George Lakoff on politics and the brain

Author explains how Sen. Barack Obama has the heart to win or lose in November

Illustration By Andrew Nilsen

You’ve got a heart in your head, not on your sleeve.

Or so says UC Berkeley professor George Lakoff, whose latest book argues that emotion, not logic, is the reason conservatives have dominated politics the past four decades. “All politics has emotion,” he explained via telephone from a Portland hotel, taking a break after autographing books all morning for a publicity tour. He’ll be in Sacramento next Sunday at Midtown’s Time-Tested Books discussing The Political Mind: Why You Can’t Understand 21st Century American Politics With an 18th Century Brain, which takes a long, hard look at how the brain works when it comes to politics.Consider, for starters, the term “liberal.” Lakoff pointed out that most people are both conservative and liberal, but to sway the majority, conservatives discussed liberals in negative ways, appealing to emotion, so voters wanted to distance themselves from such ignominy. “The liberal used to be the hero of the working man. Now, because of the repetition, the liberal is a latte-sipping elitist,” Lakoff explained. This is a dishonor that Sen. Barack Obama will have to overcome if he wants to take the White House in November.

“Facts don’t matter. The framing is what’s important,” Lakoff reminded, adding that the left recoils at this concept, considering it manipulation. But it’s not; everything is framed. “Every single word we use invokes a frame in our brains, and the only question involved is if you’re using those frames honestly and if you’re protecting yourself against fraudulent framing.”

Lakoff’s convinced that the reason progressive ideas haven’t done as well at the ballot box in recent years is because the language used to describe those ideas is stuck in the Age of Enlightenment. For instance, when progressives talk about universal health care, the discussion often gets caught up in facts and figures—how many people are uninsured, how much of the money goes to administrative costs. This causes people to drift off; their eyes glaze over. The message is lost. Meanwhile, conservatives, who use emotionally laden narratives—remember “Harry and Louise”?—end up dominating political debate.

Lakoff’s brain research reaffirms that rational thinking is wrapped up in emotion. For example, people who suffer brain injuries, which inhibit emotion, lose the ability to think rationally. “People who have such injuries don’t become superrational like Mr. Spock. Instead, they can’t function at all,” Lakoff noted. “You have to have emotion in order to function rationally.”

And Lakoff understands why. As he details in The Political Mind, the brain has developed neural circuitry between logic and emotion that is, he said, “seamless.” Neural binding connects the emotional and logical pathways in the brain, which are reinforced regularly. This, according to Lakoff, is why effective political language has both an emotional and a narrative component.

Candidate’s biographies exemplify this binding of emotion and logic. We have “war heroes.” We have “self-made men.” These terms invoke a frame, Lakoff said, which means there’s a story to them. The brain seamlessly identifies these narratives, which were ingrained in childhood. And as The Political Mind explains, political acts like going to war utilize the “self-defense” story. Defending oneself is good, therefore a war fought in self-defense is good. This frame worked for World War II—though historians rightly point to complicating factors.

There’s also the “rescue” story. Heroes rescue the defenseless, which is good, so war fought to rescue someone else is good. Lakoff points out that the initial rationale for going to war with Iraq was self-defense. But when that particular frame faltered, the Bush administration used the “rescue” story: Iraqis needed to be rescued from Saddam Hussein’s regime, and because that story has a frame everyone’s familiar with—hero rescues victim—it was a justification for war that many Americans were willing to accept.

“You live your life and understand your life in terms of stories and narratives,” Lakoff said. “It’s always got an emotional component. You have feelings attached to each part of the story.” The brain resonates with the stories, and the emotions make us willing to go to war, even if the logic of the story doesn’t quite add up.

The process of framing also can be applied to the conservatives’ take on the free-market economy. “This frame says that everything good in the country comes from a free market and there shouldn’t be any interference in it. The government can’t help people, only the free market can,” Lakoff said. The brain already recognizes anything associated with “freedom” as emotionally “good,” so it responds positively to messages that link those ideas.

And “liberal” has been framed in a negative light—which isn’t the only association Obama will have to overcome to win the presidency. Lakoff used the right-wing machine’s fascination with Obama’s middle name as another example. “When they say ‘Hussein is his middle name,’ it’s the reverse of the metaphor ‘courage is his middle name.’” The brain already recognizes the metaphor, hence recognizes its reversal, he explained. The response is both emotional and physiological.

Lakoff criticized the Obama camp’s original tactic of fighting smears online, which was new when we spoke. “They listed the rumors and then tried to contradict them, which won’t work, because what stays in people’s heads is the first thing they heard,” he said of the strategy originally employed.

He pointed out that the effective way to counter the right’s rumors about Obama is to put the truth first. “Rather than saying ‘Obama is not a Muslim,’ the correct response would be to say that ‘Obama is a committed Christian who believes in putting his faith to work by helping the poor and saving the environment,’” he said. By stating the negative first, it’s reinforced. The smears and rumors must be replaced with a competing, superior narrative.

“Obama himself does that all the time,” Lakoff added, noting that Obama’s presence carries with it a positive narrative likely to appeal to voters. But, he added, there obviously are others in his camp “who need to read my book.”

Within just a few days, the Obama campaign’s response to rumors and smears had changed to reflect Lakoff’s theories.

They must have bought the book.