George Lakoff's New Happiness: Politics after Rationality

John B. Parrott

John B. Parrott is a writer and independent scholar residing in Pennsylvania; [email protected]. He has taught at Oglethorpe University, Kennesaw State College, Kutztown University, and the Pennsylvania State University. Prior to teaching, Dr. Parrott served as an Air Force intelligence officer, where before retiring at the rank of lieutenant colonel he saw duty in Saudi Arabia during the Persian Gulf War. He is the author of Being Like God: How American Elites Abuse Politics and Power (University Press of America, 2003).

Berkeley professor of linguistics and cognitive science George Lakoff is among the handful of current faculty members in the United States to have successfully recast himself as a significant figure in national politics. Though his views place rather far on the progressive left, he has, unlike some other scholar-activists, focused most of his energy on advancing the fortunes of the mainstream Democratic Party. Having eschewed the more radical views of Noam Chomsky or Bill Ayers, Lakoff remains somewhat less in the spotlight. His influence is, nonetheless, both broad and deep.

Lakoff is best known for his advocacy of the idea that most people are profoundly influenced by metaphors that “frame” their decisions, including those about party registration and voting. He believes that politicians are aware of this human frailty and manipulate it to their advantage. In other words, political choices in a democracy have little to do with voters making rational and informed decisions and a great deal to do with how elites set up the “narratives.” Lakoff’s involvement in politics has consisted of arguing three points: that Republicans have been masterful in manipulating voters by means of framing devices; that Democrats possess the better arguments but have generally failed to find effective ways to frame their messages; and that he, Lakoff, can help the Democrats close the metaphor gap.

There is more to Lakoff than this summary suggests. Properly understood, he is heir to a tradition of radical utopian thought and has affinities with twentieth-century neo-Marxists such as Antonio Gramsci, Max Horkheimer, and Herbert Marcuse, who also concerned themselves with how best to bring about revolutionary consciousness among people who seemed content without it. Towards this end, Lakoff makes some extraordinary claims by rejecting reason and rationality as they have been understood in Western thought for essentially the past twenty-five hundred years. In this essay I reflect on Lakoff’s ideas and career in an effort to clarify his contemporary influence. I focus mainly on his 2008 The Political Mind: Why You Can’t Understand 21st-Century American Politics with an 18th-Century Brain.[1]

Cognitivism: A Reflexive, Not Reflective, Mind

George Lakoff began his career in 1972 as a faculty member at the University of California at Berkeley, where he is now the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Distinguished Professor of Cognitive Science and Linguistics. Intensely interested in egalitarianist, or “progressive,” politics, he also founded and was senior fellow at the Rockridge Institute, which operated from 2003 to 2008. According to its (now defunct) website, the institute “promote(d) the effective articulation of progressive values.” It did this by

monitoring public debate and suggesting both long-term and short-term options for framing that offer a progressive perspective. We work primarily at the level of values and ideas across specific policy areas. At the level of language, we point out ineffective word choices and suggest argument forms and phrasings that better express progressive values.[2]

In addition to The Political Mind, Lakoff is the author of many works, including Thinking Points: Communicating Our American Values and Vision (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006) and Don’t Think of an Elephant! Know Your Values and Frame the Debate: The Essential Guide for Progressives (Chelsea Green, 2004), which garnered acclaim as a New York Times bestseller.

Lakoff’s ideal seems to be a “velvet” revolution, i.e., the use of peaceful means to inculcate the ways of radical equality into government and society and muscular government as the curator of this equality. The velvet revolutionary parts company with the traditional revolutionary in that he avoids confronting the fortress of established power directly, but seeks rather to erode the sand from under it. He doesn’t throw bricks at the police; he talks to the people.

In The Political Mind Lakoff says that the American Founders created a living, breathing democracy based upon freedom and the spirit to imagine: “We have new wonders to discover, new dreams to dream” (13). And this “dynamic democracy they designed leaves open the possibility of revolutionary change” (13). It is time for revolution, Lakoff indicates—but he means it metaphorically: a revolution in how we think about knowledge and knowing. The traditional way we think about knowledge and knowing, or the conventional way we understand rationality, is outmoded. Lakoff calls the  paradigm that holds that the brain is a deliberative device capable of independent thought and analysis the “Old Enlightenment” way, and he says it should give way to a new paradigm, or “a new understanding of how we understand reality” (14). He calls for a

new philosophy—a new understanding of what it means to be a human being; of what morality is and where it comes from; of economics, religion, politics, and nature itself; and even of what science, philosophy and mathematics really are. We will have to expand our understanding of the great ideas: freedom, equality, fairness, progress, even happiness. (14)

Lakoff’s claims ought to strike sober, literate, and educated people as hyperbolic. There is indeed a tradition of sorts in which thinkers claim that their views will once and for all overturn the accumulated weight of philosophy and science and usher in a new age. But such breathless fantasy is more common to self-published pamphlets distributed in public parks than to books written by chaired professors. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Does Lakoff provide it? No, but he has a theory.

Specifically, Lakoff says that knowledge and knowing reside in, and rationality exists in reference to, the cognitive properties of the brain, or the ways it symbolizes concepts and represents facts. Rationality, he says, resides in narratives. Narratives are the subconscious pictures we have of ourselves, others, and the political and moral events of the day. They center around dichotomies, such as Good and Evil, and they “give meaning to your life” (33). Narratives also center around roles that, like narratives, arrange dichotomously and involve a protagonist we sympathize with and a demon who threatens us. Particular roles Lakoff names and describes are Hero, Villain, Victim, and Helper.

Narratives are cultural and “are instantiated physically in our brains. We are not born with them, but we start growing them soon, and as we acquire the deep narratives, our synapses change and become fixed” (33–34). “We cannot understand other people without such cultural narrative,” he continues, “but more important, we cannot understand ourselves” (34). Narratives “can be activated and function unconsciously, automatically, as a matter of reflex” (34); “[c]ultural narratives define our possibilities, challenges, and actual lives” (35). Lakoff also refers to narratives as “Frames,” which is the appellation he seems to prefer.

Lakoff writes that not to accept the cognitive paradigm and the primacy of psychological narratives is not to comprehend rationality and how human beings know about their world. This is a way of saying that we can pretty much dispense with the Western tradition, starting with Plato and Aristotle, and everything since founded on the premise that disciplined rational inquiry might get us somewhere. He is silent on the matter of how much the discovery of these psychological narratives is itself indebted to rational thought.  

The Lakoff reader, however, might be troubled by the paradox. What if the primacy of psychological narratives is just another psychological narrative?  If we follow Lakoff by radically downgrading the power of rational thought, what basis do we have to credit his own theory? The answer, to the extent Lakoff gives one, seems to be: a political basis. His theory squares with progressive politics, so it must be right. Right?

Writing with politics and morality in mind, he says that rationality isn’t just undesirable, but dangerous. To hold to the traditional view of the rational mind “not only hides the real threat to our democracy, it all too often keeps many of our most dedicated political leaders, policy experts, commentators, and social activists from being effective” (15).

In The Political Mind Lakoff argues that knowledge and knowing should proceed according to the cognitive practices of framing and polarization.

“Framing” is the rhetorical technique of putting the “right” context in place so that a particular side wins in argument. And the “right” side for Lakoff is the progressive side; therefore framing has a decidedly and explicitly political application. Lakoff argues that conservatives threaten democracy: “In its moral basis and its content,” he writes, “conservatism is centered on the politics of authority, obedience, and discipline. This content is profoundly anti-democratic, whereas our country was founded on opposition to authoritarianism” (68).

 Lakoff intends The Political Mind to be a guidebook for progressives, and advises on how the progressive can formulate positions so that his arguments will carry the day in debate, his policy preferences will be popular in the public eye, and his candidates will win at election time. He writes, “You have to make the progressive version of (the ideas of freedom, equality, fairness, and opportunity) uppermost in the public mind” (115). And he tells the reader to repeat the progressive version multiple times: “Say things not once, but over and over. Brains change when ideas are repeatedly activated” (116).  When progressives don’t narrate issues in ways that cause the acceptance of their version, and when they don’t repeat the frames often enough for other brains to internalize them, progressives fail to get what they want, and leave the field of political combat to their opponents—conservatives.

Lakoff uses the Iraq War to illustrate what he means by framing. To justify its involvement in Iraq, he writes, the Bush administration employed three narrative templates that had the effect of “selling” the war to the public by making it seem necessary. The administration formatted facts according to the “Self Defense” template, which depicted the war as defending the United States against Iraq and its weapons of mass destruction; the “Rescue” template, which spun the war as an effort to rescue the Iraqi people from Saddam Hussein’s cruelties; and the “War” narrative, which saw events in the context of traditional combat (148–49). And because the Bush administration shaded events in language and symbols and metaphors along the lines suggested by these three positive themes, and got the public to accept them as valid, it was able to insert the United States Army into Iraq and maintain its presence there.

Lakoff also puts forward the progressive template, which he casts as the corrective to the Bush administration’s frames. He calls this the “Occupation” frame. Unlike the Bush frames, which amount to ruse, Lakoff argues that the Occupation frame more realistically depicts what is actually happening. The Iraqis have risen in insurgency against us and the Iraqi Army is ineffectual and corrupt; in light of these realities “occupation” better describes the American presence in Iraq. But the Bush administration wouldn’t use the Occupation frame because it didn’t want people to know the truth: “the Bush administration had to keep the War frame in order for Bush to be a War president, and thus keep his war powers” (149). Lakoff’s advice to progressives to confront this situation? To “repeat over and over the truth that we were running an occupation and that there was no way of winning” the war (152).

Lakoff intends to show that progressive-led government is a beneficial force that ought to be sturdy because it exists to serve people, so he favors frame-making that depicts government as positive and candidates favoring big government as worthy of being elected. “The ethics of care shapes government,” he says. “Empowerment [of people] by the government is everywhere” (47). “The role of progressive government is to maximize our freedom—and protection and empowerment do just that. Protection is there to guarantee freedom from harm, from want, and from fear. Empowerment is there to maximize freedom to achieve your goals” (48). And because it is the party progressives feel most comfortable with, The Political Mind is filled with illustrations firmly and uniformly inclined toward the Democratic Party. Lakoff sees the intent and effect of pro-progressive framing as the marketing of issues and candidates in ways that convince the public to trust centralized government and the Democratic Party.

At this point, the reader may wonder whether “framing” is just another word for “propaganda.” I am not sure how to answer that doubt. Certainly much of what Lakoff argues sounds like a theory of why propaganda works. Both “framing” and “propaganda” intend to instill a politically relevant disposition into an audience. Of course, the word “propaganda” is in bad odor, and extolling the importance of the “right frames” avoids that complication.

A key problem for theorists of revolution along statist, egalitarian lines lies is getting the public to accept the revolutionary paradigm as valid. If the status quo is illegitimate and its ideas only conditional, what makes the ideas of the revolutionary any more universal and worth espousing? The Political Mind addresses this problem by contending that progressive ideals are natural to the human being—that we naturally dispose to them. In other words, to the brain left to its own devices and unfettered by distractions, the progressive narrative on any issue will be seen automatically as “truth.”

Frames and frame-making derive from Lakoff’s conception of the mind as “embodied.” Embodiment seems to be Lakoff’s equivalent, at least functionally, to B.F. Skinner’s Behavioral idea of the conditioned reflex, which holds that the mind as an independent and deliberative device does not exist and that instead thoughts and their consequent actions root in reflexes. “If all thought were conscious and reflective, you would know your own mind and be in control of the decisions you make,” Lakoff writes. “But since we don’t know what our brains are doing in most cases, most thought is reflexive, not reflective, and beyond conscious control. As a result, your brain makes decisions for you that you are not consciously aware of” (9).

According to Embodiment, ideas—and again, Lakoff writes in reference to moral and political ideas—come into being as the result of the physiology of the brain and the impact on the brain of our material environment and social relationships. Ideas are created by “the neural anatomy and connectivity of our brains” and “the ways we function bodily in the physical and social world” (10). The import of this would seem to be that thinking does not take place in the form of rational mental abstractions, and that the human mind that births ideas does not do so as an analytical device that possesses intellectual or conceptual sentience. “Morality and politics are embodied ideas, not abstract ones, and they mostly function in the cognitive unconsciousness—in what your brain is doing and you cannot see” (10). The embodied mind “ultimately determines what morality and politics should be about. This is how reason really works” (11).

And this embodied mind is one that reposes naturally toward the progressive political outlook. Dr. Lakoff contends that the brain is “wired” to identify with certain concepts, and, in the realm of politics and government, to desire and support certain actors and their policies and to oppose and reject other actors and their policies.

Conservatives, Lakoff says, hold a worldview centering on authority and competition. “Conservative thought begins with the notion that morality is obedience to an authority” (60). Linking conservatives with obedience inherently inclines them, or at least makes them vulnerable to, authoritarianism and selfishness, qualities civilized people in a democracy regard with contempt. Progressives, on the other hand, hold beliefs that orient around compassion and cooperation, traits our brains favor and tell us we benefit from, and that operationalize when we form ourselves communally into democracy. “Empathy is at the center of the progressive moral worldview,” Lakoff writes, and the mind automatically inclines to the progressive worldview: “we are not just pre-wired for empathy, but for cooperation” (101). If at any time we think or act in selfish ways, he says, it is because our natural mind gets sidetracked from its default setting. In politics, this happens when conservative actors play on the mind’s attraction to authority and competition and the accordant susceptibility to fear that inheres in these traits. “The politics of authority is succeeding because conservatives have been activating their ideas in the brains of the public, while finding ways to inhibit the use of progressive modes of thought” (120).

Lakoff examines a second cognitive device that he says should be utilized in the new philosophy of understanding: “polarization,” or what Richard Hofstadter called “the paranoid style” of discourse. He arranges the content and conclusions of The Political Mind along a tidy Good-Evil axis, with progressives and their policy preferences always residing with the Good and conservatives and their preferences universally housed with the Evil. A longtime staple of the egalitarian politics and worldview, polarization as a device for persuasion has been written about by philosophers like Sorel, activists like Saul Alinsky, and revolutionaries like Lenin. “Before men can act,” Alinsky wrote in Rules for Radicals, “an issue must be polarized. Men will act when they are convinced that their cause is 100 percent on the side of the angels and that the opposition are 100 percent on the side of the devil.”[3]

The Political Mind legitimizes a polarized style of thinking by asserting that the Left-Right spectrum, in which liberalism and conservatism are taken as different streams of the philosophical mainstream, is an “inaccurate metaphor, and a dangerous one” (45). Lakoff claims that the spectrum metaphor permits conservatism to be “passed off as ‘mainstream’ ideas, which they are not,” and progressive ideas to be “characterized as ‘leftist’ and ‘extremist,’ which they are not” (45). And “there are no moderates—that is, there is no moderate worldview, no one set of ideas that characterizes a ‘center’ or ‘moderation’” (44). “The moderate” is actually the person who uses conservative thought in some instances and progressive thought in others. “My job here is to make you think twice about [the left-to-right scale] and then stop using it,” he says (47). For Lakoff, the only paradigm that explains morality and politics is the dichotomy between progressivism and conservatism, and the fact that all that is moral and functional in a democracy stands with the former, while reaction and authoritarianism reside solely with the latter.

In The Political Mind Lakoff offers many reasons why we should not think like the conservative. On issue after issue, he paints progressivism in bright, hopeful colors, while conservatism shades bland or darkly. On economic markets, progressives stand for empathy and believe that markets ought to be regulated by government, because government “has a crucial moral mission to play…that in many cases inherently cannot be carried out by private enterprise” (51). Conservatives, on the other hand, see markets as “conferring economic freedom—freedom to make money in business any way you can” (62).

In morality and policy, progressives, again, stand for empathy—“behind every progressive policy lies a single moral value: empathy, together with the responsibility and strength to act on that empathy” (47). For conservatives, “morality is the morality of obedience” (65). On government, progressives represent compassionate government that empowers and protects people (47), while conservatives “rarely talk about government empowerment and act as if it does not exist—except in the case of corporate subsidies” (63). On democracy and power, progressives favor separation of powers “to avoid dictatorial powers via a balance of power” (50), while conservatives favor unitary power vested in the executive branch that led during the Bush administration to wiretapping, threats to habeas corpus, and other antidemocratic tendencies. The problem wasn’t with Bush, Lakoff says, but rather with his administration’s “general conservatism—the mode of thought itself” (65).

The Political Mind goes on and on about issues all across the political horizon; from military intervention to social security to the environment to civil rights and beyond, progressives repose as the compassionate Good and conservatives skulk as the selfish Evil. Progressives are, either directly or via insinuation, the Heroes, people with whom we can relate, while conservatives appear as the Villains, agents seeking to thwart the Heroes at every turn. And because our minds naturally incline to the progressive side, we should see this automatically; if we do not, it is because conservative imaging of reality has prevented it. But the antidote is available: use progressive frames to counter conservative ones. “You can use progressive language, ideas, images, and symbols repeatedly to activate the progressive worldview in people, who have both [progressive and conservative] worldviews, so that the progressive mode of thought is strengthened and the conservative mode weakened” (114).

The merits of this caricature of conservative thought and panegyric to progressive thought lie beyond this essay. I think it’s safe to say, however, that few conservatives would recognize themselves or their ideas in this hostile portrait. What’s more arresting is that Lakoff not only sells his product, but buys it too. After explaining that the human mind can’t really think but can consume highly reductive and polarized images, he proceeds to conjure his own highly reductive, polarized images. There is an elemental honesty in this, but it’s not exactly what you’d expect from a senior scholar with scientific pretensions. Lakoff seems to have talked himself into the virtue of being stupid, and then proceeded to demonstrate how the new stupidity works.

In The Political Mind Lakoff endeavors to get classical liberals—he uses the term “neoliberals”—to recognize the unreality of their “moderation.” He chides neoliberals for refusing to engage in pro-progressive framing, and for accepting the Old Enlightenment view of rationality and its prerequisite of investigating facts wherever they may lead and apart from the pre-determined assumptions of progressive ideology. “Neoliberal thought,” he writes, “arises from the Old Enlightenment view of the mind” (59). “I have previously criticized neoliberals for assuming that just citing facts and figures will carry the day politically, when what is needed is an honest, morally based framing of the facts and figures, showing their moral significance, and conveyed with the appropriate emotions and with words, images and symbols that really communicate” (52).

What bothers Lakoff about classical liberals in particular is their propensity to discuss progressive actors and progressive-oriented issues in terms of self-interest. When the scholar acknowledges that progressives have interests, his observations leads him to conclude that they act the same way conservative actors do, and such analysis detracts from the progressive message. In talking about progressives as being motivated by self-interest, Lakoff says, progressivism looks the same as conservatism, which prevents progressive frames from prevailing and allows the conservative status quo to continue. To be “honest” and to posit knowledge that is “morally based,” one must imbue with progressive ideals and utilize progressive framing techniques. One must not follow the truth wherever it may lead.

Written by perhaps the nation’s foremost contemporary cognitivist scholar, The Political Mind is itself an exercise in cognitive politics, and the reader familiar with image-making and the paranoid style will recognize these devices in the book’s pages. The reader interested in polarization rhetoric, for instance, cannot help but compare Lakoff’s framing of the current culture war with the imagery employed by a certain Wisconsin senator fifty years ago. The Political Mind begins:

Radical conservatives have been fighting a culture war. The main battlefield is the brain. At stake is what America is to be. Their goal is to radically change America to fit the conservative moral worldview. The threat is to democracy and all that goes with it.

Things, Lakoff says, are bleak:

The radical conservatives seek and have already begun to introduce: an authoritarian hierarchy based on vast concentrations and control of wealth; order based on fear, intimidation, and obedience; a broken government; no balance of power; priorities shifted from the public sector to the corporate and military sectors; responsibility shifted from society to the individual; control of elections through control of who votes and how votes are counted; control of ideas through the media; and patriarchal family values projected upon religion, politics and the market.

Lakoff continues:

The future of democracy is at stake now. (1)

Senator Joseph McCarthy’s 1950 speech in Wheeling, West Virginia, begins:

Today we are engaged in a final, all-out battle between communistic atheism and Christianity. The modern champions of communism have selected this as the time. And, ladies and gentlemen, the chips are really down—they are truly down…

The situation, McCarthy said, was dire:

Six years ago, at the time of the first conference to map out peace—Dumbarton Oaks—there was within the Soviet Orbit 180,000,000 people. Lined up on the anti-totalitarian side there were roughly 1,625,000,000 people. Today, only six years later, there are 800,000,000 people under the absolute dominion of Soviet Russia—an increase of over 400 percent. On our side, the figure has shrunk to around 500,000,000. In other words, in less than six years the odds have changed from 9 to 1 in our favor to 8 to 5 against us.

McCarthy went on:

As one of our outstanding historical figures once said, “When a great democracy is destroyed, it will not be because of enemies from without but rather because of enemies from within.”

The truth of this statement is becoming terrifyingly clear as we see this country each day losing on every front.[4]

The Anti-Intellectualism of the Cognitive Style

Lakoff contends that our minds use narratives to push the facts we observe into perceptual categories that are familiar and help us make sense of the world. These narratives, or frames, give us roles we play, and these roles arrange according to a binary structure: we are geniuses or fools, aggressors or victims, builders or destroyers. Lakoff claims that we don’t realize any of this because (a) the narratives we employ and our dispositions regarding empathy and authority function on a subconscious level, and (b) Republicans and conservatives bombard us with faulty information that confuse our narratives, excite our fears, and short-circuit our natural inclination toward compassion and left-leaning progressive policies. The Academy tends not to want to acknowledge that the psychological approach is becoming a significant part of the teaching process. But framing and the polarized style constitute both for students and the professoriate exceedingly damaging practices, and they deserve scrutiny.

One anti-intellectual feature of the cognitive style is that it prevents college students from doing what they’re supposed to do—learn. Framing issues may result in getting certain parties elected to office and certain policies popularized, but it still represents an artificial form of knowledge, and one inferior to genuine understanding based upon facts. Progressives may call framing reality, but it is not.

The student who reads Lakoff is told that the War on Terror is little more than a Republican narrative intended to dispose the public toward authoritarianism by playing to its fear of insecurity. Lakoff depicts the September 11 attacks as events Bush used to create a national trauma, an ordeal whose conditions embossed into the minds of Americans an artificial need for wiretapping, vigorous police surveillance measures, and the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay. The War on Terror, Lakoff writes, is only a metaphor, and one that serves as “the staple of right-wing politics at home” (128). However valuable this imagery proved in discrediting George W. Bush and his policies, it fails miserably in explaining what actually happened, or in predicting what can happen in the future. The student who reads The Political Mind will be surprised to learn about various plots of genuine Islamic terror cells in the United States, including the May 2009 plot to bomb synagogues in New York City, or the overwhelming and bipartisan vote by the Senate to refuse to close the Guantanamo facility and transfer its detainees to prisons on the American mainland. The list of Lakoff’s frame-making that turns out to be fiction can go on. While they helped to delegitimize policies and policy actors opposed by Lakoff and the Progressive Left, such images have no value to the individual interested in learning what really happened.

A second anti-intellectual feature of the cognitive paradigm is that it undermines the wall separating the Academy and the state. Because it conforms so closely to politics—because its categories of Morality/Functionality and Immorality/Disfunctionality correspond to political categories and because politicians build their structures on shifting sand, cognitivists will forever lack consistency in their work. The result will be an unending series of episodes that embarrass both the scholar and his profession. The reason for this is that in linking his work to partisan opinion-makers the cognitivist will find it hard to retreat from reality when those opinion-makers shift to using frames.

In The Political Mind Lakoff uniformly images Barak Obama, then a senator, as a full-blooded progressive. During the Bush administration Obama brought our attention to the “empathy deficit—a failure to care, both about others and each other” (47). And what’s more, Obama is a senator who does what others do not—he refuses to accept his opponents’ frame-making, and instead shifts discussion of issues toward his own frames (153). What does Lakoff do now that Obama is president and conducts some of the same policies as conservative Republican George W. Bush?

“On wiretapping,” Lakoff says “the issue is one of liberty. [George W. Bush] wanted to take ours away” (152). Since Mr. Obama has continued the wiretapping, is he also trying to take away our liberty? On the Iraq War, Lakoff “published an article pointing out the consequences of allowing [Bush] to keep the War frame in the public mind, and suggesting that the truth be told: it was an occupation” (149). Since President Obama uses the “Iraq-as-War” rather than the “Iraq-as-Occupation” frame—even to the point of visiting the troops in Iraq—will Lakoff write another article suggesting that “the truth be told?” Or, since Obama does not accept his opponents’ frame-making, will Lakoff now inform his readers that Bush’s policies were factually based and the progressive frame was fiction? 

A third anti-intellectual feature of the cognitive approach, at least as it is outlined in The Political Mind, is that it misstates the traditional Rationality model, and does so in a way that makes investigation of the progressive positions on issues impossible. Lakoff indicates that the traditional Rational Actor model fails because it “makes the inherent claim that reason does not involve either metaphors or frames. It therefore cannot be a model of real human reason” (221). Only the cognitivist paradigm can be a model for rational action, he says, because it alone takes into account that the brain operates according to unconscious symbols and frames.

And since Lakoff has already established that the brain inclines naturally toward empathy and progressivism, rationality simply equates to what its consciousness, aided by imagery from progressive activists, tells it. However, the true student of the Rational Actor model regards the mind as a deliberative device—not predisposed in any one direction and simply captive of the frames others have placed into it—and views the rational process as involving scrutiny of all information, including the ways such information is packaged to him by others as well as his own non-rational feelings and emotions.

For example, in considering how to view global warming, Cognitive model analysis would stress compassion and view events according to the following narrative, which would be seen as natural to the mind:

Economic man produced global warming and chemical chickens. The unbounded pursuit of self-interest that was supposed to be moral, was supposed to produce plenty for all, is bringing death to our earth. If it continues, half the species on our planet will die within a century. Economic man was an idea—a claim about human nature. Empathy and real reason…reveal its fallacies. (121)

In its assessment of global warming, on the other hand, the mind using the Rational Actor model might follow this path: “Scientists are contending that the planet is warming and that human beings are the cause. We know that the polar ice caps are indeed melting. But at the same time, other scientists say that the warming is very slight, and may be occurring naturally. I also know that prominent environmentalist voices, while they sound the alarm on global warming, live in elaborate energy-guzzling mansions, and avoid being impacted by conservationist measures.” The former sentiment, which belongs to Lakoff, accepts global warming claims automatically and doesn’t burden itself with contrary information because it has internalized progressive frame-making: “When you accept a particular narrative, you ignore or hide realities that contradict it” (37). The latter logic investigates multiple aspects of the issue and results in a more complete analysis. It subjects feelings the person possesses to examination. Adopting the cognitive model might work well for progressive pressure groups and political candidates, who find that uncomfortable realities and contradictions to their positions will not be inspected, but it is the latter process that is more likely to render a better appreciation of the issues.

A fourth and perhaps most important anti-intellectual feature of the cognitive approach is that innocent people can be damaged by its devices. Framing and polarization are said to represent ways of understanding facts that move civilization to a higher level. The problem with these devices is that their operators often use them in ways that, intentionally or not, hurt innocent people.

In velvet revolution, no less than in conventional revolution, innocent people may count among the casualties. Frame-making includes labeling someone as a racist or a sexist. The progressive may argue (but only in private) that society as a whole benefits from cognitivist devices, and that in order to make an omelet a few eggs must invariably be broken. But under such logic everyone lives in constant intimidation, and the progressive becomes the thing he says he despises—the witch hunter.


As 2005 dawned progressives were down and dispirited. George W. Bush was newly re-elected, and Congress was firmly in Republican hands. Bush in 2004 had garnered a majority of the vote—the first president since 1988 to have done so—and his coattails helped Republicans gain seats in both the House and Senate. As Bush began his push in January 2005 for Social Security reform, with a plan that centered around voluntary personal investment accounts, the chances were good that progressives might suffer yet another defeat, and that the Republican wave might turn into a juggernaut.

Democratic leaders caucusing on the issue invited George Lakoff to a strategy meeting held in Cambridge, Maryland. Lakoff received the invitation from North Dakota Senator Byron Dorgan, the chairman of the Democratic Policy Committee. Dorgan had picked up a copy of Lakoff’s Moral Politics, and became an instant fan of the framing concept. He was also familiar with Lakoff’s runaway bestseller Don’t Think of an Elephant, a copy of which Lakoff would send to every Democratic legislator. Don’t Think of an Elephant would become, according to journalist Matt Bai, “ubiquitous among Democrats in the Capitol.”[5]

At the Cambridge gathering Lakoff urged Democrats to resist private investment accounts by imaging them as reckless. Democrats went to the media with a message that Americans’ savings would be gambled away by the plan, and before long a frightened public blanched in its enthusiasm for social security reform. A CNN–USA Today poll noted that those favoring the idea went from 42 percent in January to 33 percent in April. “We branded them with privatization,” Nancy Pelosi said afterward, “and they can’t sell that brand anywhere.” “At the beginning of this debate,” she went on, “voters were saying that the president was a president who had new ideas. Now he’s a guy who wants to cut my benefits.”[6] Republicans themselves pulled away from the plan, and when in March 2005 Majority Leader Bill Frist said the Senate might have to postpone the vote on the issue, its fate was sealed. Bush had been delegitimized on Social Security reform, and his private investment accounts proposal was defeated. The framing campaign had done its job.

There is nothing new about political figures relying upon appearances rather than reality when exercising their power. In his famous tract published in 1513, Niccolo Machiavelli advised the Medici rulers to “appear as you wish to appear.” What is disturbing, however, is that more and more we see public officials—and scholars—living in fiction. What is also disturbing is that neither statesmen nor scholars seem to realize is how uncontrollable this practice is.

[1]George Lakoff, The Political Mind: Why You Can’t Understand 21st-Century American Politics with an 18th-Century Brain (New York: Viking, 2008). Subsequent references to this work will be cited parenthetically within the text.
[2]For existing details about the Rockridge Institute, see and
[3]Saul D. Alinsky, Rules For Radicals: A Pragmatic Primer for Realistic Radicals (New York: Random House, 1971; New York: Vintage, 1989), 78.
[4]Joseph McCarthy, “Speech at Wheeling, West Virginia, 9 February 1950,” in Michael P. Johnson, ed., Reading the American Past: Selected Historical Documents, Volume II: From 1865 (Boston: Bedford Books, 1998), 191-95, cited at, 1. 
[5]Matt Bai, “The Framing Wars,” New York Times Magazine, July 17, 2005,

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