George Lakoff talks about The Political Mind

6 min read

Here at long last is the compilation of my Twitter notes from George Lakoff‘s talk at the Bagdad in Portland on June 12, 2008, about his new book The Political Mind. I tweeted these all as quotes, but they aren’t exact, so if something here enrages you, check with me first on whether he actually said it or not. Also, I’ve had to edit this pretty heavily to make it make any sense at all, as Twitter apparently drops a lot of your messages when you make two pages’ worth in the space of 30 minutes or so.

Many thanks to Prof. Lakoff for coming to town, and to Powell’s Books for hosting the talk. (And if you haven’t, please take a gander at my summary of the first chapter of Lakoff’s germinal manifesto Don’t Think of an Elephant – it may help all this make sense if you aren’t familiar with his prior work.)

“Reason is supposed to be universal. In the past 30 years cognitive science has discovered that to be completely false.

“Reason is not abstract, because you think with your brain. Your brain is made to run a human body. It can’t do just any old thing.

“If you have a stroke and are cut off from emotion, it turns out you can’t function at all. Because how can you know what to want?

“Frames aren’t just concepts, they’re neural pathways, connected to your neural paths for words themselves, and connected in systems.

“When you use a neural pathway it gets firmer, until it’s permanent. Mostly that happens below consciousness – 98% in fact.

“This book has a lot of the scientific details that haven’t been in my other books. It fills in a lot of the gaps.

“We understand politics through cultural narratives and melodrama. This is how people really reason.

“Barack Obama has a rags-to-riches story. Hilary has a different story, with more privilege but a glass ceiling. Emotional stories.

“When you’re still a child, you learn a lot of metaphor thinking. ‘Gas prices are rising.’ Why is more ‘up’? Why are loving people ‘warm’?

“Metaphors are physical. They are strengthened every time you see the water in a glass go up every time you add more.

“Well-being lives in the brain. This leads to all kinds of morality metaphors. Pure food is better than rotten food; purity becomes moral.

“Wealth aids well-being; we have all kinds of money metaphors for morality. And of course we have family metaphors – two major ones.

“That’s not a paradox. It’s physical, is all. We all have strict-father and nurturant-parent structures. Usually we use both.

“You have people for whom the structures are about equal (swing voters). Then you have others, but there’s no axis between left and right.

“The nurturant-parent family is based on empathy. (Not indulgence – very much the opposite.) Protection and empowerment from goverment.

“Empathy is in our neurons. Seeing someone else do something fires many of the same emotional pathways in us.

“The strict-father model is popular in politics and business too. Ever heard ‘let the market decide’? Well, who’s ‘the decider’?

“Strict-father model is all about direct causation: kid does something bad, spank him. Crime happens, lock up bad people. Systemic causes? They don’t exist. (How do you show systemic cause to a strict-father model thinker? Start with something they know and try to extend it.)

“Why does this matter in politics? Your first experience with being governed is in your family. You physically learn that metaphor.

“Between birth and age 5, half your neurons die. Which half? Depends what you experience. If you don’t experience empathy, you lose it.

“Fear is neurally connected to the strict-father model. What contradicts fear? Hope, and wellbeing. Obama makes people feel calm and cool.

“2 models for foreign policy: ‘realism’ – maximize your state’s benefits invisible-hand style. Clinton’s model.

“Obama’s model shifts from the state to the person: individuals’ concern about water, global warming, food, safety, terrorism. Good article on this in the Am. Prospect.

“No pundit or analyst has talked about this. Not one. But it’s there in actual foreign policy papers.

“Ronald Reagan’s own campaign manager wrote about how people liked Reagan, but when he polled them on the actual policies Reagan supported, they hated them all. He didn’t know at first why his own candidate was winning.

“Why did Reagan win? He ran on values, communication, authenticity, trust, and identity. Mondale, Kerry, Gore all lost to this. Dem strategists looked at this and said, ‘well, he won on personality.’ They were wrong. Those 5 things are all things you actually need to know. Obama’s using them.

“Tell progressives all that and they say, ‘sure, of course.’ But have you ever heard a progressive leader say it out loud? Never.

“Conservatives say (and do) it constantly. On purpose. They’ve spent millions on it – billions. Training people. Progressives haven’t. Why?

“They’re still thinking in pre-cognitive-science terms. They still think reason is pure and untouched by emotion.

“But if you believe enlightenment reason, you should like science, and therefore cognitive science – which shows that enlightenment reason is false.

“Obama doesn’t call himself a progressive, he calls himself an American. He talks about the empathy deficit. ‘Patriotism depends on empathy.’

“But enlightenment reason doesn’t understand that as well as 21st century reason does. We need more strategists and journalists who know this.”