November 2008

The Political Mind: Why You Can’t Understand 21st Century Politics With an 18th Century Brain.

A Book Review by Thomas G. Vincent

"The Political Mind: Why You Can't Understand 21st Century Politics With an 18th Century Brain." By George Lakoff, Viking Press, Hardcover, 2008, 292 pages, $25.95.

In his latest book: The Political Mind: Why You Cant Understand 21st Century Politics with an 18th Century Brain, author George Lakoff takes some complex concepts about new research into cognition and brain function and makes them simple and easy to understand. He then applies his study to the realm of politics and comes up with a surprising conclusion: conservatives have been winning because they have accepted a reality that most progressives have not: namely that reason (thought) is largely unconscious.

Lakoffs argument is simple. Conservatives and Progressives have completely different moral world views. The conservative world view, what Lakoff terms, the strict father, favors discipline and obedience. (Think, Guantanamo, warrantless wiretapping and the Unitary Executive.) By contrast, the progressives world view, what he calls the nurturing parent favors empathy and empowerment. (Think New Deal, Social Security, The Great Society.) The problem for progressives is, conservatives are proving better at getting Americans to accept their world view and reject the progressive one.

How have they done it? Simple. Conservatives have recognized that because most brain activity is unconscious, facts, figures and issues matter less to peoples reasoning than do frames and metaphors. Progressives still cling to the 18th century idea that people reason consciously. All you need do is present them with the facts and they will make the right decision. According to Lakoff, progressive politicians rarely use frame and metaphor. When they do, they are almost apologetic about it, as if by accepting the role metaphor plays in human reasoning they are somehow cheating. By taking this high minded attitude, Lakoff posits, progressives lose the battle before it has begun. It is as if liberals and progressives have agreed to enter a knife fight armed only with rolled up copies of Locke and Rousseau.

A good example of this is the progressive acquiescence toward conservatives framing their response to 9-11 as a war on terror. The moment progressives accepted this metaphor, Lakoff concludes, the debate was over. In his words:

If you accept your opponent’s frame, you have already lost.

A distinguished professor of cognitive science and linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley, Lakoff is no lightweight when it comes to his topic. The author of numerous books such as Dont Think of an Elephant and Moral Politics, he has been plying these same waters for some years. Lakoff feels that for progressives to successfully compete with conservatives they must learn to accept the role metaphors play in reason and cognition and create their own frames. Only then will they have a fighting chance at supplanting conservative ideas with progressive ones in people’s minds.

Lakoff gives over the last few chapters of the book to a call for a "New Enlightenment," which he defines as embracing, "...a deep rationality that can take account of, and advantage of a mind that is largely unconcious, embodied,emotional, empathetic,metaphorical, and only partly universal." While the book is generally upbeat and positive, one senses Lakoff’s resignation of how far he still has to go with progressives when he writes:

The idea of building a sustained campaign to communicate truth and change how Americans think is unthinkable to Democrats at this point.

The Political Mind is well researched, well written, insightful, and thought provoking. Moreover, like most good books, the concepts and ideas within it are applicable to more than just its main topic: politics. In fact, anyone interested in the study of cognition, linguistics or simply improving their communication skills would benefit from reading The Political Mind.