Why George Lakoff Should Be Your Guru

I will stipulate up front that for me, the concept of the guru is acutely objectionable. However, for the purposes of this brief essay, consider the ideas of the individual as the guide, the guru, if you will. While there may be something useful and enlightening for many a person in the work of George Lakoff, the your of the title applies most directly and relevantly to Democratic Party politicians and Democratic leaders, party activists and talking heads, and those involved in communicating for campaigns or organizations or movements. Anyone who argues or communicates about politics on a regular basis would be fortified by the ideas and the prescriptions of George Lakoff.

Beyond this pool of casual or professional communicators, beneficiaries may include anyone seeking the comfort of an explanation for why even when a “liberal” is in the White House, the political dialogue and the political landscape feel as though they in fact are dominated by conservatives and by conservative ideology. There’s the potential for a modicum of peace of mind for those anguishing over the why of it all.

George Lakoff is a Berkeley cognitive linguist, and he has been preoccupied of late with the application of neuroscience to political communication. Some of us may understand his ideas instinctively, or at the least, apply them in such a way. Unfortunately, the subset of such persons does not include a majority of Democratic Party politicians. But in any case, Lakoff’s work is intriguing and enlightening in its own right.

Lakoff’s central idea is that we conceptualize in metaphors: the way ideas or concepts are processed or generated in our brains relies upon the forming of metaphors. In linguistics, this notion differs from theories that assert that metaphors are an entirely linguistic construction, and not something so intrinsic to the way our brains work. In other words, we form ideas, and understand ideas, and by extension form opinions, on the basis of the metaphors that communicate them.

Metaphors pertaining to the relationship between people and government, according to Lakoff are basic to the differences between conservatives and liberals.  Essentially, in the conservative metaphor government is the strict father providing discipline to the children very much in need of such. In the liberal metaphor, government is the nurturing parent conveying values, seeking to keep children at a distance from corrupting or ill-intentioned influence. Lakoff says most people have in  their brains, a mixture of the two central metaphors that blend together and appear at various times.

How issues are realized in the brains of citizens, in other words the way in which these issues are understood determines the political support or non support for positions on a given issue. And how those positions are understood is based on how they are communicated. If Republicans excel at this, which in fact they do, they will sustain an upper hand.

The two different “moral systems” of conservatives and liberals have different and corresponding circuitry in every brain. Conservatives, through communication and framing, ingrain their points of view through incessant repetition in a voter’s brain, activating the circuitry in the brain for the conservative moral system: tax relief for example frames taxes as an affliction that must be cured, or relieved. So, a tax cut sounds like a good thing. “No new taxes,” sounds entirely positive.

Lakoff also emphasizes that all politics are moral, and that emotion and empathy are a part of reasoning. Policies are proposed because they are right, not wrong.  Democrats should emphasize empathy and social responsibility for instance.  Progressives have really not learned or adopted or incorporated the reality learned from brain science that reasoning is not divorced from emotion, but that emotion is integral to reasoning. So they drily and ineffectively plod on with what they view as their rational, logical, pure reasoning, and then wonder why it is not persuasive or successful in the face of inaccurate information or facts conveyed effectively with successful framing.

Lakoff contends (as many of us do) that conservatives are engaged in a concerted and relentless effort to permanently instill their thinking in everything from politics to law to economics, in everyone. Over the last thirty years or so one might judge that their endeavor has been quite successful. Conservatives, unlike liberals have innumerable think tanks, training institutes and framing experts, travelling speakers and of course talk radio and Fox News. Audiences and citizens hear the conservative framing of any given issue over and over and over and over again. There is simply no equivalent communications apparatus or universal messaging machine on the liberal and Democratic side. And it shows.

Some of Lakofff’s insights are particularly intriguing: he says that putting “no” in a slogan, such as “no tax cuts for millionaires” generates the opposite reaction as intended: it actually activates the positive association in the brain with millionaires (in other words, everybody wants to be one). So If you say, as Nixon did, “I am not a crook,” rather than negating the frame, this activates the frame: crook. In the same way that Christine O’ Donnell saying, “I am not a witch” activates the frame: witch.

Personally, I have never understood why Democrats were so terrible at framing the issues related to government.  The subject is framed by conservatives as strictly about the power and size of government, and never about government as a countervailing power to the immense, and still increasing power of concentrated corporate and private wealth over individual lives. In the conservative framing, corporate power over individual lives, and corporate intent do not exist at all. If they are included in the frame it is as benevolent providers of jobs and wealth. This of course is far from truthful. But if the framing of issues related to size of government are narrowed to the question of “Is it too big,” that will only benefit conservatives, who hope you will forget the rest of the context, which is the extraordinary power corporations and non-governmental institutions have over you daily life. And the fact that government is the only entity with commensurate power and size to mitigate private power on behalf of citizens.

No wonder conservatives advocate for smaller government: the less government activity there is, the more powerful private interests are, and the less accountable. No wonder businesses and corporations hate unions: without unions, employers establish wages, working conditions and all else pertaining to employees, while employees are powerless and entirely dependent. They do not enjoy the economic freedom or value of labor capitalism is designed to provide.

Conservatives literally have changed the meaning of words. Conservatives tend to come from a business and marketing background, a great deal of training in which concerns planting messages in the brain of the potential customer. This training is essentially how language changes the brain. Republicanism is a sales culture, and they’re practiced at it. Progressives need to activate the progressive circuitry through repetition similar to the way conservatives do.

Progressives also have to do what conservatives have done so well, which is to change how the public thinks over the long haul. And in fact, Democratic initiatives will never be anything but a struggle and slog until public thinking has been effectively changed. Every initiative Democrats undertake legislatively or in the executive branch will come up against those conservative frames engrained in voters’ minds. But rather than pursue this long-term process of change, Democrats merely become defensive and all but assimilate conservative messages with their “accommodation” and “moderation.” This is why both rank and file liberals and rank and file conservatives think of Democratic politicians as spineless.

When you move to the right, and especially when you do it repeatedly, you do not get credit for moderation: you reaffirm the correctness of the conservative position. This seems to be a lesson a very smart man like Barack Obama refuses to learn.

Another way of describing it is to call it a misplaced faith in cooperation and compromise at the wrong time and in the wrong place. It is certainly possible to compromise, and compromise has a rich history in the United States. But currently, one side of the spectrum is intransigently absolutist and fundamentalist, even evangelical, not in pursuit of solutions or progress, but conquest…nothing more. With that, there is no compromise. Absolutism, by definition does not moderate. Why so many liberals and Democrats fail to understand this is mystifying. Why so many Democrats do not understand they are in a definitive battle for their very existence, their values and a rational America is quite beyond me.

It’s not simply that Republicans fail to budge from negotiating positions or back off a rhetorical statement. It is that they consciously or instinctively understand that by retreating or compromising they are ceding credibility to their opponents’ views. This helps explain why conservative concepts have such a current hold, and why so many Americans often vote against their own interests. If you have a better explanation I’d like to hear it.

FDR knew instinctively how, and was bold enough to publicly put a moral frame on issues pertaining to corporate greed and largesse, to protecting citizens and the public good. Progressive Democrats in the Sixties and Seventies knew how to do this sort of moral framing. Today’s Democrats in general, including President Obama have not demonstrated any such ability. They need to learn…and soon.

The conservative media machine is never out of office. This is where I believe so many liberals and progressives and Democrats are disappointed with President Obama. Having “one of ours” in the bully pulpit of the presidency we thought would offer at last a grand opportunity to present a progressive message, a profound opportunity to change the framing, a strong countermeasure against, and mitigation of the massive and incessant conservative message machine.

But that simply has not materialized. Instead, rather than employing progressive framing, there has been a message, a language that emphasizes moderation…or centrism, which mean little to voters. The power of the bully pulpit has been forfeited in favor of defending against Republican charges, in other words playing on conservatives’ home field: “Yes, we agree government is too big, we just want to reduce it in a different way than Republicans do…really…we promise.” This is no way to run a messaging railroad. The country’s economy needs stimulus, in other words the spending of money. “No, we really are against too much spending too, just less reduction of it than you guys are.”  This is, literally, hopeless. What has happened is that Democrats and the president are delivering a conservative message. In other words, both Democrats and Republicans are delivering the same conservative message. Not shocking then that even with Obama as president we seem to be living in a conservative dominated era, and that liberal and progressive ideas are rarely heard and advocated only with great trepidation.

There’s a way to change that. And George Lakoff understands better than most exactly how to do it.

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