Lakoff: Take the healthcare debate. In 2009, the Obama administration took a poll and found that most people were in favor of provisions like “no preconditions” and such. So they started promoting their plan with a list of two-dozen items that people liked. They didn’t talk about it in moral terms at all; they talked about it in policy terms, and how it would be in people’s self-interest.
Then the conservatives said, “We’re going to kill it on moral terms.” They framed their argument around two moral principles: freedom and life. Freedom, as in “They’re planning a government takeover,” and life, as in “They have death panels.” They defined the debate as a moral issue and repeated it over and over. So now you had people in the polls who were against the bill as a whole, but strongly in favor of all of its provisions.
Obama then gave a speech in which he said, “Look, we’re just going to go out to Town Hall meetings and tell you the truth about our policies,” and he gave his list of 24 positions, and just to make it easier to remember, presented them in three groups of eight. Now, Ryan, do you remember the three groups of eight?
RH: Um ... I’m afraid I don’t recall.
Lakoff: Nobody remembers three groups of eight! Any cognitive scientist will tell you, nobody is going to remember three groups of eight policies! So that’s a simple example of what I’m talking about. Two-dozen policy issues based on the polls are impossible to remember. Two moral principles, like freedom and life, stick with you.
RH: What role does cognitive science play in today’s political discourse?
Lakoff: Well, a lot of people are trying to look at language, framing, and metaphor, and they find it difficult. It takes a lot of skill to apply this knowledge, and we don’t have institutions set up to do it. I had a think tank for a while, but during the 2008 nomination campaign, we stopped because the money went to the campaign. I get calls literally every day from progressive organizations wanting help. People in PR aren’t trained to do it. The pollsters aren’t trained to do it. You need to have people trained in cognitive science to do it. I’m working on this all the time.
RH: And that’s what conservatives have done: they’ve spent a lot of time training.
Lakoff: Conservatives spend a lot of time, but they also invest in it. You see, we progressives spend more money, but we don’t spend it in the right way. Our foundations give to the environment or antipoverty work or whatever, but not to framing. We invest in people who are trained in fields like political science and economics and public policy and law, but not linguistic and cognitive science. Many think that framing comes afterward and is just about language, not about ideas. They miss the point.
RH: As we enter another presidential race, is there anything nonpoliticians can do to make a difference?
Lakoff: Politicians can only say things that have been said thousands of times before. That means that it’s up to nonpolitician progressives to change public discourse. I’ve written five books and developed a website to help them do that.
Ryan Howes, Ph.D., is a psychologist, writer, musician, and clinical professor at Fuller Graduate School of Psychology in Pasadena, California. He blogs “In Therapy” for Psychology Today. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; website: www.ryanhowes.net.
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