James Madison noted that limits on human thinking inhibit efforts to found a just democracy. We don’t fully understand how humans think or what humans are, he said, so we should be careful about the kinds of institutions we create to serve our hopes, dreams, difficulties and conflicts. "The faculties of the mind itself have never yet been distinguished and defined with satisfactory precision by all the efforts of the most acute and metaphysical philosophers," Madison wrote in Federalist 37.
Over the last few years, a revolution in neuroscience has taken place that has given us a much clearer picture of the "faculties of mind" Madison spoke of. George Lakoff calls it a New Enlightenment, and his newest book, The Political Mind: Why You Can’t Understand 21st-Century American Politics with an 18th-Century Brain, teaches us about these discoveries and their implications for our politics. This might be Lakoff’s most important politically-oriented book because of the care he takes to give readers a broadened and deepened picture of the neuroscience that’s guided his political work.
Lakoff shows us that we are very different from what the philosophers of Madison’s time thought we were. Madison’s modesty and admission of the limits to Enlightenment understanding speaks to the Framers’ brilliance. Adaptability and flexibility were key. Unless we could continually transform our selves and our institutions, our democracy would not survive. That is a guiding principle behind the U.S. Constitution.
Too few of today’s politicians and cultural guardians share Madison’s modesty. Perhaps accelerating social and technological change puts a premium on poses of certainty. I’m not certain. In this era, Lakoff deserves a medal for bold ambitions. Because he cares about the state of our nation, he didn’t wait for widespread understanding of the new insights into human nature. He took what he knew and headed for the political front. He knew he’d be vulnerable to attack from entrenched academic and political interests who are quite content with the practices and institutions that got them to the top.
Lakoff believes an understanding of how our brains work will help us see how we arrive at the values we hold and how we can better communicate those values to others. Lakoff is no Frank Luntz. He does not teach us how to propagandize, though his detractors on the left and right often make that accusation. While he helps us better understand how propaganda works, his goal is to enhance the power of truth.
Lakoff wants to give to truth all the advantages that propagandists have bestowed upon the lie.
Some confusion about Lakoff’s work arises from the fact that in the last half of the 20th Century, the Right stumbled into propaganda practices that work on our brains just the way Lakoff says language works on our brains. The Right changed our minds by using effective frames over and over, frames that touched some part of us and then came to dominate our thinking (through strengthened neuronal connections in our brains) about a particular issue or concern. So if the Right can do that without knowing the brain science, why do progressives need to know the brain science? Isn’t it all just a matter of spin? No.
Lakoff’s not suggesting the Right knew 40 years ago what brain scientists have slowly uncovered in recent years. He is telling us why their communications strategies have been so effective. He is telling us that language frames are in our brains. Words come with associations. When we use the term "tax relief" the word "burden" is activated within a network of neurons.
In the new book, Lakoff explores the power of narrative in politics. Narratives are a special kind of frame, and Lakoff helps clear up some confusion about frames, public storytelling, and our shared national narratives. Here’s just one of many ways Lakoff’s discussion of narrative might help.
For years it’s been said that we live in a "sound-bite" society. The ever-shrinking attention span of Americans – and the cost of time in the media – means we must say what we have to say in a few seconds. That’s the conventional wisdom.
But Lakoff’s discussion of the structure of frames and simple and complex narratives may revise this conventional thinking. We need to get the words right, but we need to tell our stories as well. The 6-second sound bite is embedded in and carried along by cultural narratives that extend far beyond the brief sound bite.
Conservatives tarred up the word "liberal" by telling stories about how liberals wanted to take money from those who earned it and give it to those who refused to work. That’s a story. Embedded in such a story, "liberal" became stigmatized.
This gets to one of Lakoff’s most important points in the The Political Mind Western liberal political science and practice is still holding tight to the Enlightenment view of human rationality and reason that was new in the age of America’s founding. It’s not new anymore. It’s not correct, either. Humans are not universal reasoning machines who will always reach the right, true and just decision if given the unvarnished facts. Instead, we’re emotional creatures of habits and desires who don’t always know what’s really in our interests. There’s nothing the matter with Kansas that’s not the matter with all of us. We’re human, that’s all.
But while conservatives have been busy telling emotional stories that hook our imaginations, progressives (especially those more conservative progressives whom Lakoff labels "neo-liberals") give us lists of facts and statistics, assuming we’ll reason from these facts to the right conclusions.
Not only is this not effective, it prevents full and honest expression of the values behind progressive policy goals. We don’t talk of empathy or with empathy, we talk about unemployment statistics. We don’t talk about social responsibility, we talk about insurance company actuarial tables. And we don’t change many minds or hearts.
And that’s what Lakoff wants to help us do.