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Why are so many people about to vote against their interests?

George Lakoff, professor emeritus of linguistics | September 16, 2010

If you have not read Drew Westen’s outstanding piece, What Created the Populist Explosion and How Democrats Can Avoid the Shrapnel in November, on the Huffington Post, Alternet, and other venues, read it immediately. Westen states as eloquently and forcefully as anyone what he, I, and other progressives have been saying from the beginning of the Obama administration. I agree fully with everything he says. But …

Westen’s piece is incomplete in crucial ways. His piece can be read as saying that this election is about kitchen table economics (right) and only kitchen table economics (wrong).

This election is about more than just jobs, mortgages, and adequate health care. All politics is moral. All political leaders say to do what they propose because it is right. No political leaders say to do what they say because it is wrong. Morality is behind everything in politics — and progressives and conservatives have different moral systems.

In the conservative moral system, the highest value is preserving and extending the moral system itself. That is why they keep saying no to Obama’s proposals, even voting against their own ideas when Obama accepts them. To give Obama any victory at all would be a blow to their moral system. Their moral system requires non-cooperation. That is a major thing the Obama administration has not understood.

The conservatives understand the centrality of morality. They attacked the Obama health care plan as immoral for violating the moral principles of freedom (“government takeover”) and reverence for life (“death panels.”) The Obama administration made a policy case, not a moral case. The conservatives have characterized the bailouts as thievery and Obama’s ties to Wall St. as immoral — as being in bed with the thieves. The attacks on government are seen as moral attacks, with government seen as taking money out of working people’s pockets and giving it to people who don’t deserve it. Whether it is the birthers, or the anti-Muslims, or the anti-immigrants, of the pro-lifers, the attack is a moral attack. The Tea Party cry is moral — for “freedom” (see my book Whose Freedom?), for God, for patriotism. Even jobless benefits are seen as giving money to people who are not working and don’t deserve it. Even Social Security that workers have earned, that are deferred payments for work, are seen as undeserving people “sucking on the tits of the government.”

The moral case is not answered just by good policy that will help people who need help — as Westen proposed. The good policies — extending unemployment benefits, help to small businesses, help for teachers and firemen, limits on credit card rates, restrictions on rate increases and service reductions by HMO’s — in themselves fit a progressive moral system, but don’t in themselves make a case for progressive moral leadership.

Why are so many people about to vote against their interests? The Republicans are not offering kitchen-table benefits. When people are voting against their interests, more interest-based arguments don’t help.

Westen’s discussion of “the center” and of populism in general, misses what is crucial in this election. There is no one “center.” Instead, a considerable number of Americans (perhaps as many as 15 to 20 percent) are conservative in some respects and progressive in other respects. The have both moral systems and apply them to different issues — in all kinds of ways. You can be conservative on economics and progressive on social issues, or conservative on foreign policy and progressive on domestic issues, and so on — in all sorts of combinations.

Neuroscience 101, which Westen correctly invokes, tells us that in the brains of such voters, the two incompatible systems inhibit each other, that strengthening one weakens the other, and that the stronger one can have its influence spread to other issues. The “swing voters” are really “swing thinkers.” And it is language — moral language, not policy language, heard over and over — that strengthens one political moral system over the other and determines how people vote. The Democrats need to reach the swing thinkers — the people who are moral conservatives on some issues and moral progressives on others — and strengthen their progressive moral views. The kitchen table arguments must become moral arguments as well — arguments about freedom, life, fairness, and the most central of American values.

What are those values? They are the values that won the 2008 election for Barack Obama — and they were not just hope and change. Candidate Obama made the case that American is, and has always been, fundamentally about Americans caring about each other and acting responsibly on that care. Empathy, which he proclaimed over and over was the most important thing his mother taught him, and is the basis of our form of government. Responsibility is both personal and social. “I am my brother’s keeper,” as he said over and over in the campaign. And thirdly, excellence — doing everything as well as we can, individually and as a nation. That is why we have life, freedom, fairness, equality — and quality — as fundamental values.

We haven’t heard that kind of moral leadership since the inauguration. Americans are longing for it. And those moral values really do motivate every kitchen table policy!

It is morality, not just the right policy, that excites voters, that moves them to action — that creates movements. Legislative action must come from a moral center, with moral language repeated over and over.

What should be avoided, besides policy-wonk and pure-policy discourse? Again, the answer comes from Neuroscience 101. Offense not defense. Argue for your values. Frame all issues in terms of your values. Avoid their language, even in arguing against them. There is a reason that I wrote a book called, Don’t Think of an Elephant! Don’t list their arguments and argue against them using their language. It just activates their arguments in the brains of listeners.

Don’t move to the right in your discourse or action. That will just strengthen the conservative moral system in the brains of swing thinkers. Frame your arguments from your moral position.

In addition, beware of the same pollsters and focus-group-dialers who missed Scott Brown’s moral message to the swing-thinkers in Massachusetts and claimed that Martha Coakley would win so handily that she could go on vacation. Just because a message plays well in focus-group-dialing doesn’t mean it will win elections.

Finally, Democrats need a truly effective communication system. They need unified, morally-based framing of issues. They need to train spokespeople all over the country in using such framing and avoiding mistakes. They need to organize those spokespeople. And they need to book them, as conservatives do, on radio, TV, in civic and religious groups, in schools and universities. This is doable, but this late, it will take resolve from the top.

Winning this election will require the right policies and actions, but it will also require moral leadership with honest, morally-based messaging and a communications that will not just blog and knock on doors, but will be there in the districts with the crucial swing-thinkers 24/7 day and night.

The Democrats cannot take their base for granted. Only moral leadership backed by actions and communicated effectively can excite the Obama base once more. Without that excitement, the Democrats will lose big.

Cross-posted from the Huffington Post.

Comments to “Why are so many people about to vote against their interests?

  1. I keep forgetting these fundamental realities of how to communicate with more people! I have an elder law practice, do workshops, have a radio show and I am constantly trying to avoid being ‘preachy’, of being so policy wonky, the audience and I are not clicking…and you can tell.

    My deepseated concern and real, stomach churning fear over Medicare, Medicaid and ACA reconfigurations has me pounding away with very well-informed, clearly stated policy arguments when addressing seniors, of all people, and that is wrong!

    Responsibility, empathy, excellence works. Dirty secret?…it is so less intellectually demanding! Writing on November 30…Lakoff a prophet!

  2. Dear Mr. Lakoff,
    Your listed e-mail is not functioning and I was hoping to ask you about one of your books, but this blog seems to suffer from the same failure to distinguish between political narratives and political policies.
    In the epilogue to Moral Politics (2nd edition) you list one thesis as, “Political policies are derived from family-based moralities.” It is certainly clear that many contemporary and historic governments have encourage the idea that government, work, and family are analogous. But there is a crucial distinction between the policies of a government and how those policies are (or are not) portrayed to the public. I completely agree that the portrayal, interpretation, and acceptance of different political policies are “derived from family based moralities.” However your thesis contains the false assumption of full, literal communication (which you describe as a false assumption).
    If the purpose of your book was to inform bad speech writers for the Democratic party that metaphors matter, especially family-based moralities, then I am glad you told them. However, the cognitive dissonance created by great moral rhetoric when contrasted with the actual policies makes people from all political views upset. If you still do consultant work for the Democratic party, you should clarify that the political policies they draft have to be vaguely similar to the metaphoric justifications of those policies. For example, President Obama can discuss a “deficit of trust” all he wants; but if single-payer health care is not brought “to the table,” and a mandated insurance industry subsidy is, people employing different family-based moral metaphors will find that disingenuous. He can have a unified moral narrative dealing with energy policy if he chooses, but it would sit in stark contrast to his stated energy policy goals (further subsidizing nuclear power and pretending coal is clean, for instances). It is not simply an issue of the theoretical impossibility of full communication. The Democratic party having a coherent moral language set does very little to justify their actual policies, which don’t seem to be based on even variants of the Nurturant or Strict dichotomy you present.
    While a politician or citizen may choose to describe themselves as being on one side of the issue-clusters, if their legislation and voting record reflects incoherence based on your moral prototypes, then have your adequacy conditions been violated? Or, are your prototypes not referring to the actual policies (which almost nobody reads or understands the implications of), but rather the statements intended for the broader public?
    I am guessing you might argue that the policies are still “derived” from some variant, but I think that might be a stretch based on a projection of your model rather than looking at other factors that effect legislation (campaign contributions, patronage systems, acceptance into the boys club, etc…). Another possible response might be that the political discourse has been successfully shifted to the Strict Father model such that the Democratic party’s platforms are more closely related to that prototype. It is also possible that the prototypes you described during the “Contract with America” period have evolved into different prototypes for “a Pledge to America” context. If that is the case, I was wondering how those prototypes have evolved such that Democratic party policies (what they write and vote for) bear little resemblance to the issue-clusters you described as Nurturant.
    Alex Kalfayan

  3. The reason conservatives vote against Obama is he called them all failures as human beings — not their policies — that is a huge difference. It is the low road of the leftist media that creates non-unity. I can tell you as a Cal student who is one of the few who have gone through this school as a conservative ( probably a handful) that they want the US to burn to the ground rather than take abuses like this. There is a thing called respect. Without it, you will get ‘enmity’ — a powerful conceptual word.

    “Personal interests’ is connected to Karl Marx’s definition of ‘the evil of liberals.’ If that is not a moral referendum on the problems of universities in the USA today, than I do not know what is the problem. Private or public colleges and universities are wed to the state funding or state special interest corporations. It is all the same to conservatives. They believe these institutions breed and project hatred for their moral positions of having authoritarian government out of their lives.

    The USA is over. You cannot have a president call all republicans or conservatives in the history of the USA as failures, as Obama did over and over on the campaign trail and have nothing less than enmity forever. Period. I’m speaking for them.

    • Jo: Enmity is an emotional response. It does not serve the interests of conservatives to hide behind enmity as a rally cry against a sitting president. If anything, conservatives should take the failure charge as a challenge to forward their movement. Alas, they cannot. Obama was correct to challenge the conservative status quo on its failures; two wars unpaid for, tax cuts for the wealthy, the Wallstreet bail out, environmental policy relaxation, etc. The worst recession since the great depression was the result of George W. Bush’s failed economic policy.

      Enmity is a kissing cousin to Cowardice from which bullies are born. One cannot experience progress and growth if one cowers beneath the crown of enmity. Good luck with that.

  4. Dear Professor Lakoff,

    It’s worse than that. Obama is a brand. He’s as morally hollow as Don Draper, but the difference is that we all recognize the “Mad Men” character as fiction.

    I don’t see the eloquence in Westen’s piece. In fact, I think it’s a murky yawn. You want eloquence about our state of affairs? Listen to Chris Hedges speaking on “Moral Courage” to a group called Peace Veterans:

    Less eloquent, but clear and important, is Jane Mayer’s New Yorker piece on the Koch brothers:

  5. “Even Social Security that workers have earned, that are deferred payments for work, are seen as undeserving people “sucking on the tits of the government.”

    The problem really is that our government’s “tits” have been tremendously reduced in size. The once voluptuous bosom is now a meager A cup and yet this social safety net must now accommodate the eager lips of more individuals as the economy worsens. I believe a possible solution would be to restrict access to the government’s “tits” to only those who are most in need. Currently anyone who pays into Social Security is able to “suck on the tits of the government”. If wealthy individuals who have a nice set of twins on their own were excluded from collecting SSI, there who be much more lactation to sustaine those who are in more economic need.

  6. The best book I’ve read on why people are voting against their own interest is the extremely entertaining and funny “Deer Hunting with Jesus: Dispatches from America’s Class War” by Joe Bageant. He’s from a right-wing, small town, redneck town and this book recounts his six months of moving back to Virgina. It’s partly a war between the educated and uneducated, the so-called “Scotch-Irish” who emigrated here hundreds of years ago and have maintained their fundamentalist culture, and because the millions working in factories and other low-wage jobs listen to the radio all day, and there’s only right-wing information spouted by Rush Limbaugh and that ilk on the airwaves. Bageant is convinced there needs to be another Great Depression Woody Guthrie movement of the educated to the South and direct one-on-one engagement with people down there to educate them as to what’s really going on. Well, this is too simple a review — read the book and pass it on!

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