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Red Speak, Blue Speak: The psychology of political rhetoric

By Ryan Howes

George Lakoff uses his half-century of brain research to influence an unlikely field: national politics. In the 1990s, this professor of linguistics and cognitive science at the University of California, Berkeley, noticed how much conservative politicians dominated debates through carefully selected language and a focus on larger moral issues, while their liberal opponents struggled to find a common identity. He decided that he could aid the progressive cause with his unique perspective on language, metaphor, and neural circuitry.

While maintaining his cutting-edge research laboratory, which studies mirror neurons and the neural theory of language, Lakoff founded a progressive think tank, consulted with the Democratic Party, and penned five political titles, including Moral Politics, The Political Mind, and New York Times bestseller Don’t Think of an Elephant! Presidential candidate Howard Dean called him “one of the most influential political thinkers of the progressive movement,” and in 2008, The New York Times wrote that “No one has more brilliantly dissected conservative spin.” He kindly spared a moment between the laboratory and the podium to share some insights from his diverse career.


RH: What’s the connection between politics and psychology?

LAKOFF: Well, politics has everything to do with psychology.

RH: How? Please, do tell.

Lakoff: I have a book called Moral Politics, in which I showed that the conservative moral system comes out of a strict-father family structure; the progressive moral system comes out of a nurturing-parent family structure.

In a strict-father family, the father is the ultimate authority, and the one thing he must do is maintain that authority, through force if necessary. In addition, the father has to protect and support the family by competing with other people. It’s assumed that kids are born “bad” because they just do what feels good. You’ve heard the term “feel-good liberalism.” This means liberals haven’t learned morality.

RH: They need to be whipped into shape.

Lakoff: Exactly. The father does what he has to do to maintain authority, which could include lying or deception or beating people up or whatever, but the one thing that he can’t do is allow his authority to be undermined. It’s immoral for the strict father not to punish when the kids do something wrong, because, otherwise, they’ll be undisciplined. They support personal responsibility, not social responsibility. They’re responsible for their own lives, period. This maps directly onto conservative politics.

In a nurturing-parent family, the job of the parent is to be empathetic, to relate to the child, to understand how the child feels, and to give guidance, so the child knows what’s best for him or her. Parents maintain two-way communication and don’t just let kids do what feels good, but teach them to have empathy and to have social responsibility along with personal responsibility. Respect is earned by the nurturing parent, not expected as in the strict-father family. This correlates to a progressive moral system.

Now, there are a whole lot of patients out there who come from strict-father families and need a lot of therapy, a lot of nurturance. This is why a lot of therapy is set up to provide nurturance for people over a long period of time, and it takes a lot of time for those brains to change.

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