picture would have made it immediately obvious.  I’ll chalk that up to his bias as a cognitive linguist.  It’s still a worthwhile if sometimes slow read.


I’ve noticed people like Barak Obama and Rachel Maddow talking about frames since reading this book.  I think it’s less conscious in Obama’s case since he violates the key principle of reframing as often as he applies it, like continuing to use the “War on Terror” frame. If Lakoff is right, the gambit of speaking the opposition’s language rarely pays off because those frames are linked to and reinforce other Conservative frames while inhibiting Progressive ones, something Pierre Sprey also notices on Bill Moyers Journal.

A friend responded to my Human Behaviour post with this interview with Jonathan Haidt, a “social and moral psychologist”.  I couldn’t have chosen a better example of how soft sciences alone keep missing the mark.  It’s hard to take Haidt’s position seriously after bringing brains, neural networks, and the cognitive framework Lakoff describes into the picture. Maybe I should send Haidt a copy of the book and the URL for RadioLab’s amazing episode on Morality.

Next, The Obama Effect, Perhaps

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