21 July 2008

There Is No Political Center

One of the biggest treats to me at Netroots Nation was a session late Thursday afternoon in which Democracy for America hosted Professor George Lakoff in their small hospitality suite for a live audio webcast of a session of their Night School. They also videotaped the presentation and it is likely a link to the video will be posted here. The topic for the session was Lakoff’s latest book, The Political Mind. In this photo, Professor Lakoff and Matt Blizek, Training Director for Democracy for America , are speaking into the speaker phone while Jim Dean, Chair of DFA, is a blur of activity in the background.

As a cognitive scientist, Lakoff gets our attention immediately by informing us that an estimated 98% of our thought is not conscious. That leads us to the shocking conclusion that our brains constantly make decisions of which we have no awareness. Working from this premise, Lakoff contrasts the “18th Century brain” of the Enlightenment, which is purely based on conscious reason applied to known, verifiable facts with the “21st Century brain” where most thought is not conscious. He then warns us of the dangers of using the older model to address the politics of today.

Because of the prevalence of unconscious thought, Lakoff informs us that when it comes to politics, we think in terms of frames based on moral values. Further, he sees two main modes of political thought, progressive and conservative.

His description of progressive thought is found on page 47 of the book:

Behind every progressive policy lies a single moral value: empathy, together with the responsibility and strength to act on that empathy. Never forget “responsibility and strength,” because there is no true empathy without them.

That is contrasted with the description of conservative thought on page 60:

It begins with the notion that morality is obedience to an authority—assumed to be a legitimate authority who is inherently good, knows right from wrong, functions to protect us from evil in the world, and has both the right and duty to use force to command obedience and fight evil…Obedience to legitimate authority requires both personal responsibility and discipline, which are prime conservative values.

To me, the key concept that Lakoff is presenting is that there is no linear scale from progressive to conservative (or left to right). Instead, on any particular issue, individuals will have a progressive or a conservative view. Further, individuals may be bi-conceptual. That is, it is possible to adhere to the progressive worldview on one issue and the conservative worldview on another.

To illustrate the concept that there is not a linear scale, Lakoff holds up the brilliant example of Senators Joe Lieberman and Chuck Hagel. The popular press incessantly describes both as “centrists”, yet they share virtually no views. On social issues, Lieberman is consistently progressive and Hagel is solidly conservative. On the war, Lieberman is conservative and Hagel is progressive. They share views on nothing, yet both are branded as centrists. How can there be such a thing as a centrist, or a center, if these two agree on nothing?

This brings us to Lakoff’s prescient admonition about the dangers of progressive politicians “moving to the middle”. Note that this book was released in June, so the final version went to press before Barack Obama became the presumptive nominee and started his move to the middle. Lakoff’s warning against this move, I believe, captures entirely the anguish and frustration of progressives who fought hard to make Obama the nominee, only to see him abandon them. From page 59:

Accepting the left-to-right scale leads to the logic—and the claim—that to get more votes you have to move to the right. This actually has three counterproductive effects for progressives:

1. Giving up on policies that fit the progressive moral worldview and hence alienating your base;

2. Accepting policies that fit the conservative moral worldview, thus activating the conservative worldview in voters, which helps the other side; and

3. Not maintaining a consistent moral worldview at all, which makes it look as though you have no values.

I would add that I think it is this third observation, of appearing to have no values, that has led to the widespread complaint in progressive circles that Obama has become “just another politician”, in that politicians are commonly seen as not having values. The “change” that many progressives thought they saw in Obama during the primary battle was his apparent adherence to progressive worldviews without the unprincipled, calculating moves of the politician who readily abandons ideals.

It is truly a shame that Senator Obama did not read an advance copy of this book and follow its very valuable advice.

1 comment:

Karen M said...

Jim, thanks for being our eyes and ears in Austin and for bringing some of the conference home for us.