George Lakoff Explains To Progressives Why Some Truths Are Untellable

After reading George Lakoff’s diary “Untellable Truths” over at Daily Kos this morning, which methodically described why the progressive wing of the Democratic Party always seems to get the short end of the stick, I had to switch gears and put the topic I’d planned to write about on the back burner for a couple of days.


Lakoff originally caught my eye in March when I wondered out loud on this blog Where Does Conservative Political Language Come From? A cofounder of the defunct Rockridge Institute, Lakoff has developed a theory about the way the human brain processes political messaging that seems to accurately explain why the GOP is able to have such a great influence on public opinion, even when the messages they and conservative think tanks are promulgating totally contradict facts of the underlying issue, while tendency for the Democrats in general and progressive Democrats in particular to build their messaging on reason and obvious truths produces such lackluster results.    

When democratic political leaders go to college they tend to study things like political science, economics, law, and public policy. These fields tend to use a scientifically false theory of human reason — Enlightenment reason. It posits that reason is conscious, that it can fit the world directly, that it is logical (in the sense of mathematical logic), that emotion gets in the way of reason, that reason is there to serve self-interest, and that language is neutral and applies directly to the world.

The brain and cognitive sciences have shown that every part of this is false. Reason is physical, it does not fit the world directly but only through the brain and body, it uses frames and conceptual metaphors (which are neural circuits grounded in the body), it requires emotion, it serves empathic connections and moral values as well as self-interest, and language fits frames in the brain not the external world in any direct way.

Conservatives who are savvy about marketing their ideas are closer to the way people really think than Democrats are, because people who teach marketing tend to be up on how the brain and language work. And over the past three decades they have not just built an effective message machine, but they repeated messages that have changed the brains of a great many Americans.

Untellable Truths      Daily Kos

The best part of Lakoff's missive is the part where he ticks off a litany of today's truths, like "education is a public good, not a private good", "taxpayers pay for business perks", and "low-paid immigrant workers make the lifestyles of the middle and upper classes possible", and shows how foreign these simple, straightforward concepts are to the average American's mindset because of decades of overt political messaging.

Worrying about whether or not to challenge President Obama in the presidential primaries next year is a waste of time for progressive Democrats. Even if all the stars came into alignment politically, and allowed you to elect another dark horse Democrat candidate to the White House, you would still face the same relentless, twenty four hours a day, seven days a week messaging from the television stations, radio stations, think tanks and Tea Partiers on the right who would hold your replacement for President Obama in the same vice-grip of negative public opinion our current president grapples with daily.

Democrats need to unite behind a simple set of moral principles and to create an effective language to express them. President Obama in his campaign expressed those principles simply, as the basis of American democracy. (1) Empathy — Americans care about each other. (2) Responsibility, both personal and social. We have to act on that care. (3) The ethic of excellence. We have to make ourselves better so we can make our families, our communities, our country and the world better. Government has special missions: to protect and empower our citizens to have at least the necessities. I don’t know any Democrats who don’t believe in these principles. They need to be said out loud and repeated over and over.

Untellable Truths      Daily Kos

Maybe there is a progressive Democratic leader out there somewhere who is brazen enough to tell the truth to his flock – that even if the progressives could hone their messaging and could lash together a permanent  movement, they are still a couple a billion dollars a year and a few thousand message outlets short of being able to force the Democratic Party to go toe to toe with the right wing on landmark legislation and win on a regular basis. Maybe there is a progressive Democratic leader out there somewhere who is bold enough to remind the troops that before the Republicans ascended to power, back before they could even begin to sniff a whiff of success, they spent money and supported their candidates the same way they do now.

Maybe.

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