9.08.2008

On Politics and Metaphor


I've been a fan of George Lakoff since I came across some of his articles while researching the power of storytelling and metaphor for a class a few years ago. Thanks to Jeneva at Busily Seeking...Continual Change, I just saw this piece on Tikkun. I'm pasting it here to save you all the trouble of clicking a link. Also, it keeps you on my blog longer, which inflates my stats and hence my ego.

Here 'tis:

George Lakoff argues that the Republican choice of Palin makes total sense if you truly understand the strategy of the Republicans in this election.


The Palin Choice
The Reality of the Political Mind
by George Lakoff

This election matters because of realities-the realities of global warming, the economy, the Middle East, nuclear proliferation, civil liberties, species extinction, poverty here and around the world, and on and on. Such realities are what make this election so very crucial, and how to deal with them is the substance of the Democratic platform .

Election campaigns matter because who gets elected can change reality. But election campaigns are primarily about the realities of voters' minds, which depend on how the candidates and the external realities are cognitively framed. They can be framed honestly or deceptively, effectively or clumsily. And they are always framed from the perspective of a worldview.

The Obama campaign has learned this. The Republicans have long known it, and the choice of Sarah Palin as their Vice-Presidential candidate reflects their expert understanding of the political mind and political marketing. Democrats who simply belittle the Palin choice are courting disaster. It must be t aken with the utmost seriousness.

The Democratic responses so far reflect external realities: she is inexperienced, knowing little or nothing about foreign policy or national issues; she is really an anti-feminist, wanting the government to enter women's lives to block abortion, but not wanting the government to guarantee equal pay for equal work, or provide adequate child health coverage, or child care, or early childhood education; she shills for the oil and gas industry on drilling; she denies the scientific truths of global warming and evolution; she misuses her political authority; she opposes sex education and her daughter is pregnant; and, rather than being a maverick, she is on the whole a radical right-wing ideologue.

All true, so far as we can tell.

But such truths may nonetheless be largely irrelevant to this campaign. That is the lesson Democrats must learn. They must learn the reality of the political mind.

The Obama campaign has done this very well so far. The convention events and speeches were orchestrated both to cast light on external realities, traditional political themes, and to focus on values at once classically American and progressive: empathy, responsibility both for oneself and others, and aspiration to make things better both for oneself and the world. Obama did all this masterfully in his nomination speech, while replying to, and undercutting, the main Republican attacks.

But the Palin nomination changes the game. The initial response has been to try to keep the focus on external realities, the "issues," and differences on the issues. But the Palin nomination is not basically about external realities and what Democrats call "issues," but about the symbolic mechanisms of the political mind-the worldviews, frames, metaphors, cultural narratives, and stereotypes. The Republicans can't win on realities. Her job is to speak the language of conservatism, activate the conservative view of the world, and use the advantages that conservatives have in dominating political discourse.

Our national political dialogue is fundamentally metaphorical, with family values at the center of our discourse. There is a reason why Obama and Biden spoke so much about the family, the nurturant family, with caring fathers and the family values that Obama put front and center in his Father's day speech: empathy, responsibility and aspiration. Obama's reference in the nomination speech to "The American Family" was hardly accidental, nor were the references to the Obama and Biden families as living and fulfilling the American Dream. Real nurturance requires strength and toughness, which Obama displayed in body language and voice in his responses to McCain. The strength of the Obama campaign has been the seamless marriage of reality and symbolic thought.

The Republican strength has been mostly symbolic. The McCain campaign is well aware of how Reagan and W won-running on character: values, communicatio n, (apparent) authenticity, trust, and identity - not issues and policies. That is how campaigns work, and symbolism is central.

Conservative family values are strict and apply via metaphorical thought to the nation: good vs. evil, authority, the use of force, toughness and discipline, individual (versus social) responsibility, and tough love. Hence, social programs are immoral because they violate discipline and individual responsibility. Guns and the military show force and discipline. Man is above nature; hence no serious environmentalism. The market is the ultimate financial authority, requiring market discipline. In foreign policy, strength is use of the force. In fundamentalist religion, the Bible is the ultimate authority; hence no gay marriage. Such values are at the heart of radical conservatism. This is how John McCain was raised and how he plans to govern. And it is what he shares with Sarah Palin.

Palin is the mom in the strict father family, upholding conservative values. Palin is tough: she shoots, skins, and eats caribou. She is disciplined: raising five kids with a major career. She lives her values: she has a Downs-syndrome baby that she refused to abort. She has the image of the ideal conservative mom: pretty, perky, feminine, Bible-toting, and fitting into the ideal conservative family. And she fits the stereotype of America as small-town America. It is Reagan's morning-in-America image. Where Obama thought of capturing the West, she is running for Sweetheart of the West.

And Palin, a member of Feminists For Life, is at the heart of the conservative feminist movement, which Ronee Schreiber has written about in her recent book, Righting Feminism. It is a powerful and growing movement that Democrats have barely paid attention to.
At the same time, Palin is masterful at the Republican game of taking the Democrats' language and reframing it-putting conservative frames to progressive words: Reform, prosperity, peace. She is also masterful at using the progressive narratives: she's from the working class, working her way up from hockey mom and the PTA to Mayor, Governor, and VP candidate. Her husband is a union member. She can say to the conservative populists that she is one of them-all the things that Obama and Biden have been saying. Bottom-up, not top-down.

Yes, the McCain-Palin ticket is weak on the major realities. But it is strong on the symbolic dimension of politics that Republicans are so good at marketing. Just arguing the realities, the issues, the hard truths should be enough in times this bad, but the political mind and its response to symbolism cannot be ignored. The initial Democratic response to Palin - the response based on realities alone - indicates that many Democrats have not learned the lessons of the Reagan and Bush years.

They have not learned the nature of conservative populism. A great many working-class folks are what I call "bi-conceptual," that is, they are split between conservative and progressive modes of thought. Conservative on patriotism and certain social and family issues, which they have been led to see as "moral", progressive in loving the land, living in communities of care, and practical kitchen table issues like mortgages, health care, wages, retirement, and so on.
Conservative theorists won them over in two ways: Inventing and promulgating the idea of "liberal elite" and focusing campaigns on social and family issues. They have been doing this for many years and have changed a lot of brains through repetition. Palin will appeal strongly to conservative populists, attacking Obama and Biden as pointy-headed, tax-and-spend, latte liberals. The tactic is to divert attention from difficult realities to powerful symbolism.

What Democrats have shied away from is a frontal attack on radical conservatism itself as an un-American and harmful ideology. I think Obama is right when he says that America is based on people caring about each other and working together for a better future-empathy, responsibility (both personal and social), and aspiration. These lead to a concept of government based on protection (environmental, consumer, worker, health care, and retirement protection) and empowerment (through infrastructure, public education, the banking system, the stock market, and the courts). Nobody can achieve the American Dream or live an American lifestyle without protection and empowerment by the government.20The alternative, as Obama said in his nomination speech, is being on your own, with no one caring for anybody else, with force as a first resort in foreign affairs, with threatened civil liberties and a right-wing government making your most important decisions for you. That is not what American democracy has ever been about.

What is at stake in this election are our ideals and our view of the future, as well as current realities. The Palin choice brings both front and center. Democrats, being Democrats, will mostly talk about the realities nonstop without paying attention to the dimensions of values and symbolism. Democrats, in addition, need to call an extremist an extremist: to shine a light on the shared anti-democratic ideology of McCain and Palin, the same ideology shared by Bush and Cheney. They share values antithetical to our democracy. That needs to be said loud and clear, if not by the Obama campaign itself, then by the rest of us who share democratic American values.

Our job is to bring external realities together with the reality of the political mind. Don't ignore the cognitive dimension. It is through cultural narratives, metaphors, and frames that we understand and express our ideals.

George Lakoff is the author of The Political Mind: Why You Can't Understand 20th Century Politics With an 18th Century Brain


15 comments:

biggy said...

Or as Russell Brand said last night, let us not elect another retarded cowboy.

Anonymous said...

This article does have some valid points. However, the symbolic mechanisms of the political mind-the worldviews, frames, metaphors, cultural narratives, and stereotypes (real or perceived) can not be denied when you are looking at a first term Senator (who has spent half that time on a book tour or campaigning for election).His rhetoric is just as empty, only from the Left. The irony of a candidate who preaches about family and his'compelling life-story' but neglects to mention his father(s) or years 1-10 is absurd. McCain is not the best choice by far, but the unknown (or underreported)of Barak H. Obama is far worse. See: Ayers, Harvard admissions recomendation, Rev. Wright, Tony Rezko. What burns me is Obama's contention that he is different than other politicians. He is not different. He carries the same baggage, plays the same games, and flip-flops when he needs to. I like Biden, and respect his tenure as a Senator. The most telling thing about Biden on Barak was, "He could be ready for the Presidency, but he is not ready now". Or, "I (Biden) would be honered to serve with or against John McCain." You can not spin comments like that.

Collin said...

I think we know plenty about Obama's childhood and the father who deserted him. That's been in every video and campaign speech I've ever seen, so you must not be paying attention.

A politician is a politician. They are going to say and do what they must to get elected. However, I'd rather have Obama and Biden saying it than McCain and Palin. We gave the Republicans eight years and they have destroyed our economy, invaded a country for no solid reason and refuse diplomatic options while isolating the US further and further, which will only hurt us in the long run. How anyone could even dream of handing this nation over to four more years of Republican rule makes no sense to me.

M. RuPere said...

congrats T, your blog ratings must be "up there" because you've attracted another anon low-life Rep troller who spouts bs talking points in the guise of thoughtful "comment" - I'm beginning to actually think they hate America . . .

Anonymous said...

One, he most certainly did not mention his father at all during the DNC. Two, I think Biden voted for that invasion as well. (Which I agree was BS). The question will be, who can get us out effectively? I can separate the man from the Party. We are better of with McCain and a Democratic house and Senate then we are with Dems across the board.

Anonymous said...

Why does someone with a dissenting oppinion have to be classified as a low-life? I love America, but there is certainly a lot to be desired. It is a shame we only have a two party system. They both use fear to get elected and it's sickening. A Statesman thinks about the next generation, a politician thinks about the next election. McCain has nothing to prove by becoming president, he's 72 for crying out loud. Whereas after the glossy speeches and fearmongering of his own are done, Obama is already working on his next book. I just agree with Biden. He could be the guy, just not right now.

Kathy said...

Anonymous --- the first name is spelled Barack. And thanks for including that middle initial. Hmm, I wonder what his middle name is?

You might also want to read Senator Obama's memoir in which he describes his father's life in great detail - the good and the bad. He was raised by his mother and maternal grandparents and he spoke about them at the DNC.

T - great post. I almost cried when I saw the turnout at McCain-Palin rally in CO Springs on Saturday. I knew there would be a crowd due to James Dobson's endorsement, but why was I still surprised?

Anonymous said...

You say Barack
I say Barak

Some say Obama
Some say Osama

Potato
Patato

Tomato
Tamato

Lola said...

gross mom there are kids that read your blog too. We don't like naked people. It is like the fact i dont' like the bulldogs think of it that way.Adults don't like fun and kids don't like naked people especially people we don't now.

Sade said...

Lo's comment = most thought provoking.

halavi said...

T. That is great.
To the anon: get your facts straight. Do not make dumb remarks like Obama Osama. You are only proving your ignorance. Thanks, but bloggers here do not need a proof.
Now I want to present my experience about the GOP and their BS rhetoric in hopes of educating your anon blogger. G. D. Bush (that is George Daddy Bush) was our president for 12 years starting in 1980! Regan was already suffering from Alzheimer and had no recollection of anything. I was just starting at UGA when Regan/GD Bush became president. His first year in the office coincided with the first year my graduate student friends had to pay taxes on their stipend, which the University gave them for functioning as teaching assistants. Measly pay for hard work. That was the “tax cuts” that they lured the blue-collar workers to the poles with. The next gift they gave the US and the world was the “freedom fighters” of Afghanistan, who later became Taliban and Osama Bin Laden. GD Bush also helped Saddam Hussein hone his chemical skills by helping them during the war with Iran.
Now we have the GDS Bush (George the Dumb Son Bush) with Dick Cheney as the guy who calls all the shots in the background and makes most of the profits from this war. We do not need the type four more years.

Anonymous said...

Agreed. GDS Bush and Chenney should be tried for treason for what they have done to this country. But McCain is still a better choice than Barack Obama. Regardless of the Presidents political party, you still have a House and Senate that are supposed to keep things in check. God bless us if we have a Pres/House/Senate all of the same party R or D.

Anonymous said...

Honestly, either way we are up the creek without a paddle. It is a sad situation that we have to choose between Barack or McCain. Bush sucks but I don't think we will be any better off after November.

Thomas said...

Ok, I really don't have time for this, and what's the point. Anon you sound pretty reasonable, but why don't you just go ahead and step out of the absurd controlled left/right paradigm? \Our controllers mock us with our death or death by bushido(hope you know the joke) false choice. The following is a quote from Carrol Quigley, Operative Clinton's "favorite professor" at Georgetown as he proudly proclaimed at DNC 92 (I believe):He wrote: "The argument that the two parties should represent opposed ideals and policies, one perhaps of the Right, and the other of the Left, is a foolish idea acceptable only to doctrinaire and academic thinkers. Instead, the two parties should be almost identical, so that the American people can 'throw the rascals out' at any election without leading to any profound or extensive shifts in policy.... [E]ither party in office becomes in time corrupt, tired, unenterprising, and vigorless. Then it should be possible to replace it, every four years if necessary, by the other party, which will be none of these things but will still pursue, with new vigor, approximately the same policies". [1] His other famous quote was from Tragedy and Hope: "There does exist, and has existed for a generation, an international Anglophile network which operates, to some extent, in the way the radical Right believes the Communists act. In fact, this network, which we may identify as the Round Table Group has no aversion to cooperating with the Communists, of any other groups, and frequently does so.

I know of the operations of this network because I have studied it for twenty years and was permitted for two years, in the early 1960's, to examine its papers and secret records. I have no aversion to it or to most of its aims and have, for much of my life, been close to it and to many of its instruments.

I have objected, but in the past and recently, to a few of its policies (notably to its belief that England was an Atlantic rather than a European Power and must be allied, or even federated, with the United States and must remain isolated from Europe), but in general my chief difference of opinion is that it wished to remain unknown, and I believe its role in history is significant enough to be known.
Both candidates are absurd, evil and totally corrupt. Both grovel before their masters at AIPAC. Neither have committed to pull out of the Iraq debacle, rescind the unconstitutional "Patriot" act, etc, etc. Both are CFR stooges; Obama's wife is a CFR member and his handler is Brezinsky-yeah that's real"change". I do not have to participate, nor will I.

Anonymous said...

Well it's a well know fact, Thomas, there's a group of the five wealthiest people in the world known as the pentaverate, who run everything in the world, including the newspapers. And meet tri-annually at a secret country mansion known as, the Meadows. So who's in this pentaverate? The Queen, The Vatican, The Gettes, The Rothchilds and The Colonel himself (before he went teets up).

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