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A Minority President: Why the Polls Failed, And What the Majority Can Do [George Lakoff]

January 18, 2017

Nov 22nd 2016 article by George Lakoff, Professor of Cognitive Science and Linguistics and author of “Don’t think of an Elephant”, and others.

Basically, I see this article is yet another re-telling and re-framing of the 2016 election, but a pretty special one, since it seems like a good starting point to explore the meaning of conservative vs liberal vs progressive, or conservative vs experimentalist, or in-group-nurturer/empath vs authoritary-figure, etc. Such a conceptual toolkit is useful to create communication that is able to reach the “other side” (in both directions).

The heart of this piece is the Nation-as-a-family metaphor. In this breakdown, conservatives are and/or seek out the strict-father family model, while liberals are and/or seek out the nurturant-parent model. This is a crucial thing to understand. It is also a gross oversimplification, and is grossly misleading in my opinion. By that, I mean that if one makes this breakdown the center of one’s understanding, I think a lot of other equally important distinctions will get concealed/destroyed as a side effect.

Also, before attacking it any further, I think we should absorb some of the cool concepts Lakoff is putting out there, since they are very powerful ones. Besides the nation-as-a-family, another one is Lakoff’s reminder that human thought operates on a largely subconscious, or at least non-cognitive and instead emotional level. An important addendum to that point is that it is every bit as true for hightly trained scientists and professionals as blue collar workers – the former group is just more disciplined about concealing it from themselves.

So now let me try to take a few bites out of the framing presented by Lakoff. First I’ll note that many groups who fall under the liberal umbrella – latinos, african americans, lots of catholics, jews, muslims, in many cases women, more than a few gay/lesbians too – may well fit comfortably into the strict-father model, using the metaphor broadly. They are bundled with the Democrats only because of blatant discrimination against their group by the nominally conservative party, or because they find themselves there on the basis of a specific issue important to them. (or historical reasons, for irish/italian american catholics? i’m really over-generalizing here, bear with me. the point is the cultural metaphor doesn’t always divide accurately?). The same may go in reverse too (for example, some libertarians or gun rights people may have more affinity for the nominally nurturant-parent model).

Also, as an observation, Lakoff writes like a conservative (Democratic variety), which is interesting. But it’s not entirely unsurprising. Scientists are by nature conservative and deeply respectful of authority, which makes sense as the integrity of modern science and its institutions depends on this. And there’s nothing wrong with that most of the time. In fact most of society is pretty conservative — if you walked into a world where 15% of the people were experimentalist as a rule, or where every person you met proactively advanced their favorite progressive cause (I’m talking beyond just what’s in fashion), I bet you would find it disturbingly radical.

On a lot of economic subjects, both the Democrats and Republicans are quite conservative, and are simply competing to legitimize their own versions of that. That’s not to say there aren’t very substantial differences, nor that the positive social-freedoms Democrats have actually promoted should be discounted or thrown away- that is not my point at all. However, pure Progressives, they are not.

The specific point not addressed by Lakoff’s article is that the 2016 election, and really the entire time since the 2008 crisis (Obama’s time by coincidnce, but not his fault), was an unhappy denouement where the Democrat’s “nurturant-parent” roleplay came into question in a big way.

So I am taking the article as a fundamentally incomplete, but also fundamentally very useful set of lenses with which to view the present day US political landscape.

And the point he makes about “conservatives studied marketing, democrats studied cartesian thought” … Ouch! But to answer that: do we really want to retaliate with a more effective emotional-marketing game? We already had a Karl Rove presidency, and are about to have a Trump one. The priority should be to build a political system, AND a world of public discourse (and, yes, media) that reconnects the emotional to the cognitive… rather than intentionally crafting PR in a way that the emotional blinds the cognitive.

Also very interesting is his analysis of the post-election action that is now happening in PR terms.

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  1. George Lakoff is a smart guy in many ways. The thing I don’t like about him is that he treats all issues as emotional issues.

    He doesn’t take into account the possibility that people vote the way they do based on the facts of their circumstances. If a politician promises peace and prosperity and delivers, voters are likely to re-elect them. If he promises peace and prosperity and, under his administration, there is war and depression, voters are likely to oppose him whether he adopts the strict-father or nuturing-mother frame of reference.

    I often hear liberals complain about working people “voting against their own interests.” Such people seldom question whether they themselves represent workers’ interests.

    The other thing I don’t like about Lakoff is his implicit assumption that he and his intended readership are (1) correct on all the issues (2) for reasons that our rational, and our task is how to influence all these other people, with their cognitive biases.

    What if we all have cognitive biases? What if we are just as irrational as the people Lakoff is teaching us how to manipulate?

    Some ancient teacher of rhetoric said that you need to be able to appeal to emotion in order to get people to listen to you, but you need to be able to appeal to fact and logic in order to convince them of your argument. The second half of this sentence is what’s missing from Lakoff.

    • Hi Phil, You put that very well, thanks!
      Since Lakoff is writing about his academic specialty, I should say that I don’t hold it against him or anything like that. But – some of this sounds a bit like a call for a deeper “arms race” in propaganda technique by the Democratic party…

  2. Thanks for following my blog, which is much appreciated.
    Best wishes, Pete.

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