George Lakoff, a professor of Cognitive Science and Linguistics at Berkeley, has written a most fascinating piece for the Huffington Post, titled “The Santorum Strategy.” What that strategy is has nothing much to do with Santorum, but has to do with,
pounding the most radical conservative ideas into the public mind by constant repetition during the Republican presidential campaign, whether by Santorum himself, by Gingrich or Ron Paul, by an intimidated Romney, or by the Republican House majority.
“Constant repetition” can come only from having the money to constantly repeat the message, and Republicans, as we know, have enough money men willing to part with millions upon millions to keep the message going.
But there is another way that right-wingers—those who, in Lakoff’s words, want to guarantee “a radical conservative future for America“—can reinforce their radical message, which seems counter-intuitive to me:
Liberals tend to underestimate the importance of public discourse and its effect on the brains of our citizens. All thought is physical. You think with your brain. You have no alternative. Brain circuitry strengthens with repeated activation. And language, far from being neutral, activates complex brain circuitry that is rooted in conservative and liberal moral systems. Conservative language, even when argued against, activates and strengthens conservative brain circuitry. This is extremely important for so-called “independents,” who actually have both conservative and liberal moral systems in their brains and can shift back and forth. The more they hear conservative language over the next eight months, the more their conservative brain circuitry will be strengthened.
The “conservative and liberal moral systems” that form the root of the “complex brain circuitry” is the key to understanding what Lakoff is saying. Those moral systems, for those unfamiliar with Lakoff’s earlier works (for a more detailed view, see the article or my earlier post here), follow from two idealized family models that generate very different views of government. The two models are the “nurturant parent” (for liberals) and the “strict father” (for conservatives).
Each model produces basic moral values and in turn produces a distinct view of government. For nurturant parent-liberals:
The basic moral values in the progressive moral system are empathy and responsibility, both for oneself and others. This leads to a view of government as having certain moral obligations: providing protection and empowerment for everyone equally. This requires a vibrant commitment to the public — public infrastructure (roads, buildings, sewers), public education, public health, and so on. No private business can prosper at all without such public provisions. The private depends on the public.
For strict father-conservatives:
When this idealized family model is projected onto various governing institutions, we get conservative versions of them: conservative religion with a strict father God; a view of the market as Decider with no external authority over the market from government, unions, or the courts; and strictness in other institutions, like education, prisons, businesses, sports teams, romantic relationships, and the world community. Control over reproduction ought to be in the hands of male authorities.
For conservatives, democracy is about liberty, individual responsibility and self-reliance — the freedom to seek one’s own self-interest with minimal or no commitment to the interests of others. This implies a minimal public and a maximal private.
Conservative populism — in which poor conservatives vote against their financial interests — depends on those poor conservatives having strict father family values, defining themselves in terms of those values, and voting on the basis of those values, thus selecting strict fathers as their political leaders.
The repetition of language expressing those values leads to more and more working people becoming political and accepting those values in their politics. As long as the Democrats have no positive moral messaging of their own, repeated over and over, the Santorum Strategy will go unchallenged and conservative populism will expand. Moreover, repeating the Santorum language by mocking it or arguing against it using that language will only help radical conservatives in propagating their views.
An example: Democrats think they have a winning issue on the birth control fiasco engineered by right-wingers, says Lakoff, but seeing that issue as “irrational Republican self-destruction” and a “war against women” is a dubious analysis:
This is anything but an irrational position for radically conservative Republicans. Quite the contrary. It fits conservative moral logic — the logic used by conservative populists, male for sure and for many women as well. In some respects it embodies the most powerful aspects of conservative moral logic, strengthening conservative moral logic in the minds not only of conservatives, but also of independents who have both conservative and progressive world views and swing between them.
Those independents, Lakoff suggests, “can be pragmatic about the birth control details, while accepting the moral logic as a whole.”
What Lakoff is saying to those on our political side is this:
All moral logic in politics, whether progressive or conservative, is based on metaphorical thought processes, applying family moral values to political moral values.
“Republicans understand this,” he says, and Democrats need to. The advice:
Democrats need much better positive messaging, expressing and repeating liberal moral values — not just policies– uniformly across the party. That is not happening.
Something to think about.